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Super Scribes 2 - Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser of Past and Present

I read An American Tragedy (1925) as a Russian teenager. It was my first book by Theodore Dreiser. I could not have foreseen that a decade later, I would immigrate to America and would be able to read this old classic in its original language. I could not have predicted that one day I would be driving through the endless cornfields of Indiana on my way to Terre Haute, Dreiser’s birthplace, or that I would be walking the same Dayton, Ohio streets Dreiser’s father walked in 1844 when he immigrated there from Germany. Little did I know that I would end up living in the American Midwest, Dreiser’s country, and still see it the way he did despite the abyss of time dividing us.

Almost nine decades have passed since Dreiser wrote Dawn (1931), an autobiography that he described as “the net of life and emotion and human relationship into which I was born and which conditioned my early life.” So much has changed since then, but the environment that shaped Dreiser as an individual and an artist is still alive – the fertile soil of American poverty. And just like it is true today for many children of economic migrants, Dreiser's childhood was not easy. He lived in five different towns before he turned sixteen. Sometimes he had to move with only his mother while his father along with his older siblings worked hard to keep the family afloat financially. This lack of stability and the austerity of Roman Catholic rules imposed on young Theodore by his German father have affected his world view and have left a big mark on his future writing. In Dawn, Dreiser reflects upon his family affairs in a harsh and at the same time empathizing way that is characteristic of all his works. While he feels deeply for his mother who was doing her utmost best to keep Theodore and his siblings out of poverty, he shows contempt toward his father’s religious fanaticism. The same scorn is evident in his depiction of evangelism in An American Tragedy (1925) and provincial narrow-mindedness in The “Genius” (1915).

Lured by the promises of success and riches that life in a big city offers, the protagonists in the novels that made Theodore Dreiser famous usually come to New York or Chicago from a provincial town as naïve youth. Somewhere along the way, they lose their moral compass like Eugene Witla, a talented painter with an insatiable sexual appetite, portrayed in The “Genius”, a semi-autobiographical novel. But what is morality in Dreiser’s world? Is Eugene’s unfaithfulness to his wife, Angela, who stood by his side through sickness and poverty immoral? Or is Angela immoral in her clinging to her famous husband when she knows perfectly well that he does not love her and sees her as a burden? Forcing us to consider facts of life in the context of moral relativism is what some find attractive in Dreiser’s writing while others are repulsed by it. This detached view of social norm is one of the characteristics of literary naturalism (also known as extreme realism), a late nineteenth century movement to which Dreiser belonged. His observational approach to the character development is similar to Emile Zola’s and Guy de Maupassant’s, also members of naturalist school. Just like them, Dreiser was often chastised (and was just as unapologetic) for language and content that didn’t comply with the social standards of the time. But how else does one write about extreme poverty, violence, and corruption without offending someone else’s religious sensibilities and/or perceived social virtues?

This is the very same question that modern writers who consider themselves literary realists face today. Should they portray their characters without being concerned about offending certain readers at the risk of being blacklisted by publishers? Or should they comply with the conventions of political correctness in order to come across as bestseller material? For Dreiser, the choice was clear. He was able to sell 8,000 copies almost immediately after The “Genius” was published, but faced a legal storm when it was labeled obscene (Although, by the current literary standards this work would be considered harmless even for young adults.) The publisher ended up recalling the book from bookstores. Dreiser did not give up. Almost ten years later, in 1923, he found another publisher who took the risk of publishing The "Genius". The risk was rewarded: more than 40,000 copies were sold right away. However, not until 2008 the novel was published as it was composed almost one century earlier, in 1911.

Publishers’ attitude has not changed very much since the first release of The Genius. Even though depicting many aspects of life that were taboo in Dreiser’s time is no longer seen as offensive, publishers still seem to be as risk averse as they were in the past. More and more publishing houses require writers to submit their manuscripts to sensitivity readers before they even consider taking on their novels. I can’t help but wonder how Dreiser would see this kind of “super readers”? Would he be concerned like Hillary Jordan that it smells of censorship, or would he perceive these people as “advising angels” like Katy Waldman does?

“I can’t help but wonder what Dreiser would think” is a best expression of my appreciation of him as a classic. Even after all those years, he is still relevant. I ask myself from time to time what Dreiser’s take on the current events might have been as a journalist and a writer were he alive today. When I heard about Martin Shkreli for the first time, a young man Americans love to hate, I saw him as a character from one of the Dreiser’s stories – a promising youth who ends up ruining his own life and the lives of those close to him in his relentless pursuit of happiness and wealth. It is modern American tragedy that waits to be told by someone like Dreiser. Let’s hope that there is a writer of his talent among us, a publisher who is courageous enough to take the risk of bringing this talent to the public unabridged, and an audience that can appreciate both. This is a best tribute we can pay to Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser, the man described by literary critic Irving Howe as ranking "among the American giants, the very few American giants we have had.”


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