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SHERWOOD ANDERSON and H. L. Mencken pound the desk with defiant Middlewestern fists. There is none like Dreiser--a Gulliver among literary Lilliputians! they bellow. Everyone must take a week's vacation and read "An American Tragedy"; nothing short of a colossal achievement. Simultaneously other critics of an equal eminence rise in anger from their wrath on the labored, Teutonic, Kolossal opus. Written over a period over ten years, this novel, hurriedly completed in a few months, scarcely re-touched, and condensed not at all, has been published in a rough, raw, dull, and barbaric fulsomeness. Let us regurgitate, they howl in chorus, Dreiser and all his works once and forever. He knows nothing, utterly nothing of art. He is an offense in the sight of Heaven; his sloppy writing emanates from the vaporings of a tawdry, baudy, second-rate mind. Even a dog would not, in the Biblical phrase, return to such vomit.
In the meantime, Dreiser's publishers blare forth with sensational advertisements; America's foremost living novelist, as they declare him to be, has written "with the artist's loftiest vision" a tremendous book. Somewhere in all this welter, it seems to me, must be a kernel of truth. Perhaps it is in the significant fact that "An American Tragedy" is being far from phenomenally sought by the book-buying public.
But let us not take either the Anderson-Mencken school or their antagonists too seriously. As Voltaire once phrased it, "let us keep to the middle of the garden path"; but not too strictly, for it is rather pleasant to walk on the controversial borders. And while we are about it, let us ape Mr. Sherwood Anderson's jerky unpremeditated style with about the same degree of accuracy that Dreiser displays in his grammar.
"An American Tragedy"--what a book what a needlessly long tour-de-force. And we don't mean maybe! Mr. Dreiser, laborious hind of realism, was disgusted by the sickly romantic breed of best sellers. "Mein Gott!" he belched. (This was way back before Prohibition.) "I shall write a book--oh, such a book." He has. It gripes the romanticists, it wearies the amoral. Mr. Dreiser has forgotten nothing; he has taken a "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable" hero (the big gun, Willie Shakspere spouted all those adjectives) and put him through hours and hours of representative paces.
If you want to know how many thousand words it took--but, well, never mind. Guess a hundred, double it, multiply that by two, add an odd fifty for good measure and you'll be pretty near it. Oh yes, Dreiser wrote almost half a million. If anybody else and done it--but, of course, nobody would have--but if anybody else had, the publishers would have said, yawning. "Well, cut that in half, throw away half of that, re-write the remainder four times, looking sharply for split infinitives and dangling participles, and then perhaps, perhaps we shall take a chance on it."
But they didn't do that. Hell no! They let Mr. Dreiser, (Ted Dreiser, as some of his cronies playfully call him), spill a bib-full. And what a bib-full! His hero spent pages and pages in a brothel. Yes, boys, he tells you everything about a brothel. And what he doesn't tell you won't matter. But that's nothing! He can write just as much about other things. Sure he can. You forget Ted was a rewrite man for a New York paper. After the hero lets drown his pregnant sweetheart, not wife, whom he wanted to drown anyway, Dreiser gets legalistic and re-vamps a dusty case in the New York State murder archives. (Dean Pound of the Harvard Law School can tell you which). This is finale. Mr. Anderson is right when he suggests taking a week's vacation.
But lest some goggle-eyed callow youth still think that the reading of this travesty of a tragedy is all play and no work let him take into consideration the acute banality of the story. THE SATURDAY REVIEW OF LITERATURE epitomizes the novel as follows:
"A weak, ineffective son of a futile family escapes from the flatness of their life by getting a job as "bellhop" in a hotel. He is good-looking and of a pleasing modesty--his only virtues--and his "personality," as they say in business, brings in easy money and speedy opportunities for mild vice. A rich, but otherwise negligible, uncle gives him a minor executive position in a collar factory. He seduces a girl in his department and a little later is dazzled and attracted by a flapper of the smart local world who being weak in mind and character and susceptible to good looks, wants to marry him. In order to rid himself of girl number one, who is about to have a child he plans what will seem to be an accidental drowning in a lonely lake. He loses his nerve at the last moment but the boat is overturned by accident and he lets the girl drown. Arrested, he goes though the interminable murder trial full of chicanery and sentiment which is the delight of the American press. He is convicted, and spends his last days trying to understand why he did it, trying to decide whether he was really guilty but finding no clear answer. A poor thing he lived, a poor thing he died.
"This is the plot of Theodore Dreiser's 'An American Tragedy' in two volumes, a work occasionally poignant, occasionally intense in its realism, often deadly dull, usually a monotonous narative of everything that happened in the course of Clyde Griffiths' short, worthless, and almost meaningless life."
To all of which let us chant an antiphonal amen. And continue. For continue we must, now that Dreiser has given us the big rhythm. But perhaps we are hitting our man too many times on the same blood-clot. Nevertheless we remember that there have been in years a gone double-decker novels whose power increased with their size. Knut Hamsun's Growth of the Soil" was such a one; it captured a dinky little Nobel Prize or something of the sort. Then there was Fielding's "Tom Jones"--pretty good for an old-timer, what?
But while Dreiser's sincere plodding and plodding sincerity irks us about as much as over-sophisticated brevity, we do not find it necessary to retire to the bush and there pounding a big tribal drum, gather cohorts to slay the Emperor Jones of American literature. We are not fanatical about Dreiser. As far as we are concerned, he can make his way through any jungle of Lethiopian illiteracy without wasting his silver bullet. All we care to do is to leap out on him at an unguarded moment and make him fire off one of his lead slugs in vain. And here is the little surprise we have been saving. Dreiser plumbered the works when he set out to describe a young man's emotions. He forget that even the most characterless youths have shibboleths to break, ideals to leave behind new paths of iniquity to enter upon with misgiving. Dreiser forgot the psychological and biological metamorphoses of youth; he failed to recall the kaleidoscopic fluctuations even of adolescence. And hence his vapid characterless lad assumed thanks to his consistent characterlessness, a firmness of character quite unbelievable. He is as paradoxically impossible a specimen as it is possible to have.
And here let us leave Mr. Dreiser. He has not written a great book nor a significantly vile book. He has tumbled from the pedestal upon which his cultists have placed him with such genuflections and censoring of incense. He has written a great stupid opus. He has disastrously damaged what real claims to distinction he may once have had. And while we are not among those iconoclastic dervishes who are dancing with delight over his downfall, we passionately convinced that his future will not be as rosy as his present is and his past has been.
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