The literary reputation of Theodore Dreiser has suffered a slow but steady decline in recent years, curiously paralleling the decline of radical sentiment among American intellectuals. One of the critics who has been most effective in depreciating Dreiser has been Lionel Trilling, author of The Liberal Imagination. A critic with a highly organized if not always explicit ideological bent, Trilling has apparently felt Dreiser to be a threat to his liberal equanimity and has several times returned to attacks upon him. These attacks, which are of more than literary interest, seem to me symptoms of what troubles the liberal intellectual in the America of the 1950’s. I propose to discuss Trilling’s comments on Dreiser not primarily in literary terms but rather in the social terms that are his fundamental, if unacknowledged, interest.
“Whatever the virtues of Dreiser may be,” writes Trilling, “he could not report the social fact with the kind o...
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