Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"True Art Speaks Plainly": Theodore Dreiser and the Late Nineteenth-Century American Debate over Realism and Naturalism

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"True Art Speaks Plainly": Theodore Dreiser and the Late Nineteenth-Century American Debate over Realism and Naturalism

Article excerpt


Theodore Dreiser's brief but significant 1903 essay "True Art Speaks Plainly" draws upon the central issues present in over twenty years of debate in America on the social and ethical nature of realism and naturalism. In particular, Dreiser responds to the distaste and the fear of change underlying a distrust of realism and naturalism and to the conventional religiosity underlying a refusal to countenance the depiction of man's sexual nature. The article explores both the full dimensions of the debate during the 1880s and 1890s by a wide variety of American critics and Dreiser's pithy recapitulation of its essential character.


Theodore Dreiser wrote little literary criticism, and what he did write is both little known and not highly rated. Throughout his career, Dreiser published book reviews and philosophical essays, but seldom exhibited in either form an interest in or capacity for literary criticism of the highest order. By "criticism of the highest order," I mean criticism that contains a coherent body of belief expressed with conviction. Too often, however, Dreiser's reviews merely reflect his like or dislike of a specific kind of writing, and too often his philosophical essays careen into an impenetrable fuzziness.

A notable exception to this generalization is the very brief essay "True Art Speaks Plainly," which Dreiser published in an obscure Philadelphia journal in February 1903. (1) Dreiser wrote "True Art Speaks Plainly" at a crucial moment in his career. Although his first novel, Sister Carrie, published in November 1900, had been praised by reviewers for its power and honesty, it had also been attacked for its lapses in taste. The criticism that especially irked Dreiser was that which warned the reader about the unpleasant subject matter and amoral tone of the novel. Something of the character of this criticism can be suggested by a sampling of comments from American reviews of late 1900 and early 1901: "a gloomy story," " not a book to be put in the hands of every reader indiscriminately," "the story is not one to put into the hands of the young girl," "the book is unhealthy in tone," "an unpleasant book," "squalid," "the sordidness of municipal life," "the Zola of the United States," "the name of God is not mentioned from cover to cover, a most significant omission," "the book is not pleasant to read." In addition, Dreiser had come to believe that the publisher of Sister Carrie, Frank Doubleday, who himself was disturbed by the moral implications of the novel, had failed to push it. When Dreiser attempted to go on to a second novel, Jennie Gerhardt, he found himself blocked, a condition which he attributed in part to the reception of Sister Carrie.

The significance of "True Art Speaks Plainly" lies in Dreiser' ability to draw upon the critical energy stimulated by his personal pique to engage the principal social and ethical issues present in twenty years of American discussion of realism and naturalism. Without naming any of the many critics from Charles Dudley Warner in the early 1880S to Frank Norris in the late 1890S who had participated in the debate on the question of whether or not realism and naturalism were desirable fictional forms, Dreiser both brings the issues central to the debate into sharp focus and offers his own resolution of them. In this essay I wish to examine the late nineteenth-century critical debate about the social and ethical character of realism, a debate that spills over into that on naturalism, and to discuss the ways in which Dreiser's comments and beliefs rest firmly on the base of ideas generated by this debate.

The critical debate from the mid-1870s to the outbreak of World War I over the nature and value of realism and naturalism seldom included discussion of the formal characteristics of these modes of expression) Nor were critics who participated in the debate able to achieve the distance evident in Rene Wellek's 1963 definition of realism as "the objective representation of contemporary social reality," (4) in which the terms "objective" and "social reality" are of course problematical but suggest nevertheless that Wellek is seeking a neutral terrain of critical discourse. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.