Religion, Mythology, and Intertextuality
NEARLY TWENTY YEARS AGO, IN WHAT REMAINS THE BEST EXTENDED TREATment of the subject to date, Lawrence Hussman called Dreiser’s The Bulwark (1946) his most undervalued book.1 The ensuing years have seen little from Dreiserians to controvert that claim. Hussman is correct: an author’s final, complete major work, one composed and revised over a thirty-year period and thus bound to provide unique insights into his canon, deserves more attention. In addition, The Bulwarkcontains Dreiser’s maturest and most measured treatment of religion, a subject that had cost him a lifetime of intellectual struggle. Finally, many a critic has noted in passing the extraordinary intertextuality of the novel; in fact, it augments its own tale of the Quaker Barnes family with substantive references to all of Dreiser’s previous novels, forming a sort of coda to the author’s oeuvre.
Any discussion of Dreiser and mythology/mythos would be deficient without a close examination of this latter feature. James Joyce, for some the quintessential modernist, is well-known to have woven a thick fabric of intertextual cross-reference into his works, repeating usage of characters, themes, settings, etc., for purposes to which extensive critical argument continues to attach. No one, I believe, reading The Bulwarkwith even a fair knowledge of Dreiser’s other novels could doubt that Dreiser carefully operated in a manner that echoes Joyce. The two authors, both educated in and persistent exploiters of mythological systems of others (the younger man somewhat more remarkably in the eyes of posterity), thus created personal myth systems: sets of beliefs and concerns about human existence that, while grounded with reference to a specific milieu, treat issues common to all people in all times. Many of us acknowledge a historical personage (s), whom we agree to call Homer, who collected the stories of his forbears and a foreign war