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Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Theodore Dreiser

Since his early days of journalism, Theodore Dreiser "began to observe a certain type of crime in the United States that proved very common. It seemed to spring from the fact that almost every young person was possessed of an ingrown ambition to be somebody financially and socially." Dreiser described this as a form of disease. He added that he observed "many forms of murder for money...the young ambitious lover of some poorer girl... for a more attractive girl with money or was not always possible to drop the first girl. What usually stood in the way was pregnancy."

This information inspired Dreiser's greatest novel, An American Tragedy (1925). The book was based on the Chester Gillette and Grace Brown murder case. One critic pointed out that the novel is a "story of a man struggling against social, economic, and environmental forces - as well as forces within himself - that slowly drown him in a tide of misfortune." It has been argued that the novel was an example of naturalism, an extreme form of realism, that had been inspired in part by the scientific determinism of Charles Darwin and the economic determinism of Karl Marx.

Thomas P. Riggio commented: "Although the novel was a critical and commercial success (in fact, Dreiser's only best-seller), he was not yet finished battling such literary vice crusaders as the Watch and Ward Society. The novel was banned in Boston, where the sale of the book led to a trial and an appeal that dragged on in the courts for years. This, however, was now an isolated instance. Dreiser seemed finally to have won over even his most severe critics, many of whom were now applauding the book as the Great American Novel."

In 1928 Dreiser wrote: "On thinking back over the books I have written, I can only say this has been my vision of life - life with its romance and cruelty, its pity and terror, its joys and anxiety, its peace and conflict. You may not like my vision but it is the only one that I have seen and felt, therefore, it is the only one I can give you." Dreiser, a socialist, wrote several non-fiction books on political issues. This included Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928) and Tragic America (1931).

Malcolm Cowley recalls that he attended a meeting in April 1931 that was addressed by Dreiser: "Dreiser stood behind a table and rapped on it with his knuckles. He unfolded a very large, very white linen handkerchief and began drawing it first through his left hand, then through his right hand, as if for reassurance of his worldly success. He mumbled something we couldn't catch and then launched into a prepared statement. Things were in a terrible state, he said, and what were we going to do about it? Nobody knew how many millions were unemployed, starving, hiding in their holes. The situation among the coal miners in Western Pennsylvania and in Harlan County, Kentucky, was a disgrace. The politicians from Hoover down and the big financiers had no idea of what was going on." Dreiser then went onto argue that "the time is ripe for American intellectuals to render some service to the American worker."

During the Great Depression Dreiser wrote: "I feel that the immense gulf between wealth and poverty in America and throughout the world should be narrowed. I feel the government should effect the welfare of all the people - not that of a given class." He became a member of the League of American Writers and was an active supporter of the Popular Front government during the Spanish Civil War.

As Thomas P. Riggio pointed out: "Dreiser wrote little fiction in the 1930s. He devoted much of himself to political activities. A partial list provides an idea of the range of his social interests: he fought for a fair trial for the Scottsboro Boys, young African Americans unfairly accused of rape in Alabama; he contributed considerable time to the broadly-based political and literary reforms sponsored by the American Writer's League; he spoke out against American imperialism abroad; he attacked the abuses of the financial corporations; he went to Kentucky's Harlan coal mines, as chairman of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, to publicize the wrongs suffered by the striking miners; he investigated the plight of tobacco farmers who were cheated by the large tobacco companies; he spoke on behalf of several antifascist organizations and attended an international peace conference in Paris; he became an advocate in America for aid to the victims of the Spanish Civil War."

Dreiser published America is Worth Saving (1941). Theodore Dreiser joined the American Communist Party in July 1945. He summed up his reasons for his decision: "Belief in the greatness and dignity of Man has been the guiding principle of my life and work. The logic of my life and work leads me therefore to apply for membership in the Community Party."

Theodore Dreiser died on 28th December 1945. Henry L. Mencken, who had been a great supporter of Dreiser during his lifetime argued: "No other American of his generation left so wide and handsome a mark upon the national letters. American writing, before and after his time, differed almost as much as biology before and after Darwin. He was a man of large originality, of profound feeling, and of unshakable courage. All of us who write are better off because he lived, worked, and hoped."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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