The date 1925 helps us to look at Theodore Dreiser’s work through a clear mental lens, unblurred by the political-cultural wars that have clouded estimates of Dreiser’s reputation ever since. Nineteen twenty-five was the date of Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy and much else in that annus mirabilis at the center of what deserves, like the 1850s, to be called an American Renaissance. Dreiser merits rescue now—at least Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy do.

In a famous and deservedly influential essay entitled “Reality in America” (1946), Lionel Trilling used Dreiser as an example of what he wished to censure. His essay—in part an attack on the cultural history of V. L. Parrington—can also be read as an anticipatory answer to F. O. Matthiessen’s advocacy of Dreiser in Theodore Dreiser (1951), published the year after Matthiessen’s suicide....


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