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The Making of A Novelist

ISSUE:  Spring 1988
Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871—1907. By Richard Lingeman. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. $22.95.

In this first volume of an announced two-volume biography, Richard Lingeman devotes 421 pages to tracing Theodore Dreiser’s life—from the author’s birth in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1871 to the republication of his first novel, Sister Carrie, in 1907. Earlier Dreiser biographers traversed the same 36-year span in little more than 100 pages. With so much ground remaining to be covered—Dreiser lived 38 more years and published 23 more books—Lingeman’s second volume threatens to become as bloated as Dreiser’s oldest brother Paul, the sentimental songwriter and glad-hander extraordinaire, who weighed well over 300 pounds at the zenith of his Broadway career. Despite the monumental bulk of his book, Lingeman should not be confused with the “laundry lister,” that common genus of American literary biographer who assumes that the intrinsic importance of his or her subject justifies the discussion of every scrap of documentary evidence. Unlike Carlos Baker’s Hemingway, Lawrence Thompson’s Frost, or Joseph Blotner’s Faulkner, to name only a few examples, the first volume of Lingeman’s Dreiser is not swollen with the detritus of a lifetime. As adept as a narrator as he is tireless as a researcher, Lingeman does not sacrifice readability for exhaustiveness. Except for the retelling of the plot of Sister Carrie, which goes on too long, Lingeman’s Dreiser is a superbly crafted tale, energetically told and full of interesting details and useful perceptions.

Perhaps the appropriate precedent for lingering long over a writer’s formative years is the late Paul Zweig’s biography of young Walt Whitman. In this much acclaimed study, subtitled The Making of a Poet, Zweig attempts to solve one of the abiding mysteries of American literature: how, as Raymond Nelson wrote in these pages, “Walter Whitman, Jr., radical journalist, small-time politico, and local character . . . became Walt Whitman and redefined many possibilities of American life.” The Dreiser question can be stated similarly: how Herman Theodore Dreiser, son of German immigrants, young man from the provinces, and enemy of the mot juste, became Theodore Dreiser and redefined the modern American novel. Like Zweig, Lingeman searches for an answer in the social and cultural history of 19th-century America. His meticulous portrait of Dreiser’s newspaper days in Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and New York gives us a rich view of journalistic and editorial practice during the 1890’s and the Progressive Era, and this welcome attention to context accounts for much of the book’s length. Lingeman, however, is more adept at narrating Dreiser’s “long foreground” than at explaining how it enabled him to emerge at the turn of the century as one of America’s foremost novelists. In Lingeman’s biography the historical Dreiser is well met, but his artistic genius still eludes us.

This privileging of narrative over analysis distinguishes Lingeman’s book from the best of the previous Dreiser biographies. The late Ellen Moers’ Two Dreisers (1969) remains unchallenged as the most psychologically acute and critically adventurous study of Dreiser’s life and art. Robert Penn Warren’s Homage to Theodore Dreiser (1971), written to commemorate the author’s centennial, renders most fully and clearly the paradoxical Dreiser, a born liar obsessed with the facts. The audience for these two earlier works is scholarly; Lingeman, by contrast, acknowledges that he writes with the general reader in mind. In this he most resembles W. A. Swanberg, whom Moers called Dreiser’s first “popular” biographer. Swanberg’s Dreiser (1965) is more concerned with the man than the writer and thus sheds almost no light on Dreiser’s puzzling transformation from hack journalist to ground-breaking novelist. For Swanberg, familiarity bred contempt. He came to loathe Dreiser and rarely missed a chance to scold his subject. Lingeman seems more comfortable with Theodore (he usually calls him by his first name) and is candid about Dreiser’s notorious shortcomings, especially his relentless womanizing. Still, Lingeman is not overly quick to condemn or exonerate, and this sympathy and judiciousness makes his biography a far better book than Swanberg’s.

Lingeman builds solidly on all these works, as well as on Dorothy Dudley’s hagiographic Dreiser and the Land of the Free (1932) and Robert Elias’ invaluable Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature (1949). His main sources of information and detail, however, are Dawn and A Book About Myself, his subject’s own autobiographies. Dreiser, like Whitman, was never an especially reliable witness to his own past, and Lingeman does well when he distances himself from the most persistent Dreiserian legends. Sarah Schänäb Dreiser, the novelist’s mother, does not appear here quite as untarnished as her son, a self-proclaimed “mother boy,” frequently pictured her, and the portrait of her husband Johann Paul Dreiser as religious crank and feckless businessman is softened considerably. Indeed Lingeman is more interested than earlier biographers in Dreiser and his father, and the result is a relationship almost as moving as the fictional one between Jennie and Old Gerhardt. Lingeman’s labors are not always so rewarding. He spends too much time overturning Dreiser’s claim that it was Mrs. Doubleday’s too tender sensibilities that caused her husband to suppress Sister Carrie—a myth long since exploded—and too little time exploring Dreiser’s relationship with Arthur Henry, the novelist’s spiritual soulmate and midwife to his first and arguably greatest book. Lingeman tells the story of their friendship well and in detail, but it is here that the biographer’s reluctance to psychoanalyze his subject is felt most strongly. Henry moved in with Dreiser soon after he married Sara Osborne White, and of his friend, Dreiser once said, “If he had been a girl, I would have married him.” At a moment like this, the reader wishes that for once Lingeman would put aside the scrupulousness that serves him so well elsewhere and invite Dreiser to lie down on the couch.

Lingeman contributes most significantly to what we know of Dreiser when he writes about the author’s relationship with Sara White. Nicknamed “Jug,” Sara was a gentle, quiet, auburn-haired woman, whom Dreiser admired while he escorted a group of prize-winning schoolteachers from St. Louis around the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Born in Danville, Missouri, the daughter of a prominent local politician and farmer, Jug attracted Dreiser because she represented the family stability that he lacked and the middle-class respectability that he desired. Their courtship and engagement was a protracted one, and when the morally conventional Jug repulsed Dreiser’s frequent sexual advances, he told her that, “Nature . . .[had] given him a cross of passion.” So advised, Jug finally wed Dreiser in 1898, and they stayed together, despite Dreiser’s constant philandering, until 1912, but in later years Dreiser characterized their marriage as one born not of love but duty. Using Dreiser’s love letters from 1896 through 1898, Lingeman shows this to be not entirely accurate. Though someone, probably Jug, expunged the most erotic passages, enough of Dreiser’s ardor remains in the letters to demonstrate that he was a passionate suitor, not merely a dutiful one.

Lingeman excels at this kind of fine-tuning of the historical record. Into his narrative he integrates gracefully most of the recent worthwhile Dreiser scholarship, much of it issuing in a more or less steady stream from the University of Pennsylvania’s Dreiser Edition. Especially important to him are the Pennsylvania Edition of Sister Carrie (1981), Thomas P. Riggio’s edition of Dreiser’s American diaries (1982), Richard W. Dowell’s edition of An Amateur Laborer (1983)— the autobiographical fragment in which Dreiser describes his experiences as a railroad worker in 1904—and T.D. Nostwich’s soon-to-be-published volume of Dreiser’s early journalism. All of this material (with the exception of Nostwich’s) was available to earlier biographers, but none of them used it as extensively and wisely as Lingeman. Everyone from Dudley to Warren, for instance, has at least commented on the curious collaboration among Dreiser, Jug, and Henry that produced Sister Carrie, but no one could narrate the novel’s compositional history as precisely and confidently as Lingeman, benefiting as he does from James L.W, West’s textual commentary in the Pennsylvania Edition. To someone involved in the Edition, as I am, Lingeman’s biography is heartening; I would like to believe that a small part of the reason for his achievement is that these materials have been made easily accessible. Lingeman’s Dreiser is an excellent example of what might be called a “synthetic” (rather than an interpretive) biography, a book that presents the most significant scholarship in an eminently readable narrative.

The latter half of Dreiser’s career poses much greater difficulties. Besides the problem of having to cram so much life and work into a single volume, Lingeman must confront a much fuller private and public record. Among the Dreiser papers at the Van Pelt Library at Penn, for instance, there is a mountain of correspondence and manuscripts, most of which have yet to be assimilated by Dreiser scholars. The extant versions of An American Tragedy alone, running to more than a million words, are enough to make a biographer—at least one as sensitive to Dreiser’s writing process as Lingeman—wring his hands. At the same time Lingeman will not have any autobiographical works to guide him in the way that Dawn and A Book About Myself led him through Dreiser’s early days. We can expect him to put to good use Riggio’s recently published Dreiser-Mencken Letters, which begins fortuitously in 1907 and ends on Dec.27, 1945, the day before Dreiser died, but there is little other scholarship from which to construct the Dreiser of the Depression and war years. Even Dreiser’s most tenacious biographers lose momentum once they reach 1925, the year An American Tragedy appeared. Left unsolved is the mystery of the political and intellectual gadfly, the older Dreiser who would embrace both communism and Quakerism before his death. Conventional wisdom has it that as a political thinker Dreiser was a crackpot (just as he is thought to be a rube as a stylist), but Lingeman will have to move beyond this cliché. To vindicate Dreiser as a social thinker he would do well to follow the example of Moers, who, in order to rehabilitate Dreiser as a scientific thinker, demonstrated his familiarity with the work of the psychiatrist A.A. Brill and the biologist Jacques Loeb. Another place to begin is F.O. Matthiessen’s Theodore Dreiser (1951). This slender volume is usually undervalued because Matthiessen had not finished revising it at the time of his suicide and because of Matthiessen’s own leftist politics (Lingeman’s liberal credentials as the executive editor of The Nation might have a similar effect on his second volume), but whatever its shortcomings, Matthiessen’s is the only book to take seriously Dreiser’s political activism.

Lingeman will doubtless not deliver a biography of Dreiser as psychologically probing as Cynthia Griffin Wolffs of Dickinson or as critically astute as Leon Edel’s of Henry James. Nevertheless, should he manage to write the story of the second half of Dreiser’s life as engagingly as he did the first, and at the same time make some sense of a man who was simultaneously an anti-Fascist and an anti-Semite, he will have accomplished more than enough.


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