Alexandria. Illinois hometown of Eugene Witla; a typical midwestern town of about ten thousand people. Although Eugene feels too ambitious to remain there, his character is irrevocably influenced by the tranquil beauty of the region and the conservative values of his God-fearing parents, friends, and neighbors. In Alexandria, as in every other place used in this novel, Theodore Dreiser describes Eugene’s surroundings in lavish detail to emphasize his hero’s impressionable nature and artistic sensitivity, which set him apart from ordinary people and make him feel an outsider everywhere.
Blackwood. Wisconsin hometown of Angela Blue, who becomes Eugene’s wife and remains the most important person in his life despite his womanizing. Angela, too, has been stamped by the traditional conservative values of small-town middle America, but in contrast to Eugene she never questions or revolts against them. The powerful moral influence of Blackwood and Alexandria forces Eugene to marry Angela, although he has strong misgivings about doing so from the beginning. Blackwood serves as an unchanging standard by which to measure the changes that take place in Eugene’s character as he and Angela return to visit her family. The townspeople remain the same, while Eugene realizes he has become both sophisticated and corrupted by exposure to the opportunities and hedonistic values of the big cities.
*Chicago. At first Eugene is most impressed by the raw ugliness of the mushrooming city, but he also admires it because it is vigorous, aggressive, and forward-looking, like himself. He achieves a measure of artistic fame by painting—not beautiful scenes to adorn the walls of bourgeois homes—but realistic scenes that emphasize the brutality and ugliness of a coldly commercial city indifferent to aesthetic values and the plight of its downtrodden underclass, yet possessing a barbaric beauty he can capture on canvas.
*Speonk. Long Island town about seventy-five miles from New York City. At about the midpoint in this autobiographical novel Eugene suffers a nervous breakdown, not unlike the one that Dreiser himself experienced. Eugene not only experiences poverty and failure but loses confidence in himself as an artist. In order to recover from his “neurasthenia” he decides to work at manual labor and ends up in a Speonk railroad shop. Hard labor and Eugene’s respect for the humble, honest men who do the world’s dirty work have a therapeutic influence that enables him to return to the struggle in New York City, where he loses himself in herculean toil for many years and achieves growing financial success and social recognition.
*New York City
*New York City. America’s biggest city was and remains the mecca for ambitious young Americans because it offers more opportunity for talent than any other city in the world. Because the city attracts so much talent and ambition, as well as greed, lust, chicanery, and criminality, it is also intensely cruel and competitive. Eugene is fatally attracted here like a moth to a flame. New York City gives him everything he thinks he wants. Eventually, however, it destroys him because his one fatal weakness—his foolish infatuation with beautiful young women—undermines his competitive drive and his instinct for self-preservation in a dog-eat-dog social and business environment.
While-a-Way. Luxurious mountain lodge in Quebec, Canada. Dreiser uses this place to symbolize the wealth, power, influence, and social connections of Mrs. Dale, who belongs to a social class to which Eugene hopelessly aspires to belong. Mrs. Dale spirits Suzanne to this remote lodge in a private railway car in order to get the headstrong girl away from Eugene’s influence. With great risk to his career, Eugene pursues Suzanne to this cold, remote...
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mountainside only to realize that she is beyond his reach. Just as Angela’s character has been irrevocably shaped by her small-town upbringing, so the character of Suzanne, the beautiful New York debutante who causes Eugene’s ruin, has been shaped by her privileged upper-class eastern environment.
As always, Dreiser was writing in elaborate detail about what he knew from painful personal experience. New York turns Eugene the artist into Eugene the big businessman. He is always conscious, however, of living a lie. He remains an artist at heart and can never change his true identity. New York gives him fortune but destroys his motivation to produce great art. In a very real sense, Eugene’s pilgrimage from his humble roots in Alexandria to success and failure in glamorous New York illustrates the truth of the ancient question: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”
Gerber, Philip L. Theodore Dreiser Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. Concludes that Dreiser while writing The “Genius” was too close to the work’s autobiographical elements (his own failing marriage and frustrating editorial work during the years 1898-1910) to shape a convincing story about his hero’s conflicting artistic, materialistic, and sexual desires.
Lundquist, James. Theodore Dreiser. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1974. Posits that in The “Genius” Dreiser begins to show an increased sympathy toward his characters, especially Witla, an artist struggling in a world that overvalues both material success and marital fidelity. Notes resemblances between Dreiser’s cityscapes and Everett Shinn’s paintings of the so-called Ashcan School.
Mencken, H. L. “A Literary Behemoth.” In Critical Essays on Theodore Dreiser, edited by Donald Pizer. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. Reprint of Mencken’s 1915 article, in which he rebukes Dreiser for piling on details in numbingly dull prose, but praises him for showing that spiritual corruption follows Witla’s financial successes and that his inner conflicts add to his bitterness.
Swanberg, W. A. Dreiser. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965. Shows how thoroughly Dreiser based his main characters and episodes on his own acquaintances and experiences. Details efforts of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to censor Dreiser’s alleged blasphemy and obscenity.
Warren, Robert Penn. Homage to Theodore Dreiser. New York: Random House, 1971. Castigates Dreiser for self-indulgence and self-vindication in The “Genius” and for naïvely believing that a collection of supposedly true details of his life would take on artistic form.