IN THE SPRING of 1911, H. L. Mencken read the manuscript of a new novel by his friend Theodore Dreiser, the author of the exceedingly controversial Sister Carrie, published a decade earlier. On April 23, he wrote Dreiser the kind of letter that makes an author believe there is, after all, justice in this world: "When Jennie Gerhardt' is printed it is probable that more than one reviewer will object to its length, its microscopic detail, its enormous painstaking -- but rest assured that Heinrich Ludwig von Mencken will not be in that gang. I have just finished reading the ms. -- every word of it, from first to last -- and I put it down with a clear notion that it should remain as it stands. The story comes upon me with great force; it touches my own experience of life in a hundred places; it preaches (or perhaps I had better say exhibits) a philosophy of life that seems to me to be sound; altogether I get a powerful effect of reality, stark and unashamed. It is without humor, but so are the jests of that great comedian who shoots at our heels and makes us do our grotesque dancing." Mencken's enthusiasm for the novel was shared by enough readers so that, upon its publication later that year, it made a considerable commercial success and firmly established Dreiser's standing as a novelist though it did not still the furor over his treatment of sexual and moral questions that had first been stirred by Sister Carrie. But the years have not treated Jennie Gerhardt well; Dreiser's reputation now rests primarily on Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, and for some decades Jennie Gerhardt has been generally neglected outside the very small circle of Dreiserians. This new edition (part of its publisher's "Continuing Program of Women's Studies") may rectify that; readers coming to it now for the first time, as I have, will find that Mencken's high praise was not misdirected. Jennie Gerhardt is an utterly characteristic Dreiser novel: in its themes, its setting, its characters, its strengths and weaknesses. It is the story of a beautiful and sexually alluring young woman who sacrifices herself at the altar of the wealth and security of others, and who is condemned to hide herself from "good" society because, in her natural innnocence, she has violated its rigid rules of behavior. It is a story of wealth and poverty, goodness and cynicism, openness and hypocrisy. It finds Dreiser preaching his typically pixilated sermons -- the man never could decide whether he loved money or loathed it -- and weaving his typically powerful human tapestries. As the story opens Jennie is 18 years old, one of six children in an impoverished Toledo household. She and her mother work at the city's leading hotel as cleaning women, where she comes to the attention of one of its residents, Senator Brander. He falls in love with her, proposes to her, then suddenly dies; but she is pregnant, the victim of a single evening's passion. When her strict father learns of her situation, he expels her from the household: "There was fear in her eyes, for she saw passing through a fiery ordeal, but she had become a woman. The strength of love was with her, the support of patience and ruling sweetness of sacrifice. Silently she kissed her mother, while tears fell fast. Then she turned, and the door closed upon her as she went forth to a new life." Jennie moves to Cleveland, gives birth to a daughter, finds work as a domestic in a prominent household. But for all her yearning to live up to her father's and society's lofty moral standards, she is once again stirred by a man, Lester Kane: "This strong, intellectual bear of a man, son of a wealthy manufacturer, stationed, so far as material conditions were concerned, in a world immensely superior to that in which Jennie moved, was, nevertheless, instinctively, magnetically, and chemically drawn to this poor serving-maid." Unaware that she has a child, he sets her up as his mistress, eventually moving her to Chicago. She is living a lie: her father thinks she is married, her lover knows nothing of her child, the world is uncertain of her identity. Kane's father, learning of his liaison, imposes conditions that threaten his inheritance; Jennie, who has subordinated her own longing for marriage in order to keep him, now gives him up altogether in order that he not lose his birthright. Kane, knowing that "he was doing a cruel and unlovely thing," goes off to riches and an acceptable wife -- only to discover, on his deathbed, that Jennie was indeed the one love of his life. It is a sentimental tale told with no lack of melodrama. Jennie, her sexual appetites notwithstanding, is too good to be true, and thus gives the novel a weak, spongy core. At times Dreiser's prose ventures into unwittingly self-parodic thickets: "The relationship of man and woman which we study so passionately in the hope of finding heaven knows what key to the mystery of existence holds no more difficult or trying situation than this of mutual compatibility broken or disrupted by untoward conditions which in themselves have so little to do with the real force and beauty of the relationship itself." At times, too, the story loses focus, as Jennie drifts into the background annd characters of less consequence move, inexplicably, to center stage. But these weaknesses, real though they are, simply do not matter. Jennie Gerhardt is a work of enormous, if primitive , power. In this clumsy, lumbering way, Dreiser felt -- and brought to life in his novels -- a burning compassion for humanity; not merely for the downtrodden and hopeless, sympathy for whom requires no paticular exertion, but also for those in more privileged positions who nonetheless feel themselves "more or less pawns," shuffled about "like chessmen by circumstances over which we have no control." His sense of America's conflicting, complementary social and economic forces was visceral and often keen; wanting riches for himself, he understood the urge in others, and as a result portrayed businessmen with a sympathy rarely found in literature. Best of all, Dreiser wrote about the real world. In Jennie Gerhardt, as in all of his best novels, there is a great panorama of real people preoccupied with real concerns. By comparison with so much of the fiction of today, in which one academic sends messages indecipherable to all save other academics, Jennie Gerhardt seeks to touch, and move, us all. Dreiser was trying to discover American through his novels, and in them he set down as much of American as he could see. His faults, such as they are, are those of large ambitionand a great heart.