Article abstract: Combining a strong social conscience, a frankly deterministic view of life as a struggle for survival, and an honest representation of human sexuality, Dreiser’s fiction helped to shape a generation of American writers and to mute the voice of censorship in American culture.
Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser was born August 27, 1871, in Terre Haute, Indiana, the eleventh of a dozen children. His father, John Paul Dreiser, was a German Catholic immigrant who eloped with and married, in 1851, the teenage Sarah Schanab, daughter of a Moravian farm family living near Dayton, Ohio. A weaver by trade, John Paul prospered in Sullivan, Indiana, where, in 1870, the family’s initial good fortune disastrously ended. A fire destroyed John Paul’s woolen mill; while he was rebuilding the mill, a heavy beam fell on his head, seriously injuring him. During his convalescence, the family lost virtually everything they owned.
Nearly penniless, the Dreisers moved to Terre Haute, where Theodore was born. The father’s fortunes never improving, Theodore was reared in grim poverty as the family underwent a succession of moves. His early education came in Catholic parochial schools and the public schools of Warsaw, Indiana, where his family settled in 1884. The most telling aspects of Dreiser’s boyhood were the persistent financial hardship, the numerous family removals, and the ardent asceticism of his father’s German Catholic orthodoxy. Consequently, Dreiser came to resent bitterly his social and economic status, to develop a sense of insecurity, and, ultimately, to reject Catholicism and later religion itself.
At age sixteen, Dreiser left home to seek his fortune in Chicago. Awkward and tall, spindly and weak, he hardly cut a dashing figure. Edgar Lee Masters, in The Great Valley (1916), described him in a poetic portrait:
Jack o’Lantern tall shouldered,
One eye set higher than the other,
Mouth cut like a scallop in a pie,
Aslant showing powerful teeth.
Swaying above the heads of others.
And the eyes burn like a flame at the end of a funnel.
And the ruddy face glows like a pumpkin
This unlikely caricature of a man had little success in Chicago at first, but he eventually landed a steady job in a warehouse. There he became an avid reader through the efforts of an older friend and former teacher. Encouraged to make something of himself, he attended Indiana University for a year but returned in 1890 to Chicago and various menial jobs. His imagination, however, had been fired; his tireless reading continued, and he burned to improve his lot.
Hoping to become a writer, Dreiser began the application rounds at Chicago newspapers. In 1892, he obtained a position as a reporter with the Chicago Globe. Shortly thereafter, Dreiser accepted a job at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, left Chicago, and began the journalistic career which he followed from city to city for nearly a decade. His experiences in such cities as St. Louis, Toledo, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh helped form his maturing social views. Reporting on the activities of impoverished strikers who battled against the economic and social inequities preserved by such robber barons as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Jay Gould, Dreiser was assembling the raw material from which would spring his novels, with their bleak realism, their pessimistic determinism, and his own rejection of capitalism and subsequent conversion to Communism.
The 1890’s were pivotal years for Dreiser. Not only did he become a successful journalist and free himself from material need, but he also took a wife and embarked on his fiction-writing career. In 1893, he met and began to court Sarah (Sallie) Osborne White, whom he married on December 28, 1898. The marriage proved disastrous, and Dreiser and his wife were separated in 1909. (In 1919, Dreiser met and became intimate with Helen Richardson, a distant cousin, though the couple were unable to marry until 1944 because Sarah, to her death in 1942, refused to grant a divorce.) Also in the 1890’s, Dreiser began to write commercial short stories and articles with some success, and, in 1899, he began his first novel, Sister Carrie, completed in 1900 and accepted by Doubleday, Page and Company.
Sister Carrie introduced the major themes and social attitudes that characterize Dreiser’s powerful fiction. A study of Carrie Meeber, a small-town innocent who comes to Chicago and falls into temptation, Sister Carrie clearly draws upon Dreiser’s memories of the similar fate of two older sisters. Weary of her shoe-factory job (depicted in the muckraker style of the 1890’s, with lascivious bosses and inhuman working conditions), Carrie slips into a romantic liaison and becomes a kept woman. Eventually, after playing mistress to several others, she achieves great success as an actress. In contrast to the authors of typical “fallen woman” stories of his era, Dreiser refused to punish Carrie. Instead, he presents no clear villains or heroes and offers no moral judgments. Through a combination of fate, character weaknesses, and a corrupt capitalistic society, Carrie and her principal lover lead heartbreaking lives.
Sister Carrie also marked the start of Dreiser’s lifelong battle with censorship. Recommended by the well-known naturalistic author Frank Norris, Sister Carrie was contracted for publication by Frank Doubleday, though he had not read the manuscript. Later (supposedly because Mrs. Doubleday read the proofs and expressed stunned horror), Doubleday tried to avoid publication. Stubbornly insisting on the contractual terms, Dreiser forced publication, but Doubleday printed only a minimum run, sent no review copies, and made no advertising effort. Selling fewer than five hundred copies, the novel passed almost unnoticed. In 1907, a second edition, brought out by B. W. Dodge, met with considerable success, but the pattern had been established, and Dreiser would fight a running battle against censorship for the remainder of his career.
Despondent over Sister Carrie’s failure to achieve either critical or financial success and plunged back into personal economic chaos, Dreiser apparently suffered a mental breakdown and became suicidal. After a sanatorium confinement, he regained his balance and his passionate drive for success. Accepting an editorial position at Street and Smith, publisher of cheap magazines and dime novels, Dreiser’s business fortunes rapidly improved until, in 1907,...
(The entire section is 2757 words.)