Dreiser's Jennie Gerhardt: New Essays on the Restored Text

Dreiser's Jennie Gerhardt: New Essays on the Restored Text

Dreiser's Jennie Gerhardt: New Essays on the Restored Text

Dreiser's Jennie Gerhardt: New Essays on the Restored Text

Synopsis

In 1992 the University of Pennsylvania Press published a new edition of Theodore Dreiser's second novel, Jennie Gerhardt. The original published text was altered significantly from the author's intentions: its sexual energy was short-circuited, its criticisms of organized religion were blunted, its language was smoothed and sentimentalized, and, most important, Jennie Gerhardt was reduced to a less thoughtful, less womanly character. The restored edition brings back the sexual charge, reinstates the social and religious criticism, and makes the language Dreiser's again.

This volume brings together 19 fresh readings, together with an introduction, of the Pennsylvania edition by three generations of Dreiser critics. The volume includes general assessments, analysis of main characters, treatments of the autobiographical roots of the narrative, views of various traditions (realistic, sentimental, ethnic) on which Dreiser drew, and investigations of historical contexts that inform his story.

Excerpt

Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt has no extensive history of critical interpretation. This situation is in large part a result of its proximity in Dreiser’s career to Sister Carrie—a landmark in American fiction and a novel around which there has grown up much mythology and apocrypha and a considerable body of scholarship. the wide visibility of Sister Carrie has worked to keep Jennie Gerhardt in the shadows: Sister Carrie, published in 1900 against a background of disapproval and suppression, has functioned readily as the cornerstone of many courses in the twentieth-century American novel. Jennie Gerhardt, published in 1911 and (until recently) with no known history of bowdlerization or publisher’s interference, has not seemed as teachable or as important historically. There has also been the problem of Jennie herself, as she is presented in the Harper and Brothers first edition. in that text she seems overly pliant and malleable, with no coherent approach to the living of human life. Lester Kane, by contrast, seems focused and whole: with his defiant pessimism and philosophical skepticism, he dominates the first-edition text and makes Dreiser’s story appear uncomplicated and didactic. and too Jennie Gerhardt, an emotional and deeply moving novel, has been open to the charge of sentimentalism, a mode of writing with which critics of American literature have not been comfortable until very recently.

The present volume of criticism, based on the restored text of Jennie Gerhardt published in 1992 by the University of Pennsylvania Press, aims to begin a new examination of the novel. the Pennsylvania edition has been the catalyst for this collection: it has provided a quite different text of the novel, heretofore known only to a handful of readers and until now never subject to interpretation. the 1911 text of Jennie Gerhardt was altered profoundly by the editors at Harpers before publication: much of its sexual energy was short-circuited, its criticisms of organized religion were blunted, and its language was smoothed and sentimentalized. Perhaps most important, Jennie’s role in the book was reduced by editorial cutting and condensation, making her a less complex and thoughtful character than Dreiser had envisioned. in restoring Dreiser’s language and the omitted material, the Pennsylvania edition has provided a text of Jennie Gerhardt that is much closer to Dreiser’s original conception. the sexual charge of . . .

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