Biography Captures Pathos Of Dreiser's Final Decades

October 28, 1990|By VINCE FITZPATRICK

Theodore Dreiser: an American Journey,

1908-1945 (Volume II).

Richard Lingeman.


544 pages. $39.95.

"These are the things I want to write about," Theodore Dreiser declared early in his career, "life as it is, the facts as they exist, the game as it is played." For more than 40 years, through millions of words published in a variety of forums, he told the harsh truth exactly as he saw it. This got him into trouble.

He struggled so that American authors could discuss the subjects of their choice in the language that best suited their ends. He insisted that literature be judged upon its artistic merit rather than upon its moral propriety. These efforts as a literary pioneer came at huge personal cost. Sherwood Anderson called Dreiser "the bravest man who ever lived in our times."

In "Sister Carrie" (1900), Dreiser dared to suggest that the wages of sin are financial reward, and the book's hostile reception drove him nearly to suicide. Timid editors bowdlerized his prose, and he battled with the censors, those guardians of public virtue whom his friend H. L. Mencken sardonically dubbed "smut-hounds" and "snouters."

During World War I, this son of a German immigrant was bludgeoned by jingoistic critics who wrapped themselves in the flag. During the latter part of his career, Dreiser was investigated by the FBI for his radical politics. One of the most visible members of America's adversary culture, Dreiser was, to borrow Richard Lingeman's apt image, "ever tacking against the wind."

"Theodore Dreiser: an American Journey" marks the second and final volume of this impressive critical biography by Mr. Lingeman, the executive editor of The Nation. Treating Dreiser's life and work concurrently, Mr. Lingeman scrupulously steers a middle course between hagiography and debunking. This biography is more comprehensive than its predecessors and the exhaustive research never clots the narrative.

"Theodore Dreiser: at the Gates of the City" (1986) carries the novelist up to 1907. The present volume opens with Dreiser, at age 37, editing a fashion magazine. (He had to make a living somehow.) Mr. Lingeman chronicles Dreiser's return to fiction with"Jennie Gerhardt" and the first two volumes of Cowperwood's "Trilogy of Desire."

RTC In 1920, while he was living in Hollywood, way out there at the end of Walt Whitman's open road among the palm trees and the movie stars, Dreiser began "An American Tragedy." The original manuscript ran to about a million words. With a sympathy never degenerating into sentimentality, Dreiser detailed the futile struggles of Clyde Griffiths, the American Everyman. His finest work and one of the most significant American novels, the book was a huge financial and critical success.

After the stock market crash in October 1929, Dreiser slid to the left politically. "The time is ripe for American intellectuals," he announced, "to render some service to the American worker." He supported striking miners in Kentucky, decried racism after the arrest of the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama, and went to Spain, where he championed the Republicans. In 1945, the year of his death, he joined the Communist Party.

Those sympathetic to Dreiser applauded what they saw as increased political awareness. Others (Mencken, for example), argued that Dreiser had foolishly turned away from his true calling as a writer of realistic fiction,that his strong emotions generated only harangues, and that he had lost his way in the maze of radical rhetoric.

Thoroughly informed about American political and social history, Lingeman deftly winds his way among the charges and countercharges. Moreover, he captures the pathos amid the sound and fury of these final decades. With his reputation in eclipse but stubbornly seeking the publication of a collected edition of his work, Dreiser "was like Willy Loman, dragging a sample case of old books from one publisher to another."

As the biography's subtitle states, Dreiser's career was a peculiarly "American journey." He rose from poverty and ignorance, essentially taught himself, and emerged victorious from that proverbial school of hard knocks. He also struggled, as the great majority of American writers have, to make a decent living from his work.

His time and energy were dissipated as he struggled with the moralists, self-appointed and otherwise, who were convinced that they had the right to censor the arts and dictate public taste. Dreiser accomplished a great deal, but most of his victories were temporary. His career demonstrates a sad fact of life: Despite the best efforts of enlightened people, Puritanism, with its fear of joy and contempt for candor, remains embedded in the American consciousness.

Finally, Mr. Lingeman offers the spiritual biography of a major American author. Dreiser grew up during the Gilded Age and as a young novelist drew American society as a jungle. The strong and the quick survive; the weak and slow perish. Although he expressed sympathy for life's victims, he believed that inequality was generated by natural law, which could never be changed.

The older Dreiser, on the other hand, renounced Darwin and Herbert Spencer and became an egalitarian. Heart triumphed over head. He felt that life should be fair and concluded that equality could be achieved through a curious mixture of radical politics and religion. Dreiser the Communist believed that "the true religion is in Matthew." For better or for worse, Dreiser's metamorphosis from tiger to lamb, his voyage from skepticism to belief, indeed marks a distinctively "American journey."

Mr. Fitzpatrick is the author of "H. L. Mencken" and co-author of "The Complete Sentence Workout Book."

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