There is a revealing moment in Patrick Hamilton's The Midnight Bell (1929), currently being dramatised on BBC4, when Bob, the literary-minded barman from the pub that gives the novel its name, muses on the kind of book he would like to write. Bob's aspirations are high: "...it would hardly be a novel at all, but all novels in one, life itself - its mystery, its beauty, its grotesquerie, its humour, its sadness, its terror. And it would take, possibly, years to write, and it would put you in a class with Hugo, Tolstoy and Dreiser."
Exalted though these comparisons may sound three-quarters of a century later, they hardly overstate the reputation that Dreiser possessed in the age of Ramsay Macdonald and the Wall Street Crash. Sister Carrie (1900) had been rated the first great American novel of the century. An American Tragedy (1926), written in his mid-fifties, was instantly acclaimed as the Everest of transatlantic literature.
Even more remarkable were the frail stylistic foundations on which this skyscraper was built. To adapt Virginia Woolf on Hardy, Dreiser had "genius but no talent", a gift for psychological realism bought at the expense of syntax. On his death in 1946 newspapers united to celebrate "a great writer who couldn't write".
Despite this acclamation, it would be a mistake to pretend that much of the fascination of Dreiser's work is not sociological. As a novelist, he was one of the first great chroniclers of the US machine age. His journalist's training led him toward both the capitalist robber barons who populate such novels as The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914) and the lower-grade flotsam left in their wake. In their separate ways, both Hurstwood, brooding away into extinction at the close of Sister Carrie, and Clyde Griffiths, the amoral anti-hero of An American Tragedy, sent to the chair for murdering his girlfriend, are casualties of that malversion of the American Dream that Dreiser's determinism - sympathetic yet quite remorseless - made its special subject.
Much influenced by the evolutionary theories of Herbert Spencer, Dreiser presumably saw his own trajectory as a triumphant survival of the fittest. He was a poor boy from Indiana, ninth child of a sprawling and rather unhappy German-American family, who headed to burgeoning Chicago in his mid-teens. An elder brother, Paul, a successful song-writer, offered useful contacts. Starting off on the St Louis Globe-Democrat, where he took a particular interest in court cases and police investigations, Dreiser roamed all over the mid-West before settling in New York in the late 1890s, helped by his brother's influence, as editor of Ev'ry Month.
As Jerome Loving makes clear, magazine journalism - sometimes of the most anodyne sort - remained his fall-back in a career shot through with professional vicissitudes. Sister Carrie, for example, was criticised on moral grounds (its heroine prospers despite absconding with a married man) and virtually abandoned by its first publishers. After that Dreiser had some kind of breakdown, being put to work on the New York Central Railroad.
His eye for a story also gave him the plot of An American Tragedy, which borrows from the famous Gillette case of 1906 to the extent of quoting almost verbatim from letters between the doomed couple. There were also countless women: wives, and enraptured female fans selected for their looks and ability to type.
Full of arresting details and sound judgments, The Last Titan occasionally errs on the side of stodginess, while managing to convey Dreiser's attractiveness as a writer with some force. Like so many of his younger contemporaries - Steinbeck, say, or J T Farrell - his naturalism is less Hardy's conjuring up of a vengeful fate than the slow march of an unappeasable natural force, not so much hostile as uncaring.
Throughout, Dreiser's sharp newspaperman's ear predominates. At one stage "Big John", a colleague from his labouring days, admires the boats on the Hudson. "Woodenja think them fellas would feel poorty good sittin' out there on the poop deck of them yachts smokin' their perfectos, eh? Wooden that be swell for you and me, eh, sport?"
D J Taylor's 'Orwell: the life' is published by Vintage
|Buy any book reviewed on this site at
Independent Books Direct
- postage and packing are free in the UK