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Dreiser and Veblen, Saboteurs of the Status Quo
Clare Virginia Eby. Dreiser and Veblen, Saboteurs of the Status Quo. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1998. xviii + 228 pp.
Clare Virginia Eby argues that placing the works of Theodore Dreiser and Thorstein Veblen "into dialogue" enhances our understanding of their similar subject matter and rhetorical strategies, their mutual interdisciplinarity and discursive hybridity, and their neglected importance in the history of United States cultural criticism. Eby suggests that Dreiser and Veblen share an institutionalist interpretation of social practices and conditions (especially those related to class and consumption in market capitalism) that is interdisciplinary in scope and method. This similarity is in part informed by the social science in Dreiser's fiction and the "literary" (or rhetorical) stylistics of Veblen's non-fiction, a mix that Eby identifies as an important element in the tradition of cultural criticism more broadly. [End Page 519]
Eby does address some key differences between Dreiser's and Veblen's stances on topics of mutual interest, such as their portrayal of the creativity and productivity of the businessperson (most of the emphasis here is on Veblen's The Theory of Business Enterprise and Dreiser's The Trilogy of Desire). However, most of the book focuses on similarities: first, their respective self-portrayals as confrontational iconoclasts who sought to "sabotage" the status quo of any number of economic, ethical, and even discursive conventions; second, the importance of Veblen's notions of "invidious comparison" and "pecuniary emulation" in Dreiser's Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy (although Eby does argue that Dreiser shifts in his stance in relation to Veblen's framework); and finally, their shared notions of gender, in which female "workmanship" (largely rendered as the "parental bent" of motherhood) offered an alternative to, and critique of, capitalist values.
The strength of Eby's book lies in breadth of research more than depth of analysis. Perhaps the most important contribution of this work is its range of reference to Veblen's and Dreiser's broad and diverse output, especially their minor and often overlooked works. Moreover, Eby indeed puts these authors into dialogue with each other on almost every page, so extensive and integrated are her references to the two authors, their ideas, and their own words. Also, the notes and bibliography are impressive and useful, especially for those who have an interest in Dreiser's work and its critical reception more generally. Finally, the book is always clearly written in a way that establishes familiarity with literary and cultural theory, without getting bogged down in the jargon that often goes with it.
Eby is less successful in demonstrating how either author sheds new light on the other, or in developing an argument about their joint significance. While she establishes in a convincing manner that they "match up" in important and numerous ways, the synthesis does not go far beyond the familiar assertion that these two authors were both deeply interested in, and critical of, turn-of-the-century American capitalism (although the distinction she makes between consumption and emulation in their writing is one important and largely overlooked point). Moreover, Eby is far more effective in tracing how Veblenian cultural criticism makes its way into Dreiser's fiction than she is in making a case that Veblen's style is significant for literary or rhetorical study. Although in [End Page 520] her introduction she affirms Max Lerner's billing of Veblen as an "epic novelist," Eby's analysis is mostly focused on how Veblen's ideas relate to Dreiser's fiction, rather than on, say, how narrative point of view is problematic in Veblen in a Dreiserian sort of way.
More importantly, Eby's argument that these authors can be usefully located in the tradition of United States cultural criticism fails to be very productive. This may be because she pursues the point only incidentally, even half-heartedly, and limits her analysis mostly to short, rather casual references to a loose constellation of topics related to...