Dreiser's "Jennie Gerhardt"

Dreiser's "Jennie Gerhardt": New Essays on the Restored Text

EDITED BY James L.W. West
Copyright Date: 1995
Pages: 232
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Dreiser's "Jennie Gerhardt"
    Book Description:

    In 1992 the University of Pennsylvania Press published a new edition of Theodore Dreiser's second novel,Jennie Gerhardt. The original published text was altered significantly from the author's intentions: its sexual energy was short-circuited, its criticisms of organized religion were blunted, its language was smoothed and sentimentalized, and, most important, Jennie Gerhardt was reduced to a less thoughtful, less womanly character. The restored edition brings back the sexual charge, reinstates the social and religious criticism, and makes the language Dreiser's again.

    This volume brings together 19 fresh readings, together with an introduction, of the Pennsylvania edition by three generations of Dreiser critics. The volume includes general assessments, analysis of main characters, treatments of the autobiographical roots of the narrative, views of various traditions (realistic, sentimental, ethnic) on which Dreiser drew, and investigations of historical contexts that inform his story.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-9155-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. vii-x)

    Dreiser’sJennie Gerhardthas no extensive history of critical interpretation. This situation is in large part a result of its proximity in Dreiser’s career toSister Carrie—a landmark in American fiction and a novel around which there has grown up much mythology and apocrypha and a considerable body of scholarship. The wide visibility ofSister Carriehas worked to keepJennie Gerhardtin the shadows:Sister Carrie,published in 1900 against a background of disapproval and suppression, has functioned readily as the cornerstone of many courses in the twentieth-century American novel.Jennie Gerhardt,published in 1911 and (until recently)...

  4. Part I: General Assessments

    • 1 Janus-Faced Jennie
      (pp. 3-8)

      In presenting dreiser with the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award of Merit in 1944, Professor Chauncey B. Tinker began his citation with the explanation that the Academy was “Janus-faced, looking before and after. . . . Its aim is to seek out and reward ability wherever it appears and in whatever guise” (Tinker i). Today, with a different emphasis and an extension of meaning, we can call Dreiser’s work, and particularlyJennie Gerhardt,Janus-faced. For, both autobiographically and thematically,Jennielooks before and after and exhibits Dreiser assessing human aspiration and necessity, whatever their guise.

      Although his second...

    • 2 The Biographical Significance of Jennie Gerhardt
      (pp. 9-16)

      In september 1910 theodore dreiser made a sudden career change. A scandalous affair with a young woman had forced him to resign from his well-paying job as editor-in-chief of a stable of women’s magazines published by the Butterick pattern company. Now he was faced with a choice between returning to novel writing, with uncertain financial prospects, or taking a secure magazine or journalistic job.

      Although Dreiser told friends he was considering several attractive offers, his heart was not really in them, and he began working on the manuscript of his second novel, called “The Transgressor,” which he had abandoned in...

    • 3 Jennie Gerkardt: Naturalism Reconsidered
      (pp. 17-26)

      In november 1911 h. l. mencken reviewed the newly publishedJennie GerhardtforSmart Set,calling it “the best American novel I have ever read, with the lonesome but Himalayan exception of ‘Huckleberry Finn’” (Riggio 740). Mencken’s boundless enthusiasm and unqualified praise was grounded in what he took to be the novel’s “doctrine,” expressed through Lester Kane, “that life is meaningless, a tragedy without a moral, a joke without a point” (Riggio 741) —a doctrine, according to Mencken, that Dreiser, alone among American novelists, was able to face unflinchingly. The friendship between the two men during these years was based,...

    • 4 Chill History and Rueful Sentiments in Jennie Gerhardt
      (pp. 27-42)

      Students, like critics, tend to respond forcefully to sentimental literature. Those who do not like it say that they do not precisely because it is sentimental; those who like it insist that it cannot be sentimental. The term itself is at issue: “Sentimentalism,” as one of my students put it, “applies to weepy wimpy women and Hallmark cards.” Such responses pretty well sum up critical attitudes toward Theodore Dreiser’sJennie Gerhardtas a sentimental novel, attitudes to which I turn later. But because I wish in this essay to explore and even celebrate Dreiser as a sentimentalist — as a teacher...

    • 5 Jennie One-Note: Dreiser’s Error in Character Development
      (pp. 43-50)

      In the historical commentary appended to the Pennsylvania edition ofJennie Gerhardt,James L. W. West III rightly contends that the intellectual tension of the novel has its source in the clash between Lester Kane’s and Jennie’s points of view. West justly characterizes Kane as a “pragmatic cynic” and Jennie as “unreasoning,” an “instinctive romantic.” West further argues, again correctly, that Lester and Jennie transcribe two warring sides of the novelist’s own nature. Dreiser is most successful artistically, West finds, when he creates characters by dramatizing the conflict between the “pessimistic determinist” and the “religious mystic” within himself (446-47). What...

    • 6 Dreiser’s Ideal of Balance
      (pp. 51-62)

      Given dreiser’s extended and unsystematic philosophizing in both fiction and other media, it is hardly surprising that the philosophical aspect ofJennie Gerhardthas provoked the bulk of the critical attention accorded the novel. Indeed, Dreiser’s original version of the novel may be persuasively read as a dialectic between Jennie’s mystical, romantic view of life and Lester’s harsh, traditionally naturalistic perspective. But reading the novel as an extended philosophical argument between Jennie and Lester minimizes the action in the first part of the story and thus slights the position of the other man in Jennie’s life: her austere, God-fearing Lutheran...

    • 7 Triangulating Desire in Jennie Gerhardt
      (pp. 63-74)

      The opening ofjennie gerhardtpresents the reader with two women—not, as it turns out, incidentally. The two, Mrs. Gerhardt and her daughter Jennie, are applying for work at the best hotel in Columbus, Ohio. From the lobby, the sympathetic male clerk directs their attention upward: the main staircase needs sweeping. Their subsequent move from the lobby up the stairs and to the room of Senator Brander is an ascent/assent to material well-being at the price of Jennie’s body—a price the women silently agree must be paid. The opening ofJennie Gerhardtprojects the unity of the two...

  5. Part II: Critical and Historical Contexts

    • 8 Jennie Gerhardt: A Spencerian Tragedy
      (pp. 77-90)

      As the summer of 1915 lengthened and as his novelThe “Genius”was readied for publication, Theodore Dreiser joined his illustrator friend Franklin Booth on a 2,000-mile automobile trip that would take them from New York to Indiana and back again. They drove a new and shiny sixty-horsepower Pathfinder. Late on an August evening, as they traveled roads westward that paralleled the Great Lakes, they approached Erie, Pennsylvania. The city had recently been the scene of a devastating rainstorm-induced flood. Awakening the next morning and probing about the town, Dreiser was struck by two impressions. The first concerned the havoc...

    • 9 Jennie Through the Eyes of Thorstein Veblen
      (pp. 91-102)

      The capacity of americans for self-deception and sophistic reasoning, particularly in the matter of sexual mores, is one of Dreiser’s great themes. The title of his 1920 critique, “Neurotic America and the Sex Impulse,” remains startlingly accurate today. InJennie Gerhardt,Dreiser exposes a sexual double standard that is bolstered by a second American peculiarity, the status system. Characters from the highest social classes to the lowest — from Lester Kane’s father and Lester’s wife, Letty, to the poor and disabled old Gerhardt — assume that Jennie should be cast aside like a soiled garment because she is a poor, unmarried, and...

    • 10 Labor and Capital in Jennie Gerhardt
      (pp. 103-114)

      As is the case in many of dreiser’s business chronicles, the design ofJennie Gerhardtworks by making the dominant features of individual personalities coextensive with forms of social organization. Particularly in the Kane family, which represents the novel’s corporate sector, matters of personal temperament and even physical stature find their embodiment in the forms of capital. Lester Kane’s “fixed and determined” quality as a “bearman,” for instance, finds itself naturally incarnated in the corporate organization — in Dreiser’s view, the corporate organism — he comes to inhabit. “It was natural,” Dreiser writes, “that a temperament of this kind should have its...

    • 11 Dreiser and the Genteel Tradition
      (pp. 115-126)

      Few literary encounters would seem to have been so destined for trouble as the one between Theodore Dreiser and the leading lights of what has come to be known as the Genteel Tradition in arts and letters. A loose confederation of writers, editors, publishers, professional critics, and patrons of culture, the Genteel Tradition valued all that Dreiser despised. On the central questions of literary value and purpose, the two sides stood poles apart. Whereas Dreiser emphasized elemental drives and passions, genteel commentators insisted on the superiority of refinement and cultivation. Whereas Dreiser’s sensibility was fundamentally tragic, that of the genteel...

    • 12 “Housework Is Never Done”: Domestic Labor in Jennie Gerhnrdt
      (pp. 127-135)

      Almost since its publication in 1911,Jennie Gerhardt,Dreiser’s second novel, has been beset by charges that it is among his most “sentimental” works, a novel that retreats from the realism ofSister Carrieand represents the American scene less accurately than Dreiser had in 1900. Dreiser himself encouraged such readings when he wrote disparagingly to B. W. Huebsch in 1918 that both novels “represent old-line conventional sentiment” (Letters,Vol. 1, 250). Read as an autonomous literary text,Jennie Gerhardtmay indeed seem “sentimental and implausible” (Hussman 100), its protagonist “a sentimental heroine” (Schwartz ly).¹ But viewed as a novel...

    • 13 Self-Sacrifice and Shame in Jennie Gerhardt
      (pp. 136-146)

      The new, expanded edition ofJennie Gerhardtis powerful in its realism and pioneering in its disclosures about the life of the working class, particularly the plight of women domestic workers. In his depiction of Jennie Gerhardt, a washerwoman’s daughter, Theodore Dreiser portrays the sensibility of a female worker of the 1880s without condescension as well as the perception of upper-class men of her sexual availability. He creates a family headed by an immigrant father unfamiliar with the ways of this country, a lost family with too many children and too little money in too hard times. A story often...

    • 14 Jennie, Maggie, and the City
      (pp. 147-156)

      “For a variety of reasons,” Morton and Lucia White write inThe Intettectual versus the City,“our most celebrated thinkers have expressed different degrees of ambivalence and animosity toward the city.” Citing an antiurban sentiment in the American literary “pantheon” that included Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Poe, and Henry Adams, Morton and Lucia White believe there is nothing in American literature like “the Greek attachment to thepolisor the French writer’s affection for Paris.” Reviewing a wide range of American writers who in their opinion make up “the core of our intellectual history" they argue: “It would be extremely...

    • 15 Jennie Gerhardt and the Dream of the Pastoral
      (pp. 157-166)

      Pastoral literature supposes anAristos(from the Greek, “the best”). From Theocritus through, say, D. H. Lawrence, the pastoral poem or novel offers—usually prescribes —a nature ethic, implicit within which are several defining conflicts or points of tension: most obviously, an urban-rural tension featuring on a personal level deeper conflicts, or contrasts, between simplicity and innocence on the one hand and sophistication and knowledge (in the ways of the world) on the other. Curiously, American literature bows to English literature in the representation of the pastoral. Nowhere is this more evident than in the novel. In English fiction one...

    • 16 How German Is Jennie Gerhardt?
      (pp. 167-182)

      My answer to the question about the “German” nature ofJennie Gerhardtis the same as Randolph Bourne’s was in 1916 when he took up the issue in relation to all of Dreiser’s writing: an unequivocal “not at all” (95). Of course Bourne’s negative assessment — and the firmness with which he asserted it — was self-consciously pitched to respond to the nativist hysteria of the war years when the patriotism of all German-Americans was in question. By denying the Germanness of Dreiser’s novels, Bourne not only attempted to head off suspicions about the author’s loyalty but, more important, refused the terms...

    • 17 Samuel E. [G]ross: Dreiser’s Real Estate Magnate
      (pp. 183-193)

      The importance of home ownership is a recurrent theme inJennie Gerhardt.In the early sections of the novel, the Gerhardt family strives and hopes for a real home; in the later chapters, the period that Jennie and Lester spend in their home in Hyde Park is the time during which they are most like a true family. Near the end of their semi-idyllic life in Hyde Park, Lester goes into business with a real estate dealer, Samuel E. Ross, who is based on an actual Chicago real estate developer of the time, Samuel E. Gross. By examining the career...

    • 18 The Hotel World in Jennie Gerhardt
      (pp. 194-207)

      Like many americans of his time, Theodore Dreiser was fascinated by the world of the hotel. He knew it from his days as a reporter and feature writer; some of his earliest journalistic efforts, in fact, were anecdotes and brief interviews gathered in the corridors and lobbies of major urban hostelries (Journalism79–84). Dreiser was familiar with the elaborate culture of hotel life that had developed in the United States by the 18905. This culture flourished in large American cities, where industrialists, politicians, entertainers, sports figures, and traveling businessmen patronized large and opulent establishments. Luxury hotels, and the separate...

    • 19 Death and Dying in Jennie Gerhardt
      (pp. 208-218)

      Jennie gerhardtis to a great degree concerned with the subject of death. To list the people who die in the novel is to list virtually every significant character except Jennie herself: Dreiser describes in full detail the deaths of Mrs. Gerhardt, old Gerhardt, Vesta, and Lester Kane; and several other characters die offstage — Senator Brander, Mrs. Kane, Mr. Kane, and Malcolm Gerald, Letty Gerald’s first husband. These deaths serve Dreiser as plot devices, of course, but one still wonders why so many characters die. More specifically, why does Dreiser dwell on death and the act of dying so much...

  6. Checklist: Criticism of the 1911 Text
    (pp. 219-220)
  7. Contributors
    (pp. 221-222)
  8. Index
    (pp. 223-226)
  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 227-227)