Posts Tagged ‘Theodore Dreiser’

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.




Some More Fiction Writers Who Were Too Good to be Forgotten


Here are some more fiction writers whom I consider just too good for us to forget about them.


Henry Handel Richardson (Real Name: Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson) (1870 – 1946) She chose a male nom de plume, because woman fiction writers weren’t accepted in her time. The trilogy ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’ (comprising the novels: Australia Felix, The Way Home and Ultima Thule), which is based on her traumatic but colorful early years and her childhood family in Australia, is up there as one of the finest works of fiction in English ever written.

Her Must-Read Fiction: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, The Getting of Wisdom

José Maria de Eça de Queirós (1845 – 1900) He was the first of Portugal’s great triumvirate of literary virtuosos: Eca de Queirós, Fernando Pessoa, and Jose Saramago. He had a wicked sense of humor. Himself a Portuguese diplomat, he wrote the following: “The number of dolts, dullards and nincompoops who represent us overseas is enough to make one weep. This really is a most unfortunate country.” But you can tell by his writing that he loves Portugal and especially its women.

His Must Read Fiction: The Maias, The Relic, The Sin of Father Amaro

Nella Larsen (1891 – 1964) She worked as a nurse and a librarian in New York, but Nella Larsen got caught up in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and she wrote and published two short novels and a few short stories. Then she went back to being a nurse. She died in obscurity, but her work has now achieved the status of classic and is taught in many literature courses. I have read all of her fiction and consider it wonderful. ‘Passing’ was probably the first novel ever to deal with being of mixed race in the United States. I was moved by the efforts of Heidi Durrow to get a proper gravestone for Nella Larsen which you can read about here.

Her Must-Read Fiction:  Passing, Quicksand, The Short Fiction of Nella Larsen

Theodore Dreiser (1871 – 1945) If you have ever watched the great classic movie ‘A Place in The Sun’ starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters, you are familiar with Theodore Dreiser’s work. That movie is based on Dreiser’s novel, ‘An American Tragedy’. Who can ever forget the scene in the movie where he rows his fiancée out to the middle of the lake and then pushes her out of the boat into the water, knowing she cannot swim? All because he had found a beautiful new love from a rich family. Some critics found Dreiser’s work crude and rude, but I have found his fiction to be vivid and powerful.

His Must-Read Fiction:  Sister Carrie, The Financier, An American Tragedy

Arnold Bennett (1867 – 1931) – He wrote the best novel ever about a second-hand bookstore, ‘Riceyman Steps’. To the Bloomsbury Group including Virginia Woolf, Arnold Bennett was considered one of the Old Guard whose work was so prosaic that they were rebelling against it. However from my later vantage point I recommend Bennett’s work for its fine eye for detail and his strong empathy for the lower classes.

His Must-Read Fiction: Riceyman Steps, Anna of the Five Towns, The Card, An Old Wives Tale

Jean Stafford (1915 – 1979) – She was seriously injured and facially disfigured when she was 23 in a car accident in 1938. The reckless, angry, and intoxicated driver was the mentally unstable poet Robert Lowell whom she would soon marry and 8 years later divorce. She suffered from alcoholism and depression for much of her life. After publishing only three novels, all of which won critical acclaim, she wrote only short stories, many of which were published in the New Yorker. Of her work, ‘The Mountain Lion’ is my favorite.

Her Must-Read Fiction: The Mountain Lion, The Catherine Wheel, The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford

Francois Mauriac (1885 – 1970) – In early Mauriac, Evil is so attractive and Good is so smug that a winner is by no means assured. After those early novels, in 1928 Mauriac turned to Christianity and Catholicism with a vengeance, and the critical consensus was that he then stacked the deck in his fiction in favor of Good, and that his work weakened due to his new-found religious fervor. However one of his novels that I most admire, ‘The Vipers’ Tangle’, was written in 1933 after his conversion. One of the qualities that make Mauriac’s earlier fiction so appealing is how he depicts the life of Evil as quite delightful, just like it is in real life.

His Must-Read Fiction: The Desert of Love, Thérèse Desqueyroux, Flesh and Blood, Vipers’ Tangle


Here and here are two earlier lists of writers who wrote some mighty fine fiction.

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