- From Anticapitalist Polemic to Novel of SuccessReader Reception of Theodore Dreiser's The Financier in Soviet Successor States
"Русский Драйзер" - явление значительное и важное в нашем духовном мире. Книги великого американца читаются у нас по-прежнему с неослабным интересом, помогая нам понять Америку, мир, человека и доставляя высокое художественное наслаждение. Если попытаться выразить одним словом наше представление о Драйзере-художнике, то, пожалуй, трудно подобрать что-нибудь более удачное, чем название одного из его романов.—Титан
["Russian Dreiser" is a considerable phenomenon and important to our inner world The books of the great American are read by us as in the past with [End Page 75] unabated interest, helpingus to understand America, the world, humanity, and grantingloftyartistic pleasures. Ifone tries to express with one word our presentation of Dreiser the artist then it would likely be difficult to select something more apt than the title of one of his novels—'Titan ".](Kovalev 1987, 542–43)1
When Theodore Dreiser visited the Soviet Union for three months in 1927 and 1928, he met Soviet futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky at a dinner for distinguished writers. In his diary, Dreiser reports that Mayakovsky "remarked that I was the first American who admitted, after a short stay in Russia, that he did not have any definite impressions and conclusions; he said that usually after a few days in Moscow, they write whole books about the country, and seem to have learned everything" (1996, 112). It does seem to be expected that any American coming to Russia must walk away with a set of strong opinions. And by the end of his journey, Dreiser certainly had some. Dreiser Looks at Russia, the hastily compiled account of his observations on the "Great Experiment," was criticized by Soviet writers for its bourgeois naivete and by American scholars for its bad writing.2 Nevertheless, Dreiser remained connected to the Soviet cause, joining the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) in 1945, long after it was fashionable to do so, for the remainder of his lifetime. And readers in Soviet successor states have remained connected to his work.
Indeed, it appears that people from this region read Dreiser quite a bit more than Americans do. This became apparent to me during my second year of teaching in a liberal arts program in Moscow, run jointly between the New Economic School and the Higher School of Economics, two of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in Russia. During the fall semester of 2014, I gave students in my first-year writing course an assignment to analyze a creative work that had something to say about banking or finance. When I was going through proposals for this assignment, I came to one student who proposed to write about Dreiser's Financier (1911), the first book of his Trilogy of Desire, a fictionalized account of the life of post-Civil War financial mogul Charles Yerkes. I was excited about this but surprised, so I asked the student if he had ever read this book before, and he [End Page 76] said, "Of course. I'm reading the third book in the trilogy right now." I thought this achievement, representing over 1,500 pages of rather dense reading about financial malfeasance, was remarkable, and I congratulated myself on having such an extraordinary student. After all, I don't think I can name a single US acquaintance outside of the International Dreiser Society3 who has read The Financier, much less the entire trilogy. But I kept looking through the paper proposals and found that three additional students wanted to write about The Financier. This led to a series of conversations with Russian friends and colleagues, who informed me that this is just "one of those books you read." Members of various generations have told me about picking Dreiser's books up off their parents' bookshelves or getting a recommendation from a friend or family member. Reflecting, perhaps, the differences in reading culture between Russia and the United States, one of my students described picking up An American' Tragedy, weighing in at nearly 1,000 pages all by itself, at the age of 15 for some "light summer reading." My friend Oxana, who grew up and went to university during the Soviet period, speaks fondly of reading Dreiser along with John Steinbeck and Jack London—"basically all the guys who wrote how cruel is America and how people suffer."
Dreiser's politics—his lifelong anticapitalism and late membership in the CPUSA—help explain why he was a widely...