Theodore Dreiser Dreiser, Theodore (Literary Masters) - Essay


(Literary Masters)

Theodore Dreiser


1871: Theodore Dreiser is born on 27 August in Terre Haute, Indiana, the ninth child of John Paul Dreiser, a worker in woolen mills, and Sarah Schänäb Dreiser.

1871–1880: Dreiser spends his boyhood in Terre Haute; his family is very poor.

1880–1884: The Dreiser family begins dispersing. Dreiser lives with his mother in Vincennes, Sullivan, and Evansville, Indiana. His eldest sibling, Paul, now a well-known songwriter and entertainer who uses the last name Dresser, often helps them. Dreiser spends several months in Chicago in the spring of 1884.

1884–1887: Dreiser lives in Warsaw, Indiana, with his family. He attends high school and, encouraged by his teachers, reads widely.

1887–1889: Dreiser lives in Chicago with a portion of his family and works as a dishwasher and hardware clerk.

1889–1890: Dreiser spends a year as a special student at Indiana University in Bloomington, sponsored by a former high-school teacher, Mildred Fielding.

1890–1891: Dreiser works in Chicago as a real-estate salesman and an installment–plan bill collector; his mother dies in November 1890.

1892: Dreiser obtains his first newspaper job, as a reporter for the Chicago Globe. In November he becomes a reporter for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

1893: In April, Dreiser moves to The St. Louis Republic. He becomes engaged to Sara (Sallie) Osborne White, a Missouri schoolteacher.

1894: Dreiser quits his job with the Republic in January and begins work for the Pittsburgh Dispatch. He reads much of the works of Honoré de Balzac and Herbert Spencer at the local public library. In November, Dreiser moves to New York and works briefly for the New York World.

1895–1897: Dreiser is editor of Ev‘ry Month, a magazine devoted principally to publishing popular songs but also featuring reviews, interviews, and editorial columns, most of which are written by Dreiser himself. He leaves Ev‘ry Month in August 1897 to continue his career as a magazine journalist.

1897–1898: Dreiser is a contributor to Munsey’s, Ainslee’s, Cosmopolitan, Success, and other journals. He marries Sara White on 28 December 1898.

1899: The Dreisers spend the summer in Maumee, Ohio, as guests of Arthur Henry and his wife. Henry urges Dreiser to write fiction, and Dreiser completes four stories, his first significant efforts in the form. Henry encourages Dreiser to attempt a novel. Back in New York, Dreiser begins work on Sister Carrie in October.

1900: Dreiser completes Sister Carrie in late spring. The novel is rejected by Harper’s but accepted by Doubleday, Page, on the recommendation of Frank Norris, the author of McTeague (1899). Doubleday becomes troubled by the novel and wishes to cancel the agreement to publish, but Dreiser insists. The novel appears in November with no advertising and sells poorly. (This incident later becomes known as the “suppression” of Sister Carrie.) Dreiser’s father dies in December.

1901: Dreiser begins work on a new novel, Jennie Gerhardt, but becomes depressed and makes little progress; his magazine writing declines. Late in the year he begins a series of frequent moves.

1902–1903: Dreiser’s depression and physical ailments continue. In the spring of 1903, down and out in Brooklyn, he is persuaded by his brother Paul to enter a sanatorium, where he begins a recovery. Dreiser takes a recuperative job as a helper and clerk with a railroad company from June to December, an experience that forms the subject of his posthumously published memoir, An Amateur Laborer (1983).

1904–1909: Dreiser resumes his journalistic career in New York. He is feature editor of the New York Daily News (1904), performs editorial work for the dime-novel publishing firm Street and Smith (1905), and serves as the editor of Smith’s Magazine and Broadway Magazine (1906–1907) and of the prestigious Butterick magazine The Delineator (1907–1910). Paul Dresser dies in 1906. Sister Carrie is republished in 1907. Dreiser begins his lifelong literary and personal association with H. L. Mencken in 1908.

1910: Dreiser is fired by The Delineator after he attempts to have an affair with the daughter of an employee. He resumes writing fiction and completes Jennie Gerhardt.

1911–1912: Dreiser completes the first draft of The “Genius” and begins the first volume of the Cowperwood Trilogy, The Financier. Jennie Gerhardt is published in October 1911. Dreiser embarks in November on his first trip to Europe, visiting England, France, Italy, and Germany. He returns in April and completes and publishes The Financier.

1913: Dreiser works in Chicago on the second volume of the Cowper-wood Trilogy, The Titan. A Traveler at Forty, an account of his European trip, is published. He begins a relationship with the actress Kirah Markham.

1914: The Titan is published. Dreiser revises The “Genius” and begins work on The Bulwark, a novel of Quaker life, which he works on sporadically for over thirty years. He writes a number of one-act plays and the first volume of his autobiography, Dawn. He makes a final break with Sara Dreiser and begins a five-year residence in Greenwich Village.

1915: Plays of the Natural and the Supernatural and The “Genius” are published. Dreiser makes an automobile trip to Indiana with an artist friend, Franklin Booth. The trip serves as the basis for A Hoosier Holiday (1916).

1916: The “Genius” is attacked as obscene by The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice; Mencken and many others come to the defense of the novel, but it is withdrawn by its publisher, John Lane. A Hoosier Holiday is published. Dreiser writes The Hand of the Potter, a play about a sex maniac.

1917: Dreiser works on The Bulwark and Newspaper Days, the second volume of his autobiography.

1918: Free and Other Stories is published by Boni and Liveright, marking the beginning of a long association between Dreiser and the publisher Horace Liveright.

1919: Twelve Men, a volume of biographical sketches, and The Hand of the Potter are published. Dreiser begins a lifelong relationship with Helen Patges Richardson, an aspiring actress. He moves with her to Los Angeles, where he is to remain until late 1922 while she pursues a film career.

1920: Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub, a book of philosophical essays, is published. Dreiser begins work on An American Tragedy.

1921–1922: Dreiser returns to New York with Helen in October 1922, settling again in Greenwich Village. He works on The Stoic, the final novel of the Cowperwood Trilogy. Newspaper Days is published in late 1922 under the title A Book about Myself. (Dreiser restored the title to his preferred Newspaper Days in the 1931 republication of the work.)

1923: Dreiser signs a long-term publishing agreement with Liveright, who republishes The “Genius” and publishes The Color of a Great City, a collection of New York sketches. Dreiser visits upstate New York to engage in research for scenes in An American Tragedy.

1924: Dreiser works on An American Tragedy.

1925: After undergoing severe cutting and editing, An American Tragedy is published in two volumes in December.

1926: An American Tragedy is a critical and popular success. Dreiser sells the movie rights; a stage version of the novel opens in New York in October. He takes a lengthy European trip with Helen; the couple then moves into a deluxe apartment on Fifty-seventh Street in New York. Moods, a collection of Dreiser’s poems, is published. (Revised editions appear in 1928 and 1935.)

1927: Dreiser publishes a revised and shortened version of The Financier and a second collection of short fiction, Chains. He buys an estate at Mount Kisco, north of New York. He takes a trip to the Soviet Union in October, at the invitation of the Soviet government.

1928: Dreiser returns from the Soviet Union in January. He visits Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in connection with his growing interest in scientific ideas. Dreiser begins construction of a home, Iroki, on the Mount Kisco property. Dreiser Looks at Russia is published.

1929: A Gallery of Women, a collection of semifictional sketches of women Dreiser has known, is published.

1930: Dreiser takes a three-month tour of the American Southwest and negotiates with Paramount over a sound–movie version of An American Tragedy.

1931: Dawn, Dreiser’s autobiography of his earliest years that he completed in 1914, and Tragic America, an attack on social injustice in the United States, are published. He has a bitter dispute with Paramount over the movie version of An American Tragedy. Dreiser becomes increasingly involved with left-wing causes, playing an active role in the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, supporting the Scottsboro Boys, and visiting Harlan County, Kentucky, to aid striking coal miners. He gives up his Fifty-seventh Street apartment.

1932–1933: Dreiser works on The Stoic. In early 1932 he becomes an editor of a new literary and social journal, the American Spectator.

1934: Dreiser resigns from the American Spectator. He works on a book of philosophy, “The Formula Called Man,” dealing with man’s place in a mechanistic world.

1935–1937: Dreiser works on his philosophical book; he has health and money troubles.

1938: Dreiser undertakes another trip abroad, attending a meeting of the International Association for Defense of Political Prisoners in Paris and visiting Loyalist Spain. On return, he petitions President Franklin D. Roosevelt for American aid to the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War. Dreiser moves with Helen in December to Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles.

1939–1940: Dreiser works on The Bulwark. Adopting the American Communist Party position, he attacks American support of Britain in World War II and endorses the Communist Party candidate, Earl Browder, in the 1940 presidential election. Dreiser sells the screen rights to Sister Carrie to RKO Pictures and buys a house in West Hollywood.

1941: Dreiser’s America Is Worth Saving, an anti-British, procommunist polemic, is published. He lectures and writes on America’s need to stay out of the war but changes his position after the Germans attack the Soviet Union in July.

1942: Dreiser works on The Bulwark. Sara Dreiser dies.

1943: Dreiser works on his philosophy book, now titled “The Mechanism Called Man” (published posthumously in 1974 as Notes on Life).

1944: Dreiser takes his last trip to New York, to receive the Award of Merit Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He returns to the West Coast and marries Helen. Dreiser invites his old friend Marguerite Tjader Harris to Los Angeles to aid in the completion of The Bulwark.

1945: Dreiser completes The Bulwark, which is published posthumously in 1946. He joins the American Communist Party. He works on The Stoic and almost completes the revision of its final chapters before suffering a fatal heart attack on 28 December. (The Stoic is published posthumously in 1947.) Dreiser is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.

About Theodore Dreiser

(Literary Masters)

Born: 27 August 1871, in Terre Haute, Indiana

Died: 28 December 1945, in Hollywood, California

Married: Sara “Sallie” Osborne White, 28 December 1898; Helen Patges Richardson, 13 June 1944

Education: Attended Indiana University


Although the significant facts of Theodore Dreiser’s childhood can be easily summarized, their impact on his views of human nature and...

(The entire section is 14022 words.)

Dreiser at Work

(Literary Masters)


The difficulties Dreiser encountered in attempting to publish his first novel, Sister Carrie, were symptomatic of those he faced throughout his career. One was the matter of length. Dreiser was the kind of author whom Thomas Wolfe, himself the author of extremely long novels, called a “putter-inner.”1 Dreiser’s fictional roots were in the nineteenth-century novel, in a form, that is, in which multiple lines of action, the author’s...

(The entire section is 2979 words.)

Dreiser’s Era

(Literary Masters)

One of Dreiser’s major fictional strengths was his ability to portray fully and with insight the nature of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American life. Other writers at other periods have, of course, also performed this function. What is distinctive about Dreiser in this role is both the specific character of the period in which he flourished and his own...

(The entire section is 10477 words.)

Dreiser’s Works

(Literary Masters)


Sister Carrie. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1900; revised, edited by John C. Berkey and others. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981. The youthful Carrie Meeber comes to Chicago from a small Wisconsin town in quest of a better life. She is miserable working in a shoe...

(The entire section is 8168 words.)

Dreiser on his Novels

(Literary Masters)



In the following excerpt from the first volume of his autobiography, A History of Myself: Dawn, Dreiser recounts the amorous adventures of his sisters in Chicago in 1884, when the Dreiser family was temporarily resident in the city and Dreiser was thirteen. Since several of his sisters were still alive in 1931, when Dawn was...

(The entire section is 18186 words.)

Dreiser as Studied

(Literary Masters)



Dreiser wrote principally within the conventions of the biographical novel as established early in the history of the genre. Each of his novels tells a life story from birth or youth through the defining acts of adulthood to equilibrium or death. His novels are rich in detail and are told in the third person, with the narrative voice given a great deal of freedom to comment on the action and move the story forward chronologically. Dreiser thus wrote against the grain of the powerful twentieth-century strain of modernistic experimentation in writing, a strain that had its origins in the 1890s in the fiction of...

(The entire section is 1120 words.)

Study Questions

(Literary Masters)


1. Study Dreiser’s portrayal of his sisters in his autobiographical volume A History of Myself: Dawn. How are their experiences reflected in those of the title characters in Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt?

2. Using Dreiser’s autobiographical Newspaper Days as a source, compare his experiences with city life to the depiction of city life in Sister Carrie.


(The entire section is 857 words.)


(Literary Masters)



Dreiser, Helen. My Life with Dreiser. Cleveland: World, 1951.

Elias, Robert H.Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature. New York: Knopf, 1949; revised, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970.

Elias, ed. Letters of Theodore Dreiser, 3 volumes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959.

Lingeman, Richard. Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871–1907. New York: Putnam, 1986.

Lingeman. Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey, 1908-1945. New York: Putnam, 1990.

Riggio, Thomas P., ed. Dreiser-Mencken Letters: The Correspondence of Theodore Dreiser & H.L. Mencken, 1907-1945, 2 volumes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.

Swanberg, W.A. Dreiser. New York: Scribners, 1965.

Pizer, Donald, Richard W. Dowell, and Frederic E. Rusch. Theodore Dreiser: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1975; revised as Theodore Dreiser: A Primary Bibliography and Reference Guide. Boston:G.K. Hall, 1991.


Gogol, Miriam, ed. Theodore Dreiser: Beyond Naturalism. New York: NewYork University Press, 1995.

Kazin, Alfred, and Charles Shapiro, eds. The Stature of Theodore Dreiser. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955.

Pizer, Donald, ed. Critical Essays on Theodore Dreiser. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1981.

Salzman, Jack, ed. Theodore Dreiser: The Critical Reception. New York: David Lewis, 1972.


Eby, Clare. Dreiser and Veblen: Saboteurs of the Staus Quo. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.

Gerber, Philip. Theodore Dreiser. New York:Twayne, 1964; revised as Theodore Dreiser Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Hussman, Lawrence E., Jr. Dreiser and His Fiction: A Twentieth-Century Quest. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Lehan, Richard. Theodore Dreiser: His World and His Novels. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

Matthiessen, E.O. Theodore Dreiser. NewYork: Sloane, 1951.

Moers, Ellen. Two Dreisers. New York: Viking, 1969.

Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976.

Warren, Robert Penn. Homage to Theodore Dreiser. New York: Random House, 1971.

Zanine, Louis J.Mechanism and Mysticism:The Influence of Science on the Thought and Work of Theodore Dreiser. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.


Anderson, Sherwood. “Dreiser.” In his Horses and Men: Tales, Long and Short, from Our American Life. New York: Huebsch, 1923.

Fisher, Philip. “The Life History of Objects: The Naturalist Novel and the City.” In his Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Kazin, Alfred. “Two Educations: Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser.” In his On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modem American Prose Literature. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1942.

Mencken, H. L. “Theodore Dreiser.” In his A Book of Prefaces. New York: Knopf, 1917.

Sherman, Stuart. “The Barbaric Naturalism of Theodore Dreiser.” In his On Contemporary Literature. New York: Holt, 1917.

Shulman, Robert. “Dreiser and the Dynamics of American Capitalism.” In his Social Criticism and Nineteenth-Century American Fictions. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.

Trilling, Lionel. “Reality in America.” In his The Liberal Imagination. New York:Viking, 1950.

Vivas, Eliseo. “Dreiser, An Inconsistent Naturalist.” Ethics, 48 (1938): 498–508.

Walcutt, Charles C. “Theodore Dreiser: The Wonder and Terror of Life.” In his American Literary Naturalism, A Divided Stream. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956.


Sister Carrie

Bell, Michael Davitt. “Fine Styles of Sympathy: Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie.” In his The Problem of American Realism: Studies in the Cultural History of a Literary Idea. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Bowlby, Rachel. “Starring: Dreiser’s Sister Carrie.” In her Just Looking: Consumer Culture in.Dreiser, Gissing, and Zola. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Howard, June. Form and History in American Literary Naturalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Kaplan, Amy. “The Sentimental Revolt of Sister Carrie.” In her The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Markels, Julian. “Dreiser and the Plotting of Inarticulate Experience.” Massachusetts Review, 2(1961):431-448.

Pizer, Donald. “The Problem of American Literary Naturalism and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie.” American Literary Realism, 32(1999): 1-11.

Pizer, ed. New Essays on Sister Carrie. NewYork: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Sloane, David E. E. Sister Carrie: Theodore Dreiser’s Sociological Tragedy. NewYork: Twayne, 1992.

West, James L. W, III. A Sister Carrie Portfolio. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985.

Jennie Gerhardt

Wadlington, Warwick.“Pathos and Dreiser.” Southern Review, 7 (1971): 411-429.

West, James L. W.III, ed. Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt: New Essays on the Restored Text. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

The Cowperwood Trilogy

Conder, John. “Dreiser’s Trilogy and the Dilemma of Determinism.” In his Naturalism in American Fiction:The Classic Phase. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1984.

Gerber, Philip. “The Financier Himself: Dreiser and C. T. Yerkes.” Publications of the Modem Language Association, 88(1973): 112-121.

An American Tragedy

Bloom, Harold, ed. Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Howe, Irving. “Dreiser: The Springs of Desire.” In his Decline of the New. NewYork: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970.

Michaels, Walter Benn. “On An American Tragedy: Or the Promise of American Life.” Representations, 25 (1989): 71-98.

Mitchell, Lee Clark. “The Psychopoetics of Desire in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.” In his Determined Fictions: American Literary Naturalism. New York:Columbia University Press, 1989.

Orlov, Paul A. An American Tragedy: Perils of the Self Seeking “Success.” Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1998.



Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961.

Ahnebrink, Lars. The Beginnings of Natural ism in American Fiction: A Study of the Works of Hamlin Garland, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris, with Special Reference to Some European Influences, 1891-1903. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Berthoff, Warner. The Ferment of Realism: American Literature, 1884-1919. NewYork:Free Press, 1965.

Campbell, Donna M. Resisting Regionalism:Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997.

Den Tandt, Christophe. The Urban Sublime in American Literary Naturalism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1942.

Martin, Jay. Harvests of Change: American Literature, 1865-1914. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Martin, Ronald E. American Literature and the Universe of Force. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1981.

Michaels, Walter Benn. The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Parrington, Vernon Lewis. The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, 1860-1920. Volume 3 of Main Currents in American Thought. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1930.

Pizer, Donald. The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism: Selected Essays and Reviews. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.

Pizer, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to London. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Pizer and Earl Harbert, eds. American Realists and Naturalists. Detroit: Gale, 1982.

Sundquist, Eric J., ed. American Realism:New Essays. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Wilson, Christopher. The Labor of Words:Literary Professionalism in the Progressive Era. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

Ziff, Larzer. The American 1890s. New York: Viking, 1966.


Corkin, Stanley. Realism and the Birth of the Modern United States: Cinema, Literature, and Culture. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944; revised, Boston: Beacon, 1955.

Jones, Howard Mumford. The Age of Energy: Variations of American Experience, 1865-1915. New York: Viking, 1971.

Lehan, Richard. The City in Literature: An Intellectual and Cultural History. NewYork:Oxford University Press, 1998.

Orvell, Miles. The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Shi, David. Facing Facts: Realism in American Thought and Culture, 1850-1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. Oxford University Press, 1985.

Strychacz, Thomas F. Modernism, Mass Culture, and Professionalism. New York:Columbia University Press, 1993.

Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill & Wang, 1982.


The International Theodore Dreiser Society.

The site contains information about society activities and matters of interest to those engaged in the study of Dreiser’s life, work, and times. Of special importance is the account of Dreiser Studies, the society’s journal; announcements of forthcoming meetings; and descriptions of important repositories of Dreiser material.


The principal archive of Dreiser’s manuscripts is the Theodore Dreiser Papers at the University of Pennsylvania Library. The collection was formed by gifts from Dreiser before his death and by Helen Dreiser after his death. It consists of drafts of almost all of Dreiser’s published work, much unpublished material, his personal library, letters received by him throughout his life and carbons of letters by him, and much miscellaneous material. A description of the collection can be found online.

Additional major Dreiser collections are at The Lilly Library of Indiana University, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin, the Library of Congress, and the New York Public Library.