Theodore Dreiser Biography

Theodore Dreiser Biography

Theodore Dreiser was praised as “the greatest living realist” of the early twentieth century. Dreiser’s novels often reflect the tension between parents who immigrate to the New World and the children they raise under its shifting cultural and moral values. And although his works stand on their own artistic merit, Dreiser is probably almost as famous for the literary censorship that plagued him as much as for his writing itself. For example, Sister Carrie (probably his best-known work, and based heavily on his own sister’s affair with a married man) almost did not get published at all because of its perceived immorality. After much wrangling, the novel went on to achieve great critical success, and Dreiser himself had a long career, writing a total of twenty-seven works before he died in 1945.

Facts and Trivia

  • Dreiser was the ninth of ten surviving children. He grew up impoverished and did not graduate from high school.
  • A strict Catholic school upbringing turned the author off of Catholicism in general. His struggle with public schools and faith is a frequent theme of his work.
  • He suffered writer’s block for a period of three years but overcame it to write prolifically in the 1930s and 1940s.
  • Dreiser worked as the managing editor of a women’s magazine called Ev’ry Month. While at the magazine, he wrote book and art reviews, considered social problems, and posed philosophical questions.
  • Dreiser was a good friend and supporter of birth control advocate Margaret Sanger.


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
ph_0111201205-Dreiser.jpg Theodore Dreiser Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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
On Halloween!

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.

Life’s Work

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.)

Theodore Dreiser Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser was virtually the first widely recognized American writer whose background lacked connection with the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment; his father was a Catholic emigrant from Germany, and Theodore grew up, with nine siblings, in a relatively impoverished, strictly religious family. Dreiser rejected his father’s religion; he maintained a sympathy for the poor and various relations with his brothers and sisters (including the writer of very popular songs, such as “My Gal Sal,” Paul Dreiser), a number of whom provided him with prototypes for his fictional characters. Leaving his Indiana home at fifteen to go to Chicago, Dreiser was fascinated with the raw and vital city, where he worked at a variety of jobs, pausing to spend one term at Indiana University before beginning a career as a journalist.

From Chicago this career took him to St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and New York, where he eventually became established as a successful magazine editor. In 1908 he married his first wife; the marriage lasted until her death in 1941, with many problems, some of them reflected in stories such as “Free” and “Chains.” Although his journalistic experiences had given him potential material and writing practice, Dreiser was late in turning to fiction; his first short story was not completed until he was twenty-eight, but having begun, he went on to write other stories and have his first novel, Sister Carrie, appear in 1900. While Sister Carrie, in which the heroine loses her virtue and survives, unrepentant, was in effect suppressed by its publisher because of its unconventional morality, Dreiser was launched upon his career as a writer of fiction.

Subsequent financial troubles, a partial mental breakdown, marital problems not unrelated to Dreiser’s apparent constitutional aversion to monogamy, and continual attacks by the literary, moral, and economic establishments, rather than permanently halting this career, provided it with raw material. With the appearance of his novel An American Tragedy, Dreiser, at fifty-four, finally achieved significant financial success and wide acceptance, although his difficult personality, sexual varietism, drinking, anti-Semitism, and communist sympathies kept him involved in controversy. Near the end of his life he both developed an interest in Eastern mysticism and joined the Communist Party. He died in 1945.

Theodore Dreiser Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on August 27, 1871, into a family of German Americans. His father, John Paul Dreiser, was a weaver by trade, and from the time of his entry into the United States (in 1846), he had worked westward in an attempt to establish himself. He induced Sarah Schanab (later shortened to Shnepp), the daughter of an Ohio Moravian, to elope with him, and they settled near Fort Wayne. John Paul became the manager in a woolen mill and soon amassed enough funds to build his own mill in Sullivan, Indiana. In 1870, the year before Theodore’s birth, the mill burned, John Paul was seriously injured, Sarah was cheated out of the family property by unscrupulous “yankee trickery,” and...

(The entire section is 701 words.)

Theodore Dreiser Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Theodore Dreiser began his writing career as a journalist, and his novels incorporate journalistic content and technique. By relying heavily on real experience, Dreiser was able to represent the longings of Americans, especially young, urban Americans, who, like himself, wanted success but often experienced failure. His father had been a skilled weaver, but by the time Dreiser was born, the ninth of ten children, his father had failed, and the family lived in poverty, moving from house to house, city to city. On one occasion the family was humiliated and forced to move when one of Dreiser’s unmarried sisters became pregnant. Although his father was unable to support the family, he attempted to maintain a rigid Catholic morality...

(The entire section is 358 words.)

Theodore Dreiser Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Dreiser looms as an important figure in pre-1920 American literature because his controversial novels contained powerful messages, and because he stood firmly against attempts by censors to ban his views. Dreiser broke with the literary traditions of the early 1900’s, writing realistic fiction in which his characters often violate society’s code of moral behavior but are not always punished for their transgressions. His battles over censorship began with Sister Carrie (1900), reached a crescendo with The “Genius” (1915), and continued sporadically throughout his life.

Sister Carrie went against the grain of the genteel tradition in which fiction always taught a moral lesson, with...

(The entire section is 462 words.)

Theodore Dreiser Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser (DRI-sur), born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on August 27, 1871, is one of the most puzzling figures of twentieth century American literature. No other major author has survived so much hostile criticism, nor has any other author of his stature displayed so much paradoxical thinking. Yet despite his inconsistencies and blunders, Dreiser’s position is unshakable. His influence on the naturalistic American novel has been enormous; moreover, there is in his writing a peculiar power and honesty that is not to be found anywhere else.

The son of a desperately poor and narrowly religious family, Dreiser developed intense feelings about poverty and social restraint that are manifest in all of his...

(The entire section is 814 words.)

Theodore Dreiser Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser was the twelfth of thirteen children born to John Paul Dreiser and Sarah Schnepp Dreiser. John Paul Dreiser, a weaver, had come from Mayhen, Germany, in the mid-1840’s, settling in New England. After several years, he moved to a German community in Indiana, where he met Sarah, the daughter of a Mennonite farmer. Because Dreiser was unable to find work in this community, he and Sarah eloped to Dayton, Ohio, but returned to Fort Wayne, Indiana, before their first child was born.

At first, the elder Dreiser tried to build a secure life for his family, establishing his own woolen mill at Sullivan, Indiana, in 1867. Unfortunately, the mill burned to the ground just when it was starting to...

(The entire section is 979 words.)

Theodore Dreiser Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In all of his works, Dreiser portrayed society realistically. His observations of life taught him that human destiny is often affected by accidents of fate and by deep human yearnings or drives—particularly the drives toward money and sex. Yet Dreiser never felt that people are totally at the mercy of these forces, with no will of their own, even though individuals who are emotionally strong by nature seem more successful in coping with fate and drives than those who are passive or weak. Dreiser treated all of his characters with sympathy, however, proving himself to be a man of compassion.

(The entire section is 101 words.)

Theodore Dreiser Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Theodore Dreiser, a prominent American author and journalist, was born on August 27, 1871 in the rural town of Terre Haute, Indiana. He grew...

(The entire section is 225 words.)

Theodore Dreiser Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Theodore Dreiser was a prominent American author and journalist born on August 27,1871, in Terre Haute, Indiana. He grew up in a poor farm...

(The entire section is 195 words.)

Theodore Dreiser Biography

(Novels for Students)

Theodore Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on August 27, 1871. He was the twelfth of thirteen children of John, a German immigrant,...

(The entire section is 478 words.)

Theodore Dreiser Biography

(Novels for Students)

Theodore Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on August 27, 1871. Dreiser’s father, John Paul, fled to America from Germany to avoid...

(The entire section is 369 words.)