The Cambridge Companion to Theodore Dreiser (Cambridge Companions to Literature), edited by Leonard Cassuto, and Clare Virginia Eby. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004
ISBN 0-521-89465-4 pp. 258 $29.25
Reviewed by Jude Davies, University of Winchester.
Novelist, journalist, playwright, and political activist, Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) is best known for two novels, Sister Carrie (1900), the story of a country girl who makes good in the big city and the downfall of her middle-class lover, and An American Tragedy (1925) a three-volume bestseller chronicling the effects of American success ideology on the impressionable Clyde Griffiths: the drowning of his pregnant girlfriend and his execution in the electric chair. Dreiser emerges from Cassuto and Eby’s collection as a key writer on modernity in America, and has a good claim to attract and retain the interest of students of America and of modernity more generally.
This is the third collection of essays on Dreiser to appear since the reshaping of literary studies by cultural studies and critical theory. Miriam Gogol’s 1995 collection Theodore Dreiser: Beyond Naturalism reflected the increasing emphasis on gender in literary studies, while also sketching out approaches to Dreiser’s work from a variety of theorised perspectives. Theodore Dreiser and American Culture: New Readings, edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani (2000) offered a more lengthy and diverse introduction to the Dreiser oeuvre, emphasising the most frequently taught novel, Sister Carrie, and also covering previously obscure aspects and unfamiliar work.
The focus of this new collection is squarely on the major novels, Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, contextualised by reference to Dreiser’s other writings, and supplemented by discussion of the ‘Trilogy of Desire’. The contributors find interesting perspectives on the major contemporary themes in Dreiser criticism: the impact of modernity on selfhood and society; desire; consumption; and the equation between people and commodities. The essays focus on themes (rather than on specific texts or theories), which are clearly announced by their titles – ‘Dreiser and the history of American longing’; ‘Dreiser and women’; ‘Dreiser, class and the home’. Taken as a whole, the collection places Dreiser squarely at the centre of major tensions in American culture – class and social mobility, gender and ‘race’, and debates over idealism and materialism.
It is invidious to select from the uniformly insightful essays, but brief reference to two, ‘Dreiser’s style’ by Paul Giles, and Bill Brown’s ‘The matter of Dreiser’s modernity,’ will illustrate Dreiser’s centrality to debates over modernity in America. Returning to the oldest chestnut in Dreiser criticism, Giles reads the clash between Dreiser’s realist style and mystical tendencies as mediating between material and spiritual understandings of the world, between the world of commodities and the world of consciousness. Brown concerns himself with similar tensions, but where Giles emphasises Dreiser’s oblique, ‘aslant’ view of dominant American ideology, Brown argues that dominant American culture has been good at integrating the ideal and the material, and that Dreiser too strives to ‘dramatize modernity as a spiritual plight.’ The debate will continue, fuelled by this excellent and accessible book.
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