- Theodore Dreiser: Letters to Women. New Letters
Theodore Dreiser's lechery is fairly well known. While writing his biography, I found it a challenge to tell his entire story without ultimately boring my reader. For Dreiser never in his life settled down to one woman. He usually had two or three on any given string, women who were possibly more interested in what the famous author could do for their writing careers than they were with the man himself. "The trouble between us," the author of the recently published and highly acclaimed An American Tragedy told one of them, "springs in my mind at least from the firm conviction that your interest in me is somehow based more on a desire for mental & artistic recognition through me than it is on any innate, personal and . . . effective qualities which may characterize me." On the other hand, it must be noted that these women were more to him than simply sexual partners (though that was always important and even dwelled on rather graphically in letters, usually written years after the height of any particular affair). He talked to women when many men of his generation talked at them. He once said that no woman ever loved him [End Page 84] enough, except possibly his mother. He sought out that degree of intimacy in every woman with whom he had personal relations.
In fact, the idea of women, their physical allure, may have been the key that unlocked the Darwinian universe for Dreiser. Carrie is the reason for Hurstwood's fall in Sister Carrie (1900), and Sondra is the ostensible cause of Clyde's failure in An American Tragedy (1925). These victims of relentless concupiscence share the same "chemism," as Dreiser called it, with their creator. There are a number of letters in this collection to Thelma Cudlipp, the eighteen-year-old beauty that toppled Dreiser from a lucrative career as a magazine editor in 1910. This drama, which also broke up his first marriage, was recreated in The "Genius" (1915), leading to Dreiser's long battle with the censors. Learning nothing from his fictional libidinous characters, Dreiser pursued romantic affairs for himself into his seventies. He wasn't even slowed down (that much) by the expectation of prostate surgery, which he apparently never had. With all these extended activities, one would think that there would be Dreiser heirs abounding today, but according to Helen Richardson, his second wife, Dreiser was sterile.
This collection also contains hitherto unknown letters to Kirah Markham. It is not clear where they are housed, and they may have been in transition from a private to a public collection as this book went to press. Markham was possibly the only woman Dreiser truly loved. She was also one of the very few who ever left him (because of his failure to remain faithful to her). What is new to me is that they remained so personally close long after their time together. "Honey Sweet," he once asked her in 1913 when their flame still burned brightly, "what do you think of true love anyway? . . . If you married me would you truly expect it to endure . . . or do you think as I so often think there is no binding the artistic temperament?" There was never any danger that he would have married Markham or anybody else until his first wife, who steadfastly refused to give him a divorce, died in 1942. He married his second cousin, Helen Richardson, on 13 June 1944, with hardly more than a year left to live. He did it as quietly as possible, going under the name of Herman (his middle name) Dreiser. A day before the ceremony, he wrote another lover, "I miss you so intensely." [End Page 85]