David Graham Phillips, A Forgotten Genius?

The writer David Graham Phillips was shot dead on January 24 1911 by a madman who believed Phillips had modeled one of his less admirable female characters on the man’s sister. He was only 44. He had been, as well as a novelist, a courageous investigative journalist, exposing corruption at the very top of the Washington establishment. In our more cynical times we might well wonder if the ‘madman’ was really motivated by concern for his sister’s honour.

This is an excerpt from the forward to Phillips’ posthumously published work The Fall and Rise of Susan Lenox: ‘In the presence of his last work, so overwhelming, so stupendous, we lesser men are left at a loss. Its magnitude demands the perspective that time only can lend it. Its dignity and austerity and its pitiless truth impose upon us that honest and intelligent silence which even the quickest minds concede is necessary before an honest verdict. Truth was his goddess; he wrought honestly and only for her. He is dead, but he is to have his day in court. And whatever the verdict, if it be a true one, were he living he would rest content.’

Unfortunately, there has been no ‘perspective of time’ because, as far as I can discover, Phillips has been forgotten, by the literary world, by academia and by the public. He is an author regarded in his own time to be as great as Theodore Dreiser or Upton Sinclair yet he has disappeared.

Of course no one is completely forgotten. I found his books on Project Gutenberg as I’m sure others have. There is a review of Susan Lenox on Goodreads and and I’ve noticed some enterprising person has packaged it as a self-published paperback available on Amazon. But I would like to see it republished by a university press with thoughtful essays by respected literary critics. He deserves that.

Susan Lenox is a great read. In the tradition of all innocent heroines she is seduced by a cad, left alone and in poverty, earns her bread the only way she can, but in the end rises above circumstances. It’s not an original story but it’s one that has been played out in reality by countless women throughout history. The real interest of the book is not so much in her story as the picture of  life in America’s teeming tenements at the turn of the last century.

There is a film version made in 1931 with Greta Garbo and Clark Gable. I admit I haven’t seen it but with Garbo and Gable, how bad can it be?

Susan Lenox (Her Fall And Rise)