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The Last Titan:A Life of Theodore Dreiser
Jerome Loving

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
$34.95, 480 pages, ISBN 0-52023-481-2.

Reviewed by Charles Holdefer 

In this new critical biography of Theodore Dreiser, Jerome Loving's stated purpose makes perfect sense: he intends to emphasize the literary achievements of his subject more than his politics or his sex life. Dreiser's preceding biographer, Richard Lingeman, wrote a two-volume Theodore Dreiser (1986 and 1990) which viewed the writer largely through a political prism, as both a dissident and representative of his times. A generation earlier, W.A. Swanberg's Dreiser (1965) expended considerable scholarly energies on Dreiser's personal life and obsessive sexual pursuits. Although Loving exaggerates when he says that Swanberg made Dreiser appear like a "sociopath" [xiii], it is true that Swanberg's account was sometimes palpably hostile: less a view of the writer, warts and all, than a treatment of an individual as all warts.

Loving wants to grant more space to the writing. His new biography reasserts Dreiser's importance as a pivotal figure in modern American literature. Loving, currently a professor at Texas A & M University and author of earlier works on Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Frank Norris, emphasizes "Dreiser's lifelong contradiction—to be simultaneously the observer of nature's law of survival and the apologist for its victims" [51]. Much of his account is a demonstration of this contradiction.

Dreiser's early life exerts a grim fascination. Born in 1871, the twelfth of thirteen children of an immigrant German Catholic father and a mystical Mennonite mother, he grew up on the precarious line that separates respectable poverty from criminality, and spent his youth watching his older siblings struggle on one side or the other. Particularly vulnerable were his sisters, for whom an unwanted pregnancy left no options other than marginal forms of dependence or even prostitution. Religious piety in the home seemed ineffectual in face of crueler forces, leaving Dreiser with a rancor about religion that would surface frequently in his writing. In a development worthy of a melodrama, his elder brother became famous in show business as a singer and song-writer under the name of Paul Dresser, and swooped in from time to time to bail family members out of tight spots. With only a haphazard education, Theodore began to make his way with odd jobs and journalism, dabbling in short stories, until his friend Arthur Henry finally coaxed him to try a longer form, which would lead to Dreiser's first novel, Sister Carrie (1900). This ushered in a new brand of American realism that broke with New England literary culture and gave voice to the experience of the next wave of immigrants and their children.

All this is well-known and has been told before, but Loving offers fresh perspectives. He is interesting and nuanced, for instance, about Arthur Henry's racial politics (he was the author of a 1890 "negrophobic" novel Nicholas Blood, Candidate). He does not dwell too long on the so-called "suppression" of Sister Carrie, but brings in readings of Dreiser's earliest works, including uncollected, pre-Carrie poetry, as well as his hack magazine articles and interviews with celebrities of the time. Dreiser's sexuality is addressed in 21st century terms, and this volume also contains the fruits of an interview Loving conducted in 2000, surely one of the last of its kind, with one of Dreiser's many lovers. Yvette Székely (who later married Max Eastman), was seduced by Dreiser at the age of 17 when the author was nearing 60. Loving also re-evaluates Dreiser's sometimes rocky friendship with H.L. Mencken, and this subject provides some of the more interesting anecdotes in this volume.

Their relationship was always more complicated than Mencken playing the smart critic to Dreiser's ungainly talent. They were also drinking buddies and back-scratchers. Dreiser gave the young Mencken magazine work when he was still unknown; later, when Dreiser struggled, Mencken returned the favor by publishing his short stories and plays in The Smart Set. For a time, Dreiser and Mencken consorted with the Bloom sisters, Estelle and Marion, who would appear as the "Redmond Sisters" in Dreiser's A Gallery of Women (1929). Dreiser's treatment of Estelle and her sad end make a poignant story. Mencken's political disagreements with Dreiser and his disapproval of his lifestyle became more pronounced over the years, and Loving speculates that his harsh reception of An American Tragedy—one of the few dissenting voices at the time—stems from Mencken's indignation at an "imagined" slight by Dreiser of the critic's dying mother [318]. Perhaps—but it is also possible that the reproaches in Mencken's review, particularly regarding Dreiser's prolixity, were true. In any event, Mencken had already committed them to print on other occasions.

Dreiser's output shortly before the First World War was prodigious. In addition to the revision of the still underrated Jennie Gerhardt (1911), he also produced two large volumes of his "Trilogy of Desire", The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914), as well as The "Genius" (1915), Plays of the Natural and the Supernatural (1916), and two travel books. The original manuscript of A Traveler at Forty (1913) ran to almost a million words. The writer who almost gave up after Sister Carrie seemed unable to stop.

Loving's account of these developments is smoothly written, though on occasion the amount of detail can be numbing, like a Dreiser novel itself. We get not only the author's many moves, but also his exact addresses; not only his public school report card, but also his brother Ed's. Sometimes there are forced comparisons that strain after significance, for instance that Dreiser "may have reread" Crime and Punishment shortly before writing An American Tragedy [315], or portentous asides, about how Dreiser almost took the Titanic. Such moments, fortunately, are rare. Despite a few modish references to "logocentric thought" [164] or to virtues that Dreiser "deconstructed" [218], Loving's language is unencumbered by jargon. One sometimes wonders about the intended audience of this book: Loving patiently rehearses the ideas of Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer or defines literary naturalism; he also offers close reading of Jennie Gerhardt as informed by Dreiser's correspondence and Thomas P. Riggio's reading of the 1901 manuscript. It seems unlikely that these two approaches are geared for the same reader.

This biography serves also as a reminder of numerous instances where Dreiser, in one form or another, got there first. A Hoosier Holiday, a generally forgotten work from 1916, recounts an automobile excursion from New York to Indiana due to primitive driving conditions. It can be read as the prototype of the literary road trip by car, prefiguring The Air-Conditioned Nightmare and On the Road. Dreiser's extensive research on the tycoon Charles Tyson Yerkes Jr., the model for Frank Cowperwood in "The Trilogy of Desire", or his fascination for the 1906 murder committed by Chester Gillette, which provided the outline for Clyde Giffiths' actions in An American Tragedy, anticipate later work by Truman Capote and Norman Mailer with the nonfiction novel. In 1919 Dreiser became the first writer of stature to go to Hollywood and try his hand (unsuccessfully) at writing scripts. His later earnings from a re-released version of The "Genius" and the immediate success of An American Tragedy helped his publisher Horace Liveright, a relative upstart and former toilet paper manufacturer, to pay for a not-very-profitable stable of writers which included e.e. cummings, Eugene O'Neill, T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway. In less than a decade, though, Liveright died broke. At the end of his life, Dreiser's mystical embrace of the "Creative Force" which appears in posthumously published works like The Bulwark (1946) and The Stoic (1947), not only shows affinities with Quaker quietism and the transcendentalist thought of Emerson and Thoreau, but also smacks of New Age philosophizing.

Dreiser could be a lugubrious figure, and was sometimes intellectually perverse. Unlike many of his left-leaning peers who were dupes of the Soviet Union and later came to regret it, Dreiser saw many of Moscow's shortcomings early, only to put aside all doubts later. In Dreiser Looks At Russia (1928), written after a sponsored visit to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the revolution, he mocked the cult of personality surrounding Lenin and described the dictatorship of the proletariat as a dictatorship by the party. He compared the new collective housing arrangements in Moscow to "a slum—or a Pennsylvania mining village under the rankest tyranny of capitalism" [342]. Yet a few years later he was praising the Soviet system as a model for the world and became, according to Loving, a "cheerleader" [345]. Partly this was a response to the Great Depression, but one is also left with the impression of a man who spent his waking hours in a fit of pique at wherever he found himself. Some of the causes that Dreiser defended, like the case of the Scottsboro boys, were to his credit. Whatever the literary defects of The "Genius", his fight to publish an unexpurgated version marked an important episode in the history of American civil liberties. Other incidents, like his conflicts with Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson, his paranoia about Horace Liveright or his benighted "insights" about Jews, were squalid and embarrassing.

In his later years Dreiser drifted away from fiction and supplemented his political activism with an interest in science, particularly a microscopic observation of nature. His efforts came out of a sincere desire to understand the workings of the universe but, as Loving observes, he was poorly suited for the task, and some passages of his Notes on Life, published posthumously (1974), are "near gibberish" [373]. Dreiser incarnated the virtues and failings of the autodidact: he was energetic and curious, but also prone to quackery. This tendency was on display as early as Sister Carrie, with its earnest allusions to the theories of Elmer Gates, an eccentric scientist who attempted to explain human behavior in terms of "anastates" and "katastates". Dreiser explained to the birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger that individuals of higher intelligence "naturally" produced fewer offspring [242], and he later argued that it probably made sense to kill a weak or defective infant in order to spare the child inevitable suffering, because "Life is a grinding game" [438n]. Whether Dreiser admired or detested the likes of Frank Cowperwood, the ruthless hero of "The Trilogy of Desire", depended on the period of his life; but the Cowperwoods of the world always fascinated him.

By the end of this biograpy, Loving's title, The Last Titan, seems earned. He argues that "Dreiser was the last great American writer of Melvillean dimensions who had been born in an essentialist world and grown up with the crosscurrents of Darwinism" [382]. Dreiser was a self-made man and cantankerous product of a lost time that was both more censorious and, paradoxically, sometimes malleable to a strong individual's will.



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