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.
  • Dreiser was a committed socialist and visited the Soviet Union.
  • His brother, Paul Dresser (who was born Johann Paul Dreiser) was a famous singer, songwriter and comedic actor.
  • 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 interested in returning from his first European vacation on the Titanic but was talked out of it in favor of a cheaper voyage.
  • Dreiser was a good friend and supporter of birth control advocate Margaret Sanger.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2757

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.

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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, after several job changes, he assumed a significant editorial post at an excellent salary with Butterick Publishing Company. His personal drive, meticulous attention to detail, imaginative leadership, and friendly relations with his talented staff resulted in Dreiser’s great success at Butterick, with which he remained until 1910, when he left to pursue his creative writing.

With the publication of Jennie Gerhardt (1911), Dreiser began a burst of creative energy that lasted fifteen years and witnessed the bulk of his finest literary achievement. Like Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt traces the fortunes of a kept woman. Nobler than Carrie, Jennie is a lower-class working girl who leaves her wealthy lover when she realizes that she is an impediment to his career. The novel details the social barriers between the classes, belying the American notion of a classless society. Also like Sister Carrie, though it was not suppressed, Jennie Gerhardt won the attention of a Puritanical readership that regarded its depiction of illicit love and illegitimate birth as a menace to the moral standards of the country.

Next came The Financier (1912), the first book in Dreiser’s “trilogy of desire,” a series tracing the activities of Frank Cowperwood, a businessman and financier based on street-railway magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes. The second novel of the trilogy, The Titan (1914), focuses on Cowperwood’s ruthless stock manipulations and sexual appetite. After printing and promoting the novel, Harper and Row refused to publish it, but with his recent successes, Dreiser was able to find another publisher. The Stoic (1947) was the final book of the trilogy which, though begun much earlier, was published posthumously.

The “Genius” (1915) again brought Dreiser into conflict with censorship. The story of Eugene Witla, a sensitive dreamer and a gifted realistic artist who disregarded social conventions in pursuit of his painting and sexual variety, the novel is based on Dreiser’s own career, a kind of self-portrait of the artist. Though the novel’s central concern is Dreiser’s favorite thematic motifs, the individual pitted against society’s conventions and the notion of life as a struggle for survival, reviewers and the Puritanical element of the reading public instead focused their attention on the frank details of marital discord and sexuality. Condemned for its so-called obscenity and blasphemy by both the Western (Cleveland) and the New York societies for prevention of vice and threatened with lawsuits, in 1916 the novel was withdrawn by publisher John Lane. After protracted litigation, Dreiser gave up the battle, and The “Genius” remained out of print until 1923.

Dreiser’s next novel, and perhaps his finest, was An American Tragedy (1925). It follows the grim life of the hapless Clyde Griffiths, who rises from his slum birth to achieve material success and the prospect of a fortunate marriage into a wealthy, upper-class family. Yet a pregnant mistress stands in his way. Determined to murder her, he botches the preparation, loses his nerve at the critical moment, but then is ironically tried, convicted, and electrocuted for her murder when she accidentally drowns. The novel combines all the central concerns of Dreiser’s art. It is a Socialist indictment of the American capitalist economic system. It is a naturalistic depiction of man struggling feebly against the massive victimizing forces of environment, heredity, and fate. It also relies upon Dreiser’s mechanistic theory of life, in which chemical forces compel man to act in prescribed ways. Dreiser based much of An American Tragedy on the court records of an actual trial of Chester Gillette, who, in 1906, murdered his pregnant girlfriend when their relationship threatened his economic and social prospects. The novel, in a unique blend of fact and fiction, uses substantial sections of the trial transcript, sometimes verbatim. Though banned in Boston for corrupting the morals of youth, An American Tragedy was clearly the most publicly successful of Dreiser’s novels, gaining for him a wide reading audience and later being made into a film.

Dreiser’s reputation as a major author firmly established, he wrote only one more novel, The Bulwark (1946), published posthumously. Yet though his finest achievements lay in novel writing, Dreiser produced work in various genres. Most notable are several short-story collections, Free and Other Stories (1918), Twelve Men (1919), Chains (1927), and A Gallery of Women (1929); a number of plays, Plays of the Natural and Supernatural (1916), The Hand of the Potter (1918); essays collected in Hey Rub-a-Dub Dub! (1920); the autobiographical A Book About Myself (1922) and Dawn (1931); and the poetry of Moods: Cadenced and Declaimed (1926).

After his success with An American Tragedy, Dreiser traveled to the Soviet Union, the trip resulting in a political book, Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928), and in a swing toward Communism. A witness to Depression-bred social despair and misery, he began to turn most of his public attention to aiding the economically and socially disadvantaged. In 1931, he even accepted the chairmanship of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, and, for the next ten years, he championed the underdog at every opportunity.

In 1944, Dreiser was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters when he became the recipient of that organization’s Award of Merit for his fiction. He also married Helen Richardson on June 13. On July 20, 1945, Dreiser applied and was accepted for membership in the Communist Party. Only months later, on December 28, at his home in Hollywood, California, Dreiser died of a heart attack. On February 1, 1946, Dreiser’s will was filed for probate. In a final gesture, in keeping with his social activities and deep sensitivity toward the disadvantaged, Dreiser left his estate to his wife Helen, requesting that upon her death she bequeath the bulk of the estate to a black orphanage.

Summary

Since his death, Dreiser’s reputation has steadily ascended, reaching a significant and secure place in the twentieth century American scene. Perhaps it is the raw power that springs from the pages of his novels in unsparing honesty and realism that has earned greatness for him and has most influenced American culture.

The principal theme in Dreiser’s work is the conflict between the individual and society, a theme which is not unique. Yet Dreiser’s focus was an especially modern application of the theme to the largely urban, industrialized America that had sprung up after the Civil War to replace the former agrarian society. He was the first American novelist to depict powerfully and with startling directness the modern world of business and capitalism, the first to depict the appalling depersonalization of the individual caught in the pressure to conform in an urban society. In uncompromising detail and frankness, he revealed an America in which the measure of a person’s success was the pursuit and acquisition of material possessions and status. Inevitably confronting the powerful, unyielding forces of a class-structured society, his characters and their bleak fates gave the lie once and for all to the American myth of a classless society. As Alfred Kazin tellingly observes of the attempted suppression of and shocked critical reaction to Sister Carrie’s publication, the novel “did not have a bad press; it had a frightened press, with many of the reviewers plainly impressed, but startled by the concentrated truthfulness of the book.”

Dreiser was also significant as a major influence on the American naturalist school of writers. Shaped largely by scientific evolutionary theorists such as Herbert Spencer, Aldous Huxley, and Charles Darwin, Dreiser’s philosophy of life was developed in the novels as a mechanistic and deterministic struggle for survival. Relentlessly, he depicted the pathos of human behavior directed by the twin compulsions of biological and environmental forces which he labeled “chemisms.” Among the writers strongly influenced by Dreiser were Sinclair Lewis, James T. Farrell, and John Steinbeck.

Finally, in insisting upon the author’s duty to treat sex as a major force in human lives and in refusing to cave in to the repressive forces in American society, Dreiser led the struggle to shatter the influence of the narrow, mean-minded minority who were the self-appointed arbiters of American moral standards. In 1900, Sister Carrie was effectively suppressed; in 1925 An American Tragedy, though similarly attacked, not only was published but also gained numerous critical proponents and a wide reading public. More than any other writer, Dreiser was responsible for the changed attitudes in the United States which arose during the twenty-five years between these two novels. Undoubtedly, his long and often bitter struggles against prurient, Puritanical, would-be censors helped to smooth the way for the even more frank and similarly honest treatment of sex in the next generation of writers.

Bibliography

Elias, Robert H. Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948. Rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970. A critical biography that follows the events in Dreiser’s life that most directly influenced his literary production. Emphasizes Dreiser’s social concerns and sympathy for the individual. Contains an excellent annotated survey of research and criticism.

Gerber, Philip L. Theodore Dreiser. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1964. An objective critical biography that relates Dreiser’s life experiences to his literary achievements. First major biographer to have access to Dreiser’s published letters.

Kazin, Alfred, and Charles Shapiro, eds. The Stature of Theodore Dreiser. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955. This collection gathers a wide, representative selection of significant essays on Dreiser, ranging from personal reminiscences to critical evaluations.

Lehan, Richard. Theodore Dreiser: His World and His Novels. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. Systematically discusses the elements of Dreiser’s life that helped to influence the genesis, evolution, pattern, and meaning of his novels.

Lydenberg, John, comp. Dreiser: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. This collection gathers fifteen critical essays, ranging from early to modern appraisals. A balanced sampling of reactions to Dreiser’s art.

Matthiessen, F. O. Theodore Dreiser. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1951. Principally a book of detailed literary criticism. Thoughtful and perceptive analysis of Dreiser’s artistic virtues.

Pizer, Donald, Richard W. Powell, and Frederic E. Rusch. Theodore Dreiser: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1975. The most comprehensive bibliography on Dreiser, this book provides a quick, accurate guide to a sweeping list of writings by and about Dreiser.

Shapiro, Charles. Theodore Dreiser: Our Bitter Patriot. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962. A careful critical analysis of the novels, based on their varying thematic concerns.

Swanberg, W. A. Dreiser. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965. A pure biography, this book does not attempt literary criticism but brings together more materials and sources than any other. The most comprehensive biography.

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Critical Essays