- Fiction:1900 to the 1930s
Scholars in early-20th-century American literature continue to find interesting if little-known authors to write about, ones whose work has fallen out of print or out of critical favor, often because they wrote for popular audiences, especially in middlebrow journals. The effort is part of an increased emphasis on authors who wrote for the working class and the role their politics have played in their inclusion in or absence from scholarship. The Harlem Renaissance continues to inspire impressive scholarship, focused particularly on modernist aesthetics and the influence of the movement on other writers.
Both the texts and the influence of Theodore Dreiser still receive serious attention. Stephen Brennan has edited Theodore Dreiser: A Documentary Volume in the Dictionary of Literary Biography series (Gale). Like all volumes in this series it is rich with quotations—from his novels, his journalism, his diaries, and his letters—as well as photographs and other contextual material. The volume, organized chronologically, features information on Dreiser’s family, including his very successful brother, Paul Dresser; his work as a journalist; his novels and the inspirations for them, especially the major novels Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy; his politics; and his fights with censors. This is a valuable book with a wealth of information. [End Page 265]
In Making the Archives Talk: New and Selected Essays in Bibliography, Editing, and Book History (Penn. State) James L. West III discusses the process of creating scholarly editions of novels, focusing on his experiences editing Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt and Sister Carrie and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. The editor becomes a biographer, examining “surviving notes, manuscripts, typescripts, proofs, and other evidence.” He discusses his editorial theories about issues such as fair copy, authorial intention, and the influences brought to bear on an author by family members, friends, and publishers. An especially interesting chapter focuses on editing the private papers of Dreiser and how to deal with grammatical and syntactical errors and—at the other extreme—his numerous sexual relationships.
Dreiser is seen as both inspiration and source for James Cain in Jason Puskar’s “Performing the Accident on Purpose: Theodore Dreiser and James Cain,” a chapter in Puskar’s Accident Society. Cain’s Double Indemnity, a novel about falsified accidents, with an actuary as the hero, is indebted to An American Tragedy in its use of actual criminal cases as sources and its employment of chance to disguise murder. Chance in both texts, as in Cain’s earlier novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is neither spontaneous nor innocent. These novels are read through the rising trade in personal injury fraud during the New Deal, representing a social pathology in a troubled time.
Laura Hapke’s “Red Scares, Ethnicity, and the Jungle of Working-Class Desire in the 1920s Novels of Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair,” pp. 97–106 in Renate von Bardeleben, ed., American Multiculturalism and Ethnic Survival (Peter Lang), examines Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and Sinclair’s Boston, both based on court cases involving working-class men accused of murder. Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy is obsessed with class and, although a victim of the ideologies associated with it, identifies with the upper-class aggressors, unlike Sacco and Vanzetti in Boston who have strong socialist beliefs. Both novels are critical of the paternalism of 1920s factories and “embody the dominant culture’s thinking on the perils of unseemly workingclass desire.”
Gina M. Rossetti offers romance as an instrument of social examination in “Turning the Corner: Romance as Economic Critique in Norris’s Trilogy of Wheat and Du Bois’s The Quest of the Silver Fleece” (StAN 7: 39–49). The romance genre “reveals how the forms and objects of commerce invade social relationships and determine human agency, thereby [End Page 266] aligning itself with naturalism’s focus on the material forces that degrade and demean human relationships.” Norris’s The Pit in particular shows how business invades the domestic sphere, degrading social relationships. W. E. B. Du Bois’s novel ends on a somewhat more optimistic note, because the romance uplifts the race as well as redeeming a woman...