We gave it a B+
The wrath of American Puritanism was routinely kindled against Theodore Dreiser and his works during his lifetime. He was denounced as a purveyor of lewdness and abominations by critics, clergymen, and congressmen. The ”Genius” was assaulted and battered by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice; An American Tragedy was banned in Boston; virtually all of his books were expurgated by his own trembling publishers. The Left and the Right found him unsound, which he suggests that as a consummate realist hew as on the right track.
Dreiser may get more of the same with the appearance of the second and final volume of Richard Lingeman’s massive biography, Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey 1908-1945. There is plenty here for critics to cluck about. Drawing on Dreiser’s often explicit diaries, Lingeman gives us a scorecard of his seductions and betrayals, and the score is high. There are crass, casual anti-semitic slurs and damning praises of Stalin. There are stupid quarrels with friends and mistresses and publishers.
In other words, there is the usual muddle of meanness, selfishness, sex, drink, political folly, and other gossip fodder that we have come to expect from our major writers as their contribution to the profit margins of the biography industry. Dreiser comes through it as a dogged, graceless, but great man, whose worst mistake was to neglect his fiction late in life on order to get himself up as a political prophet. He got entangled with the Communists and said some fatuous things, but Lingeman’s account shows him less naive than had been assumed, always setting the comrades” teeth on edge with heretical talk about individualism and freedom of speech. Repelled by most of what he saw in the Soviet Union in the late 1920’s, he badgered Bukharin, the top party theoretician, so mercilessly that the old Bolshevik, who was no doubt expecting another fawning American writer, finally muttered, ”My God, take him away!”
Lumbering, homely, and ungainly, Dreiser exerted as powerful an attraction for young women as they did on him. A passion for an 18-year-old cost him his first marriage and magazine job; he thought it a small price to pay. One visitor to his studio quite unexpectedly began undressing as soon as she closed the door: ”Always willing to oblige,” he noted. ”His creative powers were deeply implicated in his erotic drives: the blind force of love was inseparable from the life urge itself,” says Lingeman. Dreiser tried to ward off what Lingeman calls ”the steely chill of a mechanistic universe,” which pervaded his novels, by believing in some cosmic creative force that embraced everything beautiful. At times he seemed to be applying for the position himself.
Much of Dreiser’s life was occupied in the usual long twilight struggle with publishers over advances, contracts, deadlines, etc., and this, inevitable and tedious, forms a major part of Lingeman’s narrative. But Lingeman is a good and shrewd writer. He offers generous and pungent servings of Dreiser’s quarrelsome correspondence with H.L. Mencken and his philosophical struggle to reconcile a Nietzschean admiration for strong, willful individuals (like himself) with an acute sense of social injustice and inequality. Like Dreiser’s own elephantine, disheveled masterpieces, this is a thick, dense book well worth plowing though. B+