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Resources for American Literary Study 27.1 (2001) 139-142

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Book Review

Twelve Men

Twelve Men. By Theodore Dreiser. U of Pennsylvania Dreiser Edition. Edited by Robert Coltrane; Textual Editors, James L. W. West III and Lee Ann Draud; General Editor, Thomas P. Riggio. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1998. xiv + 441 pp. $45.

Twelve Men, containing sketches of men influential in Dreiser's life, is the latest volume in the ongoing University of Pennsylvania Dreiser Edition. It is a full-dress critical edition, complete with historical commentary, textual commentary, and textual apparatus, all of which allow readers to trace the evolution of the book from scattered journalistic sketches written and separately published between 1900 and 1907 to the finished product first published in 1919. While often admired, Twelve Men has received little critical attention, probably because of its ambiguous generic status. Thomas P. Riggio, general editor of the Pennsylvania Edition, writes in his preface, "These essays, which [Dreiser] called 'narratives,' combine the character sketch and autobiography within the framework of the short story." With Dreiser's own presence creating "counterpoint," the pieces have a "dual direction: outward to objective portraiture of character and place and inward to a portrait of Dreiser himself" (x). Thus, the edition not only provides a reliable text, but also opens unexplored avenues to an understanding and appreciation of Dreiser the man and artist.

As with earlier volumes in the Dreiser Edition, the text of the Pennsylvania Twelve Men has been established, in Riggio's words, "within the frame of current editorial theory" (xi). But current editorial theory is not monolithic, and previous volumes in the series have not won universal acceptance. Drawing upon the theory and practice of W. W. Greg and Fredson Bowers, editors of the Pennsylvania Sister Carrie (1981) and Jennie Gerhardt (1992) have taken as copy-text early manuscript versions presumably written before Dreiser gave in to pressure to make his work marketable and allowed the publication of what the Pennsylvania editors consider expurgated, collaborative works. The editors have restored many original readings and thousands of words cut at various stages of the publication process; the result for both novels is a radically new work, an "eclectic" edition that represents no single state that previously existed. Textual critics in the tradition of James Thorpe and Jerome McGann have considered the quest for a purely authorial text a species of quixotism; they argue that virtually all books are the result of collaborative effort and that to construct eclectic texts is to deny a work's historical reality.

The Pennsylvania Twelve Men will not raise such an objection. Compared to the immense problems posed by the thousands of changes in Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, the difficulties in establishing an authoritative text of Twelve Men are relatively minor. No complete prepublication version of the book exists, Dreiser revised or wrote all the sketches shortly before publication, and he never later revised them. Thus, the edition's copy-text, the 1919 Boni and Liveright first printing of the first edition, is the only logical choice. Collation of this printing against early versions of individual essays and against subsequent printings of the book have revealed a modest number of "verifiable errors" (425), necessitating only fifty-nine emendations of scattered transcription errors and of a few editorial corruptions in later printings. [End Page 139]

The resulting reliable text is accompanied by a wealth of background information. The historical commentary provides a history of composition, brief biographies of the twelve men, seven photographs, and historical notes. The textual commentary explains the edition's editorial principles, outlines the book's publication history, and provides several lists--of emendations (some explained in textual notes), of rejected changes made by Boni and Liveright, of Dreiser's revisions to earlier versions.

The most interesting part of the historical commentary is Robert Coltrane's defense of the craftsmanship of Dreiser's book. Twelve Men, Coltrane asserts, is a "unified work" that is "as carefully crafted as any of Dreiser's volumes of fiction" (362). He argues that Dreiser's "central theme" is "the question of how...


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pp. 139-142
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Archived 2001
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