- The Titan by Theodore Dreiser
"Sister Carrie all over again . . .": so wrote Theodore Dreiser to his friend the critic Albert Mordell on 6 March 1914 upon learning that, despite having signed a contract for his new novel, The Titan, with Harper and Brothers, the venerable firm was pulling the plug on its publication after printing 10,000 copies (Pizer 57). As is well known, Dreiser had suffered a similar embarrassment in 1900 when Frank Doubleday, of Doubleday, Page, and Company, blanching at the bold realism and frank treatment of then-taboo matters, such as sex and religion, effectively suppressed the publication of Dreiser's first novel and sent the author into a tailspin of depression from which it took him some time to recover and start writing again. Fourteen years did, however, make a difference. In 1900 Dreiser was a mostly unknown author with no literary leverage; in 1914, he was a respected writer, critic, editor, and observer of the American scene who had just had a creditable success with The Financier, also brought out by Harpers. And Dreiser had money in the bank; so, as he told Mordell, "my position happens to be by no means . . . insecure" (Pizer 57).
Yet Dreiser was still stunned by the turn of events and not immediately sure what caused it. Why Harpers took such dramatic and unexpected action is investigated in full detail by Roark Mulligan in the historical commentary accompanying Winchester University Press's new edition of The Titan, the second volume of Dreiser's "Trilogy of Desire" featuring Frank Algernon Cowperwood, a fictional turn-of-the-century financier who was based in part on the Chicago magnate Charles T. Yerkes. As with most things Dreiserian, the Harpers debacle makes for an interesting story. Although Dreiser at first supposed that the novel's realism was too "hard and uncompromising" (Riggio 1: 132), such a surmise did not make complete sense. After all, Harpers had earlier published the story of Cowperwood's origins and rise to power, a tale replete with all the trademarks of Dreiser's bleakly mechanistic view of man's desires and ambitions.
In truth, it was fear of libel that made Harpers play it safe, even as it made the printed copies and plates of the book available at cost to another publisher (it would turn out to be the British firm of John Lane, who was looking to expand its American offerings) and assured Dreiser that it remained interested in any future work. In his usual painstaking fashion, [End Page 251] Dreiser had done extensive research on his subject's public and private life (in the process compiling a staggering 435 pages of handwritten notes from holdings in Chicago's Newberry Library), which included Yerkes's affair with his ward and paramour Emilie Grigsby. By 1914, having inherited part of Yerkes's fortune, Grigsby had moved permanently to England and ingratiated herself into the royal household, where she was an intimate of George V's only daughter. She became well known as a society hostess and an intimate of the rich and famous. Grigsby appeared in Dreiser's novel as Berenice Fleming, Cowperwood's lover, and it was not a flattering portrait.
One publisher in particular, and a close friend of Grigsby, Mitchell Kennerly, objected vehemently to the image of Grigsby in the book ("cheap, slanderous, and sensational" [Riggio 1: 136]) and mounted a oneman crusade to keep any firm from publishing The Titan, although he later relented partly, allowing that he admired Dreiser as a writer but that he still thought that the novel should never be published in Grigsby's adopted country of England. (Lane did issue it in England the following year, 1915.)
The story behind Mulligan's editing of the text of the novel is no less interesting. We learn much about Dreiser's painstaking compositional process in the back matter to the volume. He composed the book rapidly and acceded to Harpers' editor Ripley Hitchcock's requests for deletion of cumbersome and sometimes irrelevant detail. Further cuts...