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of biographers. Dorothy Dudley's 1932 "Forgotten Frontier s: Dreiser and the Land of the Free" captured her subject live, to so speak, and "contains material available nowhere else," Jerome Loving acknowledges in his n ew biography of the man, "The Last Titan: A Life of Theodore Dreiser" (Universit y of California Press, 525 pages, $34.95). Robert H. Elias got to know Dreiser i n the late 1930s, and in 1948 published the first scholarly biography, "Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature." These early pioneering efforts came to fruition in W.A. Swanberg's "Dreiser" (19 65). The biographer of William Randolph Hearst, Swanberg was no literary critic. How, then, to deal with the literary aspects of Dreiser's life? In the "Author' s Note and Acknowledgments," Swanberg announced: This book is intended solely as biography, not criticism. There have been many a nalyses of Dreiser's works, but no attempt to study the whole man. Not even duri ng his busiest writing years was he exclusively a writer, being always a self-ta ught philosopher with strong views about society. He collided repeatedly with Am erican culture, religion and politics. For a quarter-century he waged a violent battle against the censorship of art, and his works, if not his words, had a lar ge share in the victory. Indeed, Dreiser was a fighter incarnate, always battlin g something; his compulsion toward social criticism and mystic philosophy so ove rmastered him that he all but abandoned creative writing. If his prejudices and contradictions were awesome, the mature Dreiser represents in extreme enlargemen t the confusions of the era after 1929 when intellectuals everywhere sought a be tter society, and when thinkers more competent than he proved as mistaken as he. But Dreiser was, in the extreme sense, an original. There has been no one like him. He deserves study simply as one of the most incredible of human beings, a m an whose enormous gifts warred endlessly with grievous flaws. For many literary biographers, a subject's written work is, in the main, the lif e, and the point is to show how the work and the life are of a piece. Swanberg s uggests that Dreiser's writing can be treated separately - indeed it is so treat ed in numerous works of literary criticism that do not deal with the "whole man. " But how, a literary biographer might ask, can there be a "whole man" in a biog raphy that does not interpret the subject's writing? To say that there were periods when Dreiser did not write does not seem a very c onvincing argument, since all authors - even the most prolific - have periods wh en they do not write. Other authors have been just as involved in the political and social issues of their age as Dreiser, yet have also created unique personal ities for themselves that surely are located, in important ways, in their writin g. Why should Dreiser be any different? Has Swanberg simply ducked the issue of literary biography altogether? Enter Jerome Loving with a literary biography that reaches Dreiserian heights as he recounts the fraught publication of "Sister Carrie" (1900) and carefully ana lyzes the language Dreiser employs to describe Hurstwood's harrowing descent fro m manager of a saloon to the derelict whose life disintegrates when Carrie aband ons him. Mr. Loving's account of Dreiser's own breakdown after his publisher ref used to stand by the novel has the same relentless drive: At one point, Dreiser became a day laborer and was roused out of his depression only after his brother Paul lent him money, allowing Dreiser slowly to write himself to recovery. Just as impressive is Mr. Loving's account of "An American Tragedy" (1925), Drei ser's other masterpiece, the story of Clyde Griffths's murder of his pregnant sw eetheart so that he can marry a high-society girl. Although often deemed determi nist, Dreiser's work is suffused with a wonder about the human spirit and the ci rcumstances that seem to conspire against it. What is striking about Clyde is hi s sense of aspiration - and Dreiser's dismay that it should become so twisted.
To simply write of such characters in moralistic terms would have outraged Dreis er, a lapsed Catholic, who rejected his devout father's belief in the God of eve rlasting judgment. Dreiser yearned to believe in the self-made man, yet everywhe re saw the American dream of individual distinction crushed by society and organ ized religion. The power of his work, though, is ultimately spiritual: He ended his life as a Quaker, exhorting everyone to find his own way to God - or what Dr eiser liked to call "the Creative force." No matter the virtues of Mr. Loving's biography, he does not have the field to h imself. Richard Lingeman's two-volume biography (1986, 1990) presented Dreiser a s a great American character. Dreiser's fights against censorship, his attacks o n the manners and morality of the time, his willingness to engage in political i ssues - not only his Communist Party activities and staunch defense of the Sovie t Union, but his visit to the striking miners in Harlan County, Ky. - show how h e wanted to integrate literature and life. The vigor of Dreiser's mind and body had to find an outlet in public action. His words had to be tied to actions, Mr. Lingeman argues. Dreiser's mistress (later his second wife, Helen) called him a "great man." She had in mind, it seems, his capacity to move people, to make them suffer along wi th his characters and himself. Dreiser's appeal grew out of his ability to be bo th vulnerable and resolute. He was not a handsome man, but he had a hold over ma ny women because there was something in him that needed mothering and nurturing even as he evinced a power that controlled the lives of his lovers. He empathize d with both the "little" man and the tycoon, Charles Yerkes, on whom he based Fr ank Cowperwood, the hero of his trilogy, "The Financier," "The Titan," and "The Stoic." There is a relentlessness in Dreiser's fiction that runs parallel to his passion ate life. He amasses mountains of detail when describing his characters, providi ng a social fabric for their lives that meshes with his keen awareness of how hi s own character was caught up with the fate of his country. By packing his biogr aphy with a similarly dense set of particulars, Mr. Lingeman did homage to a wri ter who remains important in American fiction's effort to encompass and appraise American identity. But it is Swanberg who continues to haunt Mr. Loving, who de cries his predecessor's penchant for never missing an opportunity to "characteri ze his subject as suspicious, superstitious, contentious, lecherous, greedy, and egotistical." Yet Mr. Loving's literary approach has its own downside: Lest he prove a Swanberg, he feels duty-bound to discuss even minor Dreiser works in ted ious detail. Swanberg, by contrast, seems not to have wanted to remind the reade r of what it means to examine a literary text, to submerse oneself in the writer 's style. When Dreiser is divorced from his words, Swanberg is free to reconstit ute and dramatize his subject's life without competition from the very text ("Si ster Carrie") on which the biographer actually relies: In "Carrie" for the first time of importance, Dreiser translated his own experie nce into the desperate, hopeless yearnings of his characters. Ev'ry Month [the m agazine he edited] had held him in a tight little strait-jacket. His magazine ar ticles were pot-boilers conforming to editors' wishes. Now the reluctant conform ist was free to write as he pleased about life as he saw it. He let himself go f ar, far into unconformity, apparently not realizing the extent of his divagation , but surely there was unconscious rebellion against the restraints that had cur bed him for four years. Although he had read Hardy with admiration and he was no t forgetting Balzac, what came out of his pen was pure Dreiser tinctured with Sp encer and evolution. He was simply telling a story much as he had seen it happen in life. ... He wrote with a compassion for human suffering that was exclusive with him in America. He wrote with a tolerance for transgression that was as exc lusive and as natural. His mother, if not immoral herself, had accepted immorali ty as a fact of life. Some of his sisters had been immoral in the eyes of the wo
rld. In his own passion for women he was amoral himself, believing that so-calle d immorality was not immoral at all but was necessary, wholesome and inspiring, and that the conventional morality was an enormous national fraud. To cite passages in the novel itself to support what Swanberg says would have th e effect of fragmenting his narrative, calling a halt to it in favor of addressi ng a text - which, no matter how smoothly done, cannot quite rectify the damage that is done to narrative values. Such is the power of W.A. Swanberg, possessed of a novel-like energy that his ri val Mr. Loving dare not acknowledge it in his own formidable biography. Like Mr. Lingeman's account, Mr. Loving's book may continue to illuminate Swanberg's acc ount, even as it does Dreiser's own writing. But only Swanberg stands alone.
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