- Theodore Dreiser and the Modernists
Although the younger writers after WWI must have had to engage with Theodore Dreiser, given his stature in the 1920s and 1930s, little serious thought has been paid to what influences he may have had on them. Instead, academic common sense, branding Dreiser as a naturalist and the postwar masters as modernists, has for a long time dictated that the generation gap and differences between them should receive most of the critical attention. Against the grain of conventional practice, however, this essay is an attempt to explore the ignored or even suppressed links between Dreiser and some of the most prominent modernists.
To be sure, if discontinuity rather than continuity is emphasized, such a situation might be regarded as no anomaly in particular. But what brings about excessive separations between writers is not limited to the Oedipal animosities among them, which Harold Bloom illustrates in The Anxiety of Influence. Vogues and tendencies in critical and academic discourse can also make such phenomena appear to exist. In order to underscore the modernity and innovation of the younger writers after the Great War and the Russian Revolution, literary critics promulgated the view that their severance from the prewar literature was thoroughgoing. This led to a skewed perspective on American literary history, relegating Dreiser to the limited stature of an outmoded writer after the 1920s, as if he were nothing but a prewar novelist. Dreiser, however, was far from lethargic even after the war, not only producing various kinds of writing as well as his most successful novel, An American Tragedy, but leading an active life as a social critic; thus he towered over the younger writers as a formidable competitor.
"The problem of literary derivation," Philip Young observes, setting about clarifying the "origins" of Hemingway's style in Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration, "is always difficult." He continues, [End Page 38]
Even if a writer should say that his books came to be what they are because he had read and been impressed by certain other books, or that he thinks what he thinks because of certain experiences he has had, we cannot be sure, and are suspicious about the finality of such statements. When on the other hand he submits no really clear claims about his origins, or makes contradictory ones, then the claims of anyone else become even more speculative than they might have been. And yet it is often possible, on the basis of certain facts, to speculate. … A writer is shaped, in one way or another and no matter how slightly, by everything that has ever happened to him; among the things that happen are the books he reads and the writers he has known.(173)
No one would dispute whether writers somewhat younger than Dreiser were indebted to him. Sinclair Lewis (b. 1885), for instance, exorbitantly eulogized Dreiser in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech of 1930: "Now to me, as to many other American writers, Dreiser, more than any other man, is marching alone. Usually unappreciated, often hounded, he has cleared the trail from Victorian Howellsian timidity and gentility in American fiction to honesty, boldness, and passion of life" (111–12). To Lewis as well as to Sherwood Anderson (b. 1876) and H. L. Mencken (b. 1880), to whom Dreiser could be regarded as an elder brother rather than as a father, his importance as an American novelist was unquestionable. The subsequent decline of those writers' reputations, however, may have been a factor in bringing about the trend in which Dreiser's work was considered as irrelevant to his younger cohorts.
While the prevalent scholarly view is that WWI generated a great divide between the prewar and the postwar writers, the continuance of the cultural transformation from the 1910s through the 1920s and the 1930s should not be obliterated, as Henry F. May, one of the earliest critics who pointed it out, argues in The End of American Innocence:
On the official surface [of the 1910s], it is true, reigns an almost intolerable placidity and complacency. Yet if one pokes through the surface almost anywhere, one finds the beginnings of the later revolution in nearly all its variety, excitement, and...