Theodore Dreiser Essay - Dreiser, Theodore (Short Story Criticism)

Dreiser, Theodore (Short Story Criticism)


Theodore Dreiser 1871-1945

American short story writer, novelist, playwright, journalist, critic, and essayist. See also Theodore Dreiser Criticism.

After the publication of his novel An American Tragedy in 1925, Theodore Dreiser was generally considered the United States's greatest living author. He received early encouragement from the influential critic, H. L. Mencken, and his novel Sister Carrie (1900) enjoyed a warm critical reception in England, though its poor sales in the United States drove Dreiser to clinical depression. Dreiser wrote thirty-one short stories, and many of these were revised and collected in two volumes: Free and Other Stories (1918) and Chains (1927). Dreiser pioneered Naturalism in the United States along with Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and James T. Farrell, all of whom maintained that men and women had very little agency in their lives, and that their fate was determined largely by such ungovernable forces as biology, economics, and society.

Biographical Information

Dreiser's formative years were marked by poverty and personal struggle; he was one of thirteen children whose lives were strictly governed by their father, a staunch Catholic who steadfastly adhered to the conservative doctrines of his faith. Largely because of his early experiences, Dreiser came to view the world as an arena for struggle and survival. He left his family home in Terre Haute, Indiana, when he was sixteen, and eventually began a journalism career, moving to Chicago, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh. In New York, Drieser's brother Paul, a successful Tin Pan Alley song writer, helped him achieve the editorship of Ev 'ry Month, and Dreiser published his first story in that magazine. After his sixteen-year marriage to Sara Osborne White ended, Dreiser lived with his distant cousin, Helen Richardson, whom he eventually married in 1944. Following a long illness, Dreiser died in Hollywood on December 28, 1945, leaving his novels The Bulwark and The Stoic unfinished.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Perhaps more so than with his novels, Dreiser tended to revise his short fiction nearly obsessively, and those pieces which he collected for his two volumes of stories were almost all rewritten after their first appearance in magazines. Scholars have singled out several of Dreiser's stories as worthy of re-evaluation: "Free," "McEwan of the Shining Slave Makers," "The Lost Phoebe," "Chains," and "Marriage—For One." "Nigger Jeff," however, became Dreiser's most widely-anthologized story, and, like many of his short works, was based upon actual events. In this case, the plot revolves around the criminal trial and eventual lynching of an alleged rapist. This early story, written in 1901, evidences a common theme in Dreiser's fiction: his concern with legal justice, and his contention that all men and women are driven by primal instincts.

Critical Reception

Of his initial attempts as a short story writer, Dreiser wrote: "After every paragraph I blushed for my folly—it seemed so asinine." Known for his long, ponderous novels, the short story form at first appeared alien to Dreiser, and editors rejected many of his stories even when he was at the height of his popularity. While some scholars have lauded Dreiser's willingness to explore grand themes in the short form, many more have maintained that his literary talents were uniquely suited to the long novel form and that his writing style was far too loquacious and circuitous for shorter narratives. Even so, commentators have praised Dreiser's stories for their departure from the conventions of highly-plotted fiction. Moreover, Dreiser's works significantly influenced the realistic narratives by such authors as Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, Jack London, and Ernest Hemingway.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Free and Other Stories 1918

Twelve Men (sketches) 1919

Chains, Lesser Novels and Stories (short stories and novellas) 1927

A Gallery of Women (sketches) 1929

Fine Furniture 1930

The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser 1947

Other Major Works

Sister Carrie (novel) 1900

Jennie Gerhardt (novel) 1911

The Financier (novel) 1912

The Titan (novel) 1914

The "Genius" (novel) 1915

Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub (essays) 1920

A Book About Myself (autobiography) 1922

An American Tragedy (novel) 1925

The Stoic (novel) 1947


H. L. Mencken (review date 1918)

SOURCE: "Dithyrambs Against Learning," in Theodore Dreiser: The Critical Reception, edited by Jack Salzman, David Lewis, 1972, pp. 313-14.

[In the following review of Free and Other Stones, which was originally published in Smart Set, Vol. 57, in November, 1918, Mencken asserts that the most successful of the stories in the collection are constructed as chapters of novels, and that the works which are self-contained, more traditional short stories are failures, because Dreiser's writing style does not lend itself to this form.]

The eleven pieces in Free and Other Stories, by Theodore Dreiser, are the by-products of a dozen years of industrious novel-writing, and are thus somewhat miscellaneous in character and quality. They range from experiments in the fantastic to ventures into realism, and, in tone, from the satirical to the rather laboriously moral. The best of them are "The Lost Phoebe," "The Cruise of the Idlewild," "The Second Choice" and "Free." The last-named is a detailed and searching analysis of a disparate marriage that has yet survived for forty years—an elaborate study of a life-long conflict between impulse and aspiration on the one hand and fear and conformity on the other. Here Dreiser is on his own ground, for the thing is not really a short story, in any ordinary sense, but a chapter from a novel, and he manœuvres in it in his customary deliberate and spacious manner....

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Sherwood Anderson (essay date 1918)

SOURCE: Introduction to Free and Other Stories, The Modern Library, 1918, pp. v-x.

[In the following introduction to Dreiser's Free and Other Stories, Anderson offers a laudatory assessment of Dreiser's literary achievements as well as of his personal integrity and commitment to honesty in his writing.]

Theodore Dreiser is a man who, with the passage of time, is bound to loom larger and larger in the awakening aesthetic consciousness of America. Among all of our prose writers he is one of the few men of whom it may be said that he has always been an honest workman, always impersonal, never a trickster. Read this book of Dreiser's, Free and Other Stories, and then compare it with a book of short stories, say by Bret Harte or O. Henry. The tradition of trick writing began early among us in America and has flowered here like some strange fungus growth. Every one knows there are no plot short stories in life itself and yet the tradition of American short story writing has been built almost entirely upon the plot idea. Human nature, the strange little whims, tragedies and comedies of life itself, have everywhere been sacrificed to the need of plot and one reads the ordinary plot story of the magazines with a kind of growing wonder. "Is there no comedy, no tragedy, no irony in life itself? If it is there why do not our writers find it out and set it forth? Why these everlasting falsehoods, this ever-present bag of tricks?"

One is sometimes convinced, in thinking of the matter, that, among most of our prose writers, there is left no feeling at all for life, and the prose writer, at least the tale teller, who has no feeling for life is no artist. There is the man or woman who walks beside me in the street, works beside me in the office, sits beside me in the theatre. What has happened in the lives of all these people? Why do our writers so determinedly spend all their time inventing people who never had any existence—puppets—these impossible cowboys, detectives, society adventurers? Are most of our successful short story writers too lazy to find out something about life itself, the occasional flashes of wonder and strangeness in life? It is apparent they are. Either they are too lazy or they are afraid of life, tremble before it.

But Theodore Dreiser is not afraid. He does not tremble. Often I have thought of him as the bravest man who has lived in America in our times. Perhaps I exaggerate. He is a man of my own craft and always he has been a heroic figure in my own eyes. He is honest. Never in any line he has ever written will you find him resorting to the trick to get himself out of a hard situation. The beauty and the ironic terror of life is like a wall before him but he faces the wall. He does not mutter cheap little lies in the darkness and to me there is something honorable and fine in the fact that in him there is no lack of courage in facing his materials, that he needs resort to tricks of style to cover.

Dreiser is a middle-westerner, large of frame, rather shy, brusque in manner and in his person singularly free from the common small vanities of the artist class. I often wonder if he knows how much he is loved and respected for what he has done by hundreds of unknown writers everywhere, fellows just trying to get ground under their feet. If there is a modern movement in American prose writing, a movement toward greater courage and fidelity to life in writing, then Theodore Dreiser is the pioneer and the hero of the movement. Of that I think there can be no question. I think it is true now that no American prose writer need hesitate before the task of putting his hands upon his materials. Puritanism, as a choking, smothering force, is dead or dying. We are rapidly approaching the old French standard wherein the only immorality for the artist is in bad art and I think that Theodore Dreiser, the man, has done more than any living American to bring this about. All honor to him. The whole air of America is sweeter to breathe because he had lived and worked here. He has laid a foundation upon which any sort of structure may be built. It will stand the strain. His work has been honestly and finely done. The man has laid so many old ghosts, pounded his way through such a wall of stupid prejudices and fears that today any man coming into the craft of writing comes with a new inheritance of freedom.

In the middle-western country in which Dreiser grew to manhood there could have been no awareness of the artist's obligations. How his own feet...

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Henry Longan Stuart (review date 1927)

SOURCE: "As Usual, Mr. Dreiser Spares Us Nothing," in Theodore Dreiser: The Critical Reception, edited by Jack Salzman, David Lewis, 1972, pp. 504-06.

[In the following review of Chains, which was originally published in The New York Times Book Review on May 15, 1927, Stuart dismisses the collection as tedious and carelessly written.]

One of those clever Frenchmen whose perceptions every one is glad to remember, but whose names every one is resigned to forget, has told us that, in literature, all styles are permissable except one—the boring style ("sauf l'ennuyeux"). No critic with any self-respect, it may be stated at once, is likely to take shelter...

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H. L. Mencken (review date 1930)

SOURCE: "Ladies, Mainly Sad," in American Mercury, Vol. 19, February, 1930, pp. 254-55.

[In the following review of A Gallery of Women, Mencken faults Dreiser's wordplay and narrative style, but praises his ability to capture the essence of his characters. Mencken asserts that A Gallery of Women is "not quite as interesting" as Twelve Men because "women themselves are considerably less interesting than men."]

A Gallery Of Women is a companion to Twelve Men, published in 1919. There are fifteen sketches, each dealing with some woman who impinged upon the author at some time in the past; if the collection is not quite as...

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Howard Fast (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser, edited by Howard Fast, Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1989, pp. 1-5.

[In the following essay from a collection that was originally published in 1947, Fast asserts that "Dreiser has no peer in the American short story," and argues that the key to Dreiser's success as a short story writer lies in the author's tremendous capacity for compassion in creating his narratives and characters.]

One evening recently, a group of us set about making, for our own amusement, a list of the finest short stories in the world. Actually, they were by no means the finest—there are no real absolutes in art—but rather a reflection...

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James T. Farrell (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser, World Publishing Company, 1956, pp. 9-12.

[In the following essay, Farrell praises Dreiser for his achievement in the short story form and for his "healthy pessimism."]

Theodore Dreiser was a good storyteller and this collection contains some of his best stories. Due to the fact that his novels are so powerful and caused so much controversy, his stories have been neglected by critics. But among them are some of the finest and most moving short stories written by an American in this century.

In these tales there is variety of scene and range and depth of emotion. The emotions of...

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Charles Shapiro (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "The Short Stories: No Lies in the Darkness," in Theodore Dreiser: Our Bitter Patriot, Southern Illinois University Press, 1962, pp. 114-23.

[In the following essay, Shapiro examines several of Dreiser's short stories, asserting that while some of them are effective literary achievements, Dreiser's style was more suited to the novel form.]

Students usually get an unfortunate and inadequate introduction to Dreiser's fiction, for though his talent lies in the lengthier form of the novel, he too often is presented as a short-story writer. Assorted collegiate anthologies sandwich his contributions between the shorter efforts of Henry James and Ernest Hemingway, and...

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Donald Pizer (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Theodore Dreiser's 'Nigger Jeff': The Development of an Aesthetic," in American Literature, Vol. XLI, No. 3, November, 1969, pp. 331-41.

[In the following essay, Pizer examines three versions of "Nigger Jeff" to illustrate how Dreiser's artistic emphasis in his writing moved from sentimentality toward moral polemics.]

Thanks to the work of Robert H. Elias and W. A. Swanberg, we are beginning to have an adequate sense of Dreiser's life. But many aspects of Dreiser the artist remain relatively obscure or unexplored—in particular his aesthetic beliefs and fictional techniques at various stages of his career. An excellent opportunity to study Dreiser's...

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Arthur Voss (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "The Short Story in Transition: Stephen Crane, Jack London, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Theodore Dreiser," in The American Short Story: A Critical Survey, University of Oklahoma Press, 1973, pp. 157-82.

[In the following excerpt, Voss surveys several of Dreiser's short stories, and maintains that while the short story form did not lend itself to Dreiser's particular writing style, "few other short-story writers have written more powerfully and movingly on the theme of entrapment."]

Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, of German stock, Theodore Dreiser (1871-1946) was a journalist in his late twenties, who had worked in St. Louis, Chicago, and Pittsburgh when he...

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Don B. Graham (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Dreiser's Ant Tragedy: The Revision of The Shining Slave Makers'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 41-8.

[In the following essay, Graham compares two versions of "The Shining Slave Makers" and notes how Dreiser stressed the struggle for life and "humanistic" values in the latter version.]

In 1900 Theodore Dreiser wrote a long letter to Robert Underwood Johnson, the associate editor of the Century, protesting his decision not to publish Dreiser's "ant tragedy," a short story titled "The Shining Slave Makers" [Letters of Theodore Dreiser, 1959]. The letter championed imagination and emotional power over rigid...

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Yoshinobu Hakutani (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "The Making of Dreiser's Early Short Stories: The Philosopher and the Artist," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 47-63.

[In the following essay, Hakutani traces the common belief that Dreiser's thought was inconsistentromantic, realist, mystic simultaneouslyto the early short stories.]

In the summer of 1899, shortly before the writing of Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser tried his hand at the short story, his first concentrated effort to write fiction. Whatever technical devices he might have conceived, or whatever technical difficulties he might have encountered in producing his first short stories, the...

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Yoshinobu Hakutani (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "The Dream of Success in Dreiser's A Gallery of Women" in Zeitschrift Fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Vol. 27, No. 3, 1979, pp. 236-46.

[In the following essay, Hakutani examines Dreiser's treatment of women characters in A Gallery of Women, paying particular attention to the character's dream of success.]


Although Theodore Dreiser is often regarded as a pioneer among modern American novelists for the characterization of woman, very little critical attention has been paid to A Gallery of Women (1929). Upon its publication, this collection of fifteen semifictional portraits was compared to his Twelve...

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Vinoda (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Don Juans and 'Dancing Dogs': A Note on Dreiser's A Gallery of Women," in Indian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2, July, 1983, pp. 147-55.

[In the following essay, Vinoda suggests that Dreiser's portrayal of women in A Gallery of Women is far from being as woman-affirming as other critics have argued, presenting women primarily as physical objects and defining them mainly in terms of their relationships with men.]

American society was not ready to receive Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) and Jennie Gerhardt (1911) when they appeared, since the portraits of women presented in them were far ahead of the times: the female...

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Lawrence E. Hussman, Jr. (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "The Marriage Group," in Dreiser and His Fiction: A Twentieth-Century Quest, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983, pp. 113-25.

[In the following essay, Hussman illustrates how in his "marriage group" tales, which Hussman argues are the best of Dreiser's short stories, Dreiser explores his thematic struggle between self-interest and self-sacrifice. ]

In a series of short stories that first appeared in various magazines, Dreiser examined in detail the mostly harmful effects of marriage on both husbands and wives. Like Chaucer's "marriage group," the set of tales told by certain of the Canterbury pilgrims, Dreiser's stories focus on the need for balancing the...

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Joseph Griffin (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Dreiser's Later Sketches," in The Dreiser Newsletter, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fall, 1985, pp. 1-13.

[In the following essay, Griffin surveys the character sketches collected in Twelve Men and A Gallery of Women, as well as the uncollected stories known as the "Black Sheep" series.]

In 1919 and 1929 respectively Theodore Dreiser published his two collections of character sketches Twelve Men and A Gallery of Women. Several months before the publication of the latter on November 30, 1929, his six-part serialization of "This Madness—An Honest Novel about Love" began appearing in Hearst's International-Cosmopolitan. Twelve...

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Joseph Griffin (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Later Stories: 1929-1938," in The Small Canvas: An Introduction to Dreiser's Short Stories, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985, pp. 111-27.

[In the following essay, Griffin discusses the stories that came after the publication of Chains: "Fine Furniture," "Solution," "Tabloid Tragedy," "A Start in Life," and "The Tithe of the Lord. "]

Two years after the publication of Chains, Dreiser's short fiction was in the magazines again with the two-part serialization of a story entitled "Fine Furniture" in Household Magazine, a Topeka, Kansas, monthly of excellent quality, according to [Frank Luther] Mott [in A History of American...

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Further Reading


Boswell, Jeanetta. Theodore Dreiser and the Critics, 1911-1982. Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, 1986, 305 p.

A partially annotated bibliography of selected works by and about Dreiser.

Pizer, Donald, Richard W. Dowell, and Frederic E. Rusch. Theodore Dreiser: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1975, 515 p.

A comprehensive bibliography of works by and about Dreiser.


Asselineau, Roger. "Theodore Dreiser's Transcendentalism." In The Transcendentalist Constant...

(The entire section is 594 words.)