- Dreiser-Mencken Letters: The Correspondence of Theodore Dreiser and H. L. Mencken, 1907-1945, and: Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871-1907
In the forty-odd years since the death of Theodore Dreiser, most of the scholarly obligations inherent in the life and work of a major author have been fulfilled. Significant and full-length biographies and letter collections have appeared, as has a comprehensive bibliography, and most of Dreiser's important unpublished work has been edited and issued. (The one gap—if it is indeed a gap—is a modern critical edition of his work.) Dreiser scholarship has thus reached a common stage in the academic consideration of a writer of his stature. We are now, it seems, in a period of refinement and elaboration of earlier work—a period in which there is danger of unnecessary duplication of earlier efforts but also one in which new light can be shed on Dreiser's career and writing in the course of reconsiderations and recompilations.
Both Thomas Riggio's edition of the Dreiser-Mencken correspondence and Richard Lingeman's initial volume in a projected two-volume biography of Dreiser justify their going over old ground—Riggio handsomely, Lingeman with some qualification. Dreiser's most important letters to Mencken and Mencken's to Dreiser have of course long been available in the published collected letters of the two authors. The Dreiser-Mencken Letters, however, does not so much shadow these collections as play its own unique role. First, the volumes provide assurance to the scholarly user that the record is now complete—that in the over 1,200 letters now published (as against 238 previously published) nothing has been omitted because of the exigencies of space in a selected edition of an author's full range of correspondence. But more significantly, the letters of these two giants of early twentieth-century antiphilistine rambunctiousness are their own self-justification in the "story" it tells. The interplay of sometimes conflicting, sometimes shared ideas, of planned attacks on the "enemy," of flareups of temperament, and of misunderstandings is both a compelling personal document (somewhat like a play for two voices) and an important addition to our understanding of the era in which the two authors figured so prominently. And Riggio has not only edited the collection in exemplary fashion (one might quarrel only with the decision to preserve spelling errors) but has also provided in his introductions to the divisions of the collection a running commentary on the relationship of the two writers that is both informative and suggestive.
As for Dreiser biography, Robert Elias' early study, which concentrated on Dreiser's ideas and career, and W. A. Swanberg's lengthy work, which provided much new personal information, seemed to have preempted further major efforts for some time. But Lingeman, despite the occasional impression his writing produces of journalistic manipulation for effect, has also, in the end, shaped a biography with its own independent and useful character.
Although not an academic, Lingeman has written a thoroughly scholarly biography. He relies fully and in general with good sense on the broad range of research feeding into Dreiser biography, including a judicious use of the recently released Dreiser-Sallie White courtship letters of 1896-1898 and the manuscript versions of Dawn and Newspaper Days. This full absorption of recent research, when [End Page 235] combined with Lingeman's accuracy and completeness, should make his biography the authoritative work on Dreiser's life for a good many years to come. But it is also necessary to note that Lingeman is occasionally a more enthusiastic than critical user of the findings of others. His principal lapse in this regard is his complete acceptance, without an independent weighing of the evidence, of the version of the textual history of Sister Carrie contained in the Pennsylvania edition of the novel.