James P. Cannon

The Case Of Theodore Dreiser

(November 1931)

Written: November 1931.
First Published: The Militant, New York, Vol. IV No. 32 (Whole No. 91), 21 November 1931, p. 4.
Source: Microfilm collection and original bound volumes for The Militant provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California. Additional bound volumes from Earl Gilman’s collection, San Francisco, California.
Transcription\HTML Markup: D. Walters.
Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan (February 2013).
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The ideological superstructure of class society is only a reflection, and thereby a defense, of its economic basis of exploitation This applies also to literature. Do not write against the prevailing social system, and above all do not advocate another one: this is capitalism’s real standard of literary values. It is the decisive criterion which its high priests and critics bring to their judgment of literature, for all their pretenses of artistic disinterestedness and prattle about “art for art’s sake.” We are witnessing an illustration of this law of class society at the present moment in the beginning of the campaign to “revalue” and discredit Theodore Dreiser.

Ridicule is the first weapon with which they are attacking the great writer whom only yesterday they were hailing as the king of American novelists. Through the authoritative medium of the New York Times they are passing the word to make fun of Dreiser. This is the way they treated his suit to restrain the exhibition of the motion picture distortion of An American Tragedy as just another murder trial. In like manner the same paper has greeted his investigations of the reign of terror in the Kentucky mine fields. Rest assured the critics will take the tip, as they always do when the masters of the bread speak up. A general attack against Dreiser’s commanding position on the field of literature is in the cards.

Bourgeois literary opinion never welcomed Dreiser. Rather it accepted him after he had bludgeoned his way to eminence by the truly colossal achievements of his pen. He never painted the social system of his day in rosy hues. On the contrary. The author of Sister Carrie and The Financier showed it up in all its hideous ugliness and injustice down to the most sordid detail. In exposure of capitalist society as it really is – not sparing the whited sepulchre of its “morality” – he blazed the trail for other writers. Among the American writers who, following him, have taken the social milieu for their theme, he drew the truest, the most striking and revealing picture. “He stands alone,” said Mencken, and in that he recorded not so much an opinion as an inescapable fact.

But it was not by virtue of these achievements alone that Dreiser won the universal acclaim that has been his in recent years. It was something in the quality, or rather, something lacking in the quality of his writings that made it possible for him to gain the “recognition” of all the literary critics, including the little word-jugglers who complained about his “style.” Dreiser drew no conclusions from the tales he told. This was his saving grace in the eyes of the bourgeois censors. Over everything he wrote there hung a heavy fog of pessimism, futility, fate. Bourgeois opinion could tolerate that. Cynicism is its own creed and resignation is its prescription for the masses.

Dreiser’s fall from grace is not due, of course, to any weakening of his literary powers. The shafts of ridicule that are being hurled at him now, and the heavier attack that can be expected to follow – witness his indictment in Kentucky on a “morality” charge – proceed from the profound change that has taken place in Dreiser’s own attitude toward social questions. As is known, he has arrived at a positive communistic social view; and with the intellectual honesty and courage which marks him and distinguishes him from his contemporaries, he is speaking his conclusions out loud. This is his crime. For this they want to tear down and destroy the titan of American letters.

Let them try. They will not succeed. Every blow dealt at Dreiser by the literary Hessians of the slave system will only endear him all the more to the masses. Indeed, it is quite possible that the gifted writer will begin only now to find his own public and become a real tribune of the people.

That part of the proletariat which is beginning to awaken, which is not resigned to slavery, will hear him gladly. The working-class movement of the present generation has been poor and weak. It had little to offer to the intellectuals, and because of that it had but few of them to espouse its cause; and out of that few it can safely be said that 90 percent were four-flushers and pretenders. It is growing stronger now, and it will gain in strength as the exploiting system reveals increasingly the fatal weakness which proceeds from its own inner laws. With this new strength will come an accession of intellectual forces turning away from the hopeless, decaying system.

Theodore Dreiser is a herald of this development, and a most welcome one. Let us hope that his first courageous steps are motivated by a conviction that will not be shaken, and by a determination to follow the path to the end. If that proves to be the case, his toss of prestige in the bourgeois world will have abundant compensations, and will be in itself a tribute to him.

Last updated on: 9.2.2013