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Her Better Judgment: Ayn Rand, Theodore Dreiser, and the Shape of the American Novel, Part 1

Her Better Judgment: Ayn Rand, Theodore Dreiser, and the Shape of the American Novel, Part 1

7 Mins
April 23, 2018

Part 1—Antipathy

It is difficult to think of two American authors more antithetical than Ayn Rand and Theodore Dreiser. According to his 1965 biographer, W. A. Swanberg, Dreiser firmly believed himself morally and intellectually superior to most Americans, especially those in the middle class, which he held in contempt. He was a lapsed Catholic who condemned religion although he remained essentially religious and in a state of continual agonized doubt. He was both morbidly oversexed and tortured by performance anxiety. He idealized women but was in fact a liar and a womanizer. Ambitious, lazy, unscrupulous, and cheap, he was a social climber who complained that American society failed to appreciate his genius (Swanberg 15-41). He became wealthy under capitalism at the same time that he openly defended Russian communism. When Ayn Rand began her career as a novelist, she was already what she would later conceptualize as an Objectivist. She consistently defended American business men and women and the American middle class. A matter-of-fact atheist, she had a theory of sex based in self-esteem. An immigrant from communist Russia, she expected nothing from America but the freedom to use her mind to achieve. She was a free-market capitalist, with a strong work ethic, and a determination to write best sellers.

For a young Ayn Rand, chomping at the bit to be a novelist, Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, An American Tragedy, would have been particularly goading, a literary declaration of war. Dreiser tells the story of Clyde Griffiths, a young man born into a family of poor, itinerant evangelical Christians, and who nurses an enormous sense of entitlement. Obliged to work as a bellhop in Kansas City to help support the family, he is fascinated by and resentful of the prosperous hotel guests. He complains bitterly about his lack of education and wealth, but spends most nights out drinking and dancing and trying to meet girls. One night he is one of several people involved in a hit and run accident that kills a little girl. Clyde, worried about his future, leaves the scene of the accident and runs away to Chicago.

In Chicago, he meets by accident his wealthy industrialist uncle Samuel Griffiths, at whose suggestion he moves to New York state and takes a job at the Griffiths Collar and Shirt Company. His uncle very generously gives Clyde a chance to learn the business from the bottom up. Clyde is insulted by having to start in an entry-level position, however, and while he goes to work, he spends much of his time resenting his rich relatives. The envy is natural, as Dreiser would have it, since Clyde was dealt a bad hereditary hand and can’t expect to rise in the world. Clyde also ogles the factory girls. He has a lot of sexual urges that he can’t be expected to control either. He finds himself attracted to the pretty, but poor, Roberta Alden. She’s attracted to him too, and they begin to date. For lack of anything better to do, they start sleeping together.

Shortly thereafter, Clyde meets Sondra Finchley, a wealthy and polished young woman who inhabits the world of his rich relatives. By accident, they begin dating, Sondra being misinformed as to Clyde’s true position in the world. Clyde is happy to play along, and he begins to entertain thoughts of improving his lot in life by marrying Sondra. Meanwhile, Clyde is still sleeping with Roberta, and Roberta gets pregnant. Clyde and Roberta are both upset: she because they aren’t married, and he because he wants to marry Sondra. So, Clyde murders Roberta to clear the way. Because the people in the town are small-minded philistines who don’t understand, Clyde is convicted of murder and executed in the electric chair. It is Clyde’s death that Dreiser considered the American tragedy. Boo-fucking-hoo.

We know that Rand was familiar with An American Tragedy. In her 1962 essay collection The Romantic Manifesto (TRM), Rand singled out the novel as an example of a “bad novel” because the plot does not support the theme. The big ideas Dreiser aimed for couldn’t be supported by the story he told:

Here, the author attempts to give significance to a trite story by tacking on to it a theme which is not related to or demonstrated by its events. The events deal with an age-old subject: the romantic problem of a rotten little weakling who murders his pregnant sweetheart, a working girl, in order to attempt to marry a rich heiress. The alleged theme, according to the author’s assertions, is: “The evil of capitalism.” (TRM 85)

There are good reasons to think that Rand was aware of Dreiser before 1962. First of all, Dreiser published An American Tragedy in 1926, the same year Rand left Russia and emigrated to the United States. The novel was a critical and financial success, garnering multiple good reviews in popular and elite publications, and it sold well for two years before slipping in the charts (Swanberg 310). It has remained in print ever since. A major figure in the American Realism and Naturalism literary movements, Dreiser championed a fatalistic, survival of the fittest view of human nature. He claimed to be a proponent of individualism, which for him seemed to mean that people do what they do, and they can’t be held responsible.

Ayn Rand came to America with the express purpose to be a novelist. According to one of her biographers, Anne C. Heller, Rand began writing stories and screenplays while still living with relatives in Chicago, while still learning English, writing in Russian and asking her cousins to translate (57). As three biographers confirm, by the summer of 1926 Rand was working in Hollywood (Branden 77; Burns 20; Heller 62), and by 1927 her English was good enough for her to land a job as a junior scriptwriter. Thus, it is reasonable to think that Dreiser’s novel would not have escaped her attention, and that as an aspiring novelist, she would have been curious about it. Heller even points out that sometime between 1926 and 1936 Rand sent to her sister Nora, still in Russia, a copy of An American Tragedy, because it was a “proletarian novel” (Heller 58) that Nora could translate and sell to Russian audiences.

Second, Dreiser sold the movie rights to An American Tragedy in 1926 for $80,000, and Joseph von Sternberg directed the 1931 film, also called An American Tragedy (Turner), which grossed $123.2 million at the box office (Ultimate). Rand and her husband Frank O’Conner were still living in Hollywood and still working in the industry in 1931. It is reasonable to think they would have known about and even seen the film.

The third reason Rand probably knew about Dreiser and An American Tragedy was because Dreiser made a goodwill tour of Russia as a guest of the Russian government in 1927. In 1928 he published an account of his trip, Dreiser Looks at Russia, in which he carefully concocts a panegyric of “the most tremendous government experiment ever conducted” (Russia 10). He praised the abolishment of private property, the communal housing, the working conditions, the education system, the casual sex, and the easy divorce. He made the Kremlin sound like a Disneyland for adults (30-31). When a writer of Dreiser’s stature propagandized for the revolution, it was big news. Rand would not have let it go unchallenged. I can imagine her apoplectic, dashing off letters to the editors. She did not come to America to witness a second communist revolution. Not only would Dreiser’s account have offended her, she would have set herself firmly against him and become determined to set the record straight.

Some of Dreiser’s claims about communist Russia are egregious. When discussing the Primus (a small stove), for example, Dreiser doesn’t condemn communism for forcing people in need of a little privacy to cook in their tiny rooms over an inefficient, hot, smoky, oil splattering cooking stove. He blames the people for their lack of true communist spirit: “And yet the thousands of Russians who, to avoid the full fruits of Communism—the communal kitchen, for one thing—insist on these Primuses, because they can cook on them in their own rooms. . . . So I . . .  thought on how to perfect Communism so that the Primus might be eliminated” (34). His account of the Russian rulers is hagiographic: “Whatever one may think of the present-day rulers of Russia, one cannot deny their honesty and, as measured by all our tests, their selflessness with regard to the good things of this world. . . . There is no question of personal accumulation of wealth. There can be none, save by graft and outside hoarding, and the men I met did not look like grafters” (47-48). He buys in fully to dialectical materialism: “The régime which now exists in Russia is a dictatorship, openly, a dictatorship of the proletariat, as it is termed. . . . This dictatorship is a weapon for a particular end—the bringing of that classless, brother-loving society in which no dictatorship will be needed” (49). Further, even after seeing with his own eyes the hunger, the homelessness, the lack of due process, the terror tactics of the G.P.U., and the murder of dissenters, Dreiser still wrote, “And it is possible, if not entirely probable at this writing, and if only human nature can rise to the opportunity, that here at last is a genuine betterment for the race. Yet again, may hap not—the program being possibly too beautiful to succeed, an ideal of existence to which frail and selfish humanity can never rise” (131).

The fourth reason Rand probably knew the novel was H. L. Mencken. Rand was a fan. We know this because she corresponded with him in 1934 about We the Living, while it was still in manuscript and still had the working title Airtight. She wrote a couple of fan letters to Mencken to tell him how much she admired him, and how much his ideas influenced her own: “Gathering all my courage,” she began, “I am writing to thank you for your kindness and interest in my novel Airtight. I am still a beginner with very much of a ‘fan complex,’ so I hope you will understand my hesitation in writing to one whom I admire as the greatest representative of a philosophy to which I want to dedicate my whole life” (Letters 13).

Mencken wrote a scathing review of An American Tragedy, and even though Mencken and Dreiser had been friends for nearly twenty years, the review ended their friendship (Swanberg 304). Much of Mencken’s review is the stuff of legend, but it merits repeating one more time, if only to imagine the delight Ayn Rand must have taken in reading it. “Whatever else this vasty double-header may reveal about its author,” Mencken begins, “it at least shows brilliantly that he is wholly devoid of what may be called literary tact” (68). At this stage in his career, Mencken goes on, Dreiser needed “a book carefully designed and smoothly written.” Dreiser wrote, instead, “the present shapeless and forbidding monster—a heaping cartload of raw materials for a novel, with rubbish of all sorts intermixed—a vast, sloppy, chaotic thing of 385,000 words—at least 250,000 of them unnecessary!” (69). The plot, Mencken continues, is, “A simple tale. Hardly more, in fact, than the plot of a three page story in True Confessions” (70). It’s bad writing, as he makes clear, and what is worse, it’s a bad idea:

Dreiser, I suppose, regards himself as an adept at the Freudian psychology. He frequently uses its terms, and seems to take its fundamental doctrines very seriously. But he is actually a behaviorist of the most advanced wing. What interests him primarily is not what people think, but what they do. He is full of a sense of their helplessness. They are, to him, automata thrown hither and thither by fate—but suffering tragically under every buffet. Their thoughts are muddled and trivial—but they can feel. And Dreiser feels with them, and can make the reader feel with them. It takes skill of a kind that is surely not common. Good writing is far easier. (72)

Because she was an iconoclast, it is sometimes assumed that Rand’s novels have no relation to American literature, that she wrote as an outsider, but she clearly recognized Mencken as an important and authentic American voice, one worth emulating. Just as her character Howard Roark was knowledgeable and conversant in the history of architecture, Ayn Rand knew the history of literature. Her Romantic Realism took shape in direct response to literary Realism and Naturalism. Ayn Rand abhorred the fatalism of the genre and worked against it throughout her career. She created instead Romantic Realism, a literary genre that depicted individuals as rational, volitional, ethical, and self-interested.

Ayn Rand would have found An American Tragedy an effective and amusing writing prompt. We the Living is a novel about the effects of Communism on the inhabitants of Petrograd, with an emphasis on the love triangle of Kira Argounova, Leo Kovalensky, and Andrei Taganov. Kira is the original Randian Romantic hero: an egoist, an atheist, a creator, and capable and worthy of love. Leo too is a hero, with a touch of aristocratic swagger. Throughout the novel, Rand treats Leo as the standard by which she judges others, with those people who love and admire him being the best. Andrei is also a hero, although a mistaken one. Andrei is an architect of the Soviet system, who finds out to his horror the exact nature of his creation. All the characters in We the Living are destroyed by communism. Those who live become subhuman in response to communist reeducation. Leo succumbs and becomes a drunken racketeer. The others die. Kira is murdered by a Russian soldier as she tries to escape across the border. Andrei commits suicide.

As I will show subsequently, there are a number of uncanny similarities in plot and characterization between An American Tragedy and Rand’s first novel, We the Living, which she published in 1936. Not that Ayn Rand plagiarized or even borrowed from Dreiser’s novel. She was too good a writer, and too ethical a person, for that. What Rand appeared to do is much more interesting: in effect, she glossed, corrected, and rewrote Dreiser into something more to her liking. The similarities show up in several minor characters—not her heroes. I want to concentrate primarily on Lydia, Rita Eksler, Comrade Sonia, and Pavel Syerov. Dreiser’s miserable Esta becomes Rand’s quixotic Lydia. Dreiser’s cheap gold digger Hortense Biggs becomes Rand’s glamorous femme fatale Rita Eksler. The mindless and doomed Clyde Griffiths and Roberta Alden become the power couple of Comrade Sonia and Pavel.

Part 2 here.


Marilyn Moore

Marilyn Moore
About the author:
Marilyn Moore

Senior Editor Marilyn Moore thinks that Ayn Rand is a great American writer, and with a Ph.D in literature, she writes literary analysis that proves it. As Director of Student Programs, Moore trains Atlas Advocates to share Ayn Rand’s ideas on college campuses and leads discussions with Atlas Intellectuals seeking an Objectivist perspective on timely topics. Moore travels nationwide speaking and networking on college campuses and at liberty conferences.

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