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.