By FREDERICK C. STERN
Richard Lingeman. Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey, 1908-1945. Vol. II. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1990. Pp. 544 with notes, bibliography, index and photographs. $39.95 (cloth).
I am not sure what makes a great biography. Perhaps, first of all, a subject who has played a role in our history, so that her or his story reveals not only that subject, but ourselves as we were and are. If that is the case, Richard Lingemen has proven, in the second volume of his biography of Theodore Dreiser as he did in the first (Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871-1907, published in 1986), that he has such a subject. Has he written a great biography of that subject? It is, of course, too soon to tell. As with most writing, time must pass before we can make so weighty a judgment. We may never be able to make definitive assessments about biographies because it would appear that significant subjects require new biographies for every epoch. However, I think Lingeman has written the Dreiser biography for our time.
There have been several important biographies of Dreiser — Lingeman handsomely acknowledges them in the first volume of his own work. The most important, in my view, is Robert H. Elias's Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature (1948), though I do not at all want to denigrate W.A. Swanberg's Dreiser (1965), or Dorothy Dudley's pioneering Dreiser and the Land of the Free (1946). But none of these works — even Elias's, which I admire —is as full, or as appropriate for our moment, as Lingeman's study.
In his earlier volume, Lingeman brought us up to the time when Dreiser was flush with Sister Carrie's "successful second debut" in 1907, editing the "ladies' " magazine The Delineator for the Butterick pattern company, making money and at peace with his first wife "Jug'' (to the degree that he ever was). The second volume begins when Dreiser's successful editorial career is coming to its end, and his struggle to write and publish Jennie Gerhardt (1910) begins. Dreiser has returned to his true vocation as novelist and essayist and will never leave it again. The biography takes us through the agonized engendering and eventual production of such later major works as The Financier (1912) and The "Genius" (1923). We see a man often desperate for money and increasingly desperate in his unhappy marriage. Involved with many women, Dreiser was apparently never certain of his own sexual magnetism or even potency. We meet his many friends, most important of them perhaps H.L. Mencken, his first champion and often his best critic. Moreover, Dreiser — like Mencken — is under constant attack from what he calls "the puritans," like the distinguished critic Stuart Pratt Sherman. It proves to be a hard time for the man some were already calling "America's greatest novelist."
Though the volume is not divided exactly this way, there is a break and a change in direction when Dreiser meets and falls in love with the woman with whom he was to spend the rest of his life — though by no means in monogamous bliss — Helen Patges Richardson. He and Helen moved to Hollywood where he hoped to earn money from films, a project that had limited success. Perhaps more important for literary history, he gave up temporarily on The Bulwark, which had been troubling him for some years. Soon he turned to the work that was to assure him not only another critical success but also success as a best-selling writer: An American Tragedy (1925).
The rest of the story is equally fascinating. Lingeman deals with the writing not only of the novels but also of such other forms as A Hoosier Holiday (1916) —Dreiser's nostalgic but critical trip to the home of his childhood; his only well-wrought play. The Hand of the Potter (1918); and such later works as the phil-
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osophical Hey Rub-A-Dub-Dub! (1931).
Lingeman's style is articulate and interesting, never pedantic, though the biography's scholarship seems impeccable. Most important, in his treatment of Dreiser's significance, he is obviously sympathetic to the writer, conscious of his importance but by no means overly laudatory. He sees the flaws and points them out and tries, with psychological sophistication and biographic acumen, to find the reasons for them. He also sees the greatness, and lets us see it from the point of view of our time, our moment in history. The several sets of photographs are supplements that illuminate the text. The only irritating thing about the book is its notes, which are hard to follow. They are not listed by page numbers but merely follow consecutively under chapter numbers. But I forgive Lingeman the notes. He has written a fine biography of one of our most important writers. It is good to read as well as rich in information and insight. If betting is appropriate, I'll bet it will last as a great biography.
Frederick C. Stern is associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
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