There are certain writers who, when you finish one of their novels, make you wish you could write like them.
There are others who, before you reach the end of their books, make you exclaim that you can write better than them—right now.
And then there is Theodore Dreiser, who does both.
Consider this sentence from An American Tragedy: “Quite everything of all this was being published in the papers each day.”
The throw-your-mother-off-the-train-a-kiss syntax, the use of thirteen words when ten would do, are typical Dreiser traits. Even H.L. Mencken, one of Dreiser’s biggest boosters, called this particular example “dreadful bilge.” And yet one plows through Dreiser’s works (with the possible exception of the first half of American Tragedy) at cruising speed, the way one pushes through a carnival midway or a casino lobby; assaulted by the grubbiness of it all, yet entranced by the spectacle of the thing.
Dreiser’s redeeming virtue was his ability to record, however clumsily, the life he saw before him as a newspaperman in St. Louis and Chicago. There he found people who, like him, had progressed from farms, small towns, and provincial cities of the Midwest to big urban centers. They were innocent but ambitious, and they improvised—that great American virtue—as they went along.
Dreiser was born in Terre Haute in 1871, the twelfth of thirteen children. He graduated from high school in Warsaw, Indiana, then attended Indiana University. He left after a year and was soon a reporter, first for the Chicago Globe, then for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
Ten years after dropping out of college Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie, was published. It received little notice and wasn’t widely promoted, as it was considered scandalous for its time. The heroine, Caroline “Sister Carrie” Meeber, is a young girl from the country who comes to Chicago and pursues fame and fortune ambitiously, like a plains-state Becky Sharp. She abandons the dull and somber atmosphere of her sister’s home to become the kept woman of a flashy man she meets on the train, but she is tricked into leaving him for another man, who abandons his wife and children and takes Carrie to New York. She eventually leaves him as he descends into self-pity, and she becomes a success on the New York stage.
Tame stuff that would get a PG-13 rating today, but at the time the tale confirmed rural America’s fear of the evil of the nation’s growing cities–jaded men waiting to take advantage of young women from the country. In Dreiser’s tale, however, it is the female who gets the better of the males. Contrary to what the moralists predicted as the end of all wayward girls, the fresh-faced innocent triumphs and the cynical man ends up in the gutter.
The turnabout that resulted in Sister Carrie’s ascension to the highest ranks of our literature—it has been called the greatest of all American urban novels—came despite the moral objections of bluenoses and against the better instincts of literary critics, who praised the work at the same time that they held their noses at the smell of Dreiser’s style. Arnold Bennett said “Dreiser simply does not know how to write, never did know, never wanted to know.” Other critics called his writing clumsy, awkward, and careless.
But after all the nitpicking was done, there remained the great, shapeless monstrosities that Dreiser created. He was, in Mencken’s words, an “unterrified craftsman” who didn’t aim for graceful English, but something higher (or lower, depending on your view): a work that lived and breathed, which anticipated slapdash modern painting and rambling album-length saxophone solos, and yet remained intelligible to read and awful to contemplate.
As a person, Dreiser evolved from the Warsaw High School boy to a Greenwich Village bohemian. His first marriage disintegrated when he became infatuated with a colleague’s teenage daughter; he had a romantic relationship with Kyra Markham, a much-younger painter and actress; he had an affair with a cousin, Helen Richardson, and eventually married her. His sex life with the last-named contained an element of sado-masochism, a feeling shared by some of his readers when they encountered sentences such as “The ‘death house’ in this particular prison was one of those crass erections and maintenances of human insensibility and stupidity principally for which no one particularly was really responsible.”
It hurts to read such stuff, but there is pleasure in the pain.