Critic Irving Howe observed that “Theodore Dreiser has dropped out of the awareness of cultivated Americans” and he was probably right. Dreiser’s turgid prose is well out of fashion, the cognoscenti having gravitated to the cleaner, simpler Hemingway model, and his social concerns have become – or so we would like to believe – irrelevant since the upheavals of the 60’s and the cultural changes since. In a sense you might say that Dreiser’s not on the reading lists because his side won the battle, one of the ironies of being a writer critical of your society and culture tied to the particular time in which you live.
As understandable as the movement away from him might be in the light of late 20th century realities, Dreiser’s real concerns are in fact just as alive today as they were a hundred years ago. Some of the peripherals may have been eliminated but the heart of Dreiser’s critique of American society and the kind of character flaws on which he concentrated are still very much with us. If anything, the kind of characteristics that make Clyde Griffiths, the protagonist of Dreiser’s masterpiece, An American Tragedy, recognizable are even more prevalent today than they were then. Howe again:
In Dreiser’s…novels most of the central characters are harried by a desire for personal affirmation, a desire they can neither articulate nor suppress. They suffer from a need that their lives assume the dignity of dramatic form, and they suffer terribly, not so much because they cannot satisfy this need, but because they do not really understand it.
We still don’t. Media and entertainment critic Neal Gabler, author of Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, examines the modern descendant and concludes:
It is not any “ism” but entertainment that is arguably the most pervasive, powerful, and ineluctable force of our time–a force so overwhelming that it has finally metastasized into life.
In Dreiser’s day Americans had been taught – and believed – that their lives should have the drama of theater and popular novels, that they should seek beautiful spouses and riches and fame. By 1925 when An American Tragedy was published, movies had taken that belief to the next level, a level not far from Gabel’s metastasizing. Back to Howe:
Money, worldly success, sensual gratification are the only ends they [Dreiser’s characters] know or can name, but none of these slakes their restlessness. They grapple desperately for money, lacerate themselves themselves climbing to success, yet they remain sullen and bewildered, always hopeful for some unexpected sign by which to release their bitter craving for a state of grace, or, at least, illumination.
Which is as good an explanation of the American religious renaissance of the last few decades as we’re likely to find. Even more cogently, it helps explain why American religious sects, particularly the evangelical and fundamentalist ones, are so often inextricably bound to “worldly success” – sanctity is often defined or proven by the amount of someone’s wealth. There are now megachurches preaching, essentially, that God wants you to make money, and that the more you make the more pleased he will be. It’s a peculiarly American conceit to equate the two, and Dreiser was among the first to identify and then dissect it. For obvious reasons he isn’t impressed, yet in An American Tragedy he gives Clyde, his Everyman, a poor, chaste background as the child of penniless and itinerant preachers, people who believe that doing God’s work is more important than making man’s money. Partly that’s because Chester Gillette, who is the model for Clyde, was raised that way and because Dreiser wants to contrast the easy, high living of the upstate New York rich with the low-down poverty of Clyde’s early years. There’s nothing like poverty to explain a passion for money. But mostly it’s because Dreiser wants to examine the locus in the American psyche of this need for sanctity and what Howe called “illumination”.
Dreiser’s characters are romantics who behave as if the Absolute can be found, immaculately preserved, at the very summit of material power.
We still act that way, even more so. We seem to believe in an Manifest Destiny alright but it has less to do with ruling the world than with a sincere conviction that we can buy our way into Heaven if we just have enough gold. Only here has this complete reversal of nearly all religious theosophy taken deep root, so deep that there are whole sectors of the country where to question it is near blasphemous. As Dreiser foresaw, the symbolic richness of the American Dream has materialized into hard currency.
There are few, if any, American writers who understood the part our passion for money plays in Ameican lives the way Dreiser did. Sinclair Lewis perhaps comes closest but even he never really made the connection between wealth and religion that Dreiser nails to the wall, at least in part through the very outdated stylism that is the biggest criticism of his work.
There is something most critics – including Howe – miss about that style: it’s funny. In Book One, Dreiser uses the now-antiquated language of 19th century literature alright, but as much to make fun of it as because he has, as Howe puts it, “a weakness, all too common among the semieducated, for ‘elegant’ diction and antique rhetoric”. He uses it to establish a tone early on of irony and cutting satire as he describes the theology and pitfalls of Clyde’s early life. He is making fun of the Griffiths, has little use for their rigid piety and small minds. For instance, when describing the mission where Clyde and his family live he lists in their entirety the trite Biblical quotations Mrs Griffiths has chosen to adorn this grubby place : “O God, Thou knowest my foolishness, and my sins are not hid from thee. Psalms 69:5”. He dismisses them with a wave of his hand and a nearly audible raspberry.
These mighty adjurations were as silver and gold plate in a wall of dross.
The irony builds toward a feeling in the reader of the foolishness of all these characters – as their God, s/he can’t be fooled either by their pitiful notions of a “full life” or their sanctimonius “purity of heart” when that heart hides petty jealousies and a pathetic need to be holier than their neighbors. He seems to have an equal disdain for the dull and the charismatic boob. Ordinary insensitivity to the life and beauty around them is a subject of scorn, but it’s a friendly scorn, as if he were saying, “I’ve been there, too friend. I was just as dumb in my day as you’re being now.” This tone ends abruptly with the accident that climaxes the end of the first book. After that, things start to get serious.
But even in the more solemn Book Two, Dreiser is using the florid language of his youth to build a world, modern, yes, but still tied to the era that preceded it by its stuffiness and its immovable class structure. Though the language and grammar are excessively formal throughout the second book, the very opacity of it creates a sort of poetry all its own, the way a terrible, destructive fire is nevertheless beautiful from a safe distance. Though it is a decptive distance – one seems protected from the more flamboyant descriptions at first but in the end, one is drawn into it against one’s will and Clyde’s tragedy becomes ours.
When I was growing up there was much talk about the so-called “Great American Novel” which every fiction writer supposedly burned to create and that Norman Mailer was supposed to be working on every day of his life. Not even Mailer could write a book encompassing as much of the core of American life and beliefs as Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. Its theme are our themes, its characters could come from nowhere else. It is us in almost all our glory, at least the whites. If An American Tragedy isn’t The Great American Novel, the only thing that could be is a work that combined it and Huck Finn. Until that is written, An American Tragedy is the closest we’re going to come.