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Dreiser's Critical Reputation
by Donald Pizer
Copyright © Donald Pizer, 2000

Because discussion of Dreiser and his fiction has often served as a vehicle for cultural and literary polemics, criticism of his writing frequently reveals as much about its moment as about its ostensible subject. From the appearance of Sister Carrie to the present, an opportunity to examine Dreiser also has meant an opportunity to press the claims of a particular view of American life and thus a specific concept about the nature of fiction.

The literary scene which Dreiser entered in 1900 with the publication of Sister Carrie was still largely controlled by the conventions of what was later to be designated as "The Genteel Tradition." The purpose of literature, most publishers and reviewers held, was to appeal to man's "higher nature," to inspire him through the depiction of man's capacity to achieve the ethical life to seek such a life for himself. The commonplace and sordid in human existence played little role within this aim, while felicities of style, which constituted the "art" of the work, were held to be inseparable from ethical power. Sister Carrie constituted a direct challenge to these assumptions. While some reviewers did indeed note its "extraordinary power" and that its story "has all the interest of fact, and the terrible inevitableness of fact," most seized upon the central situation of the novel--that of a young girl who has two illicit sexual relationships without suffering either material loss or moral degeneration--as immediate grounds for dismissal of the novel. "Squalid," "Neither a pleasant nor an edifying book," "The name of God is not mentioned from cover to cover, a significant omission" were characteristic comments about the work, while "annoying anachronisms and blunders in English" constituted the thrust of another large number of negative remarks. In short, the novel was neither uplifting nor well-written, and was thus "Not a book to be put into the hands of every reader indiscriminately." Dreiser complained bitterly about the negative impact of The Genteel Tradition on the critical reception of Sister Carrie in a brief essay of 1903 entitled "True Art Speaks Plainly." "The extent of all reality is the realm of the author pen," he concluded, "and a true picture of life, honestly and reverentially set down, is both moral and artistic, whether it offends the conventions or not." Dreiser's need to struggle for acceptance of his work on its own grounds, however, was to continue until the great success of An American Tragedy in 1925.

After a long hiatus, Dreiser reappeared fully on the literary scene in 1911 with Jennie Gerhardt. The decade of the 1910s was the most prolific of Dreiser's career, with the publication of four major novels and the appearance of a number of other works in various genres. It was also a period in which, to use the loaded terminology of the age, the conflict between the forces of American "puritanism" and the ideal of "artistic freedom" reached a fever pitch. For many critics, Dreiser's work of this period provided an ideal vehicle for the expression of their views on the issues of morality and art in American writing. Jennie Gerhardt had received an ambivalent reception, since many reviewers were attracted by Jennie's essential purity despite the "unsavory" character of her career. But when this novel was quickly followed by The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The "Genius"--three works whose male protagonists defy all conventions of acceptable sexual behavior --the die was cast. "Humanity is presented on the zoological plane," one reviewer noted of The Financier, sounding a note that was to be repeated throughout this period. "A Riot of Eroticism" and "Mr. Dreiser Chooses a Tom-Cat for a Hero," for example, headed two reviews of The "Genius." On the other hand, a group of writers and critics seized on the attack upon Dreiser's work as a striking instance of the limitations placed upon the artist in America and vigorously defended the "honesty" and "power" of his portrayal of American life.

Thus, during Dreiser's early career, such supporters of his work as Sherwood Anderson, H. L. Mencken, and Randolph Bourne were not merely engaged in the praise of novels which had moved them. They were also seeking to cast Dreiser in the symbolic role of the trailblazer whose willingness to challenge the conventional beliefs and genteel codes of American life has opened a way for others. "The feet of Dreiser," Anderson wrote, are "making a path for us." If Dreiser's feet were "heavy" and "brutal," as Anderson went on to note, it was because he had mountains of resistance to scale. If his work appeared to lack beauty, it was because the concept of beauty had degenerated into a belief in mere surface grace and polish. And if his ideas were often tedious or obscure, it was because he was fumbling honestly for truths which others had so long refused to acknowledge. In short, Dreiser's defects were the virtues of a pathfinder and iconoclast. To those who opposed Dreiser--and these included the great majority of journalistic reviewers and most academic critics--he issue was joined on the question of "brutality"--or, more specifically, the amorality and sexuality of the first two volumes of the Cowperwood trilogy and The "Genius."

The most substantial efforts during the late teens and early twenties to reject Dreiser as a major voice in American fiction were by writers and academics associated with the conservative New Humanism movement of the period. To Stuart Sherman in 1915, Dreiser's fiction constituted not the pure voice of truth but rather the howl of an atavistic animalism. Men may often be selfish and brutal, Sherman and other New Humanists agreed, but they also held that civilization represented an effort to control these remnants of our animal past through reason and will, and that literature should depict the desirability and possibility of achieving this goal. (It is of interest to note that this attack on Dreiser's "barbarism" reached its shrillest level during World War I, when critics such as Sherman frequently alluded to Dreiser's German ancestry.)

A major shift in Dreiser's critical reputation occurred with the publication of An American Tragedy in late 1925. Although Dreiser by the mid-1920s was grudgingly acknowledged, largely as a result of the weight and persistency of his publications, to be a major figure in American letters, he was still often denied full stature because of his suspect themes and awkward fictional expression. But for almost all readers, including many previous detractors, An American Tragedy was (in an oft-repeated term) a "great" novel. Symptomatic of this sea-change was the review by Stuart Sherman, who had earlier attacked Dreiser's "jungle" philosophy and who now praised him for his mature tragic vision of experience. The novel was both a critical and popular success; a Broadway adaptation was also successful; and Dreiser was frequently mentioned in connection with the Nobel Prize in literature.

By the mid-1930s, with the near-universal applause for An American Tragedy and the critical acceptance of writers far more sensationally explicit than Dreiser in their material and themes, it appeared that his struggle for recognition had been won. But instead he became during this and the following decade the negative focus of two additional critical movements with widespread cultural significance. Although critics such as Alfred Kazin and F. O. Matthiessen continued to praise him for having achieved a powerful blend of social realism and pathos, it became more common to attack Dreiser, as did Lionel Trilling in his well-known essay "Reality in America," both for his idea of reality and for his mode of depicting it.

Trilling's essay indirectly expresses a widely shared revulsion by formerly radical critics of the 1930s (Philip Rahv and Malcolm Cowley are other significant examples) toward writers whose work and thought had close ties to the Communist Party and its policies during the decade. Dreiser was perhaps the principal example of a major American literary figure of this kind. During the 1930s and early 1940s he could be counted upon to endorse the party's position in almost every cause and issue, including its support of the Soviet Union during the vastly unpopular Soviet-Finnish War. When Dreiser died not only an unrepentant camp follower but also an actual party member (in a symbolic act, he had joined the party the year of his death), he became a prime target for those critics who had themselves been party sympathizers during the early 1930s but who had rejected its leadership and ideology as the decade progressed. And since it was Dreiser's intellect which was suspect in his continued support of communism, what better way to demonstrate his intellectual vacuity than to point out the inadequacies of his ideas in his fiction?

Trilling's essay also reflects the adverse impact upon Dreiser's reputation during this period of the New Criticism, a school of interpretation which dominated literary criticism for more than two decades beginning in the early 1940s. To many academic New Critics bred upon the great attention to form and structure in the close reading of the intricacies of Henry James's novels and of post-Jamesian fictional experimentation, Dreiser's awkwardness and massiveness seemed the antithesis of the art of fiction. Thus, with Dreiser in disfavor as both thinker and artist--to say nothing of the confusion created by the mystic element in his two posthumous novels, The Bulwark (1946) and The Stoic (1947)--it was no wonder that during the 1940s and 1950s, as Irving Howe recalls, his work was "a symbol of everything a superior intelligence was supposed to avoid."

Although the Trilling-Matthiessen dispute of the early 1950s over Dreiser's "power" (Is it a left-wing myth, or does it in truth reside in his fiction?) still occasionally surfaces, much of the academic writing about Dreiser since the 1950s has shifted from the use of him as a cultural symbol to a close examination of his career and work. Robert Elias's and Thomas P. Riggio's editions of Dreiser's letters, and biographies by Elias, W. A. Swanberg, and Richard Lingeman, provided a solid base of fact about Dreiser's life. In addition, since the early 1960s the availability of Dreiser's literary estate at the University of Pennsylvania Library has provided an important basis for the detailed study of the genesis of his work. A number of scholars--for example, Ellen Moers, Richard Lehan, Philip Gerber, and Donald Pizer--have written full-length studies of Dreiser which are based in large part upon material in the Dreiser Papers. And the on-going Pennsylvania Dreiser Edition, a project devoted to the preparation and publication of scholarly editions of Dreiser's works, owes much to the Papers.

By the mid-1960s, some of the older strains in Dreiser criticism had died out. No longer was it necessary to defend or attack his subjects or ideas because of their challenge to contemporary conventions. But other issues of long-standing controversy in the discussion of Dreiser's work continued to attract much attention, which suggests that they have become permanent centers of interest in Dreiser criticism. One of these is Dreiser's naturalism--or, to put it another way, what is naturalism and how is Dreiser a naturalist? The question appears simple, and many early critics treated it as such. Naturalism, which had its origin in the theories and fiction of the late nineteenth-century French novelist Emile Zola, was a Darwinian-based pessimistic determinism in theme and a crude massiveness in technique, and Dreiser was a prime example of both. But most critics who have written since the seminal essay by Eliseo Vivas in 1938 have recognized that many different strains make up the distinctive fictional voice which is Dreiser's, and that some of these strains--his mysticism and transcendentalism, or his prophetic tone--are antithetical to the biological and environmental determinism and amoral objectivity of a conventionally conceived naturalist. Although such recent critics as Charles Walcutt, Donald Pizer, June Howard, John Conder, Lee Clark Mitchell, and Michael Davitt Bell still engage the problems of defining American naturalism and explaining Dreiser as our principal naturalist, they now incline toward an acceptance of the complexities and ambivalences of both the movement and Dreiser.

Dreiser criticism is also still often concerned with the related issue of his verbal and fictional ineptness. Even Mencken, the staunchest of Dreiser's early champions, could not ignore this aspect of Dreiser's fiction, and it was of course one of the major reasons for the New Critics' contempt for his work. Since the late 1960s, however, a number of critics (most notably Ellen Moers) have discovered considerable subtlety and even "finese" in Dreiser's prose style, while still others (Julian Markels and Robert Penn Warren, for example) have argued that the novel as a form creates its effect as much through symbolic constructs as through language, and that Dreiser's success with such constructs explains his success as a novelist.

Much Dreiser criticism since the mid-1980s, however, has focused less on the themes and quality of his fiction than on the question of the relationship of his thought and work to large-scale social and cultural issues arising out of our condition as an urban society and consumerist economy, issues which still preoccupy us as a nation. Often drawing on the critical strategies of contemporary movements in literary theory and cultural studies and also often focused on Sister Carrie, this criticism seeks to identify the significant centers of cultural density in Dreiser's fiction that constitute the underlying relationship of his fiction to its historical moment. Several studies of this kind attempt to open up new areas of interest in Dreiser by tracing the underlying significance in his fiction of such major cultural realities of his day as mass communication (Thomas F. Strychacz), a faith in science (Louis J. Zanine), and class values and practices (Clare Eby). An especially rich area of concern has been Dreiser's depiction of the ethos of the late nineteenth-century America phenomenon of the great metropolis. Thus, for example, Rachel Bowlby examines the institution of the department store in Sister Carrie as a microcosm of the urban consumerism which engulfs Carrie in Chicago, while Philip Fisher studies the ways in which the "hard fact" of the urban impersonality of Chicago and New York is reflected in the failure of identity in Hurstwood and Carrie. A considerable number of other cultural studies of Dreiser's work, however, express the revisionist position that a close examination of Dreiser representation of his culture reveals an underlying endorsement of its principal values rather than (as has been generally held) a critique of them. The New Historicist criticism of Walter Benn Michaels, which holds that Carrie's "practical economy," her desire for things, is endorsed by Dreiser in various unconscious ways, has played a major role in encouraging this point of view. To Michaels and other recent critics preoccupied with the cultural dynamics of Dreiser's fiction, he is therefore of less interest as a turn-of-the-century social realist or naturalist than as an unconscious participant in the underlying myths and values of the American scene then and now.

Bibliography Biographies and Collections of Letters

Dreiser, Helen. My Life with Dreiser. Cleveland: World, 1951.

Elias, Robert H. Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature. 1949. Rev. ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970.

Elias, Robert H., ed. Letters of Theodore Dreiser. 3 vols. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959.

Lingeman, Richard. Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871-1907. New York: Putnam, 1986; Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey, 1908-1945. New York: Putnam, 1990.

Riggio, Thomas P., ed. Dreiser-Mencken Letters: The Correspondence of Theodore Dreiser & H. L. Mencken, 1907-1945. 2 vols. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.

Swanberg, W. A. Dreiser. New York: Scribner's, 1965.


Pizer, Donald; Dowell, Richard W.; and Rusch, Frederic E. Theodore Dreiser: A Primary Bibliography and Reference Guide. 1975. Rev. ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

General Collections of Criticism

Gogol, Miriam, ed. Theodore Dreiser: Beyond Naturalism. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

Hakutani, Yoshinobu, ed. Theodore Dreiser and American Culture: New Readings. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000.

Kazin, Alfred and Shapiro, Charles, eds. The Stature of Theodore Dreiser. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955.

Pizer, Donald, ed. Critical Essays on Theodore Dreiser. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.

Salzman, Jack, ed. Theodore Dreiser: The Critical Reception. New York: Lewis, 1972.

General Critical Studies: Books

Gerber, Philip L. Theodore Dreiser. 1964. Rev. ed. Theodore Dreiser Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Hussman, Lawrence E., Jr. Dreiser and His Fiction: A Twentieth-Century Quest. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Lehan, Richard. Theodore Dreiser: His World and His Novels. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

Matthiessen, F. O. Theodore Dreiser. New York: Sloane, 1951.

Moers, Ellen. Two Dreisers. New York: Viking, 1969.

Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976.

Warren, Robert Penn. Homage to Theodore Dreiser. New York: Random House, 1971.

Zanine, Louis J. Mechanism and Mysticism: The Influence of Science on the Thought and Work of Theodore Dreiser. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

General Critical Studies: Articles and Parts of Books

Anderson, Sherwood. "Dreiser." 1916. Reprinted in Horses and Men. New York: Huebsch, 1923.

Bourne, Randolph. "The Art of Theodore Dreiser." The History of a Literary Radical and Other Essays. New York: Huebsch, 1920.

Cowley, Malcolm. "'Not Men': A Natural History of American Naturalism." Kenyon Review 9 (1947): 414-35.

Eby, Clare. Dreiser and Veblen: Saboteurs of the Status Quo. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.

Fisher, Philip. "The Life History of Objects: The Naturalist Novel and the City." Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Kazin, Alfred. "Two Educations: Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser." On Native Grounds. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1942.

Mencken, H. L. "Theodore Dreiser." A Book of Prefaces. New York: Knopf, 1917.

Michaels, Walter Benn. The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: Literature at the Turn of the Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Rahv, Philip. "On the Decline of Naturalism." Partisan Review 9 (1942): 483-93.

Sherman, Stuart P. "The Naturalism of Mr. Dreiser." 1915. Reprinted as "The Barbaric Naturalism of Theodore Dreiser" in On Contemporary Literature. New York: Holt, 1917.

Shulman, Robert. "Dreiser and the Dynamics of American Capitalism." Social Criticism and Nineteenth-Century American Fiction. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.

Strychacz, Thomas F. Modernism, Mass Culture, and Professionalism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Trilling, Lionel. "Reality in America," The Liberal Imagination. New York: Viking, 1950.

Vivas, Eliseo. "Dreiser, An Inconsistent Naturalist." Ethics 48 (1938): 498-508.

Walcutt, Charles C. "Theodore Dreiser: The Wonder and Terror of Life." American Literary Naturalism, A Divided Stream. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956.

Studies of the Major Novels

Sister Carrie

Bell, Michael Davitt. "Fine Styles of Sympathy: Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie." The Problem of American Realism: Studies in the Cultural History of a Literary Idea. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Bowlby, Rachel. "Starring: Dreiser's Sister Carrie." Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing, and Zola. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Howard, June. Form and History in American Literary Naturalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Kaplan, Amy. "The Sentimental Revolt of Sister Carrie." The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Markels, Julian. "Dreiser and the Plotting of Inarticulate Experience." Massachusetts Review 2 (1961): 431-48.

Pizer, Donald. "The Problem of American Literary Naturalism and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie." American Literary Realism 32 (1999): 1-11.

_____, ed. New Essays on Sister Carrie. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Sloane, David E. E. Sister Carrie: Theodore Dreiser's Sociological Tragedy. New York: Twayne, 1992.

West, James L. W., III. A Sister Carrie Portfolio. Charlottesville: University Press Virginia, 1985.

Jennie Gerhardt

Wadlington, Warrwick. "Pathos and Dreiser." Southern Review 7 (1971): 411-29.

West, James L. W., III, ed. Dreiser's Jennie Gerhardt: New Essays on the Restored Text. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

The Cowperwood Trilogy

Conder, John. "Dreiser's Trilogy and the Dilemma of Determinism." Naturalism in American Fiction: The Classic Phase. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1984.

Gerber, Philip L. "The Financier Himself: Dreiser and C. T. Yerkes." PMLA 88 (1973): 112-21.

An American Tragedy

Bloom, Harold, ed. Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Howe, Irving. "Dreiser: The Springs of Desire." 1964. Reprinted in Decline of the New. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1970.

Michaels, Walter Benn. "On An American Tragedy: Or the Promise of American Life." Representations 25 (1989): 71-98.

Mitchell, Lee Clark. "The Psychopoetics of Desire in Dreiser's American Tragedy." Determined Fictions: American Literary Naturalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Orlov, Paul A. An American Tragedy: Perils of the Self Seeking "Success." Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1998.

Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Literary History

Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961.

Ahnebrink, Lars. The Beginnings of Naturalism in American Fiction . . . 1891-1903. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Berthoff, Warner. The Ferment of Realism: American Literature, 1884-1919. New York: Free Press, 1965.

Campbell, Donna M. Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997.

Martin, Jay. Harvests of Change: American Literature, 1865-1914. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Martin, Ronald E. American Literature and the Universe of Force. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1981.

Parrington, Vernon Lewis. The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, 1860-1920. Vol. 3 of Main Currents in American Thought. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1930.

Pizer, Donald. The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism: Selected Essays and Reviews. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.

_____, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to London. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

_____ and Earl Harbert, eds. American Realists and Naturalists. Vol. 12 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982.

Sundquist, Eric J., ed. American Realism: New Essays. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Wilson, Christopher P. The Labor of Words: Literary Professionalism in the Progressive Era. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

Ziff, Larzer. The American 1890s. New York: Viking, 1966.

American Social and Cultural History, 1865-1945

Corkin, Stanley. Realism and the Birth of the Modern United States: Cinema, Literature, and Culture. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915. 1944. Reprint. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.

Jones, Howard Mumford. The Age of Energy: Variations of American Experience, 1865-1915. New York: Viking, 1971.

Lehan, Richard. The City in Literature: An Intellectual and Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Orvell, Miles. The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Shi, David. Facing Facts: Realism in American Thought and Culture, 1850-1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982