The “Genius” is generally conceded to be the weakest of Theodore Dreiser’s major novels, but critical opinion differs as to whether it is a magnificent failure or simply a failure. Its weaknesses generally derive from the fact that Dreiser was too subjectively involved with his artistic protagonist to clarify his ideas. Although all of Dreiser’s writings contain many transcriptions of direct experience, The “Genius” chronicles traumatic events that were recent personal history. In many aspects, Eugene Witla’s artistic career closely parallels Dreiser’s own—impoverished youth, odd jobs, modest artistic success, nervous breakdown, restoration, financial success, monetary and professional collapse, and, finally, serious artistic endeavors. More important, in terms of Dreiser’s emotional identification with the story, is the fact that Eugene’s marriage to Angela Blue—with all of its consequent disappointments, frustrations, hostilities, and psychic damage—is a thinly disguised rendering of his own drawn-out, agonized marriage to Sallie White.
If the extreme subjectivity of The “Genius” weakens the book artistically, however, it also makes it a vital document to anyone interested in Dreiser’s life and works. The novel focuses on the tensions among three fundamental human elements: the urge to artistic creation, the sexual drive, and the corrupting influence of material success. For all of its complexity, inconsistency, redundancy, and confusion, at the center of The “Genius”—and what gives the novel its redeeming strength—is...
(The entire section is 658 words.)