In the 1910s, in early middle age, Theodore Dreiser, already America’s great gritty realist, began to take stock of his crowded, complicated life and of the persons and forces that had shaped it. He embarked upon a multi-volume work he planned to call “A History of Myself,” a brutally honest untangling of “the net of flesh and emotion and human relationship into which I was born and which conditioned my early efforts at living.” By 1916 he had completed the first volume, Dawn, a chronicle of his poor Midwestern boyhood and a book so candid and sexually explicit that, out of respect for his family’s feelings, he delayed its publication for fifteen years. In 1922, he finished the second, Newspaper Days, the story of his literary apprenticeship in the roughneck world of big-city dailies. Together they constitute one of the great American autobiographies, less known perhaps than those of Henry Adams and Ulysses S. Grant but in every way worthy of the same short shelf. This Black Sparrow edition, introduced and annotated by Dreiser scholar T. D. Nostwich, is definitive.
An autobiography of early youth published in 1931, just as the country was entering the darkest days of the Great Depression, Dawn is a major American writer’s engrossing effort to understand how he had become the person that he was. It opens in a small house on a dingy street in Terre Haute, Indiana, where the author is born, the ninth of ten children, on August 27, 1871. Central to Dreiser’s story is his Czech mother’s struggle to keep her family together in the face of chronic poverty and her husband’s inability to earn a living. She is all-enduring and all-forgiving, one of Dreiser’s triumphs of characterization. The father, a disabled German Catholic millworker, is pitiful, luckless, and powerless to impress his moral authority on his indifferent children, all of whom are magnetized by pleasure and material display. They are the musically talented Paul, a simple-hearted, generous sensualist; the sullen Rome, an amoral wanderer, often in jail, always full of drink and braggadocio; the four sisters, looking only for fun, finery, and handsome moneyed young men; and Theodore, sickly, withdrawn, finding beauty in nature and in books but little solace from his inborn fatalism.
As Professor Nostwich comments, “The conclusions Dreiser drew about the insignificance of his and all human existence goes against the grain of Christian and American optimism but does not alter the fact that Dawn is a uniquely American book. It is the fullest, truest account we have of what it was like to grow up poor in the American Midwest in the late nineteenth century, an age of unsettling social and moral change. It is the story of an idling but insatiably curious, sensuous, and sensual youth’s effort to know himself and find his place in a rigidly moralistic and rampantly materialistic society, one that prized the go-getter but had little use for the dreamer.”