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8 - Theodore Dreiser

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2012

Timothy Parrish
Affiliation:
Florida State University
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Summary

One of the most famous, though possibly apocryphal, conversations in American literary history took place between Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. According to legend, Fitzgerald remarked, “The rich are very different from you and me,” to which Hemingway replied, “Yes – they have more money.” Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) fuses those contradictory attitudes. Few have written more probingly about wealth than Dreiser, and his perspective ranges from awestruck to outraged. The power of his writing results from his completely understanding – and having lived – the most familiar iteration of the American Dream: a young man from a poor, socially marginal family transcends his origins by hard work and singular talent, leading ultimately to success and even, in Dreiser’s case, international celebrity. Dreiser is the consummate chronicler of that mythic American ascent narrative because he understands to his core the allure of money – while also providing unsurpassed critical analysis of it. Loving chronicler and fierce critic of the national obsession with wealth, Dreiser uses the quest for money to examine the meaning of America.

In a famous scene in Dreiser’s debut novel Sister Carrie (1900), the title character strolls down Broadway with her friend Mrs. Vance. A “showy parade” of people “going purposely to see and be seen” all wear “the latest they could afford.” Even the not-particularly-well-dressed “Carrie found herself stared at and ogled,” suggesting the close relationship between displaying what one owns and attracting the opposite sex (another important Dreiserian theme, to which we will return), a point magnified by her sensing around her a “heavy percentage of vice,” implying that prostitutes are strutting on Broadway along with the wealthy and the wanna-bes. Dreiser ends the chapter by swooping down from this wide-angled panorama to a close-up: Carrie “felt that she was not of it.” A sense of personal inadequacy reawakens her slumbering ambition: “She longed to feel the delight of parading here as an equal. Ah, then she would be happy!” Equality is determined by having enough money to exhibit oneself effectively.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2012

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References

Cassuto, Leonard and Eby, Clare Virginia, The Cambridge Companion to Theodore Dreiser, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fleissner, Jennifer, Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2004.Google Scholar
Howard, June, Form and History in American Literary Naturalism, Durham, N.C., Duke University Press, 1985.Google Scholar
Kaplan, Amy, The Social Construction of American Realism, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1988.Google Scholar
Michaels, Walter Benn, The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University California Press, 1987.Google Scholar
Pizer, Donald (ed.), Critical Essays on Theodore Dreiser, Boston, G. K. Hall, 1981.
Pizer, Donald (ed.), New Essays on Sister Carrie, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991.CrossRef
Dreiser, Theodore, Sister Carrie (New York, Signet Classic, 2000), pp. 298, 299Google Scholar
Veblen, Thorstein, The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York, Modern Library, 1934), p. 87Google Scholar
Dreiser, Theodore, “Some Aspects of Our National Character,” in Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub (New York, Boni and Liveright, 1920)Google Scholar
Dreiser, Theodore, An American Tragedy (New York, Signet Classic, 2000)Google Scholar
Dreiser, Theodore, “I Find the Real American Tragedy,” rpt. in Theodore Dreiser: A Selection of Uncollected Prose, ed. Donald Pizer (Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1977)Google Scholar
Dreiser’s emphasis. Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005) updates this American plot with a distinctive twist
Dreiser, Theodore, Jennie Gerhardt, ed. James L. W. West III (Dreiser Edition: Philadelphia, University Pennsylvania Press, 1992), p. 310, 312Google Scholar
Dreiser, Theodore, The Financier (New York, Meridian, 1995), pp. 8, 121Google Scholar
Dreiser, Theodore, The “Genius” (New York, Boni and Liveright, 1923), pp. 52, 734, 65Google Scholar
Dreiser, Theodore, “True Art Speaks Plainly,” Documents of Modern Literary Realism, ed. George Becker (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 154Google Scholar
Lewis, Sinclair, “The American Fear of Literature,” rpt. in The Man from Main Street, ed. Harry E. Maule and Melville H. Cane (New York, Pocket Books, 1953), pp. 7–8Google Scholar

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  • Theodore Dreiser
  • Edited by Timothy Parrish, Florida State University
  • Book: The Cambridge Companion to American Novelists
  • Online publication: 05 December 2012
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CCO9781139003780.009
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  • Theodore Dreiser
  • Edited by Timothy Parrish, Florida State University
  • Book: The Cambridge Companion to American Novelists
  • Online publication: 05 December 2012
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CCO9781139003780.009
Available formats
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Save book to Google Drive

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  • Theodore Dreiser
  • Edited by Timothy Parrish, Florida State University
  • Book: The Cambridge Companion to American Novelists
  • Online publication: 05 December 2012
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CCO9781139003780.009
Available formats
×