Two of his latest books indicate the range of his gifts and his excellences. In Hey Rub-A-Dub-Dub, which he calls A Book of the Mystery and Wonder and Terror of Life, he undertook to expound his general philosophy and produced the most negligible of all his works. He has no faculty for sustained argument. Like Byron, as soon as he begins to reason he is less than half himself. In Twelve Men, on the other hand, he displays the qualities by virtue of which he attracts and deserves a serious attention. Rarely generalizing, he portrays a dozen actual persons he has known, all his honesty brought to the task of making his account fit the reality exactly, and all his large tolerance exercised to present the truth without malice or excuses. Here lies the field of his finest victories, here and in those adjacent tracts of other books which are nearest this simple method: his representation of old Gerhardt and of Aaron Berchansky in The Hand of the Potter; numerous sketches of character in that broad pageant A Hoosier Holiday; the tenderly conceived record of Caroline Meeber, wispy and witless as she often is; the masterly study of Hurstwood’s deterioration in Sister Carrie—this last the peak among all Mr. Dreiser’s successes.
Not the incurable awkwardness of his style nor his occasional merciless verbosity nor his too frequent interposition of crude argument can destroy the effect which he produces at his best—that of an eminent spirit brooding over a world which in spite of many condemnations he deeply, somberly loves. Something peasant-like in his genius may blind him a little to the finer shades of character and set him astray in his reports of cultivated society. His conscience about telling the plain truth may suffer at times from a dogmatic tolerance which refuses to draw lines between good and evil or between beautiful and ugly or between wise and foolish. But he gains, on the whole, as much as he loses by the magnitude of his cosmic philosophizing. These puny souls over which he broods, with so little dignity in themselves, take on a dignity from his contemplation of them. Small as they are, he has come to them from long flights, and has brought back a lifted vision which enriches his drab narratives. Something spacious, something now lurid now luminous, surrounds them. From somewhere sound accents of an authority not sufficiently explained by the mere accuracy of his versions of life. Though it may indeed be difficult for a thinker of the widest views to contract himself to the dimensions needed for naturalistic art, and though he may often fail when he attempts it, when he does succeed he has the opportunity, which the mere worldling lacks, of ennobling his art with some of the great light of the poets.
1. BOOTH TARKINGTON