True of Nabokov and true of the author of that sentence, Joseph Epstein, who writes of Speak, Memory, surely among the most beautiful and moving books (and titles) in the language. I thought immediately of another writer, this one notoriously cloddish and ham-fisted but undeniably powerful, one singled out for scorn by Nabokov and for praise by Epstein – Theodore Dreiser. I remember reading “The Mystery of Theodore Dreiser” in the November 1986 issue of The New Criterion, in which Epstein promptly addresses the infelicity of Dreiser’s prose. In his third sentence he writes that the author of Sister Carrie had “an aluminum ear (one down from tin), an unfailing penchant for the purple, an oafish wit, and the literary tact and lightness of touch of a rhinoceros.” He goes on and – be prepared -- his claim will offend aesthetes and the engagé alike:
“He may not always have been able to write a careful sentence or a well-shaped paragraph, but this did not stand in the way of his turning out powerful novels. To put my cards on the table early in the game, let me say that Theodore Dreiser, in my opinion, is America’s greatest novelist.”
I remember being shocked on first reading this (the essay is collected in Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives, 1991). I had read most of Dreiser seriously and sympathetically in my teens, and later reread Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt and An American Tragedy. But the prose increasingly got in the way. Years later, I knew a Henry James scholar who reread Sister Carrie and was embarrassed to admit how moving she found the book, in particular Hurstwood’s sad decline. I’m often tempted to return to that novel, but I suspect I’ve been spoiled by a taste for good prose. In the subsequent sentences, Epstein does his best to buck up my fortitude:
“Herman Melville may have written the greatest single American novel, Henry James plumped deeper into the subtleties of human motivation, Mark Twain written more lyrically about this country, but Theodore Dreiser, that clod, bumbler, yokel, creep, wrote the novels that tell more in the way of elemental truth about American life and character, and tell it in a consistently persuasive and powerful manner, than those of any other American writer before or since his time.”
How many readers or critics can you name who celebrate, with comparable enthusiasm, Nabokov and Dreiser? Epstein is a reader first, then a critic – an important distinction, I think. As a reader he is non-programmatic, non-systematic, without theory, guided by taste and experience. His reading sensibility is big, elastic and generous, without ever being wishy-washy. Consistency is not always a virtue. In Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet (2013), Epstein writes to Frederic Raphael:
“Yet with his wretched prose, his stupid ideas, his entirely unappealing personality, Dreiser wrote some of the most powerful American novels going: partly because he was on to great themes – the hunger of the underdog, the struggle against the loaded dice of destiny, the drama of ambition – and partly because the sources of his literary power are so mysterious.”
I like it that he gives honor to mystery. One of my favorite essays is still Epstein's "What Yiddish Says."
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