Pagan Dreiser: Songs from American Mythology

By Shawn St. Jean | Go to book overview

Introduction

THE FOLLOWING STUDY IS INTENDED TO REVISE A VERY OLD BUT UNDEveloped method of reading Theodore Dreiser’s eight novels. External evidence, in the form of letters, reviews, and criticism, suggests that Dreiser’s contemporaries and earliest critics—H. L. Mencken, Burton Rascoe, Randolph Bourne, John Cowper Powys—all understood Dreiser’s literary debt to the ancient Greeks in such a way as to consider it self-evident to the educated reader. As products of the late nineteenth century, they had been classically educated with a rigor that few today enjoy. Of course, this does not mean that their sense of the Greeks was any more perfect than that of classicists today—far from it—only that their culture placed a higher premium on philological study. In the work of a handful of later critics, such as Philip Gerber, one can still see lingering evidence of such education. But with fundamental shifts in canonical education during the twentieth century, from the conferral of legitimacy on American literature itself to the recent and increasingly urgent calls for ethnic diversity in the canon, the classics have taken on the form of a separate subdiscipline in the study of literature. Therein lies the necessity of this study: over the course of a century no one has yet done an extensive explication of Dreiser’s works in light of his self-professed “paganism.”1 What was once deemed obvious and therefore unnecessary for critics to explain has now entailed no little amount of research, argument, and speculation to recover.

At the same time the disciplines of English and Classical Studies have diverged, they have also undergone a curious and artificial conflation. Many of us have read Homer beside Walt Whitman and Sophocles beside Arthur Miller and have a sense of Greek literature as representing some kind of ancient, failed America. We have been taught that a hamartia (already the language barrier) is a “tragic flaw,” that function of a character’s temperament that dooms him or her to act in certain ways, and that hubris simply indicates egotistical pride. Unfortunately, something is lost in transliteration. Since such words have

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Pagan Dreiser: Songs from American Mythology
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 5
  • Acknowledgments 7
  • Introduction 9
  • Pagan Dreiser 25
  • 1 - Naturalism 27
  • 2 - Social Criticism 74
  • 3 - Gender and Sexuality 116
  • 4 - Religion, Mythology, and Intertextuality 164
  • Notes 201
  • Works Cited 221
  • Index 229
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