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Theodore Dreiser’s stark realism brought the American novel into the twentieth century. He paid a heavy price for his candor.
February/march 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 1
Theodore Dreiser dominated the American literary landscape in the first quarter of the twentieth century. To his contemporaries he seemed to have risen sui generis , like a newly formed volcano, and as Norman Mailer said, “Dreiser came closer to understanding the social machine than any other American writer who ever lived.” But he was more than a chronicler of social forces; he was a self-conscious artist, a literary pioneer, a bridge between the Victorian and the modern sensibility. His friend and critical champion H. L. Mencken summed up his importance: “American writing before and after Dreiser differed almost as much as biology before and after Darwin.”
If Dreiser had published nothing after his first novel, Sister Carrie , in 1900, his place in American literature would still be secure. But he did write more, including his monumental trilogy The Financier , The Titan , and The Stoic , in which he traced the rise of finance capitalism and its corruption of municipal government through the career of the predatory transit magnate Frank Cowperwood (based on the streetcar king Charles Tyson Yerkes). And his autobiographical novel The “Genius” remains a powerful portrait of the artist in a business society.
These and other novels, plays, essays, travelogues, and short stories he wrote before the 1920s acted as battering rams against the ramparts of a genteel age. Sherwood Anderson described what Dreiser meant to the younger writers starting out in the 1910s and 1920s: “The man has … pounded his way through such a wall of stupid prejudices and fears that today any man coming into the craft of writing comes with a new inheritance of freedom.”
Dreiser’s career was obstacle-ridden. As he once said, “Like a kite, I have risen against the wind—not with it.” He had to pick his way through a minefield of gentility, snobbery, and censorship. He was the first major American author to challenge the censors, both official and tacit.
At the end of the nineteenth century, women bought and read most novels. Respectable publishers, fearful of offending this audience, exercised a paternalistic self-censorship. Heroines had to exemplify moral decorum. The “sex question” was taboo, and the nation’s moral policeman, Anthony Cornstock, threatened reputable publishers with suits that could land them in jail if they violated the sweeping obscenity code he had helped write. Other novelists of Dreiser’s generation, such as Frank Norris and Stephen Crane chipped at the Victorian code, but Sister Carrie threatened to blow it away. William Dean Howells, a pioneer realist and an editor at Harper’s Magazine , said to Dreiser, “You know I didn’t like Sister Carrie .” His comment typified the reception from the old guard.
To a new generation Sister Carrie struck a blow for freedom. The lawyer and poet Edgar Lee Masters told the novelist: “When you wrote Sister Carrie there was just one way in which to write a novel about a woman. It was to prove that as a matter of Christian sin … the woman was punished…. You cleaned up the country and set the pace for the truth….” In 1912 Dreiser encouraged Masters to set down his plainspoken poetic epitaphs for the rural dead, which he did in Spoon River Anthology .
The costs to the truth teller could be high, as Dreiser discovered early in his career. Sister Carrie was branded immoral and unsalable by its publisher, Frank Doubleday, and the judgment became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Dreiser feared that his second novel, Jennie Gerhardt , would also be found unsuitable. It would tell of a sacrificial young woman who has an illegitimate child by a U.S. senator and a back-street affair with a scion of a wealthy family. Dreiser’s anxiety rendered him incapable of finishing the book and sent him into a deep depression.
Others chipped at the Victorian code. Dreiser threatened to blow it away.
In 1902, his fortunes at their lowest ebb, he wrote a despairing, prophetic essay, “True Art Speaks Plainly,” asserting that the only moral criterion in art was truth. He made no brief for “sexual lewdness” but charged that literary censorship was a smoke screen to prevent novelists from grappling with social issues, particularly sex. “Immoral! Immoral!” he cried from the heart. “Under this cloak hide the vices of wealth as well as the vast unspoken blackness of poverty and ignorance; and between them must walk the little novelist, choosing neither truth nor beauty, but some half-conceived phase of life that bears no honest relationship to either the whole of nature or to man.”
When Jennie Gerhardt finally appeared in 1911, it was banned in some places because of its pessimistic determinism and its veiled call for more open treatment of sex in novels. The Financier was well received in 1912, but the next year The Titan was dropped by its publisher, Harper & Brothers, after being set in type. Apparently the company’s president found the novel’s muckraking portrait of financial chicanery too raw and feared it would offend the Morgan Bank, which had just rescued the company from bankruptcy. Dreiser found another publisher, but he held off on the third volume of the trilogy, The Stoic , for fear of legal or censorship problems.
In 1916, after The “Genius” appeared, Anthony Comstock’s successor, John S. Sumner, launched a strike against the new literary realism, of which Dreiser was the chief exponent, and the publisher promptly withdrew the book from sale. It languished for seven years in legal limbo. Dreiser’s pro-German sympathies before the United States entered World War I added un-Americanism to the charges of licentiousness against him. Fear of further attacks caused him to give up The Bulwark , a half-completed novel about a pious Quaker whose strict, old-fashioned morality drives his children to rebel.
Even in the freer moral climate of the 1920s, Dreiser battled the forces of conservatism. An American Tragedy , his sixth novel, was banned in Boston. A movie adaptation, prepared by the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, was abandoned by Paramount on moral and political grounds, and then a version that complied with the Hollywood code was filmed by Josef von Sternberg in 1931. The Hays Office held up the sale of motion-picture rights to Sister Carrie for years because the heroine goes unpunished for her sinful life. By the late 1930s Dreiser’s support for radical causes had prompted the Federal Bureau of Investigation to classify him as a dangerous subversive, subject to detention.
Possessed of a stubborn, sometimes truculent nature, Dreiser quarreled with this censorship in all its various guises, beginning with his insistence that Frank Doubleday honor his contract and publish Sister Carrie . Later, with H. L. Mencken as his chief publicist, he fought Sumner’s de facto ban of The “Genius.” Mencken, who as a fledgling critic had affixed his reputation to Dreiser’s rising star, rallied the American literary community in an unprecedented protest against the censors.
However, Mencken became disillusioned with Dreiser during The “Genius” fight, accusing him of impolitically accepting support from Greenwich Village radicals. The final straw came when Dreiser wrote a tragedy about a child molester, The Hand of the Potter . Mencken sent Dreiser a stream of letters trying to cajole and hector him into destroying the play. Dreiser would not budge. No subject was per se immoral, he told Mencken. “As long as I am in possession of my senses, current mores will not dictate to me where I shall look for art. My inner instincts and passions and pities are going to instruct me—not the numskulls that believe one thing and do another.” The play was produced in 1921 by the Provincetown Players without protest from the censors. But Mencken was half right: It was a clumsy work.
In 1940, five years before his death, Dreiser composed an isolationist tract opposing U.S. aid to the British against Hitler. The publisher who commissioned it backed out, lest he be accused of having Communist sympathies; Dreiser found another publisher. Then the printing company refused to set it in type, its lawyers demanding changes to soften its radical message. In the midst of the fight, Dreiser lamented, “I hate … to be once more suppressed.” Those words summed up his entire life.
Many great writers seem to spring from nowhere; Dreiser’s origins were unlikelier than most. He was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on August 27, 1871, the ninth of ten children of John Paul and Sarah Schänäb Dreiser. His father was an ambitious German immigrant, a devout Catholic and skilled weaver and wool dyer who became the foreman of a succession of clothing mills. He subscribed to a strict work ethic that ordained that his daughters must serve as maids until they made suitable marriages and that his sons must apprentice at a trade.
His American dream turned sour in the 1860s, after a mill he managed in Sullivan, Indiana, was badly damaged by a storm and he lost his job there. Devastated, he became fanatically pious. The novelist told of his father’s squandering money on church tithes and fees for the parochial schools that he insisted his children attend. By the time Theodore was born, the family fortunes were at a nadir, and John Paul Dreiser’s spirit and authority had been undercut by his failure as a provider.
The glue holding this fractious brood together was the mother—a fey, dreamy woman by Dreiser’s account, but also a strong, possessive one who sided with her children against her husband’s strict discipline. The daughter of immigrant parents, Sarah Dreiser urged her children to assimilate rather than follow their father’s Old World model.
They were a troubled, even deviant family. The oldest boy, Paul junior, ran off to join a medicine show after being arrested for attempted burglary. Rome, the next oldest, committed petty crimes and then fled to become a railroad man, periodically returning on benders to tearfully beg his mother’s forgiveness. A third brother, Al, disappeared. Two of Theodore’s sisters, Mame and Sylvia, bore children out of wedlock, the former by a much older Terre Haute politician, the latter by a rich Warsaw, Indiana, man. A third daughter, the vain and pretty Emma, was seduced by a married saloon clerk named L. A. Hopkins, and their affair made the Chicago newspapers after the man’s wife hired a private detective to track him down.
Sarah Dreiser despaired of her older children’s behavior and concentrated on saving the three youngest. Leaving the rest of the family in Terre Haute, in 1878 she took little Claire, Theodore, and Ed back to the town of Sullivan, where she planned to run a boardinghouse. The venture failed, and they were reduced to a diet of fried mush. For heat, they gathered discarded lumps of coal at nearby mines. Dreiser later wrote that for years the onset of winter or the sight of a poor neighborhood filled him “with an undefinable and highly oppressive dread.”
Paul junior, who had become a successful blackface comedian, gathered the family and whisked them away to a new house in nearby Evansville. But they did not remain there or anywhere for long as economic necessity and social disgrace drove them from one town to another. They lived the longest—two years—in Warsaw, Indiana. At first Theodore thrived there under the motherly teachers at the public school, after years of terrifying German-speaking nuns and priests. But Emma’s Chicago scandal and Sylvia’s pregnancy destroyed Sarah’s dreams of respectability there and brought renewed social ostracism.
All the childhood uprootings and economic uncertainty left deep-seated insecurities in the boy, permanently stunting his capacity to trust. As he wrote in his autobiography, Dawn , “It always seemed to me that no one ever wanted me enough, unless it was my mother.” When she died in 1890, Theodore was desolate. He later wrote: “The ground shook under me. I dreamed sad, racking dreams for years.” He remained emotionally dependent on women—and there would be many of them—for the rest of his life, seeking from them the unconditional love he had lost when his mother died and rebelling against them when they tried to tie him down.
At the time of Sarah’s death he was nineteen and living in Chicago, a city that captivated him. During his adolescence he had caromed from job to job and spent a year at Indiana University on the largess of a teacher from Warsaw who had seen something in him. But he was a social failure in college, ill clad in his rotund brother Paul’s clothes that had been cut down to fit his skinny six-foot-one-inch frame. An awkward, shy young man with a cast in one eye, he believed himself unattractive to girls, for whom he burned with desire.
He dreamed improbably of becoming either the head of a “great thrashing corporation” or a poet. Since his aptitude for business was nil and he had only a ninth-grade education, he chose journalism as his most accessible steppingstone to literary fame.
As he later wrote to Mencken, “I went into newspaper work … and from that time dates my real contact with life—murders, arson, rape, sodomy, bribery, corruption, trickery and false witness in every conceivable form.” His journalistic experiences in Chicago and St. Louis nourished his resolve to write about “life as it is, the facts as they exist, the game as it is played,” but he wearied of the poverty and violence he witnessed, as well as the chicanery that reporters practiced in pursuit of the almighty scoop. He started reviewing plays and writing musical comedies in his spare time and set his sights on New York City, where his brother Paul was now a successful actor and songwriter (“Just Tell Them That You Saw Me,” “On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away”) under the name of Paul Dresser. In early 1894 Theodore made the break and headed east, wandering from city to city until he landed in Pittsburgh, where he briefly wrote a column for the Dispatch .
While in Pittsburgh, he made two important discoveries: Balzac and Herbert Spencer. The French novelist’s stories of Parisian life were a revelation of how a writer could explore all the facets of human affairs; in Dreiser’s imagination Pittsburgh became the Paris of The Wild Ass’s Skin and The Great Man from the Provinces . At the same time, the philosopher Herbert Spencer’s First Principles “blew me to bits, intellectually,” as he later recalled, leaving the dogmatic Catholicism of his childhood in ruins and replacing it with a vision of human insignificance in a bleak, inscrutable cosmos. People were mere atoms, driven by desire; the fittest survived, and the weak went down.
He resolved to write about “life as it is, the facts as they exist, the game as it is played.”
Spencer’s philosophy provided Dreiser with an intellectual touchstone for interpreting life. The Briton’s Darwinian picture of society confirmed what Dreiser had observed in workers’ slums and the grand estates of privilege. He concluded that it was in the nature of “big brains” to exploit little people for their own aggrandizement. Yet he admired the great capitalists, seeing them as latter-day Borgias who swept aside law and convention and grabbed the spoils. America was in the “furnace stage” of industrialization. Great figures like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Frick were beau ideals to this lonely parvenu, who had glimpsed a finer, untroubled world through the windows of the mansions he gaped at on his travels.
But he could not accept the full social Darwinist implications of Spencer’s thought; his sympathy for the underdog, formed in the dirt and humiliation of poverty, ran too deep. Spencer’s magisterial assurances that evolution tended toward the betterment of the race seemed small consolation to the starving, discarded men he saw shambling along the Bowery after he moved to New York, late in 1894.
He could not resolve his inner conflict between awe for the rich and pity for the poor, whose fate he feared for himself. Drawing on Spencer’s law that every action in society provokes a reaction, Dreiser formulated a theory of an “equation inevitable,” wherein nature always tends to a balance between two extremes. Whenever the strong—the banks or the trusts—became too powerful, he reasoned, the masses would spontaneously rise up and reclaim their share.
Such a theory made him an avid Populist and a supporter of William Jennings Bryan. In the column of editorial reflections he wrote for Ev’ry Month , a magazine he edited for his brother Paul’s song-publishing company, he heaped scorn on the lavish banquets of the Four Hundred and deplored the working conditions in the “sweaters” on the Lower East Side. His radical sentiments, along with his pessimistic broodings on the universe, angered Paul’s partners, and they fired him. He struck out freelance, writing prolifically about lady harp players, weapons factories, and dozens of other subjects. He interviewed Carnegie, Armour, and other great men for a magazine called Success , dutifully recording their maxims.
The precepts of Samuel Smiles and Horatio Alger had inspired him as a boy, but now he began to question them. A few hardworking clerks or office boys might rise to become captains of industry, but what of the thousands who did not? Or who did not even try, because they lacked “genius” or education or imagination? Didn’t some boys have a head start in wealth and connections? And weren’t the great corporations closing off opportunities for the small entrepreneur?
Dreiser’s own success as a “magazinist” enabled him to marry Sara Osborne White, a young woman to whom he had been engaged for more than five years. A former schoolteacher from Missouri, she was nearly two years his senior. She gave him the mothering he needed, but he came to resent her conventional values, and the marital vow to forsake all others suffocated him. He later made it the epigraph of The “Genius,” which told the story of his unhappy marriage and philandering urges.
Sara and Theodore spent the summer of 1899 in an old pillared house on the Maumee River in Ohio with their friend Arthur Henry and his wife, Anna. Urged on by Henry, Dreiser wrote several short stories, his first real forays into fiction. Upon his return to New York, he began Sister Carrie . It was inspired by Emma’s affair with Hopkins in Chicago, but he infused those sordid ingredients with the dignity of tragedy.
Sister Carrie is the first true American novel of the city. The Chicago where Carrie Meeber hesitantly debarks with her single suitcase is the Chicago Dreiser knew in the 1880s. It is the Chicago of the first skyscraper, the splendid mansions on North Lake Shore Drive, Marshall Field’s great department store, and the granite office buildings of State Street, with their new plate-glass windows through which Carrie peers in awe and fear. It is a city swollen with immigrants fresh from the farm, a city bursting at the seams, a city where people are atoms buffeted by great forces of nature and chance. And it is the Chicago of the “way-up swell saloon,” where the resplendent manager George Hurstwood greets visiting celebrities.
Slyly subverting the cautionary shopgirl novels of the day, Dreiser shows Carrie rising by falling. She escapes the grim life of the factory girl by accepting the offer of the traveling salesman Drouet to live with him. Then she runs off with Hurstwood, who has stolen money from his employer’s safe. In New York Hurstwood sinks into apathy and failure. But Carrie, who has youth and desire, parlays her looks into success as an actress in musical comedies.
Contrary to Dreiser’s embellished account, Frank Doubleday did not hide copies of the novel in a basement, but given the author’s extravagant dreams of fame, he might as well have. The publisher’s condemnation of the novel as “immoral” gnawed at Dreiser more than he would admit. Sister Carrie sold 456 copies and sank like a stone. The effect of this failure on Dreiser’s morale was devastating. In an effort to escape his Furies, he and Sara wandered about the South, then landed in Philadelphia. She returned to her parents, and he went on to New York.
Those were the darkest days of his life. Too proud to ask Paul for help, contemplating suicide, he skulked in a shabby little room in Brooklyn, subsisting on bread and discarded vegetables from a nearby produce market. But Paul rescued him once again, sending his underweight, overly introspective brother to a sanitarium where the director, an ex-wrestler, bullied his charges back to health.
That stay, followed by a stint with a construction gang on the New York Central Railroad, jolted Dreiser out of his introspective funk. Still, a decade would intervene between Sister Carrie and his next novel. During this hiatus he became a successful editor of home magazines, culminating in his appointment as editor in chief of a genteel fashion magazine. He boosted its circulation to well over a million and earned a fat salary, but like Hurstwood, he lost it all for a woman. On the cusp of his fortieth year, he fell heedlessly in love with an eighteen-year-old girl whose mother worked for the company. She threatened to expose the romance to the press, and Dreiser was forced to resign.
He thought of staying in the editorial game but decided first to finish his aborted novel, Jennie Gerhardt . It was published in 1911, and then, in a furious burst, Dreiser wrote three huge novels over the next four years: The Financier , The Titan , and The “Genius.” At the same time, he completed a long, ruminative account of a visit to Indiana, A Hoosier Holiday .
The ban on The “Genius” and the unpopularity of his views in the stern atmosphere of World War I further alienated Dreiser from conventional American life. He turned to a longplanned novel about a murderer, the ultimate outsider. He had become fascinated by a kind of crime peculiar to American society, in which an ambitious young man who is involved with “Miss Poor” falls in love with “Miss Rich” and resorts to murder to eliminate the obstacle to his happiness. He collected more than a dozen examples of such lethal triangles before settling on one that seemed appropriate as a model for his story. In 1906 Chester Gillette, the poor relation of a factory owner in Cortland, New York, had lured his pregnant lover, Grace Brown, out in a boat on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks, struck her with a tennis racket, and pushed her into the dark waters.
Tragedy, a novel about a man who murders his wife, became an apologia for the character.
It was this incident that provided the basic plot of An American Tragedy . But Dreiser freely altered the facts to suit his purposes, and the Tragedy became an apologia for the young dreamer, Clyde Griffiths, who bears a passing resemblance to young Theodore Dreiser—born of a poor, ineffectual father and a strong mother, seeking a place in the sun. The novel lays bare the anatomy of American society, with its barriers of class and wealth, and it evokes the psychological terror of falling from economic grace—the downside of the American dream.
In another of the ironies that stalked Dreiser’s career, this dark exploration of obsession and desperation made him wealthy after more than a quarter century of literary peonage. But he never again could achieve a novel with the power and scope of the Tragedy . Unable to complete the long-postponed third volume of his trilogy, he began to fear he was finished as a writer. Like many intellectuals of the 1930s, he turned to politics and spoke out for the poor and the jobless. He was sympathetic to communism (a seven-week journey through the Soviet Union in 1927 had left him favorably impressed), but he went on his own idiosyncratic way, scorning the sectarian disputes that splintered the American left. Just before he died in 1945, he joined the Communist party, but he did so largely as a symbolic gesture on behalf of what he called equity.
During those same years, he engaged in a quixotic search for scientific proof of the existence of God, interviewing scientists, reading abstruse journals, and writing obscure essays. He intended to show that man was a mechanism, a mere tool of a higher power. He undertook a comprehensive work that would embody his philosophy but failed to complete it. Ultimately his conclusion was grounded more in faith than in science: to him, the beauty and design of all created things were proof enough of a creator. His acceptance of a divine order enabled him to finish The Bulwark before his death. Ironically the skeptical novelist’s story of a pious man had become an affirmation of faith.
But he did not, as Mencken often predicted, return to the bosom of the church, Catholic or any other. Theodore Dreiser, age seventy-four, died of a heart attack in Hollywood, on December 27, 1945. Had he found peace? All that can be said with certainty is that the restless, clashing atoms that composed him were finally at rest: equation inevitable.