Perfection of the life or perfection of the art? The imperatives of art being what they are, Yeats thought that the writer could not have both. With the completion of Richard R. Lingeman’s two-volume biography of Theodore Dreiser, it seems evident that Dreiser was fated to attain neither.

Born in 1871 in Indiana, Dreiser managed at best a patchwork education, supported himself by journalism, and tried his hand at fiction. His apprentice work was undistinguished, but the success of Sister Carrie (1900), a work of naturalistic determinism, made Dreiser a new force to reckon with in the literary world. His early life to 1907 was covered in the first volume of this biography—Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871-1907 (1986). In the present volume Lingeman concludes his project with a massively detailed account of Dreiser’s mature years.

In 1908, when Volume II commences, Dreiser was 37, married to Sara White and a respected editor of the Delineator, a ladies’ magazine in New York. The appointment was short-lived, however, as he was fired over a scandalous love affair with Thelma Cudlipp, a girl much younger than himself. Purchasing a defunct magazine (the Bohemian), Dreiser tried to support himself in publishing, failed, and resumed freelance journalism and fiction. These are the years of his major novels: Jennie Gerhardt (1911), The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), The “Genius” (1915), An American Tragedy (1925), The Bulwark (1946), and The Stoic (1947). In addition, he produced a great deal of hack work: plays, verse, travel, short stories, and autobiography. He died in 1945.

The image of Dreiser that emerges from these pages is not notably different from the Dreiser sketched in the older biographies. Nor, as a whole, does this work even begin to approach the art of biography. But it must be said that Lingeman is much more detailed than other biographers, especially when dealing with Dreiser’s romantic involvements, his relations with his publishers, and his political ruminations.

As to his romantic escapades, the facts are quite simple: Dreiser was sex-obsessed and a compulsive philanderer. As one reads this volume, Dreiser’s affairs seem tawdrier and tawdrier, more and more meaningless. Not only Thelma Cudlipp but also Elaine Hyman, Estelle Bloom Kubitz, Louisa Campbell, Lillian Rosenthal, Anna Tatum, Yvette Szekely, Sally Kusell, a Mrs. Howey, a Maude Guitteau, a Magdalen Davis, a Marguerite Tjader Harris, an Elizabeth Coakley—the list of typists, would-be writers, variety showgirls, and literary groupies whom Dreiser seduced (or was willingly seduced by) appears endless. Some of his inamoratas Dreiser identified in his notebooks only by their initials; some in the biography have disguised names. One of them Lingeman can only identify as “The Dark Lady.” Few of them meant much more to Dreiser than a quick tumble. Many of the affairs were simultaneous, Dreiser turning two or three tricks a day. Dreiser’s spasmodic record obliges Lingeman at one point to add a footnote: “Let it be stated for the record that not all of the women who were friendly with or worked for Dreiser were amorously involved with him.”

Nietzsche taught him to believe that the superman could attain a transcendence over conventional morality, a notion evident both in his Cowperwood Trilogy (about the business tycoon Charles T. Yerkes) and in his lubricious sex life. His principal champion, H.L. Mencken, complained that Dreiser thought himself to be the “first cock in Greenwich Village” and did “little writing but devotes himself largely to the stud.” On Dreiser’s compulsive philandering, mendacity, and betrayal of women, Lingeman offers no clear psychological understanding. And to submit Dreiser to moral judgment seems never to occur to him.

What is evident is that Dreiser had a bottomless sense of self-loathing and insecurity that made it necessary for him to present himself as helplessly in need and to prove his worth by sexual conquest and frantic money-making. Helen Patges Richardson apparendy understood this need, for she lived with Dreiser, off and on, for more than a quarter of a century despite what he dignified with the pseudo-scientific term “varietism” in his “affectional relations.”

With respect to his publishers, Dreiser’s behavior was likewise tawdry. He continually fought with them, complained that they did not promote his books, suspected them of cheating him (especially if they were “clever Jews”), and jumped ship if he smelled a better offer. Much of his writing was so clumsy, or tedious, or offensive to conventional morality that he saw himself as the victim of American puritanism—and indeed The “Genius” was so lewd for its time that its publication was delayed by the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Dreiser complained of the “fierce opposition or chilling indifference” that greeted “all those who attempted anything even partially serious in America”: “One dared not talk out loud, one dared not report life as it was, as one lived it.”

Yet he was not above censoring others. As editor of the Delineator, Lingeman writes, Dreiser told H.G. Wells to “tone down a novel submitted to the Del for serialization. While Wells’s theme ‘might delight the highly intellectual woman,’ he said, ‘it would possibly offend the rank and file.’ He asked Wells ‘to modify or eliminate in the remainder of the book the keen thrusts against morality and society.'” About this inconsistency Lingeman comes to no judgment.

Dreiser’s lucubrations on politics—a substantial part of this volume—hardly redeem him from the aversion readers will invariably feel for his attitudes. His distaste for the English made him seem pro-German during World War I, and outbursts of anti-Semitism in the 1930’s seemed to give aid and comfort to the Nazis. Lingeman remarks that Dreiser regarded the Führer as “a kind of Autobahn populist who stood up to big business and finance.” But during this period Dreiser was in fact constantly drifting toward the left. He had been invited to the Soviet Union in 1927, the year he earned the equivalent of a half million dollars, and he returned to announce in Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928) that communism had “taken the heartache and the material tragedy from millions and millions of lives” and that “there is much less liberty in America” than under Stalin’s regime. Democracy, he announced in 1930, was a “farce.”

During the Depression his attacks on American democracy made the Communist Party yearn to recruit him, but he was turned down by Earl Browder as too individualistic, a “loose cannon.” Yet Dreiser repeatedly gave his name for use by the International Labor Defense, a Party front, and “when the Daily Worker required a contribution for the May Day issue on the press and political prisoners, he told them to write it themselves—’to assure you have just the statement you want’—and he would edit and sign it. ‘Make it strong,’ he told the editor.” At the Party’s bidding he produced “investigative labor reporting” in Pittsburgh and elsewhere and naturally became the daring of Izvestia for “attacking capitalism and America’s pseudo-democracy.” After Browder was ousted, Dreiser was indeed recruited, leading Lingeman to utter these stupefying words: “Finally it should be said that Dreiser didn’t join the Party in more than a formal sense.” In fact, Dreiser is yet another instance of the compassionate American writer without any political sense, seduced by the Party apparat.

As a man, then, Dreiser in Lingeman’s portrait offers little to admire, despite his biographer’s unaccountably sympathetic and nonjudgmental treatment. It is, however, possible to admire some of the novels—particularly Carrie, The Financier, and An American Tragedy. These survive—despite their grotesque stylistic flaws, despite the pseudoscientific descriptions of human behavior and the amoralism they convey—because Dreiser was effective at communicating his essential moving theme: the pathetic individual caught in the tangled snare of his own dreams and appetites, the tragedy of desire, the immense pity of the world.


[Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey 1908-1945, by Richard R. Lingeman (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons) 544 pp., $39.95]