THEODORE DREISER: CHIEF OF AMERICAN NATURALISTS*
Against this background of eager ferment and various propaganda stands Theodore Dreiser, who is of this changing world and yet apart from it: the most detached and keenly observant of all our writers, a huge figure of ungainly proportions-a heavy-footed peasant with unslaked curiosity and a boundless pity, who is determined to examine critically "this animal called man" and portray him truthfully. He tramps across fields straight to his objective, messing sadly the neat little beds of American convention, peering into the secret places that are marked "Not Open To The Public," keeping nothing hidden, ashamed of nothing, apologizing for nothing. Not since Walt Whitman has there been another such frank and detached projection of reality, such insistence that the world shall stop and consider those facts which convention has politely agreed to ignore. Naturally a great hue and cry of the Pharisees has been raised against him. The respectable middle class will have none of this peasant directness and brutal truth. He has entered our bourgeois society "murmurous of morality" with an alien philosophy, which he must defend. At every moment he feels under the necessity of assisting the truth as he sees it, and instead of suffering his portrayal to stand on its own feet he props it up with argument and interminable debate. The artist suffers at the hands of the disputant.
The Man and his Philosophy. Marked by an immense and open-eyed curiosity that ends in agnosticism. His anthropocentric conceptions:
I have lived now to my fortieth year and have seen a good deal of life. . . . But I am one of those curious persons who cannot make up their minds about anything. I read and read. . . . But I find that one history contradicts another, one philosopher drives out another. Essayists, in the main, point out flaws and paradoxes in the current conception of things, novelists, dramatists and biographers spread tales of endless disasters, or silly illusions concerning life, duty, opportunity and the like. And I sit here and read and read, when I have time, wondering.1
"Nothing is proved, all is permitted," he says in The Titan. Men will do what they think they can get away with. In briefest terms his philosophy may be phrased thus:
1. The world is without reason or meaning to us. Why we are, here and to what end is unknowable.
2. Men are chemical compounds, existing in a world where they play about like water-flies, skipping restlessly and unintelligently as their legs drive them, whom the universe in its vast indifference suffers for a time.
3- Men divide into the strong and the weak; not the good and the bad. The will to power, the desire for pleasure, drive men on their courses. What restrains? Moral codes and social conventions, often useful, often harmful.
A metaphysical idealism will always tell him that it is better to pre-serve a cleanly balance, and the storms of circumstance will teach him a noble stoicism. Beyond this there is nothing which can reasonably be imposed upon the conscience of man?
4. Hence the profound need of sympathy and mercy. Let no one underestimate the need of pity. We live in a stony universe whose hard, brilliant forces rage fiercely. From the prowling hunger of the Hyrcan tiger to the concentric grip of Arcturus and Canopus there is the same ruthless, sightless disregard of the individual and the minor thing. Life moves in an ordered hierarchy of forces of which the lesser is as nothing to the greater . . . And in the midst of the rip of desperate things-in odd crannies and chance flaws between forces-there spring and blossom these small flowers of sentiment. Tenderness! Mercy! Affection! Sorrow FOOTNOTE? ' The Hindus worship an image of pain. And well they may. It is a classic amid the painless, the indifferent-Nirvana. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy! No, no. Blessed are the merciful, for they create mercy. Of such is the kingdom of the ideal.3
His Attitude toward his Material. Dreiser possesses a vast and terrifying imagination. Like James Branch Cabell he broods over the plight of man in the universe. But he does not seek refuge in the ideal. He will confront things as they are. The very chemistry of decaying flesh fascinates him. It is a phenomenon of this impersonal and relentless universe. Compared with the realities of time and space and force-what is man and what are his puny efforts and ideals?
The damnable scheme of things which we call existence brings about conditions whereby whole masses suffer who have no cause to suffer, and . . . whole masses joy who have no cause for joy. . . . 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.4
His Objectivity. The larger view of life gives detachment. Only one who has emerged from the jungle can see the whole in broad perspective. In no other American writer, except Whitman, is such complete detachment achieved. His life is a long process of stripping away group illusions, of casting off group conventions. And for this the mass cannot forgive him, for the mass live in the strait-jacket of custom, thinking in no other terms than group or tribal terms, worshiping the communal idols, clinging to the tribal taboos. They cannot achieve individuality themselves and they hate Dreiser. It puts him outside the tribe, for the first law of the tribe is tribal-mindedness. Whoever is not of us is against us. Whoever questions the validity of the tribal sanctions is an enemy and must be destroyed. It is in vain that Dreiser asserts vehemently that he is telling the truth. Another version of the truth than the tribal version is not wanted.
The significance of Dreiser lies in the fact that he is an individual apart-one who has broken with the group and sits in judgment on the group sanctions. He is an anarchist who will be partisan to no taboos. This is a rare and perilous thing to do. He stands outside.
His Amoral Attitude. It is on this score that Dreiser stands condemned by our bourgeois censors. His amoral attitude is strangely metamorphosed into immorality. His indifference to the common preachments, his inability to accept Christian maxims, his refusal to do lip service to creeds-this is set down as evidence of vicious-ness, for ipso facto there can be no other moral standards than the tribal standards. What is Dreiser's justification? This, that in the physical universe he can discover no morality-no justice, mercy, pity, but everywhere great and indifferent force. And in society-in the instincts of men and in their hidden desires and secret acts -a disregard of conventional morality. Society is steeped in hypocrisy.
He saw no morals anywhere-nothing but moods, emotions, needs, greeds. People talked and talked, but they acted according to their necessities and desires.5
But in frankly revealing the hypocrisy of men Dreiser is no cynic. There is in him a profound morality-the morality of truth and pity and mercy. Let us not stone men for their sins but deal generously and kindly with them. What he protests against is superimposed codes. There is, for him, "in Nature, no such thing as the right to do, or the right not to do."6
But is there not social expediency? To which the individual for his own good should conform? Experience has taught men some excellent things.
His Work. Dreiser has given us full-length portraits of two women-Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt-and of two men-Eugene Witla and Frank Cowperwood. These constitute his major contribution and on them his reputation rests.* In addition there is Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub, a book of essays in which his philosophy is set forth, a naturalistic play, The Hand of the Potter-a study in pathology where the hand of the potter slipped-a book of travel, and some short stories. Of his four major characters the two women are passive and pliable, easily made victims of circumstance. Of the two men one-Eugene Witla-is weak, and the other-Frank Cowperwood-is the supreme example in American literature of the will to power.
The Financier and The Titan. A colossal study of the American business man, in two volumes of a total of 1332 pages. Compared with this all other studies are crude and unconvincing. Here the thing has been done once for all.
"These crude and greedy captains of finance had to be given some kind of literary embodiment, and Dreiser has hammered a raw epic out of their lives."7
Where did Dreiser get his intimate and detailed information concerning high finance? Where his knowledge of such a character? Out of his own powerful mind. Cowperwood a portrait of Charles Yerkes. Two periods: his Philadelphia life to 1873; his Chicago life to 1898. In both he molds circumstance to his advantage; in both he is caught by chance and fails.
The Man. Driven by three impulses: love power, love of women, love of art. There is in him a unity o character and an inevitability of development that are overwhelming. Dreiser does not judge, apologize, praise, or condemn; he is content to permit the character to develop. From first to last he is detached and objective. He presents Cowperwood as a magnificent physical and mental machine: a born fighter and leader, strong, alert, with a cool resourceful mind. A pronounced hardness that goes with strength -contempt for the weakling, impatience with the inefficient. In his sex passages there is no glamour of romance. They are direct and brutal-but more moral than glamorous. Nevertheless great personal charm-the magnetism of a virile mind and indomitable will. To men he is an inspiration, to women a fascination. And yet a frank egoist, self-centered, imperturbable.
The fate of the individualist: in pitting his will against life Cowperwood feared chance, which undid him in Philadelphia. But his very prevision, which carried him to triumph, brought his downfall. The many are stronger than the superman. And in the end, failure. Strength endures for so short a time and is so weak. Age, weakness, social forces-these undermine the strong. A vast irony. Cowperwood is punished not because he is evil but because he is a man.
Cowperwood's Philosophy. From his youth up life was a puzzle to him. Nothing was certain, for beyond and above all was a blind, irrational chance. Nevertheless within reasonable limits it was plain enough that strength and intelligence prevail. This lesson he first learned from the squib and the lobster, and it became his guiding principle. When chance had brought him within the shadow of the penitentiary, he summed it up:
It is a grim, bitter world we are all born into. . . . Who was to straighten out the matter of the unjust equipment with which most people began? Who was to give them strong minds in place of feeble ones, able bodies instead of wretched ones? Where were they to get pure-tendencies instead of impure ones, as the world looked on these things? . . . Some were sent into the world with a great lust and great ability for wealth like himself, a mind swift to see, a body strong to endure; and some were sent half equipped, almost shapeless and formless. . . . Strength and weakness-there lay the key, the answers
Stuart Sherman on Dreiser:
By eliminating distinctively human motives and making animal instincts the supreme factors in human life, Mr. Dreiser reduces the problem of the novelist to the lowest possible terms. . . . His philosophy quite excludes him from the field in which the great realist must work. He has deliberately rejected the novelist's supreme task-understanding and presenting the development of character; he has chosen only to illustrate the unrestricted flow of temperament. He has evaded the enterprise of representing human conduct; he has confined himself to representation of animal behavior.9
And the two novels he says are "like a club sandwich composed of slices of business, alternating with erotic episodes." It is true, but the failure is one of art that does not merge them. What would Sherman have? Shall these impulses be eliminated from literature, or from human nature itself?
1Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub, New York, 1920, p. t. 354.
2The Financier, New York, c. 1912, p. 250.
3Ibid., p. 409.
4Ibid., p. 479.
5The Financier, p. 432.
6Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub, p. 87.
*When this was written of course The American Tragedy, A Book about Myself, Dreiser's poems, Moods Cadenced and Declaimed, and his further books of travel had not been published.-Publisher.
7Randolph Bourne, History of a Literary Radical, p. 203.
8The Financier, p. 66o
9Stuart P. Sherman, On Contemporary Literature, New York, 1923, p. 94. In the syllabus Professor Parrington says: "The most intelligent estimates of Dreiser are in Randolph Bourne, History of a Literary Radical; H. L. Mencken, Prefaces; and Carl Van Doren, Contemporary American Novelists. All other commentators are stupid."