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REVIEWS Hussman, Lawrence E., Jr. Dreiser and His Fiction: A Twentieth-Century Quest. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. 215 pp. Cloth: $22.50. Some critical studies are wrong-headed from the start, and Lawrence E. Hussman's account of Theodore Dreiser's "spiritual growth," as found in his fiction from Sister Carrie to The Stoic, is an excellent example of the kind. Hussman's premises are that Dreiser's career as a novelist reflects his hard-earned and triumphant progress toward spiritual and religious affirmation, and that critics, in their preoccupation with his naturalism, have neglected and under-valued this aspect of his thought and work. Wrong on both accounts. There has been, since the late 1930s, a large number of Dreiser critics, led by Eliseo Vivas, Roger Asselineau, and Charles C. Walcutt, who have stressed the powerful element of transcendental religiosity in all of Dreiser's work and who have studied in detail the late "explosion" of this area of his thought in The Bulwark and The Stoic. The principal direction of these and other major accounts of Dreiser's work has been not to deny the poignancy and significance of Dreiser's late "conversion" to Quakerism and Hinduism as revealed in The Bulwark and The Stoic but rather to emphasize—as Hussman's does not—that these are among his weakest novels. In short, the experience of almost all readers of Dreiser's fiction as a whole is that any notion of his career based on a belief that he "progressed" toward his final work is inherently suspect. Given his stress on Dreiser's final ideas, Hussman wants to view all of his fiction as a "quest" toward affirmative values. This distorting critical lens leads him to the same kind of mis-emphasis in dealing with Dreiser's early work as would be found in an effort to interpret William Faulkner's great novels of the 1930s as confused and tentative expressions of the allegorical religiosity of A Fable. So, for example, in order to claim a positive spiritual center to An American Tragedy, Hussman states that the "primary message" of the novel is a critique of materialistic capitalism as exemplified by Samuel Griffiths. But surely, though Dreiser's contempt for the Lycurgus Griffiths is manifestly evident, An American Tragedy wishes above all to engage us not in a "message" about materialism but in a sympathetic understanding of the tragic fate of a young man crushed by a world he so desperately and passionately desires. And so, as another example of the effect of Hussman's distorting lens, he finds the great novels before The Bulwark—Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt and An American Tragedy—"curiously contradictory, for they are simultaneously deterministic and humanistic," while he also notes that "whatever the aesthetic merits of The Bulwark, Dreiser achieved both an intellectual consistency and a moral toughness which his previous fiction never approached." The underlying drift of these and many similar comments is clear enough. The major and permanent work of Dreiser is somehow lacking because it is not fully uplifting; the later testaments of belief, whatever their "aesthetic merits," are somehow better because they are testaments of belief. The fundamental weakness of Hussman's approach to Dreiser is that he wants it both ways. As a biographical critic and as a historian of ideas, he examines Dreiser's changing beliefs and finds progress. As a literary critic, though ostensibly accepting the received estimate of Dreiser's novels which finds the early work superior to the later, he constantly intimates that fiction which is positive in its religious values is better than fiction which is negative or ambivalent. In brief, Hussman writes out of a moralist stance which Dreiser himself, for most of his career, held to be anathema. Indeed, one wonders if even the late Dreiser would have approved of a critical method which examines his fiction largely by reference to each novel's spiritual temperature. Newcomb College, Tulane UniversityDonald Pizer ...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
p. 235
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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