In Praise of the United States Author Theodore Dreiser

 

Theodore Dreiser   (1871 – 1945)

 

Yes, but another writer I read in high school who just knocked me out was Theodore Dreiser. I read An American Tragedy all in one weekend and couldn’t put it down – I locked myself in my room. Now that was antithetical to every other book I was reading at the time because Dreiser really had no style, but it was powerful.” – Joan Didion

I feel pretty much the same way about Theodore Dreiser as Joan Didion did. I have read most of his work, and it is powerful. His two masterpieces are ‘An American Tragedy’ and ‘Sister Carrie’ but the novels ‘The Financier’, ‘The Titan’, and ‘Jenny Gerhardt’ are also excellent.

Theodore Dreiser was never as stylish as F. Scott Fitzgerald; Dreiser never intended to be stylish. But when it came to getting inside the heads of his characters whether it be aspiring actress Caroline Meeker in ‘Sister Carrie’ or hapless murderer Clyde Griffiths in ‘An American Tragedy’ , Dreiser far outclasses Fitzgerald and nearly every other writer this side of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

You may have accidentally encountered Theodore Dreiser’s work already. ‘An American Tragedy’ was made into the movie ‘A Place in the Sun’ in 1951 starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Cliff and Shelley Winters which is an outstanding movie that captures the essence of Dreiser’s work. In ‘An American Tragedy’, Dreiser felt a kinship with his protagonist that allowed him to portray him as a pitiable, arresting, trapped creature.

The novels of Dreiser are strong examples of the literary view called naturalism, a literary view first expounded by Emile Zola that says our lives and our character as individuals are determined by our father, our mother, the rest of our family, and the upbringing circumstances of our lives. The novelist is then an outside observer who records the effects of these factors on their characters’ lives. Thus naturalism is a step beyond realism which records what actually happens. Naturalism brings in to play those factors that cause a person to be the way he or she is.

He (Dreiser) shared with Hardy, James, and only a few other male novelists the capacity to portray women convincingly and unpatronizingly.” – Martin Seymour-Smith

‘An American Tragedy’ is rather a massive work (880 pages) so you probably will want to start with Dreiser’s other acclaimed masterpiece ‘Sister Carrie’ (464 pages). ‘Sister Carrie’ is the story of a small town girl who struggles to become a world famous actress. At its time, it was considered too sordid and almost too realistic, but the London Express said of it, “It is a cruel, merciless story, intensely clever in its realism, and one that will remain impressed in the memory of the reader for many a long day.”

Theodore Dreiser earned his place as one of the great United States fiction writers, and his novels have withstood the test of time to remain masterpieces.

 

 

 

10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Charles Behlen on July 17, 2022 at 10:52 PM

    I like that you’re giving these old boys and girls a reairing

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  2. Dreiser is one of those authors that I discovered through 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I’d never heard of him, and so it was a revelatory pleasure to read Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt. I have a copy of an American Tragedy on the Kindle, and it’s definitely one I’ll read in due course.

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    • Hi Lisa,
      That 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die must be a really good thing if you discovered Dreiser though that. I discovered Dreiser by the means I discovered most writers, through ‘Who’s Who in 20th Century Literature’ by Martin Seymour-Smith who praised him highly. I very much trusted Martin Seymour-Smith’s opinions about authors.

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      • Oops, I was about to delete most of that because … boring, too much info. Can you please delete it and I do it again, with what I meant to say but got diverted from!

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        • I did delete it although I did find it quite interesting!

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          • Ta muchly!
            What I was leading up to was that 1001 Books varies in value according to one’s exposure to literature. I was well read for a person of my age and background when I bought it but I had very little exposure to European Lit other than the Russians, and what I knew of US Lit via University was skewed towards themes of consumerism and racism but (go figure) did not include Black writers. Nothing from Africa except Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing. So 1001 Books fills some of those gaps, and I believe that later editions do it more so.
            (To put its EnglishLit bias in the 2016 edition in perspective, I had already read well over 200 of what was recommended, just by having read the English classics.)
            But of course every canon has its flaws!

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            • Like you, I started with literature in English and then branched out to translations of European novels. I remember a big turning point for me was discovering Chinua Achebe of Nigeria whose novels were excellent. Later I got heavily into South American literature probably due to reading Machado de Assis. A lot of the fiction from India is already written in English. A fairly recent development for me has been to discover Yan Lianke, the first great Chinese writer I have discovered.

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              • I love Lianke’s stuff. I was so lucky, not long after I started the blog, the Australian publisher sent me one of his books, and kept sending them. I think he’s brilliant.

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  3. Interesting. I have not read the novel, but I saw the film A Place in the Sun, and I guess the book is more sympathetic as to the main character? As the film was quite clear about the main character’s murder intentions. Though things never went as far as planning a murder or an accident, Dreiser may have had in mind something like Wharton’s Summer, but focusing on the man’s perspective, instead (it was certainly published before Dreiser’s book). There, a man also becomes torn between two ladies, while already going out with one without being married to her (only promising).

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