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  • One Crime, Two Pragmatisms:The Philosophical Context of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy
  • Gregory Phipps (bio)

Theodore Dreiser maintained that art and literature are more enduring than philosophy. For Dreiser, "Philosophies change with the variableness of fashions in dress." Thus, although "We can get some light from [John] Dewey and [William] James . . . we cannot afford to depend too much on these changing views" (Dreiser, Interviews 193). Dewey and James were founding figures in pragmatism, a uniquely American contribution to intellectual thought that emerged in the late nineteenth century and gained prominence in the early twentieth century. Dreiser's interwar writings articulate both the "light" that he derived from pragmatism and the inevitable elusiveness of conclusive philosophical ideas. Far from being glib or dismissive, Dreiser's approach to philosophy during this period actually expresses the "variableness" that defined pragmatism in the early twentieth century, as the movement entered a transitional stage that reflected large-scale material and cultural transformations in American society. Dreiser's engagement with the transitions in pragmatism unfolds across his interwar writings and becomes explicit in his 1925 novel An American Tragedy, a work which, as Dreiser himself emphasized, deals overtly with issues of American identity. When examining the ways in which Dreiser details a specifically American tragedy, the critical tradition generally has focused either on his portrayal of the social and economic climate of interwar America or on his adherence to the literary movement of naturalism.1 This article, on the other hand, focuses on the intellectual context of the period, examining the way Dreiser's novel brings to light a key transformative moment in the history of pragmatism. Part of the uniqueness of An American Tragedy resides in the way it illuminates a period of intellectual transition that philosophical criticism usually subsumes in larger systems of classification (namely the classificatory distinction between Old Pragmatism [End Page 214] and New Pragmatism). In doing so, An American Tragedy provides a picture of a kinetic and unstable relationship between the individual and society, undercutting predominant national narratives (especially the American Dream narrative) that represent this relationship as both benevolent and stable.

Charles Peirce, James, and Dewey set the foundations for pragmatism, with James's 1907 book Pragmatism serving as a manifesto. By 1925, however, pragmatism already had begun to demonstrate the "variableness" that, according to Dreiser, defines philosophy. In particular, Dewey reconstructed the movement in relation to major sociopolitical events of the early twentieth century, including the First World War and the rise of the mass democratic state (which he referred to as the "Great Society" in contrast to the "Great Community"—a democratic society founded on the aesthetic valorization of the individual). Critics usually have collapsed Dewey's work together with the writings of Peirce and James under the rubric of "Old Pragmatism," which refers to the first version of the philosophy that peaked in the 1920s and faded from the American intellectual scene following the so-called "linguistic turn" in the 1930s.2 The standard narrative of Old Pragmatism is based on a philosophical categorization that need not (and usually does not) take into account literature or sociopolitical events in America. But the process of classifying a philosophical system is always controversial, as the inherent changeability of philosophy not only subverts its central purpose—the acquisition of universal knowledge—but also ensures that even the most basic tenets of any school of thought remain fluid and elusive. Yet because this fluidity often reflects ongoing large-s cale changes within a particular society, the transformations of a philosophical system can find multiple and fruitful expressions in literary works, especially if the work emerges at a seminal moment in both the material and intellectual history of a nation. An American Tragedy is just such a work, serving both as a landmark novel in the American naturalist tradition and as the culmination of Dreiser's engagement with pragmatist thought.

Dreiser was a reader of William James and would, in time, publicly endorse the establishment of a third political party under the leadership of John Dewey.3 Fittingly, his evaluations of American intellectual and political culture follow a trajectory that parallels some of the central transitions in pragmatist thought. In...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6519
Print ISSN
1931-2555
Pages
pp. 214-235
Launched on MUSE
2014-02-26
Open Access
No
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