The Last Titan
Although Theodore Dreiser has fallen out of favor among many recent literary critics, he certainly has not been ignored. Since the year 2000, five new books about him and his work have been published, and more than a score of full-length critical studies and editions of his work have appeared in print since 1965. The most comprehensive of these, Richard R. Lingeman’s two-volume study Theodore Dreiser (1986, 1990), is a thorough-going literary biography. In The Last Titan, Jerome Loving provides readers with considerable detail about Dreiser’s sources for much of his writing, making his book uniquely helpful to Dreiser scholars.
Dreiser did not gain renown as a stylist. His writing style was largely influenced by his work as a journalist in St. Louis early in his career. His greatest contribution to American literature is in his breaking away from the Victorian constraints reflected in the work of many of his predecessors, the so-called Brahmins of American literature. Writers who violated Victorian constraints often were shunned.
Realistic and naturalistic authors such as Stephen Crane and Dreiser paid dearly for their break from Victorian literary standards. Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) so shocked the sensibilities of genteel readers that it was viewed as scandalous and was widely banned. Although Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie, published seven years after Maggie, is often pointed to as a quintessential work of American naturalism, its publication in 1900 brought more acrimony than praise upon its author, even though it was not widely read at that time. Dreiser’s Roman Catholic relatives considered the book an embarrassment.
Loving devotes considerable attention to Dreiser’s days as a newspaper reporter in St. Louis as well as to details about his childhood in a huge family of twelve children. Theodore was the second youngest. By the time he was bornin fact, long before his birthTheodore’s mother was completely worn out from the demands of her successive confinements and of motherhood. The young Dreiser often felt neglected, and throughout his life he longed for motherly love, which he found in, among others, his two wives and Elaine Hyman, an actress who used the stage name of Kirah Markham and was his mistress for several years. Loving also intimates that Dreiser suffered from bipolar disorder but does not explore this possibility in detail.
Dreiser used some of his siblings as prototypes for characters in his writing. The most notable of these is his sister Emma, who served as a model for Carrie Meeber in Sister Carrie. Loving, like most other Dreiser scholars, demonstrates that because the author’s writing style was essentially journalistic, some critics ranked it as infraliterary.
Loving also carefully shows correspondences between events in Dreiser’s life and incidents in his novels. One of the more telling of these incidents is an account of a trip that Dreiser, working for the St. Louis Republic, took in 1893 to accompany twenty outstanding young Missouri schoolteachers to the Chicago World’s Fair, all at the newspaper’s expense. On this trip, Dreiser first met Sara Osborne White, whom he married five years later. The account of how Charles Drouet first met Carrie Meeber on a train trip is remarkably like Dreiser’s account of this trip he made to shepherd a bevy of young, female teachers around the exposition as a reward for their excellence in teaching.
Loving shines in his detailed presentation of the convoluted saga about how the manuscript of Sister Carrie, presented to the Doubleday and Page publishing house in April, 1900, finally and after considerable controversy, made it into print in November, 1900. When Doubleday and Page first received the manuscript, copies were distributed to Frank Norris, Hugh Lanier, and Dreiser’s close friend Arthur Henry, whose A Princess of Arcady (1900) was already under contract to the publisher and scheduled for autumn release.
Dreiser had established a bond with Norris after reacting enthusiastically to Norris’s naturalistic novel McTeague (1899). The three...
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