The enigma that is Theodore Dreiser divides the critical world into two clearly identifiable camps: those who despise Dreiser and those who honor him just short of adulation—there is no middle ground. With the publication of Sister Carrie in 1900, Dreiser committed his literary force to opening the new ground of American naturalism. His heroes and heroines, his settings, his clear dissection of the mechanistic brutality of American society, and his frank discussion, celebration, and humanization of sex—all were new and shocking to a reading public reared on genteel romances and adventurenarratives. Jennie Gerhardt, the Cowperwood trilogy (at least the first two volumes), and An American Tragedy expand and clarify the themes introduced in Sister Carrie. Dreiser’s genius was recognized and applauded by H. L. Mencken, who encouraged him, praised his works publicly, and was always a valued editorial confidant, but the general reaction to Dreiser has always been negative. He has been called a “crag of basalt,” “solemn and ponderous,” and “the world’s worst great writer,” but his influence is evident in the works of Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, and James T. Farrell, among others. Lewis refused the 1925 Pulitzer Prize, which probably should have gone to Dreiser for An American Tragedy, and in 1930 took the Nobel Prize Committee to task for choosing him as the first American Nobelist in literature instead of Dreiser.
Dreiser’s political and social activism during the long hiatus between An American Tragedy and The Bulwark, and his never-ending battle against censors and censorship, kept him in the public eye, and the failure of The Bulwark and The Stoic consigned him to years of neglect after his death. His works’ technical and stylistic faults have often obscured their real value, but the effects of Dreiser’s works are still rippling through American fiction. He was the first to point out the fragile vulnerability of the facade that was understood to be the American Dream and to depict the awful but beautiful reality that supports the facade.