Books: American Nightmares ; the Last Titan: A Life of Theodore Dreiser by Jerome Loving UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Pounds 22.95 (480Pp) (Free P&p) from 0870 079 8897
Taylor, D J, The Independent (London, England)
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 …
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Publication information: Article title: Books: American Nightmares ; the Last Titan: A Life of Theodore Dreiser by Jerome Loving UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Pounds 22.95 (480Pp) (Free P&p) from 0870 079 8897. Contributors: Taylor, D J - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: April 29, 2005. Page number: 28. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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