THE AUGEAN STABLES
“The fact is that Dreiser’s attitude of mind, his manner of reaction
to the phenomena he represents, the whole of his alleged ‘naturalis-
tic philosophy,’ stems directly, not from Zola, Flaubert, Augier and
the younger Dumas, but from the Greeks.”
—H. L. Mencken, 1917
THE PENULTIMATE PARAGRAPH OF The Titan (1914) is THEODORE DREISER’S prose-poetic tribute to the bards who had before him pondered the questions of human existence: “What thought engendered the spirit of Circe, or gave to a Helen the lust of tragedy? What lit the walls of Troy? Or prepared the woes of an Andromache? By what demon counsel was the fate of Hamlet prepared? And why did the weird sisters plan ruin to the murderous Scot?”1 That the incantation of Macbeth’s weird sisters, “Double, double toil and trouble, / Fire burn and cauldron bubble,” which Dreiser further quotes may itself be an allusion to Homer—“Greed and folly double the suffering in the lot of man”2— demonstrates the eternal nature of such questions. What are the true relationships of fate to free will, suffering to desire?
Like so many American writers who came of age in the nineteenth century, Dreiser had a ranging intimacy with the classics (in his case, in translation) that provided him both standards and perspective with which to interrogate modern humankind. Unlike Harvard graduates Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, however, Dreiser was largely self-educated and his reading sporadic, unorganized, and directed by his own intellectual appetite rather than professorial regimen. The influences of some modern writers, like Frank Norris and Herbert Spencer, have been recognized by scholars as major components of his works, and this has led to a general assessment of Dreiser as part of the nineteenth-century realist/naturalist tradition. However,