The society into which Edith Wharton was born was still, in the 1860’s, the predominant American aristocracy. Established in New York behind its plaster-cast of Washington, its Gibbon and its Hoppner, its Stuart and its Washington Irving, it was a snug and gracious world of gentlewomen and lawyers who stemmed in a direct line from the colonial aristocracy. Though it was republican by habit where its eighteenth century grandfathers had been revolutionary by necessity, it was still a colonial society, a society superbly indifferent to the tumultuous life of the frontier, supercilious in its breeding, complacent in its inherited wealth. It was a society so eminently contented with itself that it had long since become nerveless, for with its pictures, its “gentlemen’s libraries,” its possession of Fifth Avenue and Beacon Hill, its elaborate manners, its fine contempt for trade, it found authority in its own history and the meaning of life in its own conventions.
To a writer’s mind it was a museum world, delicately laid out on exhibition and impeccable in its sanctuary. To Edith Wharton that society gave a culture compounded equally of purity and snobbery. If no one soared above the conventions, only bounders sought to degrade them. Its gentility boasted no eagles of the spirit and suffered no fanatics. The young Edith Newbold Jones accepted it from the first, and admired its chivalry to the end. Its kindliness, its precision of taste, its amenability, were stamped on her. She was educated to a world where leisure ruled and good conversation was considered fundamental. Even in New York, a city already committed to a commercial destiny, ladies and gentlemen of the ancien regime gathered for elaborate luncheon parties. “Never talk about money,” her mother taught her, “and think about it as little as possible.” The acquisition of wealth had ceased to interest her class. They looked down not in fear, but with an amusement touched by repulsion, upon the bustling new world of frontiersmen who were grabbing the West, building its railroads, and bellowing down the stock exchange. The revolution in Edith Wharton’s world, characteristically a revolution of manners, came when the vulgarians of the new capitalism moved in upon Fifth Avenue. For to the aristocracy of New York, still occupying the seats of splendor in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, the quiet and shaded region just above Washington Square was the citadel of power. There one lived soundlessly and in impeccable taste, the years filtering through a thousand ceremonial dinners, whispering conspiracies, and mandarin gossip. One visited in one’s circle; one left one’s card; one read the works of Mr. Hawthorne, Mr. Irving, Mr. Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Even as an old woman Edith Wharton was to fill her autobiography with the fondled memory of the great dishes eaten in her childhood, the exquisite tattle, the elaborate service, the births and marriages and deaths of slim , patrician uncles and aunts and cousins bestriding time.
It was the way of a people, as its not too rebellious daughter described it in “The Age of Innocence,” “who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than ‘scenes,’ except the behavior of those who gave rise to them.” There were standards: the word “standard,” she confessed later, gave her the clue her writer’s mind needed to the world in which she was bred. Bad manners were the supreme offense; it would have been bad manners to speak bad English, to nag servants. Edith Wharton’s first literary effort, the work of her eleventh year, was a novel which began: ” ‘Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown?’ said Mrs. Tompkins. ‘If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing-room.’” Her mother returned it coldly, saying, “Drawing-rooms are always tidy.”
Edith Wharton became a writer not because she revolted against her native society, but because she was bored with it; and that restlessness of the spirit was a primary achievement in such a world as hers. Whatever its graciousness, its ancien regime sense of the past, and its mildewed chivalry, the gentility which a colonial culture must always impose with exaggerated fervor and weight excluded women from every function save the cultivation of the home. Its distrust of the creative intelligence was as profound and significant as its devotion to the appurtenances of culture and the domestic elevation of library-sets and vellum manuscripts. It worshiped literature as it worshiped ancestors, for the politeness of society; and if it distrusted the passions of literature, this was not because its taste was conscious and superior. It had not even that generous contempt for literature so marked in the boorish patronage of the arts by the industrial tycoons of the Gilded Age; it rejected what it could not understand because the creative Sim affronted its chill, thin soul. It had already become a lifeless class, rigidly and bitterly conservative, filling its days with the desire to keep hold, to sit tight, to say nothing bold, to keep away from innovation and scandal and restless minds. There was no air in it, nothing to elevate an intellectual spirit; even its pleasures had become entirely ceremonial. To judge it in the light of the new world of industrial capitalism was to discriminate against it, for it offered no possibilities of growth.
By becoming a writer Edith Wharton did discriminate against it; but in the effort she liberated only her judgment, never her desire. She became a writer because she wanted to live; it was her liberation. But what it was she wanted to live for as a writer, she did not know. Unlike her master, Henry James, she did not begin with the conviction of a rattier, the sense of craftsmanship and art; she did not even begin with that artist’s curiosity which mediates between cultures, that passionate interest in ideas and the world’s experience which stimulates and nourishes the energy of art. She asked only to be a Writer, to adopt a career and enjoy a freedom; she offered nothing in exchange.
Even Edith Wharton’s marriage, which might in other circumstances have liberated and matured her, tightened the shackles. Her husband, as she confessed with remarkable candor in her autobiography—and the intensity and poig-nance of that confession was itself significant in so formal and essentially trivial a record—was a conventional banker and sportsman of her own class, without the slightest interest in ideas and humiliatingly indifferent to her aspirations. Her greatest desire in youth had been to meet writers, not some particular master, but Writers; her marriage threw her into a life of impossible frivolity and dullness. It was a period in the middle ‘eighties when the younger generation of American aristocracy challenged the vulgar nouveaux riches by emulating its pleasures, but soon came to admire them; the aspirant young novelist who had been married off at twenty-three in peremptory aristocratic fashion now found herself dreaming of literary conquests amidst a distracting and exasperating round of luncheons, parties, yachting trips, and ballroom dinners. “The people around me were so indifferent to everything I really cared for,” she wrote in later life, “that complying with the tastes of others had become a habit, and it was only some years later, when I had written several books, that I finally rebelled, and pleaded for the right to something better.” In her earliest years her family had discouraged her; her husband and his friends now ridiculed her. They never spoke to her of her work save to disparage it; and the young society woman had now to endure the crowning humiliation of pursuing even spasmodically a career which her immediate circle thought disgraceful and ridiculous. Then her husband became ill, and remained so for a good many years. It was not a pleasant illness, and it diverted her from literature. Significantly enough, it was not until she was able to arrange for his care by others that she moved to Paris—her true home, as she always thought of it —where she lived until her death.
It is easy to say now that Edith Wharton’s great subject should have been the biography of her own class, for her education and training had given her alone in her literary generation the best access to it. But the very significance of that education was her inability to transcend and use it. Since she could do no other, she chose instead to write, in various forms and with unequal success, the one story she knew best, the story that constituted her basic experience—her own. Her great theme, like that of her friend Henry James, became the plight of the young and innocent in a world of greater intricacy than they were accustomed to. But where James was obsessed by the moral complexity of that theme and devoted his career to the evaluation and dramatization of opposing cultures, Edith Wharton specialized in tales of victimization. To James the emotional problems of his characters were the superficial expression of that larger world of speech, manners, and instinct—whose significance was psychological and universal. He saw his work as a body of problems that tested the novelist’s capacity for difficulty and responsibility. To Edith Wharton, whose very career as a novelist was the tenuous product of so many personal maladjustments, the novel became an involuted expression of self. She was too cultivated, too much the patrician all her days to vulgarize or even to simplify the obvious relations between her life and her work; she was too fastidious an artist even in her constricted sphere to yield to that obvious romanticism which fulfills itself in explicit confession. But fundamentally she had to fall back upon herself, since she was never, as she well knew, to rise above the personal difficulties that attended her career. She escaped the tedium and mediocrity to which her class had condemned her, but the very motivation of that escape was to become a great artist, to attain by the extension of her powers the liberation she needed as a woman; and a great artist, even a completely devoted artist, she never became. James, who gave her friendship, could encourage but not instruct her. Actually, it was not to become such a writer as he, but to become a writer, that she struggled; and what he had to give her—precision of motive, cultivation of taste, the sense of style—she possessed by disposition and training. James’s need of art was urgent, but its urgency was of the life of the spirit; Edith Wharton’s was desperate, and by a curious irony she escaped that excessive refinement and almost abstract mathematical passion for art that encumbered James. She could speak out plainly with a force he could never muster; and her own alienation and loneliness gave her a sympathy for erratic spirits and illicit emotions that was unique in its time. It has been forgotten how much Edith Wharton contributed to the plain-speaking traditions of American realism. Women wrote to her asking if she had known respectable women; Charles Eliot Norton even once warned her that “no great work of the imagination has ever been based on illicit passion.”
The greater consequence of Edith Wharton’s failure to fulfill herself in art was its deepening of her innate disposition to tragedy. She was conscious of that failure even when she was most successful, and in the gap between her resolution and her achievement she took recourse to a classical myth, the pursuing Eumenides who will not let Lily Bart— or Edith Wharton—rest. She was almost the only one in her generation to attain the sense of tragedy, even the sense of the world as pure evil, that found expression in the biting edge of her novels and the utter fatalism of their drama. “Life is the saddest thing,” she wrote once, “next to death,” and the very simplicity and purity of that knowledge set her off in a literary generation to whom morality signified the fervor of the muckrakers and for whom death as a philosophical issue had no meaning. Spiritually, indeed, Edith Wharton was possessed of resources so much finer than any contemporary writers could muster that even the few superior novelists of her time seem gross by comparison. It was a service, even though, like so many artistic services, it was an unconscious one, to talk the language of the soul at a time when the best energies in American prose were devoted to the complex new world of industrial capitalism.
Yet what a subject lay before Edith Wharton in that world, if only she had been able, or willing, to use it! Her class was dying slowly but not painfully, and it was passing on into another existence. To write that story she would have had to tell bluntly how her class had yielded to the novi homines of the Gilded Age, how it had sold itself joyfully, given over its houses, married off its acquiescent daughters, and in the end—like all bourgeois aristocracies—asserted itself in the new dominion of power under the old standard of family and caste. It would have been the immemorial tale of aristocrat and merchant in a capitalist society, their mating, their mutual accommodation, their reconciliation. Edith Wharton knew that story well enough; its significance had sundered the only world she knew, and its victims were to crowd her novels. The fastidious college lawyers who had scorned the methods of a Daniel Drew in the ‘seventies would do the work of a Carnegie in the ‘nineties; the Newport settled first by the Whartons and their kind was now to become the great summer-resort of the frontier-bred plutocracy; the New York that had crystallized around the houses and reputations of the Livingstons, the Crugers, the Schuylers, the Waltons, now gave room to the Vanderbilts whose family crest might properly have been the prow of a ferry-boat on a field gilded with Erie Railroad bonds and with the imperishable boast of its Commodore founder for a motto: “Law! What do I care about law? Hain’t I got the power?” So had the eighteenth century Dukes of Nottingham developed the mines on their hereditary estates; so would the seedy marquises of France under the Third Republic marry American sewing-machine heiresses. In William Dean Howells’s phrase, the archetype of the new era was “the man who has risen.” To tell that story as Edith Wharton might have told it would have involved the creation of a monumental tragicomedy, for was not the aristocracy from which she stemmed as fundamentally middle class as the rising tide of capitalists out of the West it was prepared to resist?
Edith Wharton knew well enough that one dynasty had succeeded another in American life; the consequences of that succession became the great subject of her best novels. But she was not so much interested in the accession of the new class as she was in the destruction of her own, in the eclipse of its finest spirits. Like Lily Bart, Ellen Olenska, Ralph Marvell, she too was one of its fine spirits; and she translated effortlessly and pointedly the difficulties of her own career into the difficulties of young aristocrats amidst a hostile and alien culture. It is the aristocrat yielding, the aristocrat suffering, who bestrides her best novels: the sensitive cultivated castaways who are either destroyed by their own class or tied by marriage or need to the vulgar nouveaux riches, Henry James could write of revolutionaries and nobility, painters and politicians, though all talked the Jamesian language at the same polysyllabic pitch; Edith Wharton’s imagination was dominated always by the fellow spirits of her youth. Though she had been hurt by her class and had made her career by escaping its fundamental obligations, she could not, despite all her fertile powers of invention, conceive of any character who was not either descended from that class or placed in some obvious and dramatic relation to it. At bottom she could love only those who, like herself, had undergone a profound alienation but were inextricably bound to native loyalties and taste. Indeed, their very weakness endeared them to her: to rise in the industrial-capitalist order was to succumb to its degradations. “Why do we call our generous ideas illusions, and the mean one truths?” cries Lawrence Selden in “The House of Mirth.” It was Edith Wharton’s stricken cry. She had accepted all the conditions of servitude to the vulgar new order save the obligation to respect its values. But it was in the very nature of things that she should rebel not by adopting a new set of values or interesting herself in a new society, but by resigning herself to soundless heroism. Thus she could read in the defeat of her characters the last proud affirmation of the caste quality. If failure was the destiny of superior men and women in the modern world, failure was the mark of spiritual victory. For that is what Edith Wharton’s sense of tragedy came to in the end: she could conceive of no society but her own, she could not live with what she had. Doom waited for the pure in heart; and it was better so.
Is not that the theme of “Ethan Frome” as well as of “The House of Mirth?” Ethan, like Lily Bart or Ralph Marvell, fails because he is spiritually superior and materially useless; he has been loyal to one set of values, one conception of happiness, but powerless before the obligations of his society. It was not a New England story that Edith Wharton wrote in “Ethan Frome.” She knew little of the New England common world, and perhaps cared even less; the story was begun as an exercise in French while she was living in Lenox, Massachusetts, and she wanted a simple frame and “simple” characters. The world of the Frome tragedy is spaceless. She never knew how the poor lived in Paris or London; she knew even less of how they lived in the New England villages where she spent an occasional summer. There is indeed nothing in any of her work, not even in the one notable story she wrote of people who work for a living, “The Bunner Sisters,” to indicate that she had any conception of the tensions and responsibilities of even the most genteel middle class poverty. Sympathy she possessed by the very impulse of her imagination, but it was a curious sympathy which assumed that if life in her own class was often dreary, the world “below” must be even more so. Whenever she wrote of that world, darkness and revulsion entered her work mechanically; she thought of the poor not as a class but as a condition, and the qualities she automatically ascribed to the poor—drab-ness, meanness, anguish—became another manifestation of the futility of human effort.
Edith Wharton was not confined to the lachrymose; she could hate, and hate hard, but the object of her hatred was the emerging new class of brokers and industrialists, the makers and promoters of the industrial era who were beginning to expropriate and supplant her own class. 1 She disliked them no less fiercely than did the rebellious novelists of the Progressive era—the Robert Herricks, the David Graham Phillipses, the Upton Sinclairs; but where these novelists saw in the brokers and industrialists a new and supreme condition in American society, Edith Wharton was merely offended. It is the grande dame, not the objective novelist, who speaks out in her caricatures of Rosedale and Undine Spragg. To the women of the new class she gave names like Looty Arlington and Indiana Frusk; to their native habitats, names like Pruneville, Neb., and Hallelujah, Mo. She had no conception of America as a unified and dynamic economy, or even as a single culture. There was old New York, the great house in Lenox (from which she gazed down upon Ethan Frome), and the sprawling wilderness that called itself the Middle West, a land of graceless manners, hoary jests, business men, and ridiculous provincial speech. It was condescension that evoked in her that crackling irony that lunges through her best novels like a live wire; it was the biting old dowager of American letters who snapped at her lower-class characters and insulted them so roundly that her very disgust was comic. As the world about her changed beyond all recognition, she ignored the parvenu altogether and sought refuge in nostalgia. Her social views, never too liberal or expansive, now solidified themselves into the traditional views of reaction. After 1920, when she had fulfilled her debt to the past with “The Age of Innocence,” she lost even that interest in the craft of fiction which had singled her out over the years; and with mechanical energy poured out a series of cheap novels which, with their tired and forlorn courtesy, their smooth rendering of the smooth problems of women’s magazine fiction, suggest that Edith Wharton exhausted herself periodically, and then finally, because she had so quickly exhausted the need that drove her to literature.
If it is curious to remember that she always suggested more distinction than she possessed, it is even more curious to see how the interests of the American novel have since passed her by. James has the recurrent power to excite the literary mind; Edith Wharton, who believed so passionately in the life of art that she staked her life upon it, remains not a great artist but an unusual American, one who brought the weight of her personal experience to bear upon a modern American literature to which she was spiritually alien.
The fortunes of literature often reverse the fortunes of life. The luxury that nourished Edith Wharton and gave her the opportunities of a gentlewoman cheated her as a novelist. It kept her from what was crucial to the world in which she lived; seeking its manners, she missed its passion. Theodore Dreiser had no such handicap to overcome. From the first he was so oppressed by suffering, by the spectacle of men struggling aimlessly and alone in society, that he was prepared to understand the very society that rejected him. The cruelty and squalor of the life to which he was born suggested the theme of existence; the pattern of American life was identified as the figure of destiny. It was life, it was immemorial, it was as palpable as hunger or the caprice of God. And Dreiser accepted it as the common victim of life accepts it, because he knows no other, because this one summons all his resources.
Winter, Dreiser wrote in his autobiography, has always given him a physical sense of suffering. “Any form of distress—a wretched, down-at-heels neighborhood, a poor farm, an asylum, a jail or an individual or group of individuals anywhere that seemed to be lacking in the means of subsistence or to be devoid of the normal comforts of life—was sufficient to set up in me thoughts and emotions which had a close kinship to actual and severe physical pain.” He grew up in the friendly Indiana country of the ‘eighties, in the very “Valley of Democracy” to be rhapsodized by Booth Tarkington and Meredith Nicholson; but he never shared its traditional happiness. His father, a crippled mill superintendent who was unable to provide for the family of fifteen, was a rigidly devout Catholic. The family separated periodically, the father going to Chicago to pick up work, the mother and younger children living in one small town after another. The bugaboo of social disapproval and scandal followed them insistently; at one time the mother kept a boarding-house and a sister furnished the village gossips with a first-rate scandal. The family poverty was such that the town prostitute, his brother Paul’s mistress, once sent them food and clothes, and even arranged for their removal to another city.
Dreiser grew up hating the shabby and threadbare rationale of the poor as only their sensitive sons learn to hate it; and he hated his father as much for his repellent narrowness of belief as for his improvidence, pitied his mother because she seemed so ineffectual in the face of disaster. The shining success in the family was his brother Paul, who became a popular vaudeville artist and composer. It was a painful, brooding boyhood, whose livid scars were to go into the first chapters of “An American Tragedy”; a boyhood touched by the lonely joys of wallowing in Ouida and “Tom Jones,” but seared by the perennial separations of the family and its grim and helpless decline. There was stamped upon Dreiser from the first a sense of the necessity, the brutal and clumsy dispensation of fate, that flowered in such a life. He hated something nameless, for nothing in his education had prepared him to select events and causes; he hated the paraphernalia of fate—ill luck, the shadowy and inscrutable pattern of things that ground effort in the dust. He did not rebel against it as one who knows what the evil is and how it may be destroyed; he was so overpowered by suffering that he came to see in it a universal principle.
As Dreiser wandered disconsolately through the ‘nineties, a reporter and magazine writer in New York and Chicago, St. Louis and Pittsburgh and Toledo, he began to read the pronouncements of nineteenth century mechanism in Darwin and Spencer, in Tyndall and Huxley. They gave him not a new insight but the authority to uphold what he had long suspected. They taught him to call a human life a “chemism,” but they did not teach him the chemical nature of life; they suggested that man was an “underling,” a particle of protoplasm on a minor planet whirling aimlessly in the solar system, which for such a mind as Dreiser’s was an excellent way of calling man what Dreiser had from his earliest days known man to be—a poor blind fool. The survival of the fittest was not a lesson in biology to be gathered in Darwin; it was the spectacle of the ‘nineties as Dreiser watched and brooded over it in the great industrial cities that had within the memory of a single generation transformed the American landscape. For whatever the middle class environment of his boyhood had given him, it was not its laissez-faire theology. Capitalism had denied the young Dreiser its prizes, but it had not blinded him to its deceptions. All about him in the convulsive ‘nineties, with their railroad strikes and Populist riots, Dreiser saw American society expanding as if to burst, wealth rising like mercury in the glass, the bitter shambles of revolt, the fight for power. While Robert Her-rick was peering anxiously through his academic window and Edith Wharton was tasting the pleasures of Rome and Paris; while David Graham Phillips was reporting the stale scandals of New York high society for Pulitzer and Frank Norris was eagerly devouring the history of California for “The Octopus,” Dreiser was walking the streets of Chicago, the dynamic, symbolic city which contained all that was aggressive and intoxicating in the new frontier world that lived for the mad pace of bull markets and the orgiastic joys of accumulation. He was not of that world, but he understood it. Who could resist the yearning to get rich, to scatter champagne, to live in lobster palaces, to sport the gaudy clothes of the new rich? It was easy enough for those who had made a religion of their desire; it was easier still for a poor young writer who had been so hurt by poverty and the poor that the call of power was the call of life.
What Dreiser learned from that world was that men on different levels of belief and custom were bound together in a single community of desire. It was not the plunder that excited him, the cheating and lying, the ruthlessness and the pious excuses; it was the obsession with the material. A subtler mind, or a less ambitious one, might have cackled in derision; but Dreiser was swept away by the sheer intensity of the passion for accumulation. In “The Titan” he was to introduce a staggering procession of Chicago buccaneers on ‘change with the same frowning, slow, heavy earnestness with which Abraham might have presented his flocks to God. He was fascinated by the spectacular career of Charles T. Yerkes, the most dazzling financier of his day, whose reckless energy and demoniac thirst for money spelled the highest ambition of his culture. Power had become not an instrument but a way of life. The self-conscious tycoons sat a little insecurely before their gold plate, their huge and obvious pictures, giggled perhaps in rare moments at their ostentatious and over-dressed wives; but to Dreiser they represented the common soul’s most passionate hopes made flesh. The symbols of power had become monumental, stocks and bonds blown feverishly into imitation French chateaux, the paraphernalia of yachts and conquerors’ trips to Europe.
These evidences of success were something Dreiser could neither approve nor disapprove. Secretly, perhaps, he may have admired them for taking the American dream out of the literary testaments and crowning it with a silk hat; but what caught him was the human impulse that stole through the worst show of greed and gave it as natural and simple a character as local pride or family affection. As he wrote the story of Frank Algernon Cowperwood (Yerkes himself) in “The Financier” and “The Titan,” his plan was to build by tireless research and monumental detail a record of the industrial-commercial ethic. Though both novels were published at the height of the Progressive agitation, they have nothing in common with the superficial distaste that ruled David Graham Phillips, or with the sensitive homilies of Robert Her-rick. For the Progressive novel of the Theodore Roosevelt era assumed as its first premise that the society it excoriated was a passing condition; the novelists of the muckraking era based their values either on the traditional individualism and amenity of an agricultural and small owner’s way of life (which was the ideal of the Progressive movement), or on the ideal society of socialism, as did London and Sinclair. Dreiser would neither tinker with that society nor reject it. It was the only society he knew, the only society he had been allowed to understand; it was rooted in the same rock with poverty and mischance, strength and valor; it was life in which, as he wrote, “nothing is proved, all is permitted.”
It was this very acceptance that gave him his strength. Since he could conceive of no other society, he lavished his whole spirit upon the spectacle of the present. Where the other novelists of his time saw the evils of capitalism in terms of political or economic causation, Dreiser saw only the hand of fate, Necessity was the sovereign principle. “We suffer for our temperaments, which we did not make, and for our weaknesses and lacks, which are no part of our willing or doing.” There was in nature “no such thing as the right to do, or the right not to do.” The strong went forward as their instinct compelled them to; the weak either perished or bore life as best they could. Courage was one man’s fortune and weakness another man’s incapacity.
In a lesser novelist this very dependence upon fate as a central idea might have been disastrous; it would have displayed not an all-encompassing intensity, but mere ignorance. It gave Dreiser his chance. He raised Cowperwood-Yerkes to the level of destiny, where another might have debased him below the level of society. Cowperwood becomes another Tamburlaine; and as one remembers not the cities that Tamburlaine sacked, but the character that drove him to conquest and the Oriental world that made that character possible, so one sees Cowperwood as the highest expression of the acquisitive society in which he rules so commandingly, His very spirit may seem repulsive; his ostentation, his multitudinous adulteries, his diabolism, his Gothic pile in Philadelphia and Renaissance palace in New York, merely a display of animalism. But we do not indict him for his ruthless-ness and cunning; we despise his rivals because they envy him the very brutality with which he destroys them. When Cowperwood slackens (it cannot be said that he ever fails), it is not because his jungle world has proved too much for him, but because it is not enough. He has exhausted it by despoiling it, as he has exhausted his wives, his partners, his friends, and the sycophantic ingenuity of the architects to the rich. One remembers that poignant episode in which Cowperwood confesses to Stephanie Platow that his hunger for life increases with age, but that men have begun to judge him at their own value. He must accept less from life because he has surged beyond its traditional limitations.
It was by a curious irony that Dreiser’s early career became the battleground of naturalism in America. He stumbled into the naturalist novel as he has stumbled through life. It is doubtful if he would have become a novelist if the fight for realism in American letters had not been won before he arrived on the scene; but when he did, he assumed as a matter of course that a tragic novel so indifferent to conventional shibboleths as “Sister Carrie” was possible. Frank Norris and Stephen Crane were naturalists because one had a theory of determinism plucked out of Zola to certify, and the other an ingrained dislike of human beings to express. Naturalism has been Dreiser’s instinctive response to life. He belongs with the great peasant novelists, like Hamsun and Maxim Gorky, who have found in the boundless freedom and unparalleled range of naturalism the only approximation of a life that is essentially brutal and disorderly. For naturalism has always been divided between those who know its drab environment from personal experience, to whom writing is always a form of autobiographical discourse, and those who employ it as a literary idea. The French naturalists, and even their early disciples in America, found in its clinical method, its climate of disillusion, their best answer to romantic emotion and the romantic ideal. Naturalism was the classicism of the nineteenth century. Flaubert, Zola, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris were all suckled in the romantic tradition; they turned to naturalism to disown romantic expansiveness, lavishness of color, and the inherent belief that man is capable of molding his own destiny. To a Flaubert and a Stephen Crane the design became all; it was the mark of fatality in human life rather than life as a seamless web of imponderable forces that interested them. Much as Pope proclaimed in “An Essay on Man” that
In human works, though laboured on with pain, A thousand movements scarce one purpose gain;
So Man, who here seems principal alone,
Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown . . . ,
so the classic naturalists furnished case-histories of suffering to describe the precise conditions under which, as a citizen of the urban industrial world, modern man plans his life, fumbles in the void, and dies.
What Dreiser gave to the cause of American naturalism was a unique contribution. By exploding in the face of the genteel traditions, “Sister Carrie” made possible a new frankness in the American novel. It performed its function in literary history by giving the “new” morality of the ‘nineties the example of solid expression; but it liberated that morality quite undeliberately. The young Dreiser, as John Chamberlain has put it, “had not been accepted by Puritan-commercial folk; therefore he was not loaded down in childhood with hampering theories of the correct way in which to live and act and write.” The same formless apprenticeship and labored self-education which kept him from the stakes of modern society shielded him from its restrictions. He had no desire to shock; he was not perhaps even conscious that he would shock the few people who read “Sister Carrie” in 1900 with consternation. It would never have occurred to Dreiser that in writing the story of Hurstwood’s decline he was sapping the foundations of the genteel. With his flash, his loud talk and fine linen, his rings and his animal intelligence, Hurstwood was such a man as Dreiser had seen over and again in Chicago. The sleek and high-powered man of affairs has always been Dreiser’s favorite hero. To tell his story was to match reality; and that reality Dreiser has known better than any other novelist of our time.
Dreiser’s craftsmanship has never been copied, as innumerable writers have copied from Stephen Crane or even from Jack London. There has been nothing one could copy. With his proverbial slovenliness, the barbarisms and incongruities whose notoriety has preceded him into history, the bad grammar, the breathless and painful clutching at words, the vocabulary dotted with “trig” and “artistic” that may sound like a salesman’s effort to impress, the outrageous solecisms that give his novels the flavor of sand, he has seemed the unique example of a writer who remains great malgre lui. It is by now an established part of our folklore that Theodore Dreiser lacks everything except genius.
Those who have celebrated him most still blush a little for him; he has become as much a symbol of a certain fundamental rawness in American life as Spanish villas on Main Street, and Billy Sunday. Yet by grudging complete homage to him, Americans have innocently revealed the nature of the genius that has moved them. As one thinks of his career, with its painful preparation for literature and its removal from any literary tradition, it seems remarkable not that he has been recognized slowly and dimly, but that he has been recognized at all.
Yet it is precisely because he has spoken for Americans with an emotion equivalent to their own emotion, in a speech as broken and blindly searching as common speech, that we have responded to him with the dawning realization that he is stronger than all the others of his time, and at the same time more poignant; greater than the world he has described, but as significant as the people in it. To have accepted America as he has accepted it, to immerse oneself in something one can neither escape nor relinquish, to yield to what has been true and to yearn over what has seemed inexorable, has been Dreiser’s fate and the secret of his victory.
An artist creates form out of what he needs; the function compels the form. Dreiser has been one of the great folk writers, as Homer, the author of “Piers Plowman,” and Whitman were folk writers—the spirits of simplicity who raise local man as they have known him to world citizenship because their love for him is their knowledge of him. “It was wonderful to discover America,” Dreiser said once, “but it would have been more wonderful to lose it.” No other writer has shared that bitterness, for no other has affirmed so doggedly that life, as America has symbolized it, is what life really is. He has had what only Whitman in all the history of the American imagination had before him—the desire to give voice to the Manifest Destiny of the spirit, to preserve and to fulfill the bitter patriotism of loving what one knows. All the rest have been appendages to fate.