Theodore Dreiser

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1703

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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14022

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 experience—in other words, on the responses to life that are inseparable from the central themes of his fiction—are rich and complex.

Dreiser was born into a large, Catholic, immigrant, and impoverished family. His father, John Paul Dreiser, a weaver and woolen worker, had emigrated from Mayen, Germany, in 1844. Dreiser’s mother, Sarah Schänäb Dreiser, was raised near Dayton, Ohio, in a Protestant Mennonite family of Czech ancestry. Since Sarah’s family strongly opposed her marriage to a Catholic, John and Sarah eloped in 1851. In 1858 the family settled in Terre Haute, Indiana, where John became a supervisor in a woolen mill. But an effort on his part to begin a mill of his own in near by Sullivan, Indiana, ended in disaster in 1869, when the uninsured mill burned downand severely injured John as well.

Theodore Dreiser thus entered the world on 27 August 1871, in Terre Haute, with the Dreiser family in dire straits. His father was broken physically and in will, and there were nine children to feed. (Dreiser’s youngest sibling, Ed, was born two years after he was.) His mother was overtaxed; besides caring for the family, she frequently labored as a laundress and house cleaner to put food on the table. The four oldest children, then in their teens, were beginning to break away from John

Dreiser’s authoritarian rule in disturbing and self-destructive ways. Rome was more interested in girls and drink than in helping to support the family, and Paul was in trouble with the law on several occasions. Mame and Emma centered their lives on their appearance and on their ability to attract men, activities which were to result in disastrous affairs with older men and unwanted pregnancies.

The emotional dynamic of the Dreiser home during Theodore’s formative years comprised an ardent desire by the Dreiser children to remain within the family to profit from the nurturing love of their mother, matched by an equally compelling need to escape the authoritarian and restrictive moralism of their father. As depicted by Dreiser in his revealing autobiography A History of Myself: Dawn (1931), as well as in several of his fictional “mother figures” (Jennie in Jennie Gerhardt, 1911; Benecia in The Bulwark, 1946), Sarah was a warm and generous-hearted woman. She sought to guide her family not by precept or rule but by love and understanding. Indeed, her capacity to ignore conventional moralism and to follow the dictates of her heart were, Dreiser later believed, those of a “pagan” temperament. John Dreiser, however, was informed in all matters by the beliefs and requirements of his church. Later in life, in the portraits of old Gerhardt in Jennie Gerhardt and Solon in The Bulwark, Dreiser was to depict a father’s destructive religiosity with a degree of sympathetic understanding as an inherited fanaticism that disguises and prevents the expression of his love. But in the 1870s and 1880s John Dreiser’s effort to control and direct the lives of his children within the conventions of a strict moralism represented primarily a force to resist. And the Dreiser children—almost to a person—did resist, each in her or his own way, though the principal means of doing so was for the boys to run away and for the girls to find a man.

Dreiser’s earliest years were spent in Terre Haute. He was enrolled at age six in a local Catholic parochial school, which he soon disliked because of its unsmiling nuns and oppressive codes of behavior. The family moved continuously within Terre Haute and then, in 1879, to Sullivan, where Sarah ran a boardinghouse. In 1881, with the boarding–house venture a failure, a small miracle occurred. Paul, who had run away some years earlier, now returned to aid the family. Under the name Paul Dresser he had made a great success as a minstrel-show performer and then as a writer of sentimental songs, and he was now in a position to help the family (Two of his most popular hits were “The Letter That Never Came” and “My Mother Told Me So”.) Sarah and the three Dreiser children still living with her, including Theodore, moved with Paul to the Ohio River town of Evansville, Indiana, where he was living with a

woman named Sallie Walker. In fact, Sallie was the madam of a brothel, and it was her money that helped maintain the Dreisers in Evansville. (Dreiser retold this incident with considerable relish in his tribute,“MyBrother Paul,” published in 1919 in Twelve Men. It also served as the basis for a story idea he later sold to Hollywood that became the movie My Gal Sal, produced in 1942 and starring Victor Mature and Rita Hayworth.)

When Paul broke up with Sallie Walker, Sarah and the children moved briefly to Chicago in the summer of 1884 and then to Warsaw, aquiet, almost bucolic town in central Indiana. There Theodore spent three not idyllic but at least profitable years. For the first time he was placed in a public school. When he entered high school in 1886, he met Mildred Fielding, a teacher who sensed something unusual in the fifteen-year-old and encouraged him to read widely. He also began to develop a responsiveness to natural beauty, a trait that persisted and deepened throughout his life. But there were as well the usual difficulties of the Dreiser family—never enough money, John’s intransigent moralism, and the demands of wayward children returning in need—difficulties all the more painful for the adolescent Theodore.

Dreiser’s principal discovery during these years was of his own sexual nature. Like many adolescents, he awoke seemingly suddenly to the interrelated presence of sexual desire in himself and of the sexual itself in almost every aspect of experience—in nature, in his reading, and most of all, of course, in the women and girls he met in his daily life. His response was an immense preoccupation mixed with a painful anxiety over whether he was attractive enough to girls and whether he could adequately perform the sexual act. He also wondered if there were not an inevitable and terrible stigma attached to the sexual, given his father’s fulminations against his wayward sisters.

Dreiser’s early responses to his own sexuality within the contexts both of his physical ungainliness (as a youth he was tall and lanky, with a cast in one eye) and of the social taint associated with sexuality seem to have played a significant role in one of the most distinctive characteristics of his mature sexual life. From his late teens until his death at seventy-four, Dreiser was what he termed a “varietist.” That is, he pursued women in a basic pattern of initial desire, a brief period of union, and departure to undertake another pursuit. Although he was to defend “varietism” on several different pseudophilosophical grounds in The Cowperwood Trilogy (The Financier, 1912; The Titan, 1914; and The Stoic,1947) and the “Genius” (1915), the underlying emotional state encouraging a sexual career of this kind was probably established in his youth. Dreiser’s belief in his possible sexual inadequacy, accompanied by a sense of guilt attached to sex, bred required a constant stream of new conquests to prowess and the legitimacy of sexual freedom.

Poverty was another condition of Dreiser’s youth that remained imprinted on him for the rest of his life. One effect was to create in him a deeply sympathetic resonance with those characters in his fiction who lack the means to satisfy their desire for things that might seem trivial and even tawdry to others but to them constitute happiness and even beauty. One of Dreiser’s great accomplishments as a novelist was to make his readers understand the nature of unfulfilled desire, as expressed, for example, in Carrie’s wandering through a Chicago department store in Sister Carrie (1900) or Clyde Griffiths’s response to the affluence of a Kansas City hotel in An American Tragedy (1925). To be poor, Dreiser realized, meant not merely an inability to satisfy material needs but also an emotional and spiritual stifling and deprivation. In this sense, desire for what life appears to offer asself-fulfillment—good clothes, a fine apartment, money to spend—becomes the motive force for many of Dreiser’s most notable figures, driving them either to a form of success, as with Carrie and Frank Cowperwood, or to tragedy, as with Clyde.

Dreiser’s youthful poverty also deeply influenced his later personal life in several significant ways. One was to make him cautious and grasping in money matters. In some moods he defined his writing career as a calling to spread the truth through art, but in other moods he saw it principally as a means to make a living. Thus, Dreiser produced a great deal of magazine hackwork throughout his career to keep the pot boiling, and—in one of the least attractive aspects of his character—he distrusted almost everyone in financial dealings and was a great haggler. He brought to the economic aspects of his profession the state of mind of someone born poor whose early condition has encouraged a later, almost paranoiac distrust of others in any monetary exchange.

In the summer of 1887, Dreiser and his family again moved to Chicago. Some of the older children were already in the city, and something of a family center was temporarily reestablished. At the age of almost sixteen Dreiser sought full-time employment; during the next two years he worked in a series of poor-paying and dead-end jobs as a dish-washer, hardware store clerk, boxcar tracer, and stock boy. In the summer of 1889 came rescue in the shape of his former teacher, Mildred Fielding, who offered to pay his expenses at Indiana University.

Dreiser felt desperately out of place in Bloomington during his year at the university. In part, he was intellectually insecure since he had completed only one year of high school. But more troubling was his social insecurity. Although a state university, Indiana at this time was not unlike a private institution in that most of its students were from the upper middle class. Dreiser, with his cheap clothes and suspect background, was uncomfortable with the athletes and fraternity men who were his classmates and even more desperately uncomfortable with the self-assured coeds he met. Something of Dreiser’s pervasive fictional theme (seen especially in An American Tragedy) of the outsider seeking the rich plenty on the other side of a wall or window but uncertain of his ability to grasp it probably derives from his own first encounter with middle-class life at Bloomington.

Back in Chicago, Dreiser spent another two years at a variety of jobs. Since he was somewhat older and experienced, these new jobs—working in a real estate office, driving a laundry truck, and collecting bills—were on a somewhat higher level than his previous ones, but they were equally unsatisfying. In the spring of 1892, however, at the age of almost twenty-one, Dreiser made one of the most important decisions of his life. Without any prior experience, and with little demonstrated talent as a writer, he decided to try to get a job as a newspaperman. After several weeks of fruitless effort he was taken on by one of the weakest of Chicago’s many newspapers, the Globe, because the national convention of the Democratic Party was about to begin and more reporters were temporarily required. And so, on this thin spar, Dreiser’s literary career was launched.


Dreiser remained on the Globe for more than six months, learning the rudiments of his trade and scoring a minor success with a series of articles on fraudulent auction houses. In November 1892 he felt sufficiently experienced to apply for a job on the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, a widely respected newspaper of the day. He was taken on and soon was engaged in several different kinds of reporting. He interviewed visiting notables (including the boxing champion John L. Sullivan), wrote much of a daily column of short paragraphs on life around town called “Heard in the Corridors,” and did miscellaneous reporting, including covering the police courts. In this last kind of reporting Dreiser, like many other novelists of his generation—Stephen Crane and Frank Norris are notable examples—derived from his firsthand awareness of the often violent and ugly actualities of late-nineteenth-century American urban life both a sense of the underside of experience and a realization of the discrepancy between these actualities and conventional pieties about the nature of life.

Although pleased with his job on the Globe-Democrat, Dreiser was forced to leave the journal in April 1893 under circumstances both humiliating and comic. He had secured the assignment of reviewing the many dramatic touring companies that visited St. Louis and, often finding this task onerous because of the poor quality of their productions, had taken to filing his reviews before the companies’ arrival on the basis of advance material they supplied. One night a torrential rain caused a complete halt in rail service, and none of the touring companies made it to town. Dreiser’s reviews nevertheless appeared the following day, making the Globe-Democrat the laughingstock of the city. Without saying a word to anyone, Dreiser left his position on the paper but quickly found another with a rival St. Louis journal, the Republic.

Perhaps the most significant event of Dreiser’s ten months on the Republic was a reporting trip to Chicago during which he met Sallie White, a young St. Louis schoolteacher. (The Republic had run a contest involving local teachers, in which the winners were rewarded with a visit to the World’s Columbian Exposition, then being held in Chicago. Dreiser accompanied the group and sent back daily reports of the trip.) A handsome young woman about two years older than Dreiser, Sara “Sallie” Osborne White (who often went by her nickname, “Jug”) had been raised in a well-disciplined farm household. The two were drawn to each other almost immediately, though—as portrayed later in Dreiser’s autobiographical Newspaper Days (1931) and the novel The “Genius”— Sallie’s interest was principally in marriage and Dreiser’s in sexual conquest. For the most part, however, in background, interests, and above all degree of commitment to moral and social proprieties, the two were mismatched. Nevertheless, a courtship of more than five years followed, marked by Dreiser’s increasing sexual frustration and Sallie’s increasing anxiety about his intentions, concluded at last by their marriage on 28 December 1898. The marriage was a failure almost from the start, since Dreiser at different times felt himself either sexually depleted within marriage or prevented by marriage from exercising his “varietistic” temperament. Although the marriage ended only with Sallie’s death in 1942, the couple began living apart for increasingly lengthy periods as early as 1901 and separated finally and completely in 1914. There can be little doubt that Dreiser’s jaundiced view of the institution of marriage, which he expressed whenever it was a subject in his writing, derived principally from his response to the conditions of his own marriage. Indeed, The “Genius,” which closely tracks Dreiser’s relationship with Sallie, owes much of its only occasional fictional vitality to those scenes that dramatize the anger, turbulence, and recriminations present in an ill-fated marriage.

Dissatisfied with his job on the Republic, Dreiser moved on in March 1894. He initially landed in Toledo, Ohio, working for a short period on the Toledo Blade, where he struck up an immediate friendship with its editor, Arthur Henry, who was later to play a major role in Dreiser’s early fictional efforts. He was then taken on by the Pittsburgh Dispatch, where he remained until November of that year. Dreiser had discovered in St. Louis that he had an ability to write lightweight columns on topics of the moment, and the Dispatch employed him largely in that capacity. Since he could dash off his daily column quickly, he had a great deal of free time, which he employed for the most part in a self-directed course of reading at the Carnegie Library in Allegheny, across the river from Pittsburgh. Dreiser no doubt read widely and miscellaneously, but, as he later recalled in a much cited passage in Newspaper Days, two specific kinds of books affected him most deeply: the novels of Honorede Balzac and the philosophical works of Herbert Spencer, T. H. Huxley, and others.

What struck Dreiser powerfully in such novels as The Wild Ass’s Skin (1831) and A Great Man of the Provinces in Paris (1837) was Balzac’s sympathetic but unsentimental depiction of the efforts of youthful and ambitious but not always capable nobodies to succeed in the great French metropolis. Some did and many did not, but all were engulfed in a hurly-burly Paris of ruthless sexual and financial intrigue in which connections and power often determined one’s fate. This was life, Dreiser decided, both as he knew it from his own experience and felt it within himself. Though it was to be some five years before he turned to the recasting in Sister Carrie of Balzac’s archetypal moment of the provincial youth’s arrival in the great city, the moment as dramatized by Balzac was no doubt a seminal influence on Dreiser’s notion of the possibilities of fiction. In addition, Dreiser was attracted to Balzac’s method of permitting his narrative voice to comment fully on the larger social, political, moral, and philosophical issues related to the lives of his characters. Dreiser was to make this method, much to the chagrin of his editors, one of the most distinctive characteristics of his own fiction.

Equally significant was Dreiser’s reading in the so-called scientific philosophers of the age, those above all committed, as Charles Darwin himself had not been, to explaining the social and moral implications of the theory of evolution for the conduct of life. Chief among these was the English social philosopher Spencer, who, in a vast multivolume enterprise he designated “The Synthetic Philosophy,” sought to demonstrate that evolutionary laws were the basis for every aspect of human existence, from social organization to art and morals. Dreiser in particular recalled his response to Spencer’s introductory work in the project, First Principles (1862) a book, Dreiser later noted, which blew him “intellectually, to bits”1—in which Spencer argued that the history and present state of all existence can only be explained by the operation of observable natural law. Any explanation of causation beyond this point falls into the “Unknowable” and therefore cannot serve as a basis for knowledge or action.

Initially, Dreiser derived from First Principles and other works by Spencer not so much a specific body of belief as a convincing intellectual argument confirming his already felt sense that conventional religious systems, including his own Catholicism, were false and therefore harmful instruments of social and political control. In addition, he was drawn to the corollary of Spencer’s idea of the “Unknowable,” that since the riddle of the universe was ultimately insoluble one can never have any insight into first causes or final ends. Although later in his career Dreiser was attracted to several different forms of religious mysticism, he was from this time on both a biting critic of organized religion of any kind and a frequent exponent of the idea that in attempting to explain life as a whole we are limited to understanding processes, that all else is a mystery.

But Dreiser also found in Spencer’s belief a specific idea that he later exploited in several of his own philosophical essays and above all in The Cowperwood Trilogy. All life, Spencer argued, from species to civilizations, progresses under evolutionary law until a point of equilibrium with its environment is reached, after which a disintegration occurs, ending with dissolution. This idea of cosmic balance, which Dreiser called, as in the title of one of his essays, “Equation Inevitable” (1920), informs the central conception of Frank Cowperwood’s career in The Financier, The Titan, and The Stoic. Cowperwood’s strength permits him to dominate his social environment until his power breeds a counterpower in that environment greater than his own that defeats him—thus the operation of the “equation inevitable” in both the large-scale phases and the total character of Cowperwood’s career as an American financial magnate.

During the summer of 1894, while still working for the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Dreiser made a trip to New York to visit his brother Paul, who was then at the height of his career as a popularentertainer and songwriter. Paul guided him about the theaters, restaurants, and bustling streets of the vibrant city, all of which impressed Dreiser greatly. In November of that year he gave up his job in Pittsburgh, and despite having no assurance of a position, moved to New York. He was turned away at all the New York papers, and though he finally secured a space-rate job at the New York World (that is, he was paid not a salary but rather on the basis of his reporting that was printed), he did not earn enough to make a living. By spring, discouraged enough to contemplate returning to Pittsburgh, he made a final effort to remain in New York by proposing an idea for a new magazine, with himself as editor, to the small publishing house of Howley, Haviland, the firm that published Paul’s songs. The idea was accepted, and the magazine, Ev’ry Month, began appearing in the fall of that year.

Dreiser was editor and indeed chief writer of Ev’ry Month for two years. The magazine was intended for a popular audience, and each issue featured, in addition to the sheet music of a Howley, Haviland song, photographs of attractive actresses and interviews with theatrical personalities. This still left, however, a good deal of space to be filled, and it was filled almost entirely by Dreiser writing under various pseudonyms, since there was little money for outside contributors. He wrote book and theater reviews, tried his hand at sketches and poetry, and, most important of all, began a monthly column of high-minded commentary on events of the day, philosophical issues, and anything else that struck him as being of interest. Titled “Reflections” and signed “The Prophet,” the column was sometimes three or four pages long. Given the free rein Dreiser had in its conception and expression, it is the earliest expression of what can be called the Dreiserian voice as it appears in both his nonfiction and fiction-that of a figure both willing and anxious to use a specific event or issue as an excusefor a disquisition, often including a distinctive mix of the profound and bathetic, on the nature of man and life. (Dreiser’s contributions to Ev’ry Month have been collected in a modern scholarly edition by Nancy Barrineau, Theodore Dreiser’s Ev’ry Month, published in 1996.)

During his tenure as editor of Ev’ry Month, Dreiser played a role in the creation of one of the more enduring sentimental ballads in American popular music, “On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away.” The song is traditionally ascribed to Paul Dresser, but legend has it that it was composed by Dreiser. There has been considerable controversy over the matter, but it is now generally believed that Dreiser came up with the idea for the song and wrote its first verse and chorus but that Paul composed the music and subsequent verses.

In the 1890s there was a great proliferation of magazines, many of which were designed to meet the demands of a mass audience by cheapness (they were often called the “10 cent magazines”) and by concentrating on lively accounts of current topics and personalities. By late 1897, Dreiser felt confident enough in his ability to function within this market to give up the editorship of Ev’ry Month and turn to freelance work. Over the next two and a half years, even when writing Sister Carrie during the winter of 1899-1900, he contributed more than one hundred articles to such journals as Munsey’s, Ainslee’s, Cosmopolitan, and Metropolitan. The subject matter of his articles included interviews with artists, performers, and writers; essays on recent developments in manufacturing and farming; and visits to picturesque settings. Unlike his Ev’ry Month work, little of Dreiser himself is apparent in these pieces, since the conventions governing this kind of reportage required an emphasis on the subject itself rather than the interests or personality of the writer.

More of Dreiser is present, however, in the large number of articles he contributed during this period to the journal Success. Dreiser’s task in these essays dealing with notable business, political, and artistic figures of the day, almost all of which featured a lengthy interview, was to draw out his subject into an account of how he had achieved prominence. Inevitably, the pattern for gaining success that emerges from the essays takes a shape resembling the late-nineteenth-century social construct known as the Horatio Alger myth. (Alger had written a series of popular novels for boys in which a young man of poor background wins success through a mix of endeavor and good fortune.) Early poverty and an abbreviated education were barriers that could be overcome, Dreiser was assured by the pillars of society he was interviewing, by a sound family background, hard work, and a bit of luck. When Dreiser came to write the story of a tragically ironic reversal of the Alger myth in An American Tragedy, he drew in part on his firsthand encounter with people who embodied the myth in his Success interviews of the late 1890s.

Dreiser himself was also something of a success during this period of his career, and given his improved economic condition he had no further excuse for not marrying Sallie White. Their marriage occurred in December 1898—long after, as Dreiser later recalled, “the first flare of love had thinned down to the pale flame of duty.”2 During the summer of 1899 Dreiser accepted an invitation from Arthur Henry that he and Sallie visit Henry and his wife at their summer cottage on the Maumee River in Maumee, Ohio. Henry hoped to establish himself as a writer of fiction, and during the Dreisers’ visit he strongly encouraged Dreiser to try his hand at the form as well. Although Dreiser had written several fictionalized sketches for Ev’ry Month, the four stories he wrote that summer at Maumee were his first concerted attempts at fiction. The four stories constitute a remarkable effort, less so in a formal sense, since they are in places awkwardly constructed and written, than in the maturity of their themes. Indeed, two of them, “Nigger Jeff” and “McEwen of the Shining Slave Makers,” feature compressed versions of the same evocative themes—the tragic nature of desire and the centrality of struggle in human affairs—that were to preoccupy Dreiser throughout his career. In short, although Dreiser skipped an apprenticeship in fiction, he nevertheless entered the arena, at the age of thirty, fully armed.

In the fall of 1899, Henry decided to move to New York and devote himself entirely to the writing of fiction. Since he was now attempting a novel, he challenged Dreiser to undertake one as well, and so, in the early fall, Dreiser wrote “Sister Carrie” at the top of a small sheet of paper and began. In later accounts, Dreiser reported that he wrote quickly except for two stoppages—the first because he was stuck at the point of Hurstwood’s theft from his employers, and the second in the spring, when financial need forced him to write some articles. The novel was finished by April of 1900, put in typescript and revised, and then submitted to one of the major publishing firms of the day, Harper’s. Harper’s promptly declined the novel, maintaining that a novel about a young woman who has two illicit relationships, with no harm to her character, and then achieves worldly success, would not appeal to the young women who made up much of the fiction-reading public. Dreiser then offered the book to a new firm, Doubleday, Page, which had just been formed earlier that year. The young novelist Frank Norris, whose naturalistic novel McTeague had been published the previous year, was employed by Doubleday, Page, as a part-time reader. Largely on the strength of Norris’s enthusiastic endorsement, Doubleday, Page accepted Sister Carrie.

There then followed, during the summer and early fall of 1900, one of the most infamous incidents in American literary history, the so-called suppression of Sister Carrie. It is necessary to say “so-called” because although Dreiser frequently cited the incident for the remainder of his career as an instance of the control of American expression by philistines, and indeed it was also frequently cited during the 1910s and 1920s by others calling for artistic freedom in America, the facts of the case are either obscure or offer mixed signals. Frank Doubleday, the senior partner of the firm, was abroad when Sister Carrie was accepted. On his return, he read the novel and came to the same conclusion as Harper’s had, that it would not do well. He and his partner, Walter H. Page, then attempted to persuade Dreiser that he should take the novel elsewhere, but when Dreiser insisted that the firm live up to its oral agreement (no contract had been signed as yet), Doubleday capitulated. In addition, there appears to be no foundation to the story circulated by Dreiser that Doubleday’s wife read the novel in manuscript and insisted that her husband not publish it. The novel was thus published in November 1900, with only minor changes from the version submitted. Though not “suppressed” in the usual sense of the term, Sister Carrie did suffer from Doubleday’s resentment in that the firm did not advertise or in any other way promote the book. (It was, however, relatively widely reviewed, apparently because Norris managed to send out review copies.) Much to Dreiser’s chagrin, therefore, the novel sold poorly.

From the fall of 1900 to the spring of 1903, Dreiser underwent a steady decline in spirits and health, suffering from what was then commonly designated “neurasthenia” and what might today be called a nervous breakdown. Initially he was troubled by the failure of Sister Carrie to achieve popular success and by his marriage, but these concerns soon affected his ability to write, and that incapacity in turn increased the pressure of his other worries. During the summer of 1900, at the height of the self-confidence generated by the acceptance of Sister Carrie by Doubleday, Page, Dreiser had planned another novel. As Sister Carrie had been based on the experiences of his sister Emma, he would now write a novel about the early life of another of his sisters, Mame. He began work on Jennie Gerhardt in January 1901, and though he initially made some progress and though a small publisher had agreed to subsidize its composition, he soon bogged down and had to put it aside. It was expensive to live in New York, and so, sometimes with Sallie but often alone, Dreiser lived in one small Southern town or another during the winter of 1901–1902 and then settled in Philadelphia until February 1903. Down to his last few dollars and utterly wretched in body and mind, he returned to New York and for several months acted out the down-and-out existence that he had depicted in his account of the final phase of Hurstwood’s life in Sister Carrie. Dreiser was rescued, as both he and other members of his family had been earlier, by his brother Paul, who arranged for him to enter a sanatorium in Westchester. Jolted back into life by the rigorous routine of the sanatorium (an experience he later wrote up in his sketch “Culhane, the Solid Man,” in Twelve Men), Dreiser continued his recuperation by a lengthy stretch of labor on the New York Central Railroad, initially as a common workman and then as a clerk. By the close of 1903 he felt himself restored to health and was ready to relaunch his career as a magazine writer and editor.

Dreiser began as an assistant editor of and occasional contributor to the weekly supplement of the New York Daily News. In the fall of 1904 he took a job with Street and Smith, the publisher of popular magazines and of pulp-fiction series, and in early 1905 was named editor of the firm’s new magazine, Smith’s. Dreiser’s experience both as an editor of a popular magazine, Ev’ry Month, and a contributor to mass-circulation journals served him in good stead. Smith’s was soon a success, and he moved in April 1906, at a much higher salary, to the Broadway. In June 1907 Dreiser was offered and accepted the editorship of the Delineator, one of the principal magazines of the period; he held this position for more than three years.

In a sense, Dreiser’s period as editor of the Delineator was one of the least productive phases of his career since he had become a newspaperman in 1892. The position supplied him with a good income but was otherwise sterile. The magazine, which was published by the Butterick Company to popularize its line of patterns for women’s clothes, was devoted principally to the presumed interests of women whose life consisted largely of domestic duties. There was little fiction or any other material of general interest, and a great deal about child care and the like. Whatever imaginative spark had been lit in Dreiser by the writing of Sister Carrie found little tinder in this setting. Nevertheless, he maintained his interest in the world of ideas and creative expression in several ways. In 1907 he was sufficiently well off to purchase the plates of Sister Carrie and have the novel republished. Dreiser was much bolstered by the largely favorable reviews and good sales. In addition, while soliciting some material for the Delineator in 1908, he met the young Baltimore newspaperman and freelance writer H. L. Mencken. He and Mencken found themselves to be of one mind and spirit in their contempt for conventional belief and quickly established both a friendship and a working relationship. For almost twenty years, until the two became estranged in the mid 1920s, Mencken was Dreiser’s principal public defender in his reviews and essays, frequently played an important role in editing Dreiser’s work, and served as a kind of unofficial advisor and press agent. Finally, restless within the restrictions of working for the Delineator, Dreiser, unknown to the Butterick Company, became the proprietor and principal editor of another magazine, the Bohemian, which, as its name implies, had areas of interest quite unlike those of the Delineator.

Dreiser was restless not only within the limitations of the Delineator but also within those of his marriage. During the fall of 1909 he met and quickly became infatuated with Thelma Cudlipp, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Delineator assistant editor. For a year they met secretly, though innocently, until Mrs. Cudlipp learned of the relationship and demanded that it end. When Dreiser refused, she denounced him to the senior editors of the Butterick publications, and he was fired in September 1910. Although Dreiser persisted in attempting to keep the relationship alive after he was dismissed, in the end Mrs. Cudlipp was successful in keeping him and Thelma apart. Nevertheless, the affair—or, more correctly, the attempted affair—had a major impact on Dreiser’s life and work. It was to serve as the basis for a fictional retelling of the relationship in the second half of The “Genius,” a segment of the novel that has had the distinction of being almost universally condemned. Far more importantly, the affair was to return Dreiser to an effort to make a career out of his own writing, an effort he sustained for the remainder of his life.


Dreiser returned to an active career as a writer with a burst of energy that lasted fifteen years. From late 1911 to 1925 he published fourteen books. His work of this period included five long novels, a collection of biographical sketches, two travel books, a collection of one-act plays and (in a separate volume) a full-length play, a collection of short stories and another of his early city sketches, a collection of philosophical essays, and the second volume of his autobiography. (Written as well during this period but not published until later were a second collection of short stories, the first volume of his autobiography, and many poems.) There are several possible explanations for this remarkable prolificness. During the period in which he was doing little creative work, from mid 1901 to late 1910, Dreiser stored away many ideas for later possible literary exploitation. The freedom offered by his break with the Delineator gave him the opportunity to put these ideas to the test. But the principal reason Dreiser wrote so fully and in so many forms was his financial need. He wished to think of himself as a novelist, but his novels, until An American Tragedy, earned much less than what he required to support himself as a writer, even though they were widely and often favorably reviewed. The history of Dreiser’s relationships with his publishers during this phase of his career involved his drawing large advances in order to write a novel. The published novels then earned less or a little more than his advances, leaving Dreiser in an increasingly deep financial hole. Hence his productivity in short forms such as the story, sketch, one-act play, and even poem. Unlike his extremely long novels, Dreiser’s shorter works could be published in magazines, earning an immediate and often a quite large initial fee, and then collected, bringing additional income in the form of royalties.

On leaving the Delineator Dreiser turned initially to the unfinished Jennie Gerhardt and quickly completed it by the close of 1910. The novel was read in manuscript by several friends, who suggested changes for its conclusion that Dreiser adopted. The book was accepted by Harper’s in April 1911 for publication in the fall. (There is a certain irony in Dreiser’s circular relationship with several of his principal publishers. Harper’s, which had turned down Sister Carrie, accepted and published Jennie Gerhardt and The Financier, and then withdrew from the publication of The Titan when the book was already in proof. Doubleday, Page “suppressed” Sister Carrie, but almost half a century later its descendant firm, Doubleday and Company, published Dreiser’s last two novels, The Bulwark and The Stoic.)

After completing Jennie Gerhardt, Dreiser, no doubt driven by a personal imperative, began an autobiographical novel that would dramatize the life of a contemporary artist whose “varietistic” sexual inclinations, as well as his desire to paint the urban actualities of modern life, cause him great anguish and hardship. Writing rapidly, he completed the novel by August. Harper’s, however, strongly encouraged him to put the book temporarily aside (the firm may have been concerned about its frank portrayal of sexual desire) and work instead on his planned fictional interpretation of the life of the financier Charles T. Yerkes, for which Dreiser had already begun collecting material. Yerkes’s career divided neatly into three phases linked to the cities of Philadelphia, Chicago, and London. Considerable research—principally using newspaper and magazine stories on Yerkes’s financial machinations, but also relying on interviews for his personal life—was necessary. Dreiser’s initial plan was to encompass all of Yerkes’s life into one novel to be called The Financier. As he collected material, however, and especially after he began writing, he realized that it would be impossible to meet this goal. The novel thus turned into a trilogy, the first volume still to be titled The Financier but now limited to Yerkes’s activities in Philadelphia. The Titan would be set in Chicago and The Stoic in London.

By the fall of 1911 Dreiser had been writing at great speed for almost a year and felt the need for a break. He wished above all to go to Europe, both to view at first hand the setting of The Stoic and simply to enjoy himself, but there was the question of how to pay for a lengthy journey undertaken at a certain level of style. Enter the debonair English publisher Grant Richards, who was interested in becoming Dreiser’s British publisher. Richards sold the Century Company on the notion of Dreiser’s writing a series of travel sketches for its Century magazine, which were then to be augmented into a book-length autobiographical travel narrative to be published by the firm. Armed with advances from both Century and Harper’s, Dreiser was able to swing the trip, setting out in November 1911. He spent almost five months abroad, making a Dreiserian version of the traditional European grand tour. That is, as he fulfilled the traditional grand-tour itinerary of the cultural centers of England, France, Italy, Germany, and the low countries, he not only visited museums, monuments, palaces, and the like but also developed a great interest in the women of these countries, from prostitutes to ladies of high fashion. After returning to the United States in April 1912, Dreiser completed The Financier in August and turned, in early 1913, to the travel book that he had promised the Century Company, a volume he decided to call A Traveler at Forty since he had turned forty a few months before he undertook the journey. The completed manuscript was unpublishable because of its extraordinary length and the extraordinary openness (for its time) with which Dreiser recounted his amorous adventures. Edited down to almost half its original length by Richards and others, the book was published in November 1913.

The Titan, the second volume of The Cowperwood Trilogy, required research in Chicago, and Dreiser spent several months in the city during the winter of 1912–1913. Chicago was in the midst of an out-burst of modernistic artistic expression. Writers such as Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, and Floyd Dell were coming to the fore; Poetry magazine had been established; and an avant-garde little theater was flourishing. Dreiser did his research, established a lifelong friendship with Masters, and was much attracted by a young actress, Kirah Markham, who came to New York in late 1913; she and Dreiser were soon living together. (He worked her into The Titan as the actress Stephanie Platow, one of Cowperwood’s Chicago conquests.)

In the years following his departure from the Delineator, Dreiser established in his personal life the pattern he was to follow for the remainder of his life. He would ostensibly be engaged in a settled relationship with a woman—during this period initially his wife, Sallie, and then Kirah, to be followed in 1919, and for the rest of his life, by Helen Richardson. But each such arrangement would soon turn into a base of operations, so to speak, from which Dreiser would pursue other, more short-term relationships. Sallie and Kirah were not able to put up with this state of affairs for long; it was Helen’s distinction that despite many bitter arguments and temporary separations, she was willing and able to do so for more than twenty-five years.

Dreiser completed The Titan in early 1914 for Harper’s, but when the firm had already set the volume in type it suddenly canceled publication and instead relinquished all rights to the book, as well as the plates, to Dreiser. Harper’s failed to provide Dreiser with a clear answer for this action, but he later came to believe the source of the problem was his long account in the novel of Emilie Grigsby, Yerkes’s last mistress, in the guise of the character Berenice Fleming. Harper’s was linked to Grigsby through the company’s principal stockholder, the financier J. P. Morgan, who had known her in London after Yerkes’s death. There was also the possibility of a libel action by Grigsby upon publication of the book in England. Dreiser scrambled for a new publisher, quickly found one in the John Lane Company, and The Titan was published in May 1914.

During the summer of 1914, Dreiser— after almost four years of nomadic existence at various New York addresses—settled down in the Greenwich Village apartment he was to occupy until mid 1919. Though never a major participant in the lively Village scene of the day, he enjoyed the freedom of the neighbor-hood and made many friends. (Many Village women supplied the life stories he later exploited in the semifictional sketches of A Gallery of Women, published in 1929.) Though not the conventional starving artist of Village legend, Dreiser continued during this period to be deeply concerned about his ability to earn a living by means of his writing. Both The Financier and The Titan had sold below expectations, which led Dreiser to a flurry of magazine writing of all kinds. In addition, he perfected at this time his habit of haggling with editors and publishers over royalties and the price of his work, even with editors such as Mencken, to whom he was much indebted; this quality of mind endeared Dreiser to few.

During the summer of 1915 Franklin Booth, an illustrator and old friend who, like Dreiser, had been born and raised in Indiana, suggested that he and Dreiser undertake an extended automobile trip to their home state, during which Dreiser would visit the various towns in which he had lived. In 1915 lengthy car trips were still a rarity. Roads between cities were often unpaved, gas stations were sparse, and cars frequently broke down. But Booth supplied both a large touring automobile and an accompanying chauffeur-mechanic, and in August off they went. Dreiser brought to the journey, and therefore also to his account of it in A Hoosier Holiday, which he completed and published the following year, an ingratiating mix of nostalgic memory, ingenuous delight at the wonders of American culture in its “raw” Midwestern form, and a full receptiveness to life in all its “on the road” variety. For the reader of Dreiser’s far more somber novels, A Hoosier Holiday is a delightful change of pace, revealing a writer capable of amusement as well as shock at the vagaries of experience.

On his return to New York in the late summer of 1915, Dreiser decided to bring out of storage his manuscript of The “Genius,” the auto-biographical novel he had completed in early 1911 and had revised thoroughly during the winter of 1913-1914. As usual with his books, the novel required severe cutting but was nevertheless ready for publication in October. By this point in his career, Dreiser’s work was identified in the minds of conservative literary critics and reviewers—especially those writing for newspapers—with the regrettable tendency in modern literature to overstress the sexual in experience. Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, with their narratives of “pure women” (to use Thomas Hardy’s phrase for his eponymous heroine in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, 1891) who engage in illicit sex, had helped to establish this reputation. But it was especially the more recently published initial two volumes in The Cowperwood Trilogy that confirmed this notoriety. Cowperwood moves from woman to woman with no conscience and much success, with the author apparently thoroughly in accord with his protagonist’s amoral sexual career. The “Genius” was apparently the last straw. Upon its publication in 1915 it prompted a host of inflammatory reviews, including one headlined “Mr. Dreiser Chooses a Tom Cat for his Hero,” as well as more thoughtful though still biased accounts of his work, such as Stuart P. Sherman’s essay in The Nation, “The Naturalism of Mr. Dreiser,” which was long to serve as a seminal source for those academic and literary critics seeking a basis for the condemnation of Dreiser’s fiction.

Perhaps this reputation for salaciousness helped The “Genius” sell reasonably well, despite its lugubrious protagonist and the bulk of the novel. In July 1916, however, the infamous New York Society for the Suppression of Vice threatened to take action against Dreiser’s publisher, John Lane, unless the book was withdrawn from sale. (The Society had been founded by the reformer Anthony Comstock and was now led by John Sumner.) The threat had both immediate and far-ranging consequences. Although John Lane quickly caved in and ceased selling The “Genius,” a host of prominent writers, prompted into action by Dreiser and especially by the vigorous efforts of Mencken, took up the cause of artistic freedom raised by the suppression of the novel. Many of these figures, Mencken included, believed that The “Genius” was a tasteless and poorly written work, but they also realized that far more was at stake for freedom of expression in America than the quality of Dreiser’s novel. The efforts of Dreiser’s supporters to thwart the action of the Society failed in court, and The “Genius” was not sold again until 1923. But the right to artistic freedom had been raised as an issue of general public concern for one of the first times in America, setting the stage for a more concerted effort in the following decade to overthrow government-sanctioned control of expression by private prudery. Dreiser himself was now fully identified in the public view not only as a novelist in the forefront of the effort to write openly about the central issues of life but also as one who had spoken out strongly for the right of others to do the same. He was, in brief, a pathfinder clearing the way for others. In spite of the pain engendered by the suppression of both Sister Carrie and The “Genius,” this was a role in which Dreiser took considerable relish. For more than a decade he expressed in essays (especially his “Life, Art and America” of 1917), interviews, and letters his belief that the artist in America was shackled by conventions of propriety that were guaranteed to produce a “safe” but second-rate national literature.


As has often been noted, after the publication of The “Genius” in 1915 Dreiser produced only one major new work of fiction—An American Tragedy in 1925—during a career that was to continue for thirty years. (The posthumously published The Bulwark and The Stoic were both based on novels begun as early as 1914.) One explanation for this turning away from the novel form was his need, at least until the relative financial security that followed the great success of An American Tragedy, to keep the pot boiling with more immediately remunerative shorter work. Another was the major refocusing of his interests, beginning in the early 1920s and increasing steadily after, in the direction of large-scale philosophical and social issues. Indeed, from late 1915 to his death, with the exception of the period from mid 1923 to late 1925 when he was writing An American Tragedy, and the last year and a half of his life, when he was completing The Bulwark and The Stoic, Dreiser was not a novelist. He was not only writing and publishing in almost every other form except the novel but was also devoting a great deal of his mental energy to both abstract philosophical issues and immediate social problems, neither of which lent themselves to fictional representation.

Several of the books published by Dreiser in the interim between The “Genius” and An American Tragedy were collections of shorter items, many written years earlier. Free and Other Stories (1918), which included several of Dreiser’s most frequently anthologized stories, such as “Nigger Jeff,” “The Lost Phoebe,” and “The Second Choice,” also featured work written as early as 1899. Many of the biographical sketches of Twelve Mens were also initially published around the turn of the century, as were the city sketches of The Color of a Great City (1923). Dreiser had begun to write his autobiography, the second volume of which was published in 1922 with the title A Book About Myself, in 1914. Of his many books published in the period between 1915 and 1925, therefore, it is principally his tragic drama, The Hand of the Potter (1919), and his collection of philosophical essays, Hey Rub-A-Dub-Dub (1920), that reflect his interests in this phase of his career. In the first Dreiser depicts a pedophile who murders a young girl. This highly inflammatory material of sexual deviancy consciously violates conventional standards of literary decorum of the day and is thus perhaps the most visible evidence of Dreiser’s years in Greenwich Village. But the central theme of the play, that inexplicable forces of nature are responsible for human personality and human actions, reaches out as well to the general philosophical position that Dreiser was seeking to represent in the essays of Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub. Both the title of this work, which is a conventional term for the meaningless, and the subtitle—A Book of the Mystery and Wonder and Terror of Life— are meant to suggest the thrust of the work as a whole: any effort to make sense of life in relation to divine ends or human morality is an act of misdirected human vanity.

But despite its mystery and terror, life can inspire wonder and a sense of beauty, and one’s efforts should be directed toward understanding the basis for all of these qualities in the physical actualities of experience. This imperative to understand material life as an expression of that which can appeal to the human spirit—most of all the capacity of the spirit to sense that complexity, order, and symmetry in physical life constitute both a kind of meaning and beauty—was the motivating force in much of Dreiser’s thinking and writing during the last two decades of his life.

During this period two seemingly disparate events occurred that were to play extremely significant roles in Dreiser’s life. The first was his meeting Horace Liveright in late 1917, the second the beginning of his relationship with Helen Richardson in September 1919. Liveright, a partner in the publishing firm Boni and Liveright, was an energetic representative of a new force in American book and magazine publication, a force committed to the support of fresh and more truthful American literary expression. He offered at last what Dreiser had failed to find in any of his previous publishers: a willingness to take risks and to offer full financial underwriting for projects under way. Until Liveright’s firm failed in the early years of the Depression, he supported the often irritable, overdemanding, recalcitrant, and mistrusting Dreiser far beyond the conventional expectation of a publisher’s responsibility to one of his authors.

When Dreiser met Helen Richardson, who was in fact a distant cousin, she was a divorced young woman of twenty-five (he was then forty-eight) with aspirations for an acting career. They immediately fell in love, and within a month Dreiser gave up his New York apartment and moved with her to Los Angeles in order for her to seek a movie role. They remained in Los Angeles for three years, until their return to New York in late 1922. The couple lived together, with many temporary separations, for the remainder of Dreiser’s life. Theirs was not a comfortable companionship at any stage, however, even following their marriage in 1944. On the one hand, Dreiser continued to pursue other women, sometimes disguising these relationships, often flaunting them. On the other hand, he was intensely jealous of Helen. The result was a series of bitter arguments, breakups, and reconciliations—the pattern repeating itself endlessly. Yet, the tempestuous relationship never collapsed completely, just as Dreiser and Liveright maintained their relationship for almost twenty years despite Dreiser’s frequently impossible behavior toward his publisher. As Helen was to explain in her remarkable memoir, My Life with Dreiser (1951), Dreiser was a complex and difficult man, but his intensity of mind, spirit, and purpose could generate in others a love or loyalty capable of withstanding great pressure.

Dreiser’s ostensible literary task while in Los Angeles with Helen was to complete The Bulwark, the novel of Quaker life that he had begun in 1914 and for which he had recently received an advance from Liveright. He worked on this project for some time but then put it aside for another novel, one that had been on his mind for many years. He had always been fascinated, he later recalled, by a crime that he believed to be distinctive to American life, in which a young man murders a young woman with whom he is having a relationship in order to pursue a more socially and economically advantageous relationship with another woman. Dreiser viewed crimes of this kind as a bitterly ironic inversion of the Horatio Alger success myth, since a young man who commits such a crime fol-lows the Alger formula of using luck and pluck to advance himself but is driven to commit a criminal act while lacking the necessary strength to see the formula to a positive conclusion. He is therefore in effect destroyed by the myth. (Hence Dreiser’s title for the finished work, An American Tragedy.) Dreiser had been intrigued by several such cases, all of which had been reported in full sensational detail in the press, but decided that he would model his new novel on one in particular, the murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette in upstate New York in 1906. He began the novel in 1920 with a lengthy account of his protagonist’s boyhood, but he grew dissatisfied with the project and put it aside. The extant version of these twenty chapters suggests that Dreiser perhaps realized that he was relying too literally on his own boyhood experiences; in addition, specific material bearing on the Gillette case itself was unavailable in Los Angeles. In any case, he was not working on the novel when he and Helen returned to New York in late 1922 and did not take it up again until the summer of 1923, when, pressed by Liveright for the delivery of a novel and stimulated by a trip to upstate New York, he began a new version.

Dreiser worked steadily on An American Tragedy for almost two and a half years. The result was a final manuscript of approximately one million words, or the equivalent of six rather long novels. A small army of editorial assistants, however, comprised of personal secretaries and Liveright editors, brought the novel down to a more manageable four hundred thousand words; it was published in two large volumes by Live-right in late 1925. The work, with its rendition of a core tragic condition of American life, its deeply flawed but sympathetic protagonist, and its display of Dreiser’s unique fictional strengths in full flight, was an instant popular and critical success. For the first and only time in his career, the reviews were almost all laudatory and the sales excellent. There was much talk of the Nobel Prize.

An American Tragedy was a financial bonanza and ensured that Dreiser would be comparatively well off for the remainder of his career, even though his economic well-being had little effect on his lifelong habit of worrying over money. The novel earned $50,000 during 1926 and by October of that year was also producing a healthy royalty from a successful theatrical adaptation. In addition, with Liveright’s aid (though Dreiser’s suspicions about the transaction caused a temporary break in their relations) the novel was sold to Paramount for $80,000. (The Paramount movie version of An American Tragedy continued to cause Dreiser trouble in later years. In 1931 he became involved in a ferocious argument with the company about its adaption and later lost a suit he brought against it.) These were large sums indeed for the mid 1920s, and Dreiser was moved to alter dramatically his style of life. He and Helen rented a large duplex apartment on West Fifty-seventh Street in New York, where they did a great deal of entertaining, and Dreiser also purchased an estate at Mount Kisco, north of the city, where they began building a summer home called Iroki, Japanese for “the spirit of beauty.”

Extensive travel on a more lavish scale was now also possible for Dreiser; he and Helen made a four-month trip to Europe in mid 1926. A more significant journey offered itself, however, in late 1927, when Dreiser was invited by the Soviet Union to visit the country in connection with the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Visits to the Soviet Union were almost obligatory for American intellectuals during the pre-Stalin years, given their almost universal discontent with the capitalist system in the United States. Lincoln Steffens had gone and returned with his famous declaration, “I’ve seen the future, and it works,” and Dreiser shared with others a desire to test for themselves Steffens’s faith in this new way of ordering economic and social life. Dreiser’s stay in Russia was relatively brief, less than three months beginning in October 1927, much of which was spent in Moscow before he was permitted to make a tour of the southern portion of the country. Accounts of the visit can be found both in the recently edited Dreiser’s Russian Diary (1996) arid in the memoir by Ruth Kennell, his Russian-speaking American-born guide, Dreiser and the Soviet Union (1969). His general response to what he observed was dismay over the crude conditions of Russian life, irritation with the ever-present Soviet bureaucracy, and a recognition of the heartfelt social idealism of many of the Russians he met. On his return to the United States, Dreiser wrote a series of syndicated newspaper articles on his journey that were slightly revised and republished in October 1928 as Dreiser Looks at Russia. Although the book on the whole endorsed the Russian experiment, Dreiser’s overall response to it—as reflected additionally in essays, interviews, and letters—was more ambivalent, largely dependent on the audience to whom he was addressing his remarks. When commenting on the Soviet system to American leftists, he was apt to compare unfavorably the authoritarianism present in all phases of Soviet life with the relative freedom of America; when seeking to castigate some oppressive characteristic of the American economic system in remarks to the general public, he was apt to compare it unfavorably with the Soviet system. In the great tradition of American travel reportage, Dreiser was in the end perhaps more interested in life abroad for its implications for America than in itself.

During the closing years of the 1920s, much of Dreiser’s book publication, as in the period prior to An American Tragedy, consisted of collections of short, and frequently much earlier, works. Moods: Cadenced and Declaimed, a volume of free-verse poems, appeared in 1926. Chains: Lesser Novels and Stories, Dreiser’s second book of stories, was published in 1927. A Gallery of Women, a collection of semifictional biographical sketches, came out in 1929. Increasingly, Dreiser during these years was exploiting the freedom provided by his improved financial condition to think and write about philosophical and social issues. In June 1928 he visited the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, where he discussed with several scientists his preoccupation with a possible connection between the mechanistic foundation of all living things and some larger meaning to life. During this period Dreiser also found himself, along with almost all other writers of the period, increasingly disturbed and even outraged by the interrelated failures of American society to provide freedom of opportunity in its economic system and freedom of speech in its social and legal system. For many writers—John Dos Passos, for example—the infamous Sacco-Vanzetti case was the defining instance of these failures, stimulating them into full-scale social activism. (Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants convicted in 1921 and executed in 1927 for a double murder. Many felt that they were put on trial as much for their anarchist political beliefs as for their alleged participation in the crime.) There is no evidence of Dreiser’s involvement in this case, but with the stock-market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Depression he found his own defining issues and devoted increasing amounts of time and energy to them. In the early 1930s he took a leading role in the effort to free the imprisoned West Coast labor leader Tom Mooney, followed by similar efforts to come to the aid of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of African Americans accused of a rape in Alabama, and the striking coal miners of Harlan County, Kentucky.

Dreiser’s work on behalf of the Harlan County strikers in September 1931 typifies the depth of his commitment to leftish causes during the early 1930s. The county’s political and legal agencies were controlled by mine owners, and when the already impoverished coal miners went on strike to protest a cut in wages, they were ruthlessly crushed. The Left took up the issue, and a committee of writers and journalists, led by Dreiser, went to Harlan to report to the nation as a whole on the situation. For several days, in a setting of antagonistic and threatening local officials, Dreiser and others questioned miners and visited their towns and homes. The dramatic character of the visit produced heavy newspaper coverage, which was followed up by the swift appearance in early 1932 of Harlan Miners Speak: Report on Terrorism in the Ken tucky Coal Fields, for which Dreiser wrote the introduction and served as the interrogator in much of the testimony.

Dreiser’s participation in these and many similar causes during the 1930s raises the issue of the degree to which his thinking and writing during this period were principally expressions of Communist Party policy. On the surface the charge appears to be proven. Many of his activities on behalf of various individuals and groups were also Communist causes; indeed, they were often activities that arose directly out of his vigorous participation in the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, a Communist-controlled organization. On the whole, Dreiser shared the party view, as did many writers of the 1930s, that capitalism was an unjust economic system that required changing in the direction of state control and ownership of the economic system. But he was also vague on details, had grave doubts about the Soviet model of change, and refused to accept the dictates of the party on issues on which he held a contrary opinion. Thus, though the party continually sought to enlist Dreiser in cause after cause, to the point that much of his correspondence and miscellaneous writing of the period was devoted to political and social issues, he often spoke out against party policy in specific matters. His ambivalent role on the left during the 1930s is reflected by his relationship to Earl Browder and William Z. Foster, the two leading figures in the American Communist Party during the decade. Browder, very much the orthodox communist, was wary of him and in 1932 refused Dreiser’s request for membership in the party. Foster, however, valued Dreiser’s support on issues important to the party, despite his occasional “deviationism” (the party term for those not toeing the line), and became a friend.

Given his preoccupation with social matters for much of the 1930s and, from mid decade on, his deepening interest in completing his philosophical work, Dreiser published little of significance during this decade. An exception must be made, however, for the publication in 1931 of Dawn, his vibrant and compelling account of his early life, a work that he had completed in 1916. Much more characteristic of his publications of the decade were the innumerable privately printed

one-page broadsides and somewhat longer leaflets on a wide variety of issues that he mailed widely to everyone he could think of. Dreiser’s two book-length tracts of the period were complete failures. Tragic America (1931), much of which was prepared by assistants, consists of poorly digested “factual” evidence (much of it in error) demonstrating the failure of the American system, accompanied by a’ vehement polemic. America Is Worth Saving (1941), which was largely ghost-written, was a party-line attack on America’s support of Britain in World War II. Within six months of its publication, after Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union made England and the Soviet Union allies, both Dreiser and the Communist Party completely reversed their position.

One further distraction during this period arose out of Dreiser’s decision in mid 1932 to participate as an editor in a new magazine, The American Spectator. The journal, which boasted a distinguished group of co-editors, including George Jean Nathan (who had edited the American Mercury with Mencken), Ernest Boyd, and Eugene O’Neill, was intended to raise the level of magazine writing in the country. For more than eigh-teen months Dreiser spent much time soliciting contributions, making editorial suggestions and decisions, and arguing with his co-editors. In the end, the interests and temperaments of the editors failed to mesh, and Dreiser resigned from the magazine’s editorial board in early 1934.

Despite his financial “killing” from An American Tragedy, Dreiser felt himself increasingly pressed economically as the decade advanced. The crash of 1929 and the failure of Liveright’s firm a few years afterward cut deeply into his income, and the Depression had the general effect of providing few profitable outlets for his shorter works. In 1931 Dreiser and Helen gave up their luxurious Fifty-seventh Street apartment and began an existence of hotel living, largely on the Upper West Side. As the decade went on, Dreiser’s new publisher, Simon and Schuster, frequently prompted him to complete The Bulwark as a way of recouping his for-tunes, but he found it almost impossible to work on both this novel and the last volume of The Cowperwood Trilogy, The Stoic, which was also unfinished. Instead, for almost ten years, from the mid 1930s until 1944, Dreiser gave most of his attention to his philosophical study. This was to be an all-inclusive work—perhaps modeled on Herbert Spencer’s vast Synthetic Philosophy project, which had deeply influenced him in his youth—in which Dreiser would bring together large areas of knowledge in order to demonstrate that all life was the expression of a creative force that manifested itself by means of the mechanistic formulas governing every aspect of existence. Titled “The Formula Called Man” in Dreiser’s manuscripts, portions were published posthumously with the title Notes on Life in 1974. The work, because it depended on an understanding of biological research as well as complex philosophical issues, required qualities of mind and endeavor beyond Dreiser’s capabilities, despite his visits to research centers during the decade, his questioning of scientists, and his reading in scientifically oriented philosophy. For the student of Dreiser’s life and fiction, however, the project is of considerable interest.

Its thinking informs the recasting of The Bulwark and of the final portion of The Stoic, which he was to undertake during 1944 and 1945. More broadly, Dreiser’s attempt in the philosophical work to reconcile the rival claims of a scientifically based determinism and a religiously centered mysticism represents his final statement in an effort that dated from the beginning of his career.

In the final years of the 1930s, Dreiser, as was true of many of his fellow writers, became increasingly troubled about the rise to power of fascist governments in Europe. He joined and participated in several international antifascist organizations and, during the summer of 1938, in connection with this concern, journeyed to Paris and then to Spain, which was in the midst of its civil war pitting fascists against the republi-cans of the elected government. Stricken by the conditions in war-torn Spain, Dreiser sought to influence a possible change in the official American policy of neutrality toward the conflict by corresponding and meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

By late 1938 Dreiser was tired of a hotel existence in New York and moved permanently to Los Angeles, where he and Helen lived until his death in December 1945. Money was still in short supply until he received a double windfall from the motion picture industry. In 1940, RKO bought the movie rights to Sister Carrie for $40,000. In 1941, 20th Century-Fox agreed to pay $50,000 for My Gal Sal, a movie adaptation of the early life of Dreiser’s brother Paul. During these years in Los Angeles, Dreiser, as is not uncommon in the declining years of a major writer, felt neglected and out of the mainstream. His intense Anglophobia made his views on international affairs almost extraneous, and few were interested in his philosophical speculations. A large contribution to his self-esteem came, however, in May 1944, when the American Academy of Arts and Letters bestowed on him its Award of Merit, a prize conferred only once every five years, in a widely publicized ceremony in New York. After the publication of An American Tragedy it had been commonly assumed that Dreiser would be the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Instead, Sinclair Lewis achieved that distinction in 1930, after which Dreiser’s political radicalism made him an unlikely choice for the award. In addition, the conservative-minded Pulitzer Prize committee had never seen fit to offer him that prize. So here at last was a major public honor, one, however, with a considerable degree of irony attached, since Dreiser and Mencken had often attacked the Academy during the 1920s as a reactionary bastion of the literary establishment.

It was perhaps the long and tiring journey to New York, as well as Dreiser’s increasingly poor health, that led him in mid 1944 to make several decisions of the “tidying up at the close” variety. One was to marry Helen at last, after twenty-five years of an “irregular” relationship, in June of that year. Another was formally to join the Communist Party in July 1945, as a symbolic endorsement of what he believed was the party’s commitment to worldwide social justice. The last decision was to put aside his philosophical book, on which work had proceeded extremely slowly, and seek to complete The Bulwark and The Stoic. Both of these novels, however, comprised various manuscript versions spread over thirty years, and Dreiser felt the need for a working editorial companion if he were to complete the task. Fortunately, Marguerite Tjader Harris, a writer and magazine editor who admired his work and whom he had come to know in the late 1920s, was available. She joined him in Los Angeles in August 1944, and though the work went slowly, The Bulwark was completed in May 1945.

Although The Bulwark was outlined in 1914 and resembles Dreiser’s fiction of that period in that it is a novel of generational conflict, it also reflects Dreiser’s own later efforts to find some counterbalance to the tragic nature of life by a recognition of the wonder and beauty of the created world. His central figure, the Quaker Solon Barnes, suffers great pain both in his business and personal affairs, but, like Dreiser himself, he comes to a mystical acceptance of the presence of a universal creative force within the intricate mechanisms of life. Indeed, several of the scenes in which Solon confirms this belief derived directly from incidents in Dreiser’s own experience. However, though The Bulwark is clearly Dreiserian in its reflection of themes associated with both his early and late career, the novel does not resemble any other by him in its style. It is relatively short, the narrative has a chronicle-like briskness, and above all the prose style is direct and clear. These effects were achieved by the severe editing the work received from several hands. First, Louise Camp-bell, an old friend who had participated in the editing of several of his previous works, pruned and revised the work extensively. Some of the material cut by Campbell was restored by Donald Elder, Dreiser’s editor at Doubleday but Elder also made additional revisions of his own. When the work that resulted from these revisions reached Dreiser in early 1945, he was both too ill and too preoccupied with the completion of The Stoic to make any objections.

Marguerite Harris returned to the East after aiding Dreiser with The Bulwark, and Helen now served a similar though lesser role in the completion of The Stoic, a task Dreiser began in late spring. Much of the novel, which deals with Cowperwood’s relationship with the ethereal Berenice Fleming and his efforts to finance the London underground system, had already been written; what was still necessary was a revision of the approximately two-thirds of the novel that Dreiser had completed earlier (mostly in the early 1930s) and the completion of the final section, which was to deal with Cowperwood’s death and Berenice’s later life. The book Dreiser and Helen produced in response to this task is as anomalous in its own way as is The Bulwark. The previously written portion of the novel resembles The Financier and The Titan in its alternating attention to Cowperwood’s boardroom and bedroom successes, albeit in rather compressed accounts compared to the earlier novels of the trilogy. But the last section takes the reader on an entirely different tack. In his final years Dreiser had become interested in Hinduism as a mystically based belief similar in nature to his earlier interest in Quakerism, with both religions related to his own recent beliefs. Thus, in the portion of the novel written in late 1945, Cowperwood in his last years uncharacteristically begins to think of himself as a philanthropist, and Berenice, after his death, journeys to India, accepts Hinduism, and returns to America committed to a life of good works based on that faith.

The Stoic was completed in October 1945 and was sent to the novelist James T. Farrell for criticism. Farrell, who was a great admirer of Dreiser’s work, had also offered advice about The Bulwark. He thought the ending of the novel needed revision and made some suggestions that Dreiser thought good. Dreiser outlined to Helen how he wished to revise the conclusion, but before doing any of the actual writing, he died of a heart attack on 28 December 1945.


1. Theodore Dreiser, Newspaper Days (New York: Liveright, 1931), p. 457.

2. Ibid., p. 502.

Dreiser at Work

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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 willingness and indeed desire to comment at length on the fictional situation before him, and a compulsion to describe background and scene in detail produce quite long texts. (A draft of The Financier, for example, includes an extended paragraph, later cut by Dreiser, in which he describes the demeanor of the courtroom cat during Cowperwood’s trial.) Indeed, this habit of mind and style pervades all of Dreiser’s work, not just his novels. His autobiographies and travel books are similarly expansive, and even his short stories are fuller than is conventional. Although some critics of Dreiser’s fiction, notably Robert Penn Warren, have argued that the powerful sense of inevitability in his novels is inseparable from the full exposition of his characters’ lives, his publishers usually took the position that great length meant unsalability.

Another difficulty was the unsettling character of Dreiser’s material, including the presence of ideas antithetical to organized religion and conventional beliefs of all kinds. Most of all, his work was notable for its troubling depiction of the sexual in human nature. Not that there was anything of the obviously prurient in Dreiser’s subject matter. The human body and the physical act of sex are never present in his fiction. What is abundantly depicted, however, is the power of sexual desire in human nature and therefore the reality of men and women frequently acting out their desires, all within the context of an authorial presence unwilling to judge desire in conventional terms.

Thus, Sister Carrie, completed in the spring of 1900, was doubly handicapped. It was far too long, especially for a first novel by an

unknown author. Its account of a young girl who emerges unscathed and even triumphant from two illicit relationships challenged the dominant public moralism of the day, which held that illicit sexuality was not a proper subject for fiction, but that if it were indeed present, its depiction should always demonstrate the unequivocal operation of divine law in the punishment of the sinner. Anxious to have his novel published, Dreiser gave way to some degree in both areas of concern. On the advice of his friend Arthur Henry, he cut the novel extensively, giving his principal attention to the many passages early in the work in which he commented at length on his characters. And probably on the advice of his wife, Sallie, he cut or revised several passages that noted too openly the sexual underside of urban life—Hurst-wood’s habit of frequenting brothels, for example, or Carrie’s being subjected to a sexual pass by one of her employers.

The tension between Dreiser’s habitual mode of composition and early-nineteenth-century publishing conventions has led to a major controversy in the modern editing of his works. Dreiser seldom destroyed his early drafts or indeed any of the documents that constituted the prepublication history of a work. (With a few exceptions, all of this material is in the Dreiser Collection of the University of Pennsylvania Library.) It is usually possible, therefore, to construct a cradle-to-grave textual history of a Dreiser work. For Sister Carrie, for example, there exists Dreiser’s handwritten (or holo-graph) first draft and the typescript made from the draft (which was itself used to set type for the novel), both of which include significant revisions. Only the proof is missing. An editor can thus determine what was revised or cut from the novel and indeed can often determine who made the revisions or cuts. The issue presented by the availability of this material is whether in the preparation of a scholarly text of the novel the editor should stress its pre- or its postpublication form. This is more than an academic issue since scholarly editions often provide the texts that, in cheaper formats, are read by students and anyone else seeking a modern-reading version of a novel. To put the matter perhaps too simply, the argument for accepting the text written by Dreiser before revision and cutting is that in making alterations he was either consciously or subconsciously responding to a need to make his book more salable and that his early version of the novel, before this motive became operative, is thus the one truer to his artistic intentions. The arguments for adopting the published text as authoritative are that Dreiser, both for Sister Carrie and for all his subsequent novels, sought out and welcomed prepublication aid in the editing of his work, that it is usually impossible to determine his motive for accepting or rejecting editing suggestions made by others, and that, in any case, the cultural process by which a literary work reaches its audience is as much a part of the work as the author’s original intent and should not and cannot be separated from the work.

These two positions are not easily reconciled, and the publication of modern scholarly editions of Sister Carrie in 1981 and Jennie Gerhardt in 1992 in the ongoing University of Pennsylvania Dreiser Edition series, both of which relied heavily on Dreiser’s early drafts, occasioned much controversy. But though the issue remains unreconciled, peace of a kind has been achieved in that it is now generally accepted that each form of the novel has an independent role to play in any effort to understand Dreiser and his work fully.

The prepublication history of almost all of Dreiser’s novels, as well as most of his books in other genres, recapitulated that of Sister Carrie. With the exception of his last novel, The Stoic, each was cut extensively before publication—in the case of An American Tragedy, by more than half. Dreiser himself usually welcomed the early stage of this pruning—that is, the initial revision that friends performed on each of his novels. He was more resistant, however, with editors of the firm publishing the work, bringing to this stage of the process his lifelong suspicion of anyone having a commercial interest in his writing. As for sexual material, Dreiser was curiously ambivalent, depending on whether he was writing fiction or autobiography. Even the drafts of his novels contain few blatant sexual moments or descriptions, and he seems not to have resisted their early removal. His autobiographies and travel books, how-ever, are in their early versions far more explicit than his fiction in their depiction of sex, and he was angry that he was forced to cut almost all material of this kind from A Traveler at Forty. He held back the publication of Dawn for some fifteen years until changing times made his frankness in the book more acceptable.

Many major twentieth-century American authors remained loyal to a single publisher throughout their careers. This was not true of Dreiser, who brought to his relations with publishers the baggage of a suspicious nature and often impossible demands. But though his reputation after 1911 as a major author made him a desirable asset to a publishing firm, and many therefore pursued him, he was also often shabbily treated by his publishers, which helps to explain his prickly relations with them. The machinations of Walter H. Page and then Frank Doubleday himself as they attempted to evade the agreement of Doubleday, Page and Company to publish Sister Carrie triggered in Dreiser a lifelong anxiety about the honesty, motives, and artistic insight of publishers that he never over-came. These feelings were confirmed during the next decade when Harper’s, under pressure from its owners, withdrew at the last moment from the publication of The Titan and when John Lane withdrew The “Genius” from print because of fear of prosecution for obscenity. Dreiser’s anxiety over publishers continued even into the flush time following the great success of An American Tragedy, when he quarreled bitterly with Horace Liveright, the publisher of the novel, over the division of the proceeds from movie rights, despite the fact that Liveright had supported Dreiser through several lean years and had published several of his volumes of only marginal public interest.


Since Dreiser was never an adequate typist, he wrote all his novels initially by hand, composing swiftly and copiously. Often, however, as in the case of several of his novels, he realized that he had made a false start and discarded his opening chapters. This was especially apt to be true, as with Jennie Gerhardt and The Bulwark, if some years had elapsed between his first undertaking the novel and returning to it. In addition, he would frequently shift holograph sections within a novel in progress, as he did notably in The Financier. On the whole, however, Dreiser’s initial drafts are expansive, contain little close stylistic revision by himself, and reveal little or no revision by others.

The final holograph draft would then be put into typescript by a professional typist, after which an intensive and extended process of cutting and revision would be undertaken. Dreiser always acknowledged his weak command of English grammar and spelling, and some of the revision therefore consisted of conventional editorial cleaning up of solecisms and grammatical errors. (The typist would have already begun this process for more obvious errors.) In addition,

he frequently accepted suggestions for stylistic change, especially if they originated from readers, such as H. L. Mencken or Louise Campbell, whose taste he trusted. But a far more central concern for Dreiser was the fictional nuts and bolts of the novel, matters such as characterization, plotting, description, and even major themes. Here he pursued a uniqueprocess of collaborative production. The initial typescript or (later in his career) multiple copies of the initial typescript would be read by several close associates; Dreiser would then seriously consider their suggestions, which would range from major areas of theme and construction to sentence revision, and would accept some and reject others. Because the typescript would almost always be too lengthy for publication, he would particularly seek out recommendations for cutting.

The history of the revision of Sister Carrie offers a rough model of the editorial method that Dreiser followed throughout his career. The principal readers offering suggestions for change were his wife, Sallie, and his close friend Arthur Henry. In this instance, unlike in the case of Dreiser’s later novels, Sallie played a role in the composition ofthe holograph itself, questioning Dreiser’s historical accuracy and making stylistic changes here and there. She was especially active in Dreiser’s important revision in holograph of the conclusion of the novel. Together they worked toward changing the direction of Carrie’s final condition: instead of facing romantic prospects with the young engineer Ames, she faces a life of continuous search for happiness. When the novel was putinto typescript, Henry, a writer well in touch with the contemporary market in fiction, made many suggestions for cuts, most of which Dreiser accepted. Dreiser, in short, sought out two kinds of help in the shaping of his draft into publishable form: first, frank and honest assistance in questioning some of the basic assumptions of the work and viable suggestions for change in these doubtful areas; and, second, assistance in identifying material that could profitably be cut.

Dreiser’s varied and complex relationships with women throughout his life, as wellas his capacity to generate great loyalty among his close friends, are well known. It is one of the striking distinctions of his career as a writer that he was able to effect a kind of practical economy between these aspects of his personal life and his writing. Woman after woman, most of them lovers, and man after man, most of them professional writers who were close friends at the time, served him as readers and editors, as had his wife, Sallie, and Henry. Some ofthe women, such as Sally Kusell and Estelle Kubitz in the 1920s, were initially typists who evolved into the dual role of editor-lover. Others, such as Louise Campbell, who played majorroles in the evolution of several of Dreiser’s novels, began as lovers and then assumedthe editorial role. Some left their mark principally on one novel—Lillian Goodman on Jennie Gerhardt, for example, or Marguerite Tjader on The Bulwark— while others contributed to several. But always there was a woman, and often more than one, who occupied the role of both lover and aide. As far as men are concerned, Mencken is the preeminent example of the editor-friend. During the seminal decade of the 1910s, when Dreiser was furiously producing work after work, Mencken served as his principal editorial resource, especially for cutting. As Dreiser’s career proceeded, his dependence on editorial aid increased. For An American Tragedy, for example, major roles were played by Kusell, by Campbell, to whom he sent the manuscript, and by T. R. Smith, a Liveright editor.

Aside from a desire for suggestions for cutting, Dreiser was particularly eager for responses to the conclusions of his novels. It is perhaps a characteristic of his nonteleological mindset—of a temperament that saw little direction in life, whether divinely inspired or humanly controlled—that Dreiser often had a problem with endings and frequently made late and significant changes in the conclusion of his novels, usually in response to readers’ criticism and suggestions. Sister Carrie was revised both to eliminate Ames as a “matrimonial possibility” and to close the novel with an epilogue on Carrie rather than with (as in the holograph) Hurstwood’s death. For Jennie Gerhardt Dreiser recast much of the last third of the novel; in the revised version Jennie and her lover Lester Kane do not marry, and Jennie is left empty and alone at the end of the work. Similarly, the initial version of The “Genius,” which concluded with Eugene and Suzanne’s union, was revised to an ending in which Eugene is contented in his single life.

Whereas Dreiser sought out and usually welcomed suggestions made by lovers and friends, he brought a quite different attitude to publishers’ requests for revision. Doubleday, for example, asked that he

change the names of many prominent people and places identified in Sister Carrie, arequest Dreiser responded to grudgingly and only in part. Harper’s cut Jennie Gerhardt and also revised its style extensively; Dreiser, angry at what the publisherhad done, fought a rear-guard action, revising a great deal to restore the original text. The Bulwark was so extensively revised by Campbell and Doubleday’s Donald Elder that it does not resemble Dreiser’s usual fictional method and prose style. In one notable instance, however, Dreiser regretted strongly that one of his novels had not been sufficiently edited by his publisher. On his return from Europe in the spring of 1912, he was so anxious to complete and publish his first novel of The Cowperwood Trilogy, The Financier, that both he and Harper’s had little opportunity to undertake the major cutting that the more than 750 printed pages of the novel demanded. After its publication Dreiser came to consider this failure a serious error, and in 1926, bolstered by the cash and prominence provided by the success of An American Tragedy, he resolved to publish a revised cut version of The Financier. Louise Campbell undertook the job, and, as usual, the process involved her making initial suggestions that Dreiser then acted on, often making additional changes himself. As a result of these revisions, the 1926 version of The Financier was approximately one-third shorter than the original.


1. Thomas Wolfe, “A Letter from Thomas Wolfe,” in F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up, edited by Edmund Wilson (New York: New Directions, 1945), p. 314.

Dreiser’s Era

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10477

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 personal position in it. It is by now an historical truism that in the post-Civil War years the United States transformed from a largely agricultural into an industrial and urban society. Translated into the concrete actualities of Dreiser’s fiction, however—into a Carrie making her way to Chicago to work in a shoe factory, orinto Cowperwood fighting his way to power in the eat-or-be-eaten financial world of Philadelphia—the truism takes on the vibrancy of life itself. In addition, as has often been noted, both the credibility and power of Dreiser’s depiction of the conditions of late-nineteenth-century life as experienced by the average American of that time derive from his firsthand knowledge of these conditions. Unlike almost all earlier American writers, his background was not Anglo-Saxon, protestant, and middle class but rather immigrant, Catholic, and impoverished. Thus, unlike the late-nineteenth-century novelists William Dean Howells and Henry James, who tended to view social change as the transformation of the known world into something strange and fearsome by an almost alien race, Dreiser accepted and wrote of this new world and its new inhabitants with an almost credulous familiarity. Not only were the protagonists of his first two novels, Carrie Meeber and Jennie Gerhardt, modeled directly on his sisters Emma and Mame, but their lives of sexual misadventure, of urban jobs in factories and as maids, and of constant struggle to achieve a degree of well-being and happiness struck Dreiser as “natural” This was the America he had experienced, and he was therefore shocked by the frequent charge against him during his early career that he was seeking out the abnormal or “morbid” in American life in order to achieve a cheap success.

Since Dreiser’s writing touches upon many aspects of American life, it is helpful to take them up in the most prominent of the larger categories into which they fall: the class war occasioned by rapid and uncontrolled industrialization; and urbanization; the condition of women in this new society; the reformulation of American belief in the early twentieth century; and the texture of daily life as led by most Americans during thisperiod—the kinds of homes they lived in, their amusements, and so forth.


The last thirty years of the nineteenth century were a time of immense expansion in the industrial capacity of the nation, initially in the heavy industries of mining, steel production, and railroad transportation, but also increasingly in every other phase of the production of goods and services. Thus, for example, by the time Henry Ford and other automobilemanufacturers began to create, soon after the turn of the century, the American automobile industry—an industry that epitomized early-twentieth-century mass production—there was already in place the necessary manufacturing capacity and industrial technical skill to support the activity. During this period the modern American city also began to take shape. The older American town or city was largely a commercial and politicalcenter. The mass production of essential goods and the attendant network of smaller factories, service facilities, and efficient transportation required a centralized locus. The large city offered not only a single site for the acquisition of raw materials and the distribution of finished products but, perhaps even more important, a plentiful supply of labor. And labor was indeed plentiful, as a steady stream of immigrants and young Americans leaving the farms and villages of their parents flooded into the cities. (It was not until after World War I that the United States instituted a severely restrictive immigration policy.) The older East Coast cities—Boston, NewYork, Philadelphia, and Baltimore—began to be transformed from their antebellum character of large villages into teeming, immigrant-populated cities, and the great new cities of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley—Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and above all Chicago—became manufacturing and transportation hubs, supplying the entire nation with steel, oil, and processed meat.

These fundamental changes in the way most Americans lived took place within an almost totally unregulated society. Earlier federal, state, and local governments had felt little pressure upon them to regulate such matters as interstate commerce, monopoly domination of an industry, or city growth when there was little such commerce, domination, or growth. When the need did arise late in the nineteenth century, powerful groups emerged to combat the idea of regulation. Those engaged in the very activities or conditions requiring regulation—an oil trust, a tenement owner—funneled large sums of money into the political system to engage support for the dominant laissez-faire social philosophy of the day, social Darwinism. Social Darwinism held that society had evolved to its present superior state much as the humanspecies had progressed to its present superior form, through the operation of the natural laws of the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. Any effort by government to “interfere” in natural law—to regulate child labor or mine safety, for example, as well as the operation of an industrialtrust—would have a detrimental effect on the social progress of the nation as a whole. This was a useful argument for the manufacturing class, and its adoption as a centraltenet by the Republican Party of the day helped establish it as the controlling social philosophy of the period.

The titles of several well-known works of the 1890s and shortly thereafter suggest the class structure of American life under these social conditions and their attendant philosophical defense. Jacob Riis’s 1890 expose of conditions in the New York slums, How the Other Half Lives, offered the basic metaphor of a nation divided into two clearly distinguishable sections, those who had the means to live adequately and those who did not. The first lived a life traditionally associated with America as a land of opportunity—that of work, homes, and families. Members of the secondn group, the subject of Riis’s account, occupied the tenement hovels, sweatshops, and alleyways of the vast cities of America—New York in this instance—;barely eked out an existence, and were for the most part ignored by the other half of society. Two other works, Frank Norris’s novel The Octopus (1901) and Upton Sinclair’s novel and social tract The Jungle (1906), introduced an animal metaphor into the interpretation of a divided American society. In the first, the Southern Pacific Railroad is imaged as a huge octopus grasping and squeezing dry the hapless farmers of California’s San Joaquin Valley, while in the second the workers in a Chicago meat-packing factory are beaten down by the ruthless jungle ethics of their employer. A further central metaphor appropriate to the social reality of the period was that of the individual as a valueless and disposable object when he was not producing profit for others as an adjunct to a machine. The image was widely employed by the turn of the century, but it was most brilliantly exploited by Charlie Chaplin in his 1936 movie Modem Times.

Most of Dreiser’s novels are not merely set in an urban, industrial, and class-divided late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America but derive their characters, plots, and themes from this social context. An archetypal moment in Dreiser’s fiction is the arrival of an outsider, handicapped by youth, ignorance, and poverty, in a city or industrial town. He or she is eager to taste life in the form of the “glitter” (a favorite Dreiserian term) of this new world—its shops, theaters, and grand homes—but is instead absorbed into the underclass servicing, at near-starvation wages, the factories, stores, and mansions of the city. Carrie Meeber arrives in Chicago with four dollars and the address of her sister in her purse and begins her new life operating a machine in a shoe factory at three-and-half dollars a week. Jennie Gerhardt arrives in Cleveland and takes a job as a maid in a large home. Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy arrives in the fictional Lycurgus, New York, and is set to work in the basement shrinking room of a shirt factory. In addition to the anxiety caused by the work they must do to survive, the three characters are also constantly plagued by having to live within a central paradox of modern American society—that all around them, and thus seemingly there to be grasped, are the material wonders of American life: the clothes, carriages, homes, and entertainments of the prosperous. The evidence of failure provided by the many who are locked into a life of permanent deprivation serves as an emphatic reminder of the difficulty of attaining what the city seems to offer. Carrie sees in the existence of her sister’s family, the Hansons, a telling omen of what might lie in store for her in Chicago in her seemingly inevitable future as a factory worker or store clerk. Jennie has no further to look than her family, and especially the broken figure of her father, for similar confirmation. Clyde views his fellow factory workers with a mingled fear and contempt derived from his rejection of the destiny that they appear to confirm.


Sister Carrie does not feature any characters who rise above Hurstwood’s initial managerial status, but Jennie Gerhardt, An American Tragedy, and The Cowperwood Trilogy portray figures who represent the dominant class in American society. The Kanes in Jennie Gerhardt are a generation removed from their immigrant origins. They have built a small carriage manufacturing business into a powerful national concern, reflecting the increasing consolidation of American manufacturing, and they pursue their lives in a style appropriate to the new grandee class in a material-centered civilization. However, one of the sons of the family, Lester Kane, is something of an independent spirit; he wishes to live his own life and come to his own conclusions about the nature of experience. His family indulges him, but when they discover that Lester has been engaged in a long relationship with Jennie, a woman they consider entirely unsuitable for a man of his class, they draw him back into the fold. If he continues to live with Jennie, he will be dismissed from the family business and family circle. Lester is not a weak man, and indeed he loves Jennie, but he has so fully embraced the comforts and style of his class that he cannot imagine a life outside of that world and thus gives up Jennie. Dreiser’s theme is that class in America involves not only the high wall barring the lower from the upper but the imprisonment of even the upper within its separate world.

In An American Tragedy the Griffithses of Lycurgus have also established a successful manufacturing firm and are among the social elite of the city. Enter Clyde, a nephew from a failed branch of the family, who represents both a troublesome responsibility and a possible embarrassment and is therefore stowed away in the shrinking room of their factory and given little further thought. In one of the many striking social ironies of the novel, however, Clyde not only knows he is a Griffiths but is constantly reminded of this truth by his physical resemblance to his cousin, Gilbert Griffiths. Both he and Gilbert share a family name and appearance, but a vast chasm separates the socially self-confident Gilbert, who is a leading figure in Lycurgus’s upper-class “fast set,” and the lonely Clyde, whose life consists of an empty job and a meager boardinghouse room.

The Cowperwood Trilogy offers a somewhat different representation of the theme that class differences are intensified in an industrialized society. In the first volume, The Financier, Cowperwood quickly rises above his lower-middle-class background to become a member of the monied class and remains at that level for the rest of the trilogy. A manipulator of vast sums and large company holdings, Cowperwood comes to declare that his personal code is “I satisfy myself.” And satisfy himself he does, in the building of grand mansions, the accumulation of art treasures, and the constant exhibition of wealth and power, which attracts beautiful young women. He represents the solidly respectable manufacturing class of the Kanes and Griffithses raised to the ultimate degree of wealth, display, and self-absorption. The vast majority of the nation that constitutes the working class exists for Cowperwood as an economic abstraction, not as living beings with needs and feelings. The Civil War is a nuisance to him because it interferes with trade, and his only philanthropic gesture until shortly before his death, the gift of a telescope to the University of Chicago, is undertaken as a political gesture. Cowperwood’s social myopia does not derive from any element of malignancy in his nature. Rather, it is the product of a social system that handsomely rewards his insight that he lives in a social jungle in which “I satisfy myself” can serve as a powerful formula for success.

The 1890s, the decade during which Dreiser was a newspaperman in Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and New York, reflected in its many incidents of open class warfare the instability and anger inherent in the post-Civil War division of America into haves and have-nots. Vast strikes in the railroad and steel industries led to armed conflicts in Chicago and Homestead(near Pittsburgh), and there was labor unrest throughout the country. A nationwide depression, fueled by a series of Wall Street collapses, helped contribute to an apocalyptic mood. Dreiser’s fiction seldom engages the reader in class warfare itself, with the notable exception of the violent Brooklyn streetcar strike toward the close of Sister Carrie, when Hurstwood spends a long and anxious day working as a scab during the strike. Rather, class conflict is present in Dreiser’s novels less obviously but more penetratingly in his depiction of the factory as a scene of motives so powerfully opposed as to constitute a form of warfare.

Sister Carrie and especially An American Tragedy provide excellent examples of scenes of this kind. Carrie goes to work in a shoe factory because she must work to remain in Chicago and the factory offers her the only opportunity to do so. Her job consists of operating a small machine in a repetitive task in a crowded, poorly ventilated room. She must work at a certain speed for hours on end without interruption. The foreman hovers over her; her fellow workers, though not belligerent, are preoccupied with their own lives. Several of them make passes at her. The “conflict” dramatized in the scene is that of human aspiration for a better life and the conditions in a newly industrialized society that provide the context of this desire. Although Carrie leaves the job because she becomes ill, her realization, once she is better, that she must find something similar if she wishes to remain in Chicago makes the ministrations of Drouet more attractive. Dreiser is not writing here with a blunt instrument; he does not draw a direct line between the alternatives of working in a factory and becoming a kept woman, and he judges neither Carrie nor Drouet. But he nevertheless powerfully suggests that modern industrial conditions and human needs are irreconcilable and that one consequence of this conflict is a desperate and sometimes dangerous urgency to escape the scene of conflict.

Something of this same theme adheres to Dreiser’s more fully developed account of Clyde’s position in the Griffiths shirt factory. In this instance, however, the oppressive conditions in the factor are more psychological than physical. The Griffithses heartily accept the upper-class belief that material success derives in part from the capacity to live within conventional moral strictures. In addition, they hold that anyone seeking success must also demonstrate a realization of the importance of money, a realization built upon initial deprivation. Therefore, when Clyde begins work in the factory, he is paid poorly and is expected to behave morally. Clyde, however, desperately wants the things of life, and just as desperately is drawn to girls, and when he violates the moral and social codes imposed upon him by the Griffithses, they dispossess him. The “warfare” in this instance is that created by the moral conditions of life imposed by the stronger class on the weaker, and the resistance to these conditions by the underclass. The Griffithses’demands derive from the common assumption of their class that economic success constitutes moral authority, while Clyde’s actions stem from basic human needs that challenge that assumption. In this challenge, and the threat to order and authority it represents to those in power, there resides a permanent source of conflict in an industrial society.

Dreiser’s dramatization of the theme that economic power is often used to assume a moral authority is related to his theme that an appearance of morality often disguises the means used to acquire and maintain power— in other words, that a moral hypocrisy pervades every aspect of American social and political life. He engages this idea in several of his works, and perhaps nowhere more fully than in The Cowperwood Trilogy. Early in The Financier, in an often cited passage, young Cowperwood realizes, from his observation of a life-and-death struggle in an aquarium tank, that deception and subterfuge function throughout nature as means of dominance and survival. From this point onward Cowperwood makes operative in his life a series of premises that bring him great power and success: Anyone seeking power in the cutthroat American business world must disregard conventional ethical standards; however, given the sentimental moralism pervading American life, it is necessary to create the appearance that one is guided in one’s beliefs and acts by conventional moral principles. Moreover, since most Americans wish to rationalize their immoral behavior, a characteristic that diffuses and limits their capacity for deception, the person who fully understands and accepts the dual principles of immoral behavior and moral hypocrisy in the American system is more strongly armed in the competition for success and power.

Cowperwood brilliantly exploits this perception in all his business affairs. Since his financial and, later, street-railway interests involve him deeply with city and state political leaders, The Financier and The Titan include detailed accounts of the corruption of the American political system by its increasing vulnerability to the late-nineteenth-century business ethic that Cowperwood epitomizes. Initially in Philadelphia and then in Chicago, with both city and state officials, he uses financial reward or coercion to gain the contracts and rights of way that are needed to further his plans. The common term for such actions is corruption, and though some of the political figures involved with Cowperwood occasionally have twinges of conscience, he himself proceeds with a clear mind and spirit. He is merely more honest than others, he believes, in that his experience of life has led him to reject the notion that it is moral in operation. Only the strong prevail, and his acceptance of this truth has made him even stronger.

Dreiser’s long account of Clyde Griffiths’s trial in Book Three of An American Tragedy features an equally jaundiced portrayal of the moral hypocrisy of American political and social life, in this case centered on the perversion of the judicial system by political needs and social prejudice. Clyde is guaranteed a fair trial by his peers, but in fact the district attorney prosecuting him is running for reelection and manipulates evidence to secure a conviction, and the rural and moralistic jury is convinced in advance that Clyde murdered his lover because he had made her pregnant and refused to marry her. Yet, on Clyde’s conviction and then execution, the district attorney, the jury, and the community believe that justice has been fully served.

In one of his final novels, The Bulwark, Dreiser returns to a study of late-nineteenth-century American business life through the central character, Solon Bames, who spends his entire career as an officer in a Philadelphia bank. Whereas Cowperwood exposed the amoral heart of American business practices by his own open acceptance of what others refused to acknowledge, Barnes serves a similar purpose by the opposite device of a blindness for much of his career to what is going on around him. He is a genuinely good man who has lived by the precepts of his Quaker faith. Thus, he does not see that the directors of his bank, who are also businessmen, have been engaged in endorsing suspect loans to companies with which they are involved. When Barnes finally does realize this practice and both resigns from the bank and reports the loans to the federal examiners, he is viewed as a traitor by his former colleagues. As he himself realizes, he has merely made a gesture; the tide is running strongly against men of his kind.


Dreiser’s depiction of women in his fiction reflects the importance of the “woman problem” during his era. The issue of the condition of women—what their rights were under law, whether they should vote, and whether they were best employed in the home or in careers—first arose during the 1830s and 1840s, when reformers close to the transcendental movement of that period included it among their desired social changes. The almost complete absorption of reform movements during the following decades into the antislavery cause pushed aside the issue of women’s rights, and it was not until the 1880s that it again gathered full steam. By this time, and especially by the end of the century, women were playing a major role in the new industrial society as factory workers and in stores and offices, while at the high end of the social scale they were increasingly attending colleges and even entering the learned professions. In general, however, traditional attitudes and practices prevailed. Women were still severely handicapped in any effort to escape the conventional association of the feminine with the home and child-rearing, and they still were notpermitted the sexual tolerance and freedom accorded men. The New Woman movement of the 1890s and first decade of the twentieth centurywas particularly concerned with these two issues, which its leaders viewed as interdependent. Only when women achieved economic independence, they argued, would they also achieve the freedom to conduct their own lives as they wished.

Dreiser’s response to this major issue of his time was strikingly ambivalent. On the one hand, both in his fiction and in his comments on the woman question elsewhere, he displayed a sympathetic awareness ofthe plight of women in a masculine-centered world. In his first two novels, Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, he renders the heroines as limited in their opportunities by gender conventions of their day, and he also supported the women’s rights movement in such issues as suffrage and birth control. On the other hand, although Dreiser in his personal life was deeply responsive to the many women he met who were seeking fulfillment in areas of life other than the home and family, he was also, in his sexual life, ruthlessly exploitative and held firmly to the double standard. His second wife, Helen, recalled in her memoir, My Life with Dreiser, the many instances in which he forbade her even a minor interest in other men while he flaunted his many sexual relationships with other women. Something of this traditional male-centered view of sexual freedom is also present in The Cowper-wood Trilogy and The “Genius,” works whose male protagonists resemble Dreiser himself in their constant seeking of new partners.

Carrie and Jennie are Dreiser’s fullest and most appealing portraits of seeking women who, though handicapped in their quests by conventional gender roles, nevertheless achieve at least a partial fulfillment of their inherent potential. Carrie’s is no doubt the more radical representation, and Dreiser’s depiction of her is still the focus of much critical attention. Her initial adventures in Chicago are in the mold of the sentimental novel of the day, in which a young girl comes to the city and, unguided and unprotected, becomes the victim of a seducer. But it soon becomes apparent that Dreiser accepts this sentimental framework, in which the woman is both inherently vulnerable and exists largely in her sexual role, in order to subvert it. Carrie does not, as the convention demands, become pregnant, at which point, in one of the two moral conclusions demanded by the form, either her lover marries her or she dies in childbirth. Rather, using Drouet as a vehicle, she begins a process of self-education and self-advancement. She acquires from him a knowledge of city ways, and, most of all, with his encouragement, takes part in an amateur theater production at Avery Hall that uncovers the innate acting ability she will eventually capitalize on for a successful career.

Dreiser’s depiction of Carrie therefore indirectly engages the two principal issues pursued by the New Woman movement. In order to escape the factory-employee or servant-class destiny of most country girls making their way to a great metropolis, Carrie, with an unconscious shrewdness, makes use of her one exploitable asset, her sexual attractiveness. Living first with Drouet and then Hurstwood, she develops her acting talent until it can provide her with an income, at which point, no longer dependent ona man for support, she drops Hurstwood. Although at first seemingly handicapped by the gender assumptions that women, unlike men, cannot safely disregard sexual conventions and cannot carve out careers for themselves, she has pushed through, by the close of the novel, to a masculine kind of success. She has made her way economically on the basis of her abilities, and she will select personal relationships on the basis of her preferences. Indeed, Carrie’s masculine single-mindedness in the pursuit of her own self-interest, a quality that includes the discarding of Hurstwood when he becomes an encumbrance, has troubled some readers of the novel since the time of its publication. Ironically, while Dreiser depicted a woman successfully negating the moral and gender conventions of her time, there have always been readers who have wished for a softer and kinder (that is, more traditionally feminine) Carrie.

Carrie, however, is not completely a “free woman.” As many recent critics of Sister Carrie have noted, Dreiser depicts her as captive during much of the novel to the consumerist culture of her day. She is deeply engaged by the wonders of the department store, by attractive clothes and home furnishings, and by the trappings of luxury wherever she encounters them. In this regard, as these critics hold, she illustrates the vulnerability of women to a culture of consumption that equates ownership and display of possessions with worth and success. (One year before Sister Carrie was published in 1900, the economist and social critic Thorstein Veblen published the seminal work on this aspect of women in a capitalist society, The Theory of the Leisure Class.) Dreiser, however, had other plans for Carrie than to have her serve as a slave to consumer culture. By the close of the novel, at which point she indeed has the resources to buy what she wishes, she has also discovered that she is not satisfied by success and possessions alone, that she wants something more. Although Dreiser suggests, by means of the late appearance of the intellectual engineer Ames as a kind of tutor, that this “something more” consists of the life of the mind, many readers, probably contrary to Dreiser’s intent, have found Carrie’s early longing for “a little tan jacket . . . which was all the rage that fall”1 more convincing and moving than her late reading in Balzac.

Jennie Gerhardt exhibits an equally rich and complex mix of turn-of-the-century notions of the feminine. Dreiser’s basic intent was to write a kind of American version of Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, in which a young woman remains “pure” despite being an unwed mother. Both Hardy and Dreiser wished to separate moral issues from those of sexual behavior, especially when the behavior is that of a woman whose poverty is largely responsible for her transgressions and whose gender enforces upon her a stricter code of behavior than that faced by a man. Jennie is made pregnant by Senator Brander, who dies before he can marry her, and she lives unmarried for many years with Lester Kane. But in both of these relationships, as well as in other aspects of her life, she remains a large-souled, generous-spirited woman. Mixed in with this theme, however, is that of the rich reservoir of intellect frequently lying untapped within the feminine temperament, a theme Dreiser introduced toward the close of Sister Carrie but did not fully develop. Jennie, like all women of her class at that time, had little opportunity for formal education. Under Kane’s tutelage, however, and through traveling and reading, she acquires an understanding of the history and nature of human experience. By the close of the novel, she represents Dreiser’s most complete depiction of a feminine nature achieving its full potential—that of a warmth and largeness of spirit combined with an expansive intellect. The radical thesis underlying this honorific portrayal is that Jennie, as is true of Carrie, achieves this unity of mind and spirit both in spite of the many obstacles placed in her path by her gender and in part through the aid of relationships condemned as sexual transgressions by her society.

Carrie and Jennie (and, later, Etta in The Bulwark) are women whose strength of purpose and fullness of nature run counter to the stereotypes of the feminine of dreiser’s day. Many of the women portrayed in his other novels, however, frequently confirm these conventional beliefs about gender. This disparity may have deeply personal roots. When depicting women whose early lives were drawn primarily from his sisters’ experiences, as in the case of Carrie and Jennie, Dreiser was able to generate a sympathetic identification with their efforts to get something more out of their lives than their gender and background appeared to provide. How-ever, when depicting women who function largely in relationship to male protagonists with whom Dreiser strongly identified, as with the artist Eugene Witla in The “Genius” and the strong-willed and amoral Cowper-wood in The Cowperwood Trilogy, he was not able to escape endowing them with the qualities conventionally attributed to women whose principal role in life is that of consort to a man.

Women of this kind fall into two broad categories in The “Genius” and The Cowper-wood Trilogy: rejected and therefore bitter and revengeful wives, and younger women who serve their lord’s pleasure for a brief period before he moves on to another relationship. In The “Genius” Angela is an example of a woman in the first role, and several women play the second; in the trilogy Aileen is the termagant wife while Cowperwood is engaged in liaisons with a seemingly endless series of young and younger women. This division of womankind into the shrewish wife and compliant maiden weakens both works, especially The “Genius,” and suggests as well that dreiser’s portrayal of women in all his novels was more the result of a felt response emerging out of the circumstances of his own life than a consciously held and intellectually derived position.

An American Tragedy, which has two fully developed female characters in Roberta Alden and Sondra Finchley, also reflects Dreiser’s ambivalent stance toward gender issues. Initially, Roberta appears to be cast in the mold of Carrie and Jennie. Her desire for a life other than that of working on her parents’ marginal farm has brought her to Lycurgus, where she obtains a job in the Griffiths shirt factory and where her love affair with Clyde appears initially to be a means of fulfilling her hopes. But once pregnant, she is transformed from an appealing, aspirant woman into a demanding woman who wants what the harried Clyde does not wish to provide. Sondra, the carefree daughter of a wealthy manufacturer, is a consumer. Her life is built around acquiring the desirable objects that her society provides for the wealthy, and Clyde himself, since he is drawn to Sondra principally by her wealth, is one of those objects. The conventional female characters in An American Tragedy, however, unlike those of The “Genius” and The Cowperwood Trilogy, play a significant thematic role in that they help to convey Clyde’s limitations of insight and temperament. Clyde’s wish to discard Roberta for Sondra transforms his lover into a shrew, and his inability to see Sondra other than as an icon of wealth confirms the tragic effects upon him of the American dream of success.


Dreiser’s novels also suggestively reflect the widespread shift in American belief from a reliance on supernaturally based systems to those more firmly grounded in worldly concerns. One way to approach this theme in his fiction is to note the absence of or contempt for formal religion in his novels (until his final years) and its replacement by the contemporary secular cults of success and art.

Many of Dreiser’s novels signal the diminished role of religious belief among most Americans by the omission of any reference to belief in the lives of characters whose experience touches upon issues on which most religions speak with a strong voice. Carrie, Cowperwood, Witla, and Clyde participate in various sexual entanglements without a thought to the teachings of the church in this matter. Hurstwood, Cowperwood, and Clyde engage in criminal acts without the pangs of a conscience founded on religious precepts. A typical moment reflecting the absence of the church as a moral guide occurs during Dreiser’s account of Hurstwood’s theft of a sum of money from his employer’s safe. Hurstwood, a typical middle-class American, is deeply concerned about the act, but only because he might be caught and punished. As Dreiser remarks, “The true ethics of the situation never once occurred to him”(193).

In addition, Dreiser openly attacks the emptiness and even harm of formal religion in Jennie Gerhardt and An American Tragedy. Old Gerhardt, Jennie’s father, is a devout Lutheran whose every thought and action occurs in reference to the teachings of his church. His children, however, live in their own world of human need and desire, a world Gerhardt refuses to accept as worthy of understanding. The conflict in Gerhardt between what Dreiser portrays as blind dogmatic belief and human sympathy is epitomized by his relationship with Jennie’s illegitimate child, Vesta. Vesta’s origin must be hidden from Gerhardt if his natural love for the child is to find expression. The opening third of An American Tragedy offers a similarly jaundiced portrayal of formal religious belief. Clyde’s parents are urban missionaries whose preparation of their children for life consists largely of having them participate in their evangelical activities. Clyde, while exposed to the abundance of a prosperous American city, is also presumably armed with a body of traditional religious axioms as a means of resisting the desirable but forbidden life he sees around him. In response to this unequal conflict, Clyde appears to discard his religious background once he fully enters the outside world through his job at the plush Green-Davidson Hotel. But, in Dreiser’s ironic portrayal of the role of religious belief in modern American society, Clyde merely transfers the conventional emotions and language of religious fulfillment to his desire for the things of life and often imagines his worldly aspirations in religious terms. So he conceives of the pinnacle of all that he wishes to gain in life, the socially prominent and wealthy Sondra, as an “angel,” a “goddess in her shrine,” and a “saint.”

During the final decades of his life Dreiser became absorbed in an effort to construct a philosophy of human existence. He began initially with a base of scientific and mechanistic explanations of life typical of the philosophical speculations of many during the 1910s and 1920s, but by the 1940s included aspects of Quakerism and Hinduism as well. He was less attracted, however, by the formal theology of these religions than by their providing a way to belief through man’s sense of a mystical oneness with nature and all that is beautiful and good in life. Thus, when he revised The Bulwark and The Stoic during the last years of his life, in 1944 and 1945, Dreiser portrayed religious belief far more affirmatively than at any other time in his career. Solon Barnes, the devout Quaker in The Bulwark who has discovered that his piety is an anomaly in the world, finds it nevertheless confirmed by the beauty and unity he mystically identifies in the natural world. Berenice Fleming, at the close of The Stoic, is transformed by her immersion in Hindu mysticism into a nun-like minister to the sick and poor.

As religious belief yielded ground during the late nineteenth century to the increasingly secular concerns of an urban, business-centered society, as well as to a Darwinian-based skepticism, it was replaced in the minds of many Americans by a cult of success. Despite their seeming disparity, however, both forms of belief promised salvation, heavenly or worldly, to the true believer and committed practitioner of his faith. It was no wonder, then, that when Horatio Alger, beginning in the late 1860s, published his series of boys’ novels about young men achieving great material success in life through hard work and a clean life, they were immensely popular. The novels gave shape to what already existed as a central element in the American experience: the belief that salvation, in the sense of success in the here and now, was available to all who believed and strived, just as heavenly salvation in the future had been promised by older faiths.

It would seem that Dreiser, by the time he began writing fiction at the turn of the century, would have been a solid candidate for belief in the American dream of success. After all, he had pulled himself up by his bootstraps from nothing to a successful career in journalism and then in fiction. But Dreiser, in fact, had already noted two striking flaws in the cult of success: it did not take into consideration either the immense variations in human capability or the actual nature of society. Dreiser’s work as a newspaperman had revealed to him instance after instance of human beings weak in intellect and strength, and he had also encountered many instances of the destruction of all but the strong by the ruthlessly competitive nature of American society. Yet all, whatever their strength and whatever jungle-like arena they wished to succeed in, were drawn to believe in the dream of success, often with disastrous results.

Dreiser most fully dramatizes the centrality of the cult of success in America in The Cowperwood Trilogy and An American Tragedy. Cowperwood’s rise from lower-middle-class origins to great wealth and power would superficially seem to be a confirmation of the validity of the Alger myth, especially since Dreiser alludes to it in Cowperwood’s middle name, Algernon. In fact, Cowperwood’s character and rise reverse several of the key elements of the myth, and in so doing reflect Dreiser’s condemnation of its prominence in American culture. The typical Alger hero desires success, but he works for it by playing the game of life squarely and honestly, with the correct assumption, as it turns out, that the game itself is square and honest. Cowperwood discovers early on that deception—a form of dishonesty—is the name of the game and that the game is inherently dishonest because almost everyone else who is successful has also played it by that rule. His rise to success, therefore, is based both on his strength and on his recognition of the essential amorality of existence. In short, the trilogy reveals that Dreiser accepts the Alger premise that all in America wish to gain success, but that he rejects entirely the moral and social context in which Alger sets this belief. Success is not a just reward for hard work in a just society but rather the product of the shrewd employment of deceit in a dog-eat-dog, competitive world.

The protagonist of An American Tragedy, Clyde Griffiths, is not a figure of Cowperwood’s insight and shrewdness but rather one who buys into the Alger myth wholeheartedly despite his lack of intellect and strength; he is therefore destroyed rather than saved by his faith. Clyde is a dreamy and sensitive young man of thin family background and little education. He is thus “educated” principally by his experiences at the luxurious Green-Davidson Hotel in Kansas City, where he works as a bellhop. The hotel is a microcosm of an America in which money is the means to fulfill not only a desire for the material—plush surroundings and servants in this instance—but seemingly as well the demands of the inner being for the sensuous and beautiful. The Green-Davidson is, to Clyde, “Aladdinish”; it offers in concrete terms a possible fulfillment of desire, unlike his parents’ cloudy promise of salvation through traditional religious belief.

The difficulty, as Clyde realizes, lies in acquiring the means to live in this world of desire fulfilled—to live not as a bellhop but as a paying guest. At this point Dreiser works into the plot of the novel a specific twist of the Alger success pattern that he had seen tragically reflected in many sensational criminal trials. The Alger hero, after committing himself to climbing the ladder of success by hard work, often achieves a quick boost upward by marriage to the wealthy daughter or ward of his employer. A woman, in other words, becomes the symbolic equivalent, as a combination of economic and spiritual fulfillment and thus both the outer and inner needs of the seeker, of the rewards promised by the American dream of success. During his years as a newspaperman and freelance writer, however, Dreiser had encountered a series of striking instances in which young men attempted or committed murder in their efforts to live out this phase of the success myth. In the basic pattern Dreiser observed, a young man of poor background engages in a love affair with a girl of his own class (“Miss Poor,” as Dreiser later described this figure). He meets a girl who offers both love and money (“Miss Rich”) and, unable to break off the relationship with Miss Poor, murders her and is then apprehended, tried, and convicted.

Dreiser discovered in the well-publicized Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case of 1906 a prototype of the kind of specific malfunction of the American dream of success he wished to dramatize, and he used it to supply the outline and much of the detail of An American Tragedy. Drawn by his need for companionship and love into an affair with Roberta, his fellow worker in the shirt factory, Clyde is later captivated by Sondra, the daughter of a wealthy factory owner, despite the fact that he has gotten Roberta pregnant. Unable to persuade Roberta to give him his freedom, he seeks to murder her. As dramatized by Dreiser, the myth is thus doubly pernicious in its allure and hold: it attracts not only the strong but also the weak, who, because they lack the will and skill necessary to gain what they wish, are seduced by their faith into actions that destroy them; and it leads those seeking to fulfill the myth to violate the deepest needs of human nature. Both his initial love for Roberta and her anguished cry for help as she drowns are dismissed by Clyde. The novel is not titled “The Tragedy of Clyde Griffiths” but rather An American Tragedy because what happens to Clyde is not only a personal tragedy but also a tragic corollary of the American dream of success.

Dreiser is far more affirmative in his representation of the role of art as a secular vehicle of belief replacing conventional religious faith. The early-nineteenth-century celebration of the Romantic artist as a seer capable of providing moral instruction for a nation, as epitomized in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Victor Hugo, William Wordsworth, or Ralph Waldo Emerson, continued well into the century. In its later guise, however, the notion of the artist as type tended to include a personal as well as a national function. To be an artist still entailed providing guidance to others, but it was now also a means for the artist both to make a living and to achieve his own spiritual growth and thus a kind of personal salvation.

This dual character of the artist occupied Dreiser in Sister Carrie and The “Genius.” Carrie’s progress toward self-recognition as an artist is slow and uncertain. Her initial success in a Chicago amateur production is in a melodrama, and in New York she begins her professional career as a chorus girl and then stars in musical comedies. It is only at the close of the novel that, aided by her mentor Ames, she senses her capacity to play serious roles, that her innate sympathetic identification with the feelings of others gives her the ability to act out emotions powerfully and thus contribute to the understanding of an emotion. In addition to its roots in Dreiser’s own life (he saw in the writing of Sister Carrie his own movement “upward” from journalism to art), Carrie’s progress toward the life of the interpretive artist reveals several threads in the turn-of-the-century conception of art and the artist. Her recognition that she can raise the level of her acting to that of art comes only after she has achieved financial security. Like William Dean Howells somewhat earlier and many other writers of his own time, Dreiser accepted the premise that a work of art was an economic entity that, like any other product, must be made salable if the artist is to practice his art. But Dreiser also suggests that Carrie’s newfound artistic self-awareness will lead her to dismiss at least some of her earlier desire for material goods. While his account of Carrie’s discovery of a calling is not a full-scale conversion narrative, in which the narrative consciousness discovers a faith, it nevertheless more than superficially echoes the form. Thus, in his portrait of Carrie at the close of the novel Dreiser, as was true of many artists of his day, wishes to have it both ways. Art may be a commodity, but the artist still provides ethical instruction of others and achieves his own personal salvation through art.

Dreiser’s portrayals of Witla in The “Genius” and Cowperwood in The Cowperwood Trilogy continue to explore the role of art as a form of secular belief. Much of his depiction of Witla is in the familiar pattern of the bildungsroman, in which the artist follows a long and difficult path to artistic achievement and personal equanimity. Dreiser pushes into new ground, however, in his accounts of Witla’s relations with women and the kind of art he pursues. Witla is not only an unabashed admirer of the female form but finds that his highest level of appreciation of beauty occurs in the sexual possession of a woman. There is no doubt that this aspect of Witla’s artistic consciousness includes a powerful element of personal special pleading. It also constitutes, however, Dreiser’s distinctive contribution to the emerging twentieth-century theme (as in the novels of D. H. Lawrence) that the physical act of love is not a mere secondary corollary to the spiritual essence of love but rather is itself that essence. In addition, Witla’s art closely resembles that of the so-called Ashcan School of the first decade of the century. Led by such artists as John Sloan and William Glackens, the school proclaimed that an urban environment of seedy neighborhoods, smokestacked factories, and busy thoroughfares contains, when perceived and represented without prejudice, a beauty of its own. Much like Dreiser himself, therefore, Witla in his sexual affairs and unsavory artistic subjects is not proclaiming the end of beauty as a goal in life and art but rather its continuing presence in hitherto rejected or overlooked areas.

Cowperwood, though not himself an artist, is nevertheless endowed by Dreiser with a powerful artistic sensibility that matches his business acumen. Cowperwood thus collects great art and, like Witla, attractive women. But in a new departure for Dreiser’s interpretation of the centrality of art in life, Cowperwood finds that his complex financial affairs themselves have the appeal of works of art in their intricate beauty of interwoven detail and larger coherent shape. Thus, the three phases of his life—his roles as financier, collector, and lover—find their unity in his creative sensibility. Dreiser echoed in his own way Percy Bysshe Shelley’s claim some hundred years earlier that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, though he did so in a turn-of-the-century America in which the sexual and the financial had become both the context and the means of artistic expression.


During the early years of the twentieth century the nature of the day-to-day existence of most Americans was changing rapidly. What can be called the texture of life—how people dressed, the kinds of cities and homes they lived in, the jobs they held, and their amusements—began to take on the character they still have. The horse had given way to public transportation, powered first by steam and then electricity; the factory and office were mechanized and equipped with telephones and typewriters; and the city, with its distinctive neighborhoods, restaurants, saloons, and theaters, was the locus of social life. A modern culture, in brief, that was dependent on the machine and electricity and that functioned most characteristically in dense urban centers was in place.

Dreiser always had an eye for the kind of detail that in aggregate represents the material body of a culture. He may have acquired this quality from his initial fictional model, Balzac, who immerses the reader in all aspects of French life of his period. Dreiser himself, during his journalistic freelance days of 1897-1900, had acquired the technique of describing in great detail such matters as how small arms were manufactured or the various domestic uses of electricity. When he sat down to write Sister Carrie, therefore, he did so not only with the motive of re-creating his sister Emma’s story but also of representing fully the milieu in which it had occurred—the Chicago and New York settings of Carrie’s and Hurstwood’s lives in all their richness and variety. An incident late in the Chicago portion of the novel suggests how he approached this task. Hurstwood has just stolen a large sum from his employer’s safe and is desperate to get in touch with Carrie so that they can flee the city together. It is past midnight in central Chicago: “At the first drug store he stopped, seeing a long-distance telephone booth inside. It was a famous drugstore and contained one of the first private telephone booths ever erected,” (194). It did not occur to Dreiser that some readers might be exasperated by the narrator’s halting the action at a crucial moment in Hurstwood’s and Carrie’s fates to present this item of Chicago’s social history. To Dreiser the provenance of this specific telephone—where it is located and how it came to be there—was inseparable from Hurstwood’s subsequent use of it. Fiction to Dreiser was not only a sequence of events but also the culture creating the context of these events, and the first cannot be told or understood without the presence of the other. This characteristic makes his fiction an invaluable record of the texture of life of his time.

Dreiser’s years as editor of Ev’ry Month and the Delineator, two magazines aimed principally at middle-class women, had attuned him to the importance of dress for most women of his day. Throughout his fiction, therefore, and especially in his two novels with female protagonists, Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, he devotes much attention to this aspect of his characters’ lives. In a well-known passage in his novel The Portrait of a Lady (1881) Henry James has his heroine Isabel Archer proclaim that her manner of dress does not and cannot reflect her essential nature. To Carrie and Jennie, however, clothes do express two interrelated aspects of their lives that are extremely important to them, their class position and their aspirations for a better life. Thus, when Drouet has given Carrie twenty dollars for a new coat and Lester Kane buys a new outfit for Jennie after they become lovers, Dreiser’s description of the newly acquired clothes is, as is usually the case in his fiction, more than an account of a current fashion; it also is a barometer both of class reality and a character’s state of mind and feeling.

Clothes as an index of fortune vary in Sister Carrie from the always well-dressed and debonair Drouet to Hurstwood’s Bowery bum’s costume of an “old, thin coat” and a “cracked derby hat.” The novel has little in the description of attire, however, between these two extremes of the expensive and fashionable on the one hand and the merely usable on the other, and thus reflects Dreiser’s division of America, in almost all his fiction, into the two classes of the haves and the have-nots. There is much truth in this account, since the working class of the nation had yet to achieve a standard of living that merged class lines (at least for nonminorities) into a vast lower middle class. But here again, as always in Dreiser, the accoutrements of class—the well-groomed Chicago Hurstwood versus the New York figure who lets his clothes wear out—are not only a reflection of social reality but also of the inner man, not only of the state of Hurstwood’s pocketbook but also of his conception of himself. Indeed, Dreiser’s capacity to render the intimate relationship between the material actualities of social existence and the deepest recesses of mind and spirit, as in, the long section in Sister Carrie portraying Hurstwood’s decline, is one of the major sources of the power often attributed to his fiction.

Where one lives plays something of the same role as clothing in Dreiser’s fiction. In a single novel, the reader may move, along with the characters, from Carrie’s shabby room in the Hansons’ flat to her luxurious

apartment at the Waldorf, from Clyde’s barren boardinghouse room to the large, comfortable, and well-appointed home of his relatives, the Griffithses. Perhaps nowhere in Dreiser’s fiction is more attention lavished on dwellings than in The Cowperwood Trilogy, especially in the uncut 1912 version of The Financier. The interiors, furnishings, and artworks of Cowperwood’s various mansions, as he climbs toward the “nobleman” status achievable in America through great wealth, are described by Dreiser in extraordinary detail; indeed, sufficiently so as to constitute a vade mecum of late-nineteenth-century American upper-class taste. Although Dreiser seeks in this plentitude to document both Cowperwood’s social rise and his artistic sensibility, he here also reveals his own capacity to be overawed by the grandiose even when it crosses over into the gauche. But perhaps this awe reflects Dreiser’s origins in a late-Victorian climate of taste in which more is usually better.

The ways in which characters make a living in Dreiser’s fiction also reflect the sharp division in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American life between the working and entrepreneurial classes. Dreiser is most at home in writing about the often menial physical labor that was then the foundation of the American economy. The reader learns, along with Carrie and Hurstwood, how to run a leather-stitching machine and how to operate a streetcar. Jennie cleans hotel rooms and is a housemaid in a wealthy home, Witla is a workman in a railway repair yard, and Clyde learns the various stages in the making of shirts. Aside, however, from Hurstwood’s occupation as a saloon manager, Dreiser depicts few figures occupying managerial positions. Also, with the exception of Cowperwood and Solon Barnes (in The Bulwark), Dreiser only sketchily describes the business activities of his upper-class figures. He demonstrates that the Kanes in Jennie Gerhardt and the Griffithses in An American Tragedy are wealthy manufacturers, but he tells little of their actual affairs. Cowperwood and Barnes, however, are in the “money” business—Cowperwood as a financier and Barnes as a banker—and Dreiser brings to his detailed accounts of their activities a lifelong fascination with the manipulation of money in a capitalistic society. Thus, Cowperwood’s often shady stock machinations and Barnes’s discovery of the illegal practices at his bank document the widespread corruption of American business life in this era.

Although Dreiser was deeply responsive to natural beauty, the natural functioned in his life and fiction, as it did in the lives of most twentieth-century Americans, principally as a temporary alternative to the urban. All of his novels are “city novels” in the sense that his characters’ lives are centered on an urban existence—usually either the great cities of the Midwest or the East Coast. (An American Tragedy is set in a midsized upper New York State industrial town.) The late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American city, in all its complex social reality, is therefore a major “character” in Dreiser’s fiction.

As with clothes and lodgings, neighborhoods serve as a precise index of social standing in Dreiser’s novels. In Chicago, Carrie trades the Hansons’ near Westside flat for one with Drouet in the more acceptable far Westside, while Hurstwood lives with his family in the fashionable Northside. In New York, Hurstwood gradually descends south from his apartment house in the newly developed Upper West Side to his ultimate fate in the Bowery. In Jennie Gerhardt Dreiser sites the home Lester Kane establishes with Jennie in the fashionable far Southside Chicago suburb of Hyde Park, a location that underlines the irony that though unmarried they live a conventional middle-class existence.

The key to urban development was transportation within a city, since a city’s size was limited by the efficiency with which workers could be transported from their homes to their jobs. Dreiser’s novels chart the amazing growth in American urban transport from a largely horse-powered system (in Sister Carrie) to electrically powered streetcars and subways (The Cowperwood Trilogy) to the automobile (An American Tragedy). They also suggest the transformation of city centers by the development of the multipurpose department store and the great hotel. Dreiser in particular was fascinated by the modern hotel as a symbol of American culture. This typically immense structure, with its sharp distinction between servile employees and lordly guests, with its gaudy display of luxury and “all modern conveniences,” was to Dreiser an incarnation of American society at large. In novels such as Jennie Gerhardt and An American Tragedy, he dissected the American hotel as an institution with an eye both critical and fond.

Sister Carrie includes two other urban locales—the saloon and the theater—to which Dreiser devotes much attention in his fiction. The first constituted an urban male haven from the home and from the place of work, the second the principal site of entertainment in a society still a generation away from electronic entertainment in the home. The aura created by both was that of an alternative to the anomie usually attributed to city existence. Rather than succumbing to loneliness and alienation, those visiting the saloon or attending the theater joined, for a period at least, a community of shared interests and needs. The theater especially engaged Dreiser as a form of popular art that, in its ability to make expressive basic human emotions, performed an important function in an increasingly impersonal urban society.


1. Dreiser, Sister Carrie: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, second edition, edited by Donald Pizer (New York: Norton, 1991), p. 51. Subsequent citations in the text are from this editon.

Dreiser’s Works

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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 factory and thus succumbs readily to the advances of Charles Drouet, a salesman, and begins living with him. Through Drouet, Carrie meets G. W. Hurstwood, the imposing manager of a Chicago saloon, who, though married, takes a strong interest in her. Carrie triumphs in an amateur theatrical but is greatly disturbed when she discovers that Hurstwood is married. Dissatisfied in his marriage and wanting Carrie desperately, Hurstwood steals a large sum of money from his firm’s safe and persuades Carrie to run away with him to New York. In New York the displaced Hurstwood begins a slow but inexorable decline in will and fortunes, and finally, as a Bowery bum, commits suicide. Carrie, on the other hand, leaves Hurstwood during his descent and becomes a successful Broadway actress, though at the close of the novel she has not attained the happiness she earlier associated with success.

Jennie Gerhardt. New York: Harper, 1911; revised, edited by James L. W. West III. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Jennie is a member of a large and impoverished German immigrant family living in Columbus, Ohio, where she and her mother are employed as cleaners in a local hotel. George Brander, a middle-aged bachelor and U.S. senator who lives in the hotel, is deeply attracted by Jennie’s youth and purity and seeks to aid her and her family. Jennie becomes pregnant by Brander, who dies suddenly of a heart attack before he can fulfill his intention of marrying her. Jennie’s father, a devout Lutheran, demands that she leave home, and she moves to Cleveland with her child, Vesta, where she finds employment as a maid with a well-to-do family. There she meets Lester Kane, from a wealthy and prominent Cincinnati family. Lester and Jennie are deeply drawn to each other and are

soon living together, initially in Cleveland and then in Chicago, where they pass several happy years in a household that includes Vesta and Jennie’s widowed father, who is now reconciled with his daughter. Lester has never married Jennie, however, and when his family’s discovery of their relationship threatens his position in the family firm, he separates from her. Many years later, as Lester lies dying, he tells Jennie that he deeply regrets his action.

The Financier. New York: Harper, 1912; revised, New York: Boni & Liveright, 1927. Frank Algernon Cowperwood exhibits from childhood the shrewdness and strength of will that allows him to succeed in the bustling Philadelphia commercial world. By the close of the Civil War, though only in his late twenties, he is a successful banker and broker and a family man. His confidence in his own strength, his desire to take all from life that it offers, and his contempt for moralism of any kind, however, lead Cowperwood to engage in various suspect financial transactions and to begin an affair with Aileen Butler, the young daughter of one of his political allies, the wealthy Irish American contractor Edward Butler. The panic caused by the Chicago Fire of 1871 exposes Cowperwood’s illegal use of city money deposited in his firm, and an informant reveals to Butler his relationship with Aileen. Deserted by everyone except Aileen, Cowperwood is tried for fraud and serves more than a year in prison. On his release, he regains his fortune by shrewd dealings during the panic of 1873; he divorces his wife and marries Aileen. He and Aileen begin a new life in Chicago.

A Traveler at Forty. New York: Century, 1913. Dreiser’s account of his first trip to Europe, which he began in November 1911 and concluded in April 1912.

The Titan. New York: John Lane, 1914. In the expansive conditions of post-Civil War Chicago, Cowperwood adapts quickly to the corrupt financial and political machinations necessary for success and becomes a major player in the acquisition of street railway systems, which he milks for financial gain. Increasingly aware of Aileen’s social and artistic limitations (he now is an avid collector of great art), he also engages in a series of affairs. By the late 1890s, Cowperwood is completely enamored of Berenice Fleming, an ethereal young woman. At the height of his powers and self-confidence—“I satisfy myself” is his personal code—he suffers a temporary setback when his plan for a Chicago streetcar monopoly is defeated.

The “Genius.” New York: John Lane, 1915. Although Eugene Witla is a painter rather than a writer, many of the events of the novel closely resemble those of Dreiser’s own life. Midwestern born, Witla attends a Chicago art school and discovers that his love for beauty is inextricably connected to his desire for young women. He moves to New York and commits himself to the realistic portrayal of the city but also, after a long engagement, marries the convention-bound Angela Blue. His initial success in the New York art world is followed by a nervous breakdown; recovery is aided by a stint working on a New York railroad and a passionate love affair. After several years of editing a major magazine and of bitter arguments with Angela, Witla falls in love with the youthful Suzanne Dale, whose mother strongly opposes the relationship. Witla is fired, Angela dies in childbirth, and Suzanne is taken away to Europe by her mother, but Witla returns to his art strengthened by the growth of a philosophical perspective on the wonders and vagaries of existence.

A Hoosier Holiday. New York: John Lane, 1916. Dreiser’s account of an automobile trip to his home state of Indiana, undertaken in the summer of 1915 with his friend the illustrator Franklin Booth.

Plays of the Natural and the Supernatural. New York: John Lane, 1916. A collection of Dreiser’s plays, comprising The Girl in the Coffin, The Blue Sphere, Laughing Gas, In the Dark, The Spring Recital, The Light in the Window, and “Old Ragpicker.” The collection was revised and enlarged in 1930 as Plays, Natural and Supernatural (London: Constable); the additional plays were Phantasmagoria, The Court of Progress, The Dream, The Anaesthetic Revelation, and The Hand of the Potter.

Free and Other Stories. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1918. Dreiser’s first short-story collection, comprising “Free,” “McEwen of the Shining Slave Makers,” “Nigger Jeff,” “The Lost Phoebe,” “The Second Choice,” “A Story of Stories,” “Old Rogaum and His Theresa,” “Will You Walk into My Parlor?” “Married,” “The Cruise of the ‘Idlewild,’” and “When the Old Century Was New.”

Twelve Men. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1919; revised, edited by Robert Coltrane. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. A collection of character sketches, comprising “Peter,” “A Doer of the Word,” “My Brother Paul” (about Dreiser’s brother Paul Dresser), “The Country Doctor,” “Culhane, the Solid Man,” “A True Patriarch,” “De Maupassant, Jr.,” “The Village Feudists,” “Vanity, Vanity,” “The Mighty Rourke,” “A Mayor and His People,” and “W.L.S.”

The Hand of the Potter. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1919; revised, 1927. One of Dreiser’s most controversial works, a tragic drama about a child molester.

Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub: A Book of the Mystery and Wonder and Terror of Life. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1920. An essay collection comprising “Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub,” “Change,” “Some Aspects of Our National Character,” “The Dream,” “The American Financier,” “The Toil of the Laborer,” “Personality,” “A Counsel to Perfection,” “Neurotic America and the Sex Impulse,” “Secrecy—Its Value,” “Ideals, Morals, and the Daily Newspaper,” “Equation Inevitable,” “Phantasmagoria,” “Ashtoreth,” “The Reformer,” “Marriage and Divorce,” “More Democracy or Less? An Inquiry,” “The Essential Tragedy of Life,” “Life, Art and America,” and “The Court of Progress.”

A Book About Myself. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1921; republished as A History of Myself: Newspaper Days. New York: Liveright, 1931; revised as Newspaper Days, edited by T. D. Nostwich. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991. The second volume of Dreiser’s autobiography, completed in 1917, which covers his career as a reporter for various newspapers. (The first volume, A History of Myself: Dawn, was finished in 1914 but was not published until 1931.)

The Color of a Great City. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1923. A collection of thirty-nine sketches of city life.

An American Tragedy, 2 volumes. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1925. In his youth Clyde Griffiths begins to rebel against the poverty and strict moralism of his parents, who eke out a meager existence as Kansas City street evangelists. His estrangement is solidified by his work as a bellhop at an opulent hotel, which reveals to him the life of pleasure available through wealth. After his complicity in an accident involving a stolen automobile, Clyde flees to Chicago, where he encounters his uncle, Samuel Griffiths, the prosperous owner of a shirt factory in Lycurgus (in upstate New York), who offers him employment in the factory. There he establishes a secret relationship with Roberta Alden, a fellow worker who, like Clyde, comes from an impoverished background. The relationship is soon complicated both by Roberta’s pregnancy and the interest shown in Clyde by Sandra Finchley, the socially prominent daughter of a local factory owner. Roberta insists that Clyde marry her. Clyde, in his anguish at the fear of losing Sandra, plans a trip to the North Woods where he will kill Roberta. On a remote North Woods lake, although Clyde loses heart at the last moment, Roberta nevertheless drowns when their boat capsizes. Clyde is quickly apprehended and after a trial is sentenced to death and electrocuted.

Moods: Cadenced and Declaimed. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926; revised and enlarged, 1928; revised as Moods: Philosophical and Emotional (Cadenced and Declaimed). New York: Simon & Schuster, 1935. The first edition is a collection of 177 of Dreiser’s poems. The 1928 edition includes all of the poems in the first edition and twenty-nine additional poems. For the 1935 edition Dreiser omitted thirty-seven poems and added seventy-seven new ones.

Chains: Lesser Novels and Stories. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1927. A collection comprising “Sanctuary,” “The Hand,” “Chains,” “St. Columbus and the River,” “Convention,” “Khat,” “Typhoon,” “The Old Neighborhood,” “Phantom Gold,” “Marriage for One,” “Fulfillment,” “Victory,” “The Shadow,” “The ‘Mercy of God,’” and “The Prince Who Was a Thief.”

Dreiser Looks at Russia. New York: Live-right, 1928. Dreiser’s account of his journey to the Soviet Union in late 1927, taken from a series of syndicated newspaper articles he wrote about his trip.

A Gallery of Women, 2 volumes. New York: Liveright, 1929. A collection of fifteen semifictionalized biographical sketches of women.

A History of Myself: Dawn. New York: Liveright, 1931. The first volume of Dreiser’s autobiography, covering roughly the first twenty years of his life, up to the period when he was working at various jobs in Chicago prior to becoming a newspaper reporter.

Tragic America. New York: Liveright, 1931. A largely unsuccessful critique of American society, much of it prepared by editorial assistants.

America Is Worth Saving. New York: Modern Age, 1941. An attack on America’s support of England in World War II, mostly ghost-written and following the Communist Party line.

The Bulwark. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday 1946. It is late in the nineteenth century and Solon Barnes, a devout Quaker youth, marries his childhood sweetheart, Benecia Wallin, and through Benecia’s wealthy Quaker father begins a career in a Philadelphia bank. Solon and Benecia have five children, and Solon also prospers at the bank. As the children mature, however, each begins in his or her own way to rebel against the strict regimen of Quaker belief and life, causing Solon much pain. In addition, he is deeply troubled by the shady speculative actions of several of the bank’s directors. Solon is shattered when Stewart, the youngest of his sons, commits suicide in prison after having sex at a party with a girl who is later found dead. Solon resigns from the bank and begins failing in health and spirit, saved only shortly before his death by his abiding Quaker faith and his belief in the wonder and beauty of nature.

The Stoic. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1947. Cowperwood and Berenice become lovers, and with renewed vigor Cowperwood undertakes to build a London underground railway system. Although he and Aileen continue their marriage, he frequently lives with Berenice both in New York and London. Cowperwood becomes seriously ill and dies before the completion of his vast project, and his fortune is dissipated by lawsuits. Berenice becomes absorbed in Hindu philosophy, travels to India to study, and returns to America with plans to establish in New York a hospital for slum children, where she will become a nurse.

Notes on Life, edited by Marguerite Tjader and John J. McAleer. University: University of Alabama Press, 1974. Posthumously published edition of portions of the philosophical study on which Dreiser worked from the mid 1930s to 1944.

Theodore Dreiser: A Selection of Uncollected Prose, edited by Donald Pizer. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1977.

American Diaries, 1902-1926, edited by Thomas P. Riggio and others. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

An Amateur Laborer, edited by Richard Dowell and others. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. Dreiser’s memoir, completed in 1904, of his experiences working as a helper and clerk for the New York Central Railroad in the latter half of 1903, a job he took as part of his recuperation from a period of depression that began in 1901.

Selected Magazine Articles of Theodore Dreiser: Life and Art in the American 1890s, 2 volumes, edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985, 1987.

Theodore Dreiser: Journalism, volume 1, Newspaper Writings, 1892-1895, edited by T. D. Nostwich. Philadelphia: University of Penn-sylvania Press, 1988.

Theodore Dreiser’s “Heard in the Corridors” Articles and Related Writings, edited by Nostwich. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1988. A collection of Dreiser’s “Heard in the Corridors” columns, written from November 1892 to May 1893 for The St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and similar articles written earlier for the Chicago Globe and later for the Pittsburgh Dispatch.

Theodore Dreiser’s Ev’ry Month, edited by Nancy Warner Barrineau. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996. Dreiser’s contributions to Ev’ry Month from 1895 to 1897.

Dreiser’s Russian Diary, edited by Thomas P. Riggio and James L. W. West III. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.


Because discussion of Dreiser and his fiction has often served as a vehicle for cultural and literary polemics, criticism of his writing frequently reveals as much about its moment as about its ostensible subject. From the publication of Sister Carrie to the present, an opportunity to examine Dreiser also has meant an opportunity to press the claims of a particular view of American life and a specific concept about the nature of fiction.

During Dreiser’s early career, such defenders of his work as Sherwood Anderson and H. L. Mencken were not merely engaged in the praise of novels that had moved them. They were also seeking to cast Dreiser in the symbolic role of the trailblazer whose willingness to challenge the conventional beliefs and genteel codes of American life had opened a way for others. “The feet of Dreiser,” Anderson wrote, are “making a path for us.” If Dreiser’s feet were “heavy” and “brutal,”1 as Anderson went on to note, it was because he had mountains of resistance to scale. If Dreiser’s work appeared to lack beauty, it was because the concept of beauty had degenerated into a belief in mere surface grace and polish. And if his ideas were often tedious or obscure, it was because he was fumbling honestly for truths that others had long refused to acknowledge. In short, to his supporters Dreiser’s defects were the virtues of a pathfinder and iconoclast. To those who opposed Dreiser—and these included the great majority of journalistic reviewers and most academic critics—the issue was the question of “brutality,” or, more specifically, the amorality and sexuality of the first two volumes of The Cowperwood Trilogy and. The “Genius.” To Stuart Sherman in 1915, Dreiser’s fiction constituted not the pure voice of truth but rather the howl of an atavistic animalism. Men may often be selfish and brutal, Sherman and others agreed, but they also held that civilization represented the effort to control these remnants of our animal past through reason and will, and that literature should depict the desirability and possibility of achieving this goal. (It is of interest to note that this attack on Dreiser’s “barbarism” reached its shrillest level during World War I, when critics such as Sherman frequently alluded to Dreiser’s German ancestry.)

By the mid 1930s, with the critical acceptance of writers far more sensationally explicit than Dreiser in their material and themes, it appeared that his struggle for recognition had been won. But instead he became during this and the following decade the negative focus of two additional critical movements with widespread cultural significance. Although critics such as Alfred Kazin and F. O. Matthiessen continued to praise him for having achieved a powerful blend of social realism and pathos, it became more common to attack Dreiser, as did Lionel Trilling in his well-known essay “Reality in America,” both for his idea of reality and for his mode of depicting it.

Trilling’s essay indirectly expresses a widely shared revulsion by formerly radical critics of the 1930s toward writers whose work and thought had close ties to the Communist Party and its policies during the decade. Dreiser was perhaps the principal example of a major American literary figure of this kind. During the 1930s and early 1940s he could be counted upon to endorse the party’s position in almost every cause and issue, including its support of the Soviet Union during the vastly unpopular Soviet-Finnish War. When Dreiser died not only an unrepentant camp follower but also an actual party member (in a symbolic act, he joined the party in 1945, the year of his death), he became a prime target for those critics who had themselves been party sympathizers during the early 1930s but who had rejected its leadership and ideology as the decade progressed. Since Dreiser’s intellect was suspect in his continued support of communism, what better way to demonstrate his intellectual vacuity than to point out the inadequacy of his ideas in his fiction?

Trilling’s essay also reflects the adverse impact upon Dreiser’s reputation during this period of the New Criticism, which stressed the close reading of texts without regard to information about the author’s life or the culture in which he wrote. To many academic critics bred upon the great attention to form and structure in the close reading of Henry James’s novels and post-Jamesian fictional experimentation, Dreiser’s awkwardness and massiveness seemed the antithesis of the art of fiction. Thus, with Dreiser in disfavor as both thinker and artist—to say nothing of the confusion created by the mystic element in his two posthumous novels—it was no wonder that during the 1940s and 1950s, as Irving Howe recalls, his work was “a symbol of everything a superior intelligence was supposed to avoid.”2

Although the Trilling-Matthiessen dispute of the early 1950s over Dreiser’s “power” (is it a left-wing myth, or does it in truth reside in his fiction?) still occasionally surfaces, much of the writing about Dreiser in the following three decades shifted from the use of him as a cultural symbol to a close examination of his career and work. Robert Elias’s and Thomas P. Riggio’s editions of Dreiser’s letters, as well as biographies by Elias, W. A. Swanberg, and Richard Lingeman, provided a solid base of facts about Dreiser’s life. In addition, since the early 1960s the availability of Dreiser’s literary estate at the University of Pennsylvania has provided an important source for the detailed study of the genesis of his work. Several scholars—for example, Ellen Moers, Richard Lehan, Philip Gerber, and Donald Pizer—have written full-length studies of Dreiser that are based in large part upon material in the Dreiser Collection. The ongoing Pennsylvania Dreiser Edition, a project devoted to the preparation and publication of scholarly editions of Dreiser’s works, owes much to the Collection.

By the mid 1960s, some of the older strains in Dreiser criticism had died out. No longer was it necessary to defend or attack his subjects or ideas because of their challenge to contemporary conventions. But other issues of long-standing controversy in the discussion of Dreiser’s work continued to attract much attention, which suggests that they have become permanent centers of interest in Dreiser criticism. One of these is Dreiser’s naturalism—or, to put it another way, what is naturalism and how is Dreiser a naturalist? The question appears simple, and many early critics treated it as such. Naturalism was a Darwinian-based pessimistic determinism in theme and a crude massiveness in technique, and Dreiser was a prime example of both. But most critics who have written since Eliseo Vivas’s seminal 1938 essay, “Dreiser, An Inconsistent Naturalist,” have recognized that many different strains make up Dreiser’s distinctive fictional voice, and that some of these strains—his mysticism and transcendentalism, or his prophetic tone—are antithetical to the amoral objectivity of a conventionally conceived naturalist. Although such recent critics as Charles Walcutt, Donald Pizer, June Howard, John Conder, and Lee Clark Mitchell still engage the problems of defining American naturalism and explaining Dreiser as the principal American naturalist, they now incline toward an acceptance of the complexities and ambivalence of both the movement and Dreiser.

Dreiser criticism is still often concerned with the related issue of his verbal and fictional ineptness. Even Mencken, the staunchest of Dreiser’s early champions, could not ignore this aspect of Dreiser’s fiction, and it was of course one of the major reasons for the New Critics’ contempt for his work. However, since the late 1960s several critics, most notably Moers, have discovered considerable subtlety and even “finesse” in Dreiser’s prose style, while still others (Julian Markels and Robert Penn Warren, for example) have argued that the novel as a form creates its effect as much through symbolic constructs as through language and that Dreiser’s success with such constructs explains his success as a novelist.

Much Dreiser criticism since the mid 1980s has focused less on the themes and quality of his fiction than on the question of the relationship of his thought and work to the large-scale social and cultural issues of his time involving America’s condition as an urban society and consumerist economy, issues that still preoccupy the nation. Often drawing on the critical strategies of contemporary movements in literary theory and cultural studies and focusing mainly on Sister Carrie, this criticism seeks to identify the significant centers of cultural density in Dreiser’s fiction (the department store or the city, as in studies by Rachel Bowlby and Philip Fisher) and to describe the ways in which his work constitutes an endorsement of the prevailing cultural values and assumptions of his time rather than an attack on them (as in the criticism of Walter Benn Michaels, Amy Kaplan, and Michael Davitt Bell). To these critics, Dreiser is of less interest as a turn-of-the-century social realist or naturalist than as an unconscious participant in the underlying myths and values of the American scene then and now.

* Works by critics named in this summary are included in the Bibliography.


As is not uncommon for a writer of fiction, Dreiser’s earliest novels (Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, and The “Genius”) drew fully and openly on his and his family’s experience. His later novels, while still exploring themes directly related to his deepest personal concerns, derive their casts and plots either from documentary sources (The Cowperwood Trilogy and An American Tragedy) or from a narrative told to him by a friend (The Bulwark).

It should also be noted, however, that the works by Dreiser that represent his most immediate refraction of his own experience into art are his autobiographies. He wrote five such volumes: Dawn, Newspaper Days, A Traveler at Forty, A Hoosier Holiday, and An Amateur Laborer. The first two volumes are rich and exceedingly frank accounts of Dreiser’s early life from his first memories of his Indiana boyhood to the close of his career as a newspaperman in New York in 1895. A Traveler at Forty and A Hoosier Holiday are more specialized volumes; the first recounts Dreiser’s initial trip to Europe during the winter of 1911-1912, the second a nostalgic automobile journey to Indiana in 1915. An Amateur Laborer depicts Dreiser’s period as a laborer and clerk in 1903 following his nervous breakdown. Each of these volumes has its own special flavor and quality, but all are written in a Rousseau-like confessional mode in which all the warts of the personality are exposed. This is especially true of Dawn and A Hoosier Holiday, which render with a frequently painful honesty Dreiser’s sense of his own and his family’s inadequacies during his youth. In addition, all the volumes published in his lifetime are, as originally written by Dreiser, far more candid in their rendering of sexual experience than was permissible at the time of their publication. The Pennsylvania Dreiser Edition is engaged in the publication of each of these volumes in new scholarly editions, with the censored passages restored. Newspaper Days, published in 1991, is the first such edition to have appeared, and the others are in process. Finally, Dreiser’s two collections of semifictional biographical sketches—Twelve Men and A Gallery of Women— are also autobiographical works in that Dreiser is frequently present in the sketches both as an actor within and as a commentator on his recollections of figures who deeply influenced him at various phases of his career.

Dreiser was in his teens and living in Indiana when two of his older sisters, Emma and Mame, underwent the various amorous experiences he later translated into the lives of Carrie and Jennie in Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt. He learned initially of their youthful misadventures through hushed conversations at home, and then more fully when he lived in Chicago during the late 1880s. In 1899, when encouraged by his close friend Arthur Henry to undertake a novel, he had only to tap into his knowledge of the early lives of Emma and Mame to have his material. As he later recalled, he began Sister Carrie with little in mind except the title, which he wrote at the head of a sheet of paper. But the word “sister”—a relationship that plays an insignificant role in the novel itself but that was deeply evocative to Dreiser of his own relationship to Emma and thus of her life—was sufficient to propel him into the narrative.

Emma had come to Chicago in the early 1880s as a young woman seeking a freer life than she could lead in the small Indiana towns in which she had been raised. Like all the Dreiser children, she was also in rebellion against the strict religious moralism of her father. She soon began living with an architect considerably older than she, but then fell in love with L. A. Hopkins, a Chicago saloon clerk with a wife and family. Apparently with Emma’s assistance, Hopkins stole a large sum of money from his employer, and the couple absconded to New York. (The theft and elopement were a three-day sensation in the Chicago newspapers.) In New York, Hopkins and Emma settled down to a commonplace existence. Although Dreiser draws fully on the outline of this phase of Emma’s life for his account of Carrie in Chicago, he does not render the story with the tawdry sensationalism of the actual events but rather transforms it into something both deeply personal and far ranging. He endows Carrie with an artistic sensibility and a desire for happiness similar to his sense of his own, and he raises the social and personal stature of Hopkins to the level at which Hurstwood can both attract a Carrie and also suffer a tragic fall because of his desire. In addition, the entire New York phase of the novel, in which Carrie rises to fame and Hurstwood descends to a Bowery bum, is “invented” in the sense that it was created independently of the experiences of Emma and Hopkins in the city. The New York section is infused with Dreiser’s projection into the two figures of his own intense desires and fears: the desire to achieve a level of success as an artist resembling Carrie’s at the close of the novel, and the fear, always present at the deepest level of his emotions throughout his life, that he might sink into a poverty resembling Hurstwood’s.

It should be recalled that though Jennie Gerhardt was not published until 1911, Dreiser had conceived the novel in the summer of 1900, not long after the completion of Sister Carrie. The story of another wayward sister, in other words, arose almost inevitably out of the autobiographical matrix of his just completed narrative. Mame had become pregnant in the late 1870s by a Terre Haute lawyer, who had then

deserted her. She gave birth to a stillborn child and then made her way to Chicago, where she found employment in a boardinghouse. There she met Austin Brennan, the son of a prominent Rochester, New York, family, and became his mistress. Although she and Brennan married in the mid 1880s, it was not for another fifteen years that they were accepted by Brennan’s family and were able to settle in Rochester. As he had done with Sister Carrie, Dreiser used the narrative outline offered by his sister’s early life to construct a story quite different from the actual events. He above all wished to develop the theme that had so moved him in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the theme of the essential morality of all natural processes and affections—motherhood and the love between a man and woman and among the members of a family—whatever the destructive stigmas attached to them when they existed outside of accepted social and moral proprieties. To this end, Jennie is characterized as a figure deeply responsive to the natural; her two lovers, Senator Brander and Lester Kane, are made men of considerable dignity and depth. The love between Jennie and Vesta (her daughter by Brander), between herself and Kane, and eventually even between herself and her moralistic father (a figure closely based on John Dreiser) enriches all their lives—all in the context of the tragic vulnerability of these emotions and relationships to conventional social belief.

Although Eugene Witla, the protagonist of The “Genius,” is an artist rather than a writer, and though Dreiser passes quickly over Witla’s early life, the novel is in most other major respects heavily dependent on Dreiser’s own life from 1892, when he became a newspaperman, to 1910, when the scandal surrounding his relationship with Thelma Cudlipp drove him from the editorship of the Delineator into the resumption of his career as a novelist. Here, in the guise of Witla’s life and in full detail, are Dreiser’s years in journalism and the beginning of his career as a novelist, his long-delayed marriage to a deeply sensual but conventionally minded woman, his breakdown and period of recuperation as a manual laborer, his highly successful career as an editor, and, finally, his affair with Thelma and the breakdown of his marriage. Although The “Genius” was not published until 1916, Dreiser began the novel in late 1910, not long after the chaos created by his relationship with Thelma and the loss of his editorship. He began the novel, in other words, at a point in his own life when he felt a strong need to justify to himself and to others his conception of the artist as a figure who requires absolute freedom both in his personal life and in his art if he is to achieve full creativity. Thus, the novel operates, probably to its detriment in this instance, on a far deeper level of autobiography than a mere dependence on the major events of Dreiser’s adult life. Above all, Dreiser’s fulsome account of Witla’s “varietistic” sexual nature (that is, in a term adopted by Dreiser, his need for constantly changing sexual partners) and his equally extended account of Witla’s destructive relationship with his wife, Angela, are forms of self-centered special pleading and thus often drift into bathos and only partly disguised self-pity.

With The Cowperwood Trilogy Dreiser shifted from a dependence on his and his family’s experience to that of public figures and events. The life of Frank Algernon Cowperwood (Dreiser noted later in his career that the name was to be pronounced as though it were spelled Cooperwood), as told in the novels The Financier, The Titan, and The Stoic, is based largely on that of the late-nineteenth-century American tycoon Charles T. Yerkes (1837-1905). Dreiser had originally believed that he could depict Yerkes’s life in one volume, to be called The Financier. But Yerkes’s business affairs in Philadelphia, Chicago, and London as a banker and transit magnate were so fully documented, and Dreiser’s personal research in these cities revealed so much about Yerkes’s personal life, that the project grew into a trilogy. He had been attracted to Yerkes initially because both his career and his unusually frank expression of his motives illustrated the amoral ruthlessness of American business life. But as Dreiser explored his subject more fully, he also found that he could use his retelling of Yerkes’s life to express in a new context some of the same personal themes that had preoccupied him in The “Genius.” Like Witla, Yerkes combined a sensitivity to the beauty of life, especially as present in women, with a rejection of any conventional restraints on the means he used to fulfill his desire for beauty. But unlike the usually hapless Witla, whose varietistic efforts often end in exposure and disaster, Cowperwood is as supreme in this area of life as he is in accumulating an immense fortune and great art works. A keen intelligence, a conscienceless ability to exploit the weaknesses of others, and a capacity to seize what he desires have made him all but invincible in his business and love affairs. Put no doubt crudely, and ignoring the philosophical dimension Dreiser wished to give Cowperwood’s temperament and life, if Witla is a reflection of the actual, often fumbling Dreiser, Cowperwood is a projection of the man of powerful will and consummate success that Dreiser wished to be.

As he explained in several autobiographical accounts, Dreiser had long wished to write a novel based on the constant repetition in American life, as fully recounted in the press, of the tragic outcome of the effort by an ill-equipped young man to achieve the American dream of success. The configuration of this effort that especially appealed to Dreiser was that in which the young man is trapped in a relationship with a “Miss Poor,” while an opportunity for swift advancement in wealth and status awaits him in a possible relationship with a “Miss Rich.” Desperate, the young man murders Miss Poor and is apprehended and convicted. In the early 1920s Dreiser turned to a sensationalistic instance of a crime of this kind as the basis for An American Tragedy, the murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette in upstate New York in 1906, a crime for which Gillette was executed in 1908. As with his research on Yerkes for The Cowperwood Trilogy, Dreiser relied heavily on newspaper accounts of Gillette’s trial and also visited the Mohawk River Valley towns and Adirondack lakes that were the sites of Gillette’s relationship with Grace Brown.

Although Dreiser found in his sources extended accounts of Gillette’s activities in Cortland, the town in which he and Grace Brown lived, there was little in these reports of Gillette’s early life, before he arrived in Cortland. However, Dreiser wished to dramatize in an introductory section of the novel the conditions of American life that could so powerfully affect an impressionable youth that when later faced with the dilemma Clyde Griffiths faces in the novel, he is moved inexorably toward disaster. For this material, which constitutes all of Book One in the novel, Dreiser turned to his own experience—indeed, initially almost literally, so that the discarded first version of this portion of the novel includes several incidents drawn directly from the autobiographical Dawn. As revised and compressed by Dreiser, this introductory section was largely new in the sense that Clyde’s specific experiences in Kansas City as a boy and youth do not resemble Dreiser’s in Indiana and Chicago. But in his essential nature Clyde does strongly recall the youthful Dreiser depicted in the autobiographies. Both feel confined within the religious moralism of their homes, and both are deeply drawn to the wonder and beauty of the “outside” world, even though they often mistake, in their inexperience, the stale and tawdry for these qualities. For both, the sexual excitement in their response to a young girl constitutes for them the fullest expression of all that is desirable in life. Dreiser of course was not the later Clyde, who murders in order to fulfill his desires, but there is little doubt that the authorial sympathy and understanding that resonates through much of his portrayal of Clyde in travail later in the novel derives from his powerful identification with the earlier Clyde as depicted in Kansas City.

In 1912 Dreiser met Anna Tatum, a young woman of Pennsylvania Quaker background, who told him her father’s story. A man of strong religious convictions, he had attempted to conduct his business and raise his large family guided by his beliefs, but had been defeated in these attempts and had died a broken man. Dreiser was immediately moved by this account, and at various periods for the next thirty years worked on The Bulwark, his fictional retelling of the story. This effort included considerable research into Quaker belief and turn-of-the-century banking practices, two of the large areas of interest in the novel. For Solon Barnes, however, his wife Benecia, and their five children, Dreiser relied once again, as he had for Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, on the deep imprint of his family’s character and history upon his emotions and consciousness. Thus, Solon’s effort to organize his life and that of his family around religious observance recapitulates John Dreiser’s impact on the Dreiser household, though in a far more understanding and sympathetic portrayal of the inevitable conflict between age and youth than had been present in earlier interpretations. Benicia is the all-sacrificing mother in Dreiser’s never-ending homage to his own mother. Each of the children, in their mix of seeking natures and the often disastrous consequences of their quests, represents for a last time Dreiser’s sense of the underlying similarity between himself and his siblings.


Dreiser’s career, from his earliest newspaper work to the completion of The Bulwark and The Stoic just prior to his death, encompasses more than fifty years and thus an enormous amount of writing. To the twenty-three full-length volumes published during his lifetime it is necessary to add his early extensive newspaper and magazine work and a large body of miscellaneous publication over much of his career. Current interest in Dreiser’s writing falls into two categories: that which is of concern to the scholar and that which still engages the general reader.

To the academic scholar anything written by Dreiser is of value, since the scholar’s understanding of the complex tapestry of an author’s life and work derives from an awareness of its many strands, no matter how minor they might seem in isolation. Thus, there has been a major effort since the 1950s to gather in usable form the important evidence for understanding Dreiser’s sensibility provided by his earliest writing—the editions of his previously unpublished newspaper and magazine writing of the 1890s, for example. So, too, the academic community has sought to make available previously unpublished Dreiser documents and to prepare scholarly editions of his novels and other major works. The extent of this continuing engagement with Dreiser is revealed by the almost six hundred critical discussions of his work that appeared during the 1980s; by the existence of the International Theodore Dreiser Society, with its journal, Dreiser Studies; and by the ongoing scholarly collected edition of his works, the Theodore Dreiser Edition of the University of Pennsylvania Press.

The general reading public, which can be said to consist of college students in literature courses and anyone else seeking to gain a sense of America’s literary heritage, is of course more selective in its interest. Of Dreiser’s novels, Sister Carrie is by far his most widely known and read work. It has remained in print since Dreiser had it republished in 1907, and in recent decades its importance both as an early instance of American literary naturalism and as a complex portrait of the changing role of women in American life has made it a favored selection in courses on the American novel. The success of Sister Carrie in the classroom, however, has been to some extent at the expense of the Dreiser novel which is held by many literary and cultural critics to be his masterwork, An American Tragedy. (In a 1998 poll conducted by the Modern Library, An American Tragedy was ranked in the top twenty of the greatest twentieth-century novels in English.) In the current politics of selection of classroom texts, however, this exceedingly long novel is a nonstarter for most instructors, though many students and general readers who have read and been moved by Sister Carrie go on to read An American Tragedy. Mencken, who had a usually well-disguised streak of sentiment, believed that Jennie Gerhardt was Dreiser’s most fully realized novel; the work still has many supporters today and is available in several editions. For those who approach Dreiser from the direction of a strong interest in late-nineteenth-century American social life, The Financier continues to be an important novel, especially in Dreiser’s more readable 1926 compression of the original 1912 version. The remainder of Dreiser’s writing is usually more selectively pursued by the general public. Of his works other than novels, perhaps Twelve Men and A Hoosier Holiday are of greatest interest to the nonacademic reader—the first for its warmly realized biographical sketches, the second for its lively and self-revealing account of a return “home.”

There are several indicators of the continuing permanence of Dreiser as a world figure. Abroad, he continues to be, as he was for much of his career, one of the most widely translated and reprinted of American authors—not only principally in the countries of the former Eastern bloc, as was true earlier, but throughout the world. The fullest and latest bibliography of Dreiser, Theodore Dreiser: A Primary Bibliography and Reference Guide (1991), cites collected editions of his works published in Russia, Japan, and Croatia. Sister Carrie has been translated into twenty languages, and An American Tragedy into twenty-one. In the United States, all of Dreiser’s novels are in print, with Sister Carrie available in more than ten paperback editions. The Library of America, a series representing an ambitious effort to preserve the best in American writing for the public at large by means of reasonably priced editions of major works, has projected a five-volume edition of Dreiser in the series, one of which has already been published, Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, Twelve Men (1987), edited by Richard Lehan.



Laughing Gas. Indianapolis, Masonic Temple, 7 December 1916.

The Girl in the Coffin. St. Louis, St. Louis Artist’s Guild, 28 January 1917.

The Old Ragpicker. San Francisco, Colony Ball Room, 30 January 1918.

The Hand of the Potter. New York, Provincetown Playhouse, 5 December 1921.


An American Tragedy. New Haven, Connecticut, Shubert Theatre, 5 October 1926. Dramatization by Patrick Kearney. Starring Morgan Farley, Miriam Hopkins, and Katherine Wilson. A critical and popular success.

The Case of Clyde Griffiths. Moylan-Rose Valley, Pennsylvania, Hedgerow Theatre, April 1935. Dramatization by Edwin Piscator and Lina Gold-schmidt based on An American Tragedy.


An American Tragedy. Paramount, 1931. Screenplay by Josef von Sternberg and Samuel Hoffenstein. Directed by von Sternberg. Starring Philip Holmes, Sylvia Sydney, and Frances Dee. Dreiser quarreled bitterly with Paramount over this adaptation, which he considered a butchering of the novel; his suit to prevent its release failed.

Jennie Gerhardt. Paramount, 1933. Screenplay by Josephine Lovett and Joseph Moncure. Directed by Marius Gering. Starring Sylvia Sydney and Donald Cook.

My Gal Sal. 20th Century-Fox, 1942. Adaptation of the sketch “My Brother Paul” from Twelve Men. Screenplay by Sexton I. Miller, Darrell Ware, and Karl Tunberg. Directed by Irving Cummings. Starring Victor Mature and Rita Hayworth.

The Prince Who Was a Thief. Universal-International, 1951. Based on the story of the same name from Chains. Screenplay by Gerald Adams and Aeneas MacKenzie. Directed by Rudolph Mate. Starring Tony Curtis, Piper Laurie, and Everett Sloane.

A Place in the Sun. Paramount, 1951. Adaptation of An American Tragedy. Screenplay by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown. Directed by George Stevens. Starring Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters, and Elizabeth Taylor. Winner of Academy Awards for best director and best screenplay.

Carrie. Paramount, 1952. Adaptation of Sister Carrie. Screenplay by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. Directed by William Wyler. Starring Jennifer Jones, Lawrence Olivier, and Eddie Albert.


Sister Carrie. Malvern, Pennsylvania, The People’s Light & Theatre Company, 1991. Adapted by Louis Lippa. Music and songs by John Lilley.


1. Sherwood Anderson, “Dreiser,” in his Horses and Men: Tales, Long and Short, From Our American Life (New York: Huebsch, 1923), p. 12.

2. Irving Howe, “Dreiser: The Springs of Desire,” in his Decline of the New (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970), p. 138.

Dreiser on his Novels

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18186



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 published, Dreiser disguised their names; in this account, Eleanor is his sister Mame, Ruth is Sylvia, and Janet is Emma, the model for Carrie.

I have described, for instance, how Eleanor came to Chicago and met Harahan, but not, I think, how he in turn introduced her and Ruth to the wealthy manufacturer who came to Evansville to visit Ruth. From all appearances, his courtship of Ruth, or at least his friendship with her, was sanctioned by my mother. Whether this was wise or unwise, I cannot say. He was much older, albeit a widower and wealthy. My one idea of it is that as usual my mother was at once strangely nebulous and optimistic. She had no ability to advise shrewdly in a situation of this kind, had she thought it important to advise. Being dubious of life and its various manifestations, I think that she thought it as well to let her daughters face their own problems—a view-point with which I find myself in agreement. Life is to be learned from life, and in no other way. That Ruth was obviously intrigued by this man I came to know when I chanced to enter the apartment one day when all the others were out and discovered her in his arms. By what arrangement, if any, he chanced to be there, I do not know. No doubt, she had calculated on the house being empty. At any rate, she requested me afterward to say nothing about it, and while I was shocked or moved in a strange way, I did as she wished. It seemed to me that my sister, being so much older, should be able to regulate her own life.

Similarly, Janet, who had been chided for her conduct this long while, had on coming to Chicago taken up with an able and well-to-do, though somewhat aged, architect, and was now living with him in a hotel on South Halstead Street. I recall her giving Ed and myself a meal ticket issued by a semi-public restaurant attached to this hotel and afterwards being invited to her rooms in the absence of the liege lord. I was filled with wonder at her clothes, furniture and the like, which seemed to contrast more than favorably with our own. Her boudoir dressing-table, for instance, was piled with

bright silver toilet articles and a closet into which I peered was plentifully supplied with clothes. Janet herself looked prosperous and cheerful. I remember going back through the grey, foggy streets of Chicago, looking at the huge sign-boards of the shows then playing: “Humpty Dumpty,” “Eight Bells”—and thinking how fine it all was.

Moral problems such as the lives of my several sisters presented to me had no great weight. And have not now—any more than do those of other men’s sisters or daughters. It is the way of life, however much socially it may be denied, concealed, or disguised. At times, assuming I heard someone else discussing them moralistically—my father, say—I was inclined to experience a depression or reduction in pride which was purely osmatic—a process of emotional absorption—no more. Had I heard someone else criticized, I would not have been so moved. And yet, at times, and because of this, I had the notion that they were not doing right; that men (this must have been gathered from my father’s many preachments) were using them as mere play-things; but most of the time I had a feeling that they were their own masters, or might be if they would. And that perhaps they enjoyed being playthings. Why not? And through it all ran the feeling that good, bad, or indifferent as individuals or things might be, life was a splendid surge, a rich sensation, and that it was fine to be alive. And in so far as my sister Janet was concerned, my final feeling was that she was prosperous and individual and perhaps as well off as some others, if not more so.

But to return to my sister Eleanor. Being in love and waiting to be taken over completely by Harahan, she was leading a trying, and yet to her, I assume, invaluable life. In later years I heard all about the love woes of this period; the eagerness for letters, the despair at not receiving them, the agony of suspecting other flirtations, and so on and so forth. Until at last she had found herself desperately in love with this man, as she once told me, she had been moderately entertained by the admirations and attentions of first one man and then another. But mere flirtations these—not complete sex relations. She had not been sufficiently interested. The thought that comes to me now, though, is that by reason of criticism on the part of others—taboos and the like—and however generally evaded or ignored—we do not prefer to contemplate these youthful sex variations, either in real life or in literature. And yet, how common! You may measure the thinness of literature and of moral dogma and religious control by your own observations and experiences. Look back over your own life and see!1


In two passages from Dawn Dreiser recalls his response—the first in the summer of 1884, the second in the summer of 1887—to the possibilities of life offered by Chicago, a response echoed by Carrie.

How shall one hymn, let alone suggest, a city as great as this in spirit? Possibly it had six or seven hundred thousand population at this time. To it, and at the rate of perhaps fifty thousand a year, were hurrying all of the life-hungry natives of a hundred thousand farming areas, of small cities and towns, in America and elsewhere. The American of this time, native, for the most past, of endless backwoods communities, was a naive creature, coming with all the notions which political charlatans of the most uninformed character had poured into his ears. He was gauche, green, ignorant. But how ambitious and courageous! (Think of our family!) Such bumptiousness! Such assurance! Such a mixture of illusions concerning God, the characteristics of the human animal, and himself! He was distinctly one thing the while he was ever imaging himself another.

Would that I might sense it all again! Would that I were able to suggest in prose the throb and urge and sting of my first days in Chicago! A veritable miracle of pleasing sensations and fascinating scenes. The spirit of Chicago flowed into me and made me ecstatic. Its personality was different from anything I had ever known; it was a compound of hope and joy in existence, intense hope and intense joy. Cities, like individuals, can flare up with a great flare of hope. They have that miracle, personality, which as in the case of the individual is always so fascinating and arresting.

I washed my face and brushed my clothes, and then knelt down by the window—because I could hang out farther by doing so—and looked out. East and west, for miles, as it seemed to me, was a double row of gas lamps already flaring in the dusk, and behind them the lighted faces of shops and, as they seemed to me, very brightly lighted, glowing in fact. And again, there were those Madison Street horse-cars, yellow in color, jingling to and fro, their horses’ feet plop-plopping as they came and went, just as they had when I sold papers here four years before. And the scores and scores of pedestrians walking in the rain, some with umbrellas, some not, some hurrying, some not. New land, new life, was what my heart was singing! Inside the street cars, like toy men and women, were the acclimated Chicagoans, those who had been here long before I came, no doubt. Beautiful! Like a scene in a play; an Aladdin view in the Arabian nights. Cars, people, lights, shops! The odor and flavor of the city, the vastness of its reaches, seems to speak or sing or tinkle like a living, breathing thing. It came to me again with inexpressible variety and richness, as if to say: “1 am the soul of a million people! I am their joys, their prides, their loves, their appetites, their hungers, their sorrows! 1 am their good clothes and their poor ones, their light, their food, their lusts, their industries, their enthusiasms, their dreams! In me are all the pulses and wonders and tastes and loves of life itself! I am life! This is paradise! This is that mirage of the heart and brain and blood of which people dream. I am the pulsing urge of the universe! You are a part of me, I of you! All that life or hope is or can be or do, this I am, and it is here before you! Take of it! Live, live, satisfy your heart! Strive to be what you wish to be now while you are young and of it! Reflect its fire, its tang, its color, its greatness! Be, be, wonderful or strong or great, if you will but be!”2


Dreiser here discusses the extremes of wealth and poverty in New York; his reflections were occasioned by a bitterly contested strike in the summer of 1896 by sweatshop workers.

To those who are infatuated with the thought of living in a city and of enjoying the so called delights of metropolitan life, the recent strikes in the sweater shops [small, unregulated clothing factories] of New York may furnish a little food for reflection. Usually the thought of miles of streets, lined with glimmering lamps, of great, brilliant thoroughfares, thronged with hurrying pedestrians and lined with glittering shop windows; of rumbling vehicles rolling to and fro in noisy counter procession, fascinates and hypnotizes the mind, so that reason fades to an all-possessing desire to rush forward and join with the countless throng. Usually, to the mass of humans, the vision of a great metropolis, throbbing with ceaseless life, pulsating after the fashion of a great heart and extending its influence by means of tracks to all parts of the world, is one of the most inspiring and impressive visions imaginable. To go to the city is the changeless desire of the mind. To join in the great hurrying throng; to see the endless lights, the great shops and stores, the towering structures and palatial mansions, becomes a desire which the mind can scarcely resist. Mansions and palaces, libraries, museums, the many theatres and resorts of wealth and pleasure all attract, just as a great cataract attracts. There is a magnetism in nature that gives more to the many, and this you will see in the constant augmentation of population in the great cities, the constant rushing of wealth to those who have wealth, the great hurrying of waters to where there are endless waters and of stars where there are myriad of stars already gathered, until the heavens are white with them. It is a magnetism which no one understands, which philosophers call the law of segregation, and which simply means that there is something in nature to make the many wish to be where the many are. From that law there is no escape and both men and planets obey it. It makes towns, cities, nations, and worlds, and does nothing, perhaps except show what mites we are in the stream and current of nature.

This desire to attend and be part of the great current of city life is one that seldom bases itself upon well mastered reasons. It is simply a desire, and as such, seldom begs for explanation. Men do not ask themselves whether once in the great city its wonder will profit them any. They do not stop to consider whether the great flood will catch them up and whirl them on helpless and unheeded. They never consider that the life, and dash and fire of metropolitan life is based on something and not a mere exotic sprung from nothing and living on air. They seldom reflect that all here is a mere picture of wondrous, living detail, but as cold and helpless as any vision, and as far from their grasp as the gems of a wintry sky. If they did it would appall them and make them cautious of the magnetic charm that draws them on, for they would perhaps come to realize that men may starve at the base of cold, ornate columns of marble, the cost of which would support them and many like them for the remainder of their earthly days. All is not gold that glitters, nor will anything that delights your fancy give you food. Certainly the city glitters, but it is not always your gold.

Perceive first, that what delights you is only the outer semblance, the bloom of the plant. These streets and boulevards, these splendid mansions and gorgeous hotels, these vast structures about which thousands surge and toward which luxurious carriages roll, are the fair flowers of a rugged stalk. Not of color and softness and rare odor are the masses upon which as a stalk these bloom; not for fresh air and sunshine are they. Down in the dark earth are the roots, drawing life and strength and sending them coursing up the veins; and down in alleys and byways, in the shop and small dark chambers are the roots of this luxurious high life, starving and toiling the year through that carriages may roll and great palaces stand brilliant with ornaments. These endless streets which only present their fascinating surface are the living semblance of the hands and hearts that lie unseen within them. They are the gay covering which conceals the sorrow and want and ceaseless toil upon which all this is built. They hide the hands and hearts, the groups of ill-clad workers, the chambers stifling with the fumes of midnight oil consumed over ceaseless tasks, the pallets of the poor and sick, the bare tables of the hopeless slaves who work for bread. Endless are these rows of shadowy chambers, countless the miseries which these great halls hide. If they could be swept away, or dissolved, and only the individuals left in view, there would be a new story to tell. Like a sinful Magdalen the city decks itself gayly, fascinating all by her garments of scarlet and silk, awing by her jewels and perfumes, when in truth there lies hid beneath these a torn and miserable heart, and a soiled and unhappy conscience that will not be still but is forever moaning and crying, “for shame.”

The striking tailors, coat makers, pressers, bushelmen, they are of this vast substrata on which the city stands; a part of the roots that are down in the ground, delving, that the vast flowerlike institutions may bloom over head. They belong to that part of the city which is never seen and seldom heard. Strange tales could be told of their miseries, strange pictures drawn of their haunts and habitations, but that is not for here and now. When they issued their queer circular it was published as a curiosity because it told a strange and peculiar story, and to those who are fascinated by dreams of the great metropolis it may prove a lesson. All that glitters is not gold. Neither is the city a place of luxurious abode despite the brilliancy of its surging streets. Here is the circular:


To the Pressers:

Brethren—The last hour of need, misery and hunger has come. We are now on the lowest step of the ladder of human life. We can do nothing more than starve. Take pity on your wives. Are not your children for whom you have struggled so hard with your sweat and blood, dear to you? Do you think you have a right to live? Do you think you ought to get pay for your work? We only strive for a miserable piece of bread.

Signed, Coat Pressers Union, No. 17.

There is surely no need for comment here, certainly no call for explanation. They are down there in narrow rooms working away again. The great thoroughfares are just as bright as ever. Thousands are lounging idly in cafes, thousands thronging the places of amusement, thousands rolling in gaily caparisoned equipages, and so it will continue. Some imagine that this condition can be done away with but it cannot. As well imagine that men can be made equal in brain, intelligence and perception, by law. As well imagine that this law of segregation which brings thousands together can be reversed, or that men can be made to desire complete isolation and solitude. Oppression can be avoided, that is true, but the vine must have roots else how are its leaves to grow high into the world of sunlight and air. Some must enact the role of leaves, others the role of roots, and as no one has the making of his brain in embryo he must take the result as it comes.

For those who are inclined to believe that the above is mere rhetorical sentiment, unwarranted by any facts, the fruits, as it were, of a morbid imagination, let an incident in point suffice. It would seem as though one who enters a stranger into a city, enters as into the gorgeous storehouse of that eastern king whose jewels were heaped in glittering masses, and upon which he was left chained and helpless to stare and starve. Endless jewels can this city show; treasures so vast as to seem improbable; glories so numerous that in their very number they rob each other of their individual charm; pleasure so elaborate and costly as to pall upon the pursuing imagination; yet, amid all, men starve. It strikes one as the acme of the paradoxical, but nevertheless court records do not lie. Of one such case the papers have spoken of recently, and the singular description is here presented as evidence. It says:

“A wretched, dwarfed specimen of masculine humanity picked up by the police late Monday night was brought into Jefferson Market Court yesterday charged with vagrancy. The creature had been seen lurking in back alleys of the neighborhood of Minetta Street, and persons whose curiosity had been aroused noticed that he spent his time rummaging in garbage cans under back stoops. Those who observed more closely declare that the man was devouring parts of the refuse. The man ate this because he was starving. Policeman McCarthy, of the Mercer Street Station, approached the wild-eyed, bushy-haired and shrunken outcast, whose clothes fell from him in rags, and he slunk away like a hunted animal. He had not gone far when he staggered and fell against a lamppost and cut his head. He then started to crawl into a hallway. The policeman found him and took him to the station house. The man, who was about 4 feet 3 inches high, was dreadfully emaciated. His hair was 18 inches long. His beard had been uncut and untrained for so long that little of his face could be seen. He wore no shirt, and was clad in a ragged coat and pair of tattered trousers. A pair of soles which had once belonged to shoes were tied to his feet. At the station he devoured soup and bread with an eagerness which showed his pitiable condition. When led before Magistrate Cornell yesterday he was still so weak he could scarcely stand. He is a native of the West Indies, and gave the name of William Wilson. He could not obtain work nor aid and was obliged to go to the garbage cans in trying to stave off starvation. Wilson was committed to the workhouse.”

Thus runs the dry description of one creature. Thus could be written the story of many another. And between this one and that topmost type, whose clothes are costly and delicate of texture; whose linen is ever immacu-late; whose chambers are soft with comforts and ever resplendent in detail; how many gradations are there? How many of the half hungry? the half weary? the half clothed? the half happy, are there? How many who endure severe privations uncomplaining, and how many who endure moderate wants with a trusting heart? Ah, this is a wonderful conglomerate world, filled with a million grades, and still a million, and the one cares not for the wants of another. There are shades of suffering as innumerable as the countless tints of a roseate sky; grades of poverty as various as the hues of a changeful sea. No type so faint but what there is one fainter still, and none so marked but that another more impressive rises. Indeed, they are as the sands of the desert, as the stars of the trackless night, and he who enters among them does so as one who ventures his frail craft amid the massive ships of a crowded sea; the idle rocking of which may insure his watery doom. But this is trite, perhaps; very wearisome, no doubt; very much like the threshing of straw upon a forsaken field.3


Dreiser here attempts to deal with the social implications of the Darwinian idea of life as a struggle for existence, a theme closely related to the fates of Carrie and Hurstwood.

The characteristic of the time is that men can shut themselves in or apart from the general life, and with some little feature selected from nature labor assiduously to accomplish distinction. It is called specialization now. They can either take a line of business or a line of art, or something equally specific and withdraw into themselves, giving all their energy and thought to the labor of attaining distinction. There is no fault to be found with this from the point of earthly progress,’ nor from belief that all mankind should work and accomplish something. It is the selfishness in it that ignores the efforts of others to accomplish something also, that is the forbidding feature. One would think that each might work and at the same time assist every other to work, as much as possible. Specialization, coupled with selfishness and an extreme desire to succeed speedily, is the very element that makes life diffi-cult. Speed is well, but it leaves no time to look about when others cry for assistance, nor will it permit a halt when someone has been trampled on. It leaves suffering and supplication, the drip of tears and the moan of prayers to die on the wind behind, while it rides rapidly on. That is the way men go forward these days. And they go singly in feeling, though to the eyes of the onlooker there are thousands in the same company.

Well, it may be best for the progress of the world that there should be such a wide gap between the very rich and the very poor, between the highly educated and the wholly uneducated; but the difference, coupled with the number of people, makes life a very fierce struggle. It may be necessary that some should drudge and slave, and others walk in elegance and conduct the more honored affairs of life, but it certainly makes a grind of things. The drudges are so numerous. It looks so often as though they were held down by a lack of advantages and that men might do more for them. They have to struggle so hard for bread. They have to wear such wretched clothes. Their days are all toil, and their nights weariness. They are hounded by their desire to taste a few of life’s pleasures, and by those who wish to sell them the mockery of these exorbitantly. They live in close, stifling quarters and sleep vilely. They are subject to results of droughts and panics, go hungry when crops fail, die when plagues come, and are tortured by sickness and suffering in its endless forms. One sees the city packed with them. The mills are filled with them, who are not half so valuable as the machines. They toil under the summer sun in grain fields, and suffer cold before the mast over all the wide seas as sailors. They are so numerous and there are no schools. They are so willing and there are no machines. They work hard and the product of their labor is stored up, and then they are turned out, because they have manufactured enough to last those who buy a long time.

With all this they are cursed with minds and hearts. They reason some, and think of their position. They have laughter and tears and those horrible things called nerves, and all the conditions play upon them. You can find dozens of them with full minds, fine-looking hands, graceful bodies, in every way equal to some of those who ride by outside in jingling equipages, crowded into one small, ill-smelling room, working unceasingly from morning to night. Their fingers fly, their eyes linger on their labor, they stoop, they never speak, and all day long they work, work, work, until they are yellow and faded and limp—and they are humans.

Who put them there? An eternal law. What makes them stay? Hunger, fear of death. Why don’t they do something else? They don’t know how. Why don’t they? They were never taught, never had the time, were made to work by parents whom they have been taught that they owe something to for being grown into such a condition. That is the great mass of creatures. They are nothing at all, a mere mass, worms hidden at the roots of the tree of life.

And this is the life they are expected to rise in. If they try they may succeed, but no one is going to help them. They are going to encounter enmity, that foremost characteristic of the ambitious, the moment they try. Everyone is trying. Everyone is pushing the other for place—is training that he may crowd the other out of the way, shove him back, put him below—that he may be first and free to go farther. If one of these strugglers tries for a higher place he may starve. Certainly he will be buffeted, as certainly hated, and persistently undermined. That is the character of ambition. It throttles its competitors.

Why should men struggle? Well, because they want to be somebody. They want nice clothes, nice hands, their bodies kept from showing wear and painful usage. They have inherited pride, and would like people to speak well of them. They would like to laugh, to feel merry, to have plenty to eat, a fine place to sleep, and to be healthy and admired. They would like a nice home, soft lights and shades in it, beautiful views in it, and the smiles of love. They would like to be favored of Providence and to have the things which they understand contribute to and make happiness, and why shouldn’t they? This understanding has never been educated out of them. Other people seek such. Why not they? With this feeling, inculcated by everything in their life and about them, they are tempted to try. They see how others set about it. They learn that one must save; furthermore, that one must seize upon all that can possibly be seized upon and hold it. They must not give anything from their store. They must hold; seize more; hold and seize still more; and so on to riches. Pleasure will come afterward. Love will come afterward, the ability to admire, to enjoy, to understand—oh! that will all come. First, get the money, that will buy the things to admire.

So it goes through all grades of life, from men to microbes, and the change is not visible. Virtue doesn’t seem to flourish exotically. Charity is not growing stronger or more pronounced, pity isn’t any more in evidence. At least it seems so at times, and although this strange, agonized turmoil seems more and more deadly, pity may be growing, human sympathy widening, charity coming more and more in evidence. If so, blessed be these quali-ties. May they thrive! A world agonized and despairing awaits its redemption, prostrate, at their hands.4


In this account of the death of a New York vagrant, Dreiser relates a common event in the city to his own personal experience in New York in the spring of 1903, and, by implication, back to his earlier portrayal of Hurstwood’s death.

“The Man on the Sidewalk”

An unidentified man, about fifty years old, dropped dead of heart failure yesterday in front of No. 309 Bowery. He was tall, thin, emaciated. He wore no overcoat, and his clothing was thin and shabby. There were seventy-two cents in his pocket.—Daily paper.

One of the most commonplace items of this, our city life, is one like the above, which records the falling from exhaustion, or the death by starvation, of some one who has reached the limit of his physical ability to cope with life. It is no longer a notable thing. It is so old, and frequently, as you may see, it is a trivial thing. The papers give it no more than a passing mention.

I like, at times, this brief way of recording the failure of an individual. It is so characteristic of the city, and of life as a whole. Nature is so grim. The city, which represents it so effectively, is also grim. It does not care at all. It is not conscious. The passing of so small an organism as that of a man or woman is nothing to it. Beside a star or a great force of any kind the beginning or end of a little body is so ridiculous and trivial, that it is almost like that of an insect or a worm.

And yet to the individual who is thus ground between the upper and the nether millstone of circumstance, the indifference of the city, and of the world and of life, comes as a terrible revelation. He learns that one may really die of starvation in a great city full of wealth, full of power, in a way full of sympathy (misdirected, perhaps). The houses with which the streets are lined may be full of the comfort which attaches to happiness; the stores and offices crowded with those who are industriously bettering their for-tunes. On every hand are piled up the evidences of wealth—great structures, well-stocked stores, energetic factories, and the masses of material for sale, which can only be had for a price, and yet you may die.

I remember entering a great city once when 1 had neither place to go nor where to stay. My clothes were poor and my purse empty. In addition, I was ill and despondent, and although I might and did attribute my misfor-tunes somewhat to my own indiscretions, that fact did not avail to amelio-rate my immediate needs. I wandered helplessly about, and in that period of passing distress, lasting over a month, I sank to the bottom of human misery.

It was in this hour that my soul tasted the very dregs of life’s little ironies. When in health and comfort my eyes had seen many things which my senses longed for. Now in illness and distress they were multiplied a thousandfold. The stores were no longer great economic institutions which were sensibly arranged to deal with accuracy and fair-mindedness in all that society requires, but holding-places merely of that which if secured would serve to immediately relieve my wants. It was impossible for me to look then in any window or to see any mass of food and not covet it earnestly—a fraction, just so much as would keep body and soul together, a mere handful. I could not help speculating on how little it would take to keep me alive, and how little it would cost the giver to give it. However, here, in my way, I found an inexorable law of trade—nothing for nothing. If I chose to beg there were endless explanations and bitter comments, without (always) satisfactory results. If I chose to steal, the hand of every man’ was against me. There was no immediate way.

And yet to recover my lost position, or my health, or my self-respect, or my friends, required not only food, but health and labor. Once I had fallen so low, a long wearisome struggle lay before me and I who had reached this place did not always think it worth while. Pride stood in my way when begging was conceived, sensitiveness and lack of strength in the way of a forceful struggle. So it came that often I looked the grim procession of circumstances in the face and wondered whether it was worth while.

However, about me was noising and flaunting what to me, in my troubled state, appeared as a perfect pandemonium of joy. Everybody seemed happy, everybody seemed well pleased. There were inspiring processions of those who were going to business, to the theatres, to the cafes, to the homes—to all the beautiful and interesting things which the world contains, and I, only I, was going nowhere. Not to a good home, or a good business, or a good restaurant, or a good friend—to nothing at all except loneliness and friendlessness. Of such was my portion of poverty.

And so it was borne in upon me how it comes to those who reach the lowest level of distress sometimes die of starvation. The world does not care. It does not understand. It is busy adding to, not taking away from its store, and that which you seek to do in the extremes of poverty is to take away. You have nothing to give. It is only when you are well and strong that you have that.

Therefore it is that in those short, crisp items I see displayed the world of misery which lies behind them, the heart aches, the brain aches, the sad lookings with hungry eyes, the trampings, the waitings—all that poverty means in heat and cold. If nature were not obviously something which invariably works through other things, you would expect it, in its boundless ability, to flash succor out of the sky; but, alas! only the medium of other people (nature’s tools) are there to appeal to. Men are its mediums— men and things. And it came to me as a flash of wisdom that these are useless except as they are charitable; and that it behooves us to keep a kindly heart within our bosom and an open eye, for who knows but that at our door, even now, may knock with a wavering impulse that boundless wretchedness which but for our generosity and tenderness must travail and die, unthought of, unheeded, even as those whose failures and death are here so immaterially recorded.5


Written during the depression caused in part by his difficul-ties with Doubleday, Page and Company over the publication of Sister Carrie, “True Art Speaks Plainly” expresses Dreiser’s anger toward “the so-called judges of the truth or morality” of a novel, an anger that helped fuel his lifelong preoccupation with the affair. The essay also reflects Dreiser’s dismay over those reviewers of the novel who decried its sexual themes.

“True Art Speaks Plainly”

The sum and substance of literary as well as social morality may be expressed in three words—tell the truth. It matters not how the tongues of the critics may wag, or the voices of a partially developed and highly conventionalized society may complain, the business of the author, as well as of other workers upon this earth, is to say what he knows to be true, and, having said as much, to abide the result with patience.

Truth is what is: and the seeing of what is, the realization of truth. To express what we see honestly and without subterfuge: this is morality as well as art.

What the so-called judges of the truth or morality are really inveighing against most of the time is not the discussion of mere sexual lewdness, for no work with that as a basis could possibly succeed, but the disturbing and destroying of their own little theories concerning life, which in some cases may be nothing more than a quiet acceptance of things as they are without any regard to the well-being of the future. Life for them is made up of a variety of interesting but immutable forms and any attempt either to picture any of the wretched results of modern social conditions or to assail the critical defenders of the same is naturally looked upon with contempt or aversion.

It is true that the rallying cry of the critics against so-called immoral literature is that the mental virtue of the reader must be preserved; but this has become a house of refuge to which every form of social injustice hurries for protection. The influence of intellectual ignorance and physical and moral greed upon personal virtue produces the chief tragedies of the age, and yet the objection to the discussion of the sex question is so great as to almost prevent the handling of the theme entirely.

Immoral! Immoral! Under this cloak hides the vices of wealth as well as the vast unspoken blackness of poverty and ignorance; and between them must walk the little novelist, choosing neither truth nor beauty, but some half-conceived phase of life that bears no honest relationship to either the whole of nature or to man.

The impossibility of any such theory of literature having weight with the true artist must be apparent to every clear reasoning mind. Life is not made up of any one phase or condition of being, nor can man’s interest possibly be so confined.

The extent of all reality is the realm of the author’s pen, and a true picture of life, honestly set down, is both moral and artistic whether it offends the conventions or not.6


Dreiser’s interview with a New York Times reporter in 1907, when Sister Carrie was republished, provided him with an opportunity to restate his literary creed while expressing his continuing anger over the failure of critics to understand his intent in the novel.

“The mere living of your daily life,” says Theodore Dreiser, “is drastic drama. To-day there may be some disease lurking in your veins that will end your life to-morrow. You may have a firm grasp on the opportunity that in a moment more will slip through your fingers. The banquet of to-night may crumble to the crust of the morning. Life is a tragedy.”

“But isn’t that a rather tragic view to take?” 1 asked. “Hasn’t each man something in himself that makes life worth living? If, as you say, you want to write more than anything else, isn’t that power or ability to write something that would make life worth while under all circumstances?”

“No, not under all circumstances, because you can’t use ability except under certain favorable circumstances. The very power of which you speak may, thwarted, only serve to make a man more miserable. I have had my share of the difficulties and discouragements that fall to the lot of most men. 1 know something of the handicap of ill health and the necessary diffusion of energy. A man with something imperative to say and no time or strength for the saying of it is as unfortunate as he is unhappy. 1 look into my own life and I realize that each human life is a similar tragedy. The infinite suffering and deprivation of great masses of men and women upon whom existence has been thrust unasked appalls me. My greatest desire is to devote every hour of my conscious existence to depicting phases of life as 1 see and understand them.”

“What are you trying to show in what you write? Do you point out a moral?” I inquired.

“I simply want to tell about life as it is. Every human life is intensely interesting. If the human being has ideals, the struggle and the attempt to realize those ideals, the going back on his own trail, the failure, the success, the reason for the individual failure, the individual success—all these things are interesting, interesting even when there are no ideals, where there is only the personal desire to survive, the fight to win, the stretching out of the fingers to grasp—these are the things I want to write about—life as it is, the facts as they exist, the game as it is played! I said that 1 was pointing out no moral. Well, I am not, unless this is a moral—that all humanity must stand together and war against and overcome the forces of nature. I think a time is coming when personal gain will rarely be sought at the expense of some one else.”

“Where among people is there the greatest readiness to stand by one another, among the rich or the poor?” I asked.

“Among the poor. They are by far the most generous. They are never too crowded to take in another person, although there may be already three or four to share the same room. Their food they will always share, even though there is not enough to go around.”

“Are you writing anything else?” I inquired.

“I have another book partly finished, but I don’t know when I shall get it done. I have not the time to work on it, much as I want to.”

“Have you been satisfied with the reception of ’Sister Carrie’?”

“Well, the critics have not really understood what I was trying to do. Here is a book that is close to life. It is intended not as a piece of literary craftsmanship, but as a picture of conditions done as simply and effectively as the English language will permit. To sit up and criticize me for saying ‘vest’ instead of waistcoat, to talk about my splitting the infinitive and using vulgar commonplaces here and there, when the tragedy of a man’s life is being displayed, is silly. More, it is ridiculous. It makes me feel that American criticism is the joke which English literary authorities maintain it to be. But the circulation is beginning to boom. When it gets to the people they will understand, because it is a story of real life, of their lives.”7


Fremont Older, a San Francisco newspaperman, had written Dreiser inquiring about the suppression of Sister Carrie. In his reply of 27 November 1923, Dreiser faultily recalls several events in his relations with Doubleday, Page, but this account nevertheless is the version of the story surrounding the publication of the novel that was widely accepted for many years.

Dear Mr. Older:

I feel like beginning “’tis a sad story, mates.” I finished Sister Carrie in the spring of 1900. It was written at 6 West 102nd Street, N. Y., by the way. I was a free-lance magazine contributor at the time and was over-persuaded by a young literary friend of mine who was convinced 1 could write a novel even when I knew that I couldn’t. Once done, however, after many pains and aches, I took it to Harper and Brothers, who promptly rejected it. Then I took it to Doubleday, Page, & Co. At that time Doubleday had newly parted from McClure and had employed Frank Norris as a reader of manuscripts. It was Norris who first read the book. He sent for me and told me quite enthusiastically that he thought it was a fine book, and that he was satisfied that Doubleday would be glad to publish it, but that more time for a final decision would be required. Subsequent to this, because he wanted to go on record in the matter, 1 presume, he wrote me a warm and very kindly letter praising the book, which I still have.

About a week or ten days later I had a letter from Walter H. Page, the late ambassador, who asked me to call. And when I came he congratulated me on the character of the work and announced that it was to be accepted for publication, and that he would send me a contract which I was to sign. Also, because he appeared to like the work very much, he announced that no pains would be spared to launch the book properly, and that,—(the glorious American press agent spirit of the day, I presume)—he was thinking of giving me a dinner, to which various literary people would be invited in order to attract attention to the work and to me. Being very young, very green, and very impressionable, this brought about very ponderous notions as to my own importance which might just as well have been allowed to rest, particularly in the light of what followed.

For this so stirred me that I decided to be about the work of another novel,—to join the one a year group, which seemed to be what was expected of me. And to this end I scraped together a little cash and retired to the country. Frank Doubleday, the head of the house, was in England at the time. In my absence he returned and hearing, as I was afterwards informed, that the book was much thought of, decided to read it or, at least, have it read for himself. Accordingly as Norris and later William Heinemann of London informed me, he took the book home and gave it to his wife. Being of a conventional and Victorian turn, I believe—(I have always been told so)—she took a violent dislike to the book and proceeded to discourage her husband as to its publication. He in turn sent for me and asked me to release him from the contract which had already been signed. His statement to me was that he did not like the book and would not publish it.

My personal wish was to take the book under my arm and walk out, of course. But before his letter had arrived I had been reached by Frank Norris as well as by some other individual then connected with the house,—a second reader, I believe, both of whom, for some strange reason urged me not to take the book away but to stand on the contract—of all silly things—and to insist that the house publish it. Norris’s argument was that once the book was published and distributed to the critics the burst of approval which was sure to follow would cause Doubleday to change his mind and decide to push the book. He even took me in to Walter Page, who announced after some discussion that he thought this course might not be inadvisable. He appeared somewhat uncertain, but since Norris was so interested, he thought it might be all right.

And for this reason, and no other, 1 decided to do as Norris said, feeling, however, as 1 did at the time, that my position was wrong—ridiculous. It was true that the summer was allowed to go by and the date of issue was comparatively near at hand, but still I might have easily gotten the book published elsewhere if I had not been so silly as to do this. And Doubleday finding that I wished to stand by the contract, announced very savagely one day that he would publish the book but that was all that he would do. I returned to Norris, who said in substance,—“Never mind. He’ll publish it. And when it comes out I’ll see that all the worth-while critics are reached with it. Then, when he sees what happens he’ll change. It’s only his wife anyhow, and Page likes it.”

When the book came out Norris did exactly as he said. He must have written many letters himself for I received many letters commenting on the work and the resulting newspaper comment was considerable. However, as Mr. Thomas McKee, who was then the legal counsel for Doubleday afterwards told me, Doubleday came to him and wanted to know how he could be made safe against a law suit in case he suppressed the book—refused to distribute or sell any copies. And McKee advised him that he could not be made safe—that I had my rights under the contract which could be enforced by me if I were so minded. Nevertheless, as he told me, Doubleday stored all of the 1,000 printed—minus three hundred distributed by Norris—in the basement of his Union Square plant, and there they remained, except for a number abstracted, until 1905, when I, having obtained work as an editor, finally decided to buy the plates and all bound copies. In the meantime, I had carried the bound book from publisher to publisher hoping to find someone who would take it over without cost to them, but I could not find anyone. In turn, Appleton’s, Stokes, Scribner’s, Dodd-Mead, A. S. Barnes, and others promptly rejected it. In after years I heard many curious tales as to the internal commotion this particular book caused in all of the houses.

But here is an interesting bit for your private ear. At the time of my first conversation with Frank Doubleday, I referred to the fact that not only Norris but Mr. Page were heartily for the book, and that Mr. Page had told me that not only would he be pleased to publish the book but that he proposed to make quite a stir about it,—in fact that he had suggested getting up a dinner for me. This seemed to irritate Doubleday not a little, and walking into the next room where Page was sitting at the time at his desk, and asking me to follow him, he said: “Page, did you say to Mr. Dreiser that you really like the book very much and that you intended to make a stir about and give him a dinner?” And Mr. Page calmly looked at me and replied, “I never said anything of the kind.”

He was a man of about forty-five years of age, I should have said, at that time. I was just twenty-nine and not a little over-awed by editors and publishers in general. In consequence, although I resented this not a little, I merely got up and walked out. It seemed astounding to me that a man in his position would do such a thing. At the same time, I gathered from his manner and facial expression at the time that he stood not a little in awe of Doubleday. Also that finding Doubleday violently opposed to the book, he did not think it worth while to quarrel with him on this score. It was easier to dispense with me in the above manner.

Afterward—in 1901—Norris, personally, sent the book to Heinemann in London. And he published it. And it was much talked of there. Later Heinemann came to the United States and looked me up and gave me a dinner. At that dinner he told me how only the night before he and Mrs. Doubleday had actually quarreled over the book, principally because he made it plain that he considered her opinion of no great import. He stated that for some reason she appeared to be very bitter in regard to it all. Adverse critical comment, I believe.

In 1907, having by then laid aside sufficient cash for the purpose, I bought a third interest in the B. W. Dodge Company, then being organized, and, as a member of the firm, took the liberty of reissuing the book from the old plates. It sold about ten thousand copies. The next year a ten thousand edition was printed by Grosset and Dunlap, and sold for fifty cents a copy. In 1910, having finished Jennie Gerhardt, I took the book to Harper’s, and that firm asked to be allowed to reissue Sister Carrie as a companion volume to Jennie Gerhardt, and at that time it sold some seven thousand copies more—at $1.50 per copy. Since then it has sold continuously, the average annual sale something over a thousand copies.

To this I set my hand and seal.

Theodore Dreiser8


The following is an excerpt of an interview stemming from the publication of Jennie Gerhardt in early October 1911.

“Now Comes Author Theodore Dreiser Who Tells of 100,000 Jennie Gerhardts”

“There is no intelligent sequence of cause and effect in life,” says Theodore Dreiser,- explaining his philosophy of life as brought out in the struggles of Jennie Gerhardt. “Life is not reasonable. All our actions are regulated by some previous happening. If Senator Brander had not died, he would have married Jennie Gerhardt, unless some other accident had happened to prevent it. And if he had married her, society would have been none the wiser, and she would not have been ostracized for her fault.

“But that one thing, for which no one was responsible, left her at the mercy of her friends and called down upon her their so-called righteous indignation. It shows how little influence reason has over us as compared with chance.”

“Isn’t that rather pessimistic?” I asked.

“It may sound so at first,” returned Mr. Dreiser, “but it doesn’t affect me that way. I don’t feel any less happy about life on account of it. Life interests me intensely for that very reason. It is dramatic. It is more thrilling than the most gorgeous spectacle that man ever planned. And these accidents merely serve to make it more entrancing. I consider the beggar sitting by the road-side one of the most dramatic things that could be imagined. He has a precarious existence and it depends entirely on chance. It is really thrilling to see the way in which he ekes out a living.

“Besides being dramatic, I consider life beautiful, and 1 believe that beauty is eternal. If I didn’t, this feverish existence would be intolerable to me. As it is, I think the beggar I just mentioned is beautiful. His dirt and his rags, his bandaged feet and his sores are all beautiful to me. They are artistic. They complete the picture and make the whole perfect. It may not be pleasant, if you like, but it is artistic. Everything in life appears to me just that way. That would be the reason for life, if there were any reason. But I believe that life is merely an accident from the beginning.”

“If there is no other force than chance, how do you account for the progress of humanity?” I asked.

“I do not believe that there is such a thing as progress, in the sense that we use the word. It is merely a change. Who can say that it is better to worship the home as we do today than it was in the old days to worship a bull? Our ideas have changed, that is all. We believe that it is better for us to worship the home, but that does not mean that it would have been better for people of other times to worship the home instead of the bull or the spider. It may be wise in the present day to try to educate our sons in the teachings of Jesus Christ and keep our daughters virtuous, but we cannot say that it will always be our principle. I cannot believe that the teachings of Christ are eternal; that they have really held for two thousand years. It certainly isn’t true in this day that one should turn the other cheek. . . .”

“Jennie Gerhardt” is a worthy successor to “Sister Carrie” and develops further the philosophy of chance as it was advanced in the earlier book. Mr. Dreiser has not had these views always. He admits that in his youth he was just as bound up in traditions and conventions as any one else. But his ideas changed as he got older, and a wider experience gave him a broader view of life. He was born in Terre Haute, Ind., but went to Chicago early and started to work there.

“I cannot say just what I thought of things then. Life was a drift, a swirl. 1 read a great deal then. I was eagerly devouring Emerson, Hawthorne, and Stevenson at that time. But better than these books were the tall smoke-stacks, the crowded streets, the boxes and bales and the river and lake of Chicago. I loved these and the knowledge that I was young and alive. The glory of life cannot be put into books. It cannot be even faintly suggested.

“Then I got into newspaper work and that gave me an insight into the brutalities of life—the police courts, the jails, the houses of ill-repute, trade failures and trickery. Curiously, it all seemed wonderful to me—not sad. It was like a grand magnificent spectacle. All at once I began reading Spencer, Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, and life began to take on a new aspect. As they say in the slang of the day, I got a line on it. I shall never forget Spencer’s chapter on the Unknowable in ‘First Principles.’ I was torn up root and branch by it. Life disappeared in a strange fog.

“Just about then, in Pittsburg, where I was working as a newspaper man, I came across Balzac and then I saw what life was—a rich, gorgeous, showy spectacle. It was beautiful, dramatic, sad, delightful, and epic—all those things combined. I saw for the first time how a book should be written. I saw how, if I ever wrote one, I should write it. I did not expect to write like Balzac, but to use his method of giving a complete picture of life from beginning to end.

“Balzac lasted me a year or two, then came Hardy, and after him, Tolstoi. From them I learned what, in my judgment, really great books are. In later years Daudet, Flaubert, Turgenieff, and now only recently De Maupassant and George Moore have added to this knowledge. I have never read a line of Zola, unfortunately.”

“Which do you consider the world’s greatest books?” I asked.

Mr. Dreiser leaned forward and named them off on his fingers.

“I rank ‘Anna Karenina,’ ‘Madame Bovary,’ ‘Evelyn Innes,’ ‘Fathers and Children,’ Père Goriot, ‘The Woodlanders,’ and our great own American ‘Quicksand,’ by Hervey White, as among the great books of the world.”9


Dreiser later incorporated the basic theme of the following article into the significant passage early in The Financier in which the youthful Frank Cowperwood derives his operative philosophy of life from a visit to an aquarium.

“A Lesson from the Aquarium”

When you are at the Aquarium if you will watch the glass swimming tanks containing the stort minnows, the hermit crabs or the shark suckers, you will be able to gather a few interesting facts concerning life, which may help to illuminate your daily career for you. In the first of these cases are small, brilliantly colored fishes whose lines show a striking pattern of purple and blue, with here and there a touch of salmon, as they turn swiftly in the light. They look as if they were only swimming about and enjoying themselves, nosing each other in hide-and-seek. In fact, they are engaged in a very serious business of life or death. If you examine closely you will see four or more on guard over nests in the bottom of the tank. The others are trying to rob them of their possessions. The watchmen do not have a moment’s rest. Hundreds of their brethren are hovering and crowding round them, constantly slipping into their domain. As they dart open-mouthed at one offender, another, and many others, will shoot in from the side, where the weeds are, or from the top, where no one is watching, and begin to rummage among the pebbles for the eggs. If the guards do not immediately descend on them they will rob the nests. If they do, the invaders will go away peaceably. The desire to fight is less than that to dine.

These fish band together in a kind of offensive and defensive alliance. Each guard has but one side from which attack can come. The other sides are protected by the operations of his three companions. The other guards, since they are in the same peril, can be trusted implicitly. You will never see one guard attack another, though they sometimes collide in the pursuit of interlopers, and always overreach into each other’s territory. They never molest or violate one another’s nests, and in the excitement of the struggle, when scores of marauders are swooping down at once, and they are dashing in all directions among them, nipping to the right and the left, they never mistake an ally for an enemy. Their duty is to guard the development of the new life intrusted to them, and in the prosecution of this labor they even drive the mothers away, which would hint that the latter may eat their own eggs. Needless to say, they are in no great personal danger from the intruding crowd, for the latter have been, or may expect to be, guards themselves some day. They wish only to eat, and in the gratification of the desire they exhibit a degree of good nature, or cavalier indifference, which is amusing. If a guard is on the lookout, they will not disturb him. If not, they will eat his eggs. Even the guards themselves share this desire, for once they are off duty—that is, when the eggs are hatched—they give a defiant flip of their tails and look about for their neighbors’ nests. Their role as guardians of public morality are for the time discontinued.

The case of the hermit crab offers an even more interesting example of how the game of life is fought. These soft, spidery creatures, not having been furnished by nature with any protection of their own, are forced by the craving other creatures have to eat them to find some protection for themselves. As soon as he is hatched he hustles around at the bottom of the sea, and finding a very small snail, weaker than himself, pounces on it and drags it summarily forth. Then he crawls in its shell and is protected.

However, this is not for long. He grows, the shell becomes too small for him. It is then necessary for him to make another sortie; and you may frequently see in this tank the operation of the law of the survival of the fittest, that makes our world so grim. One will come scrambling along the bottom of the tank, carrying his ill-fitting house on his back, in quest of food and a more suitable shell. If he cannot find a snail to oust, he will sometimes seize a fellow-crab, whose shell is of a suitable size, and he will worry and torment him until, by a process of poking and scratching, he finally succeeds in causing the crab to put his head and shoulders out in self-defense. He clutches the weaker brother and the struggle causes him to drop his shell. The victor drops his own shell, grabs that of his defeated kindred and scuttles off. The brandishing of claws and the grimaces that accompany the struggle are sometimes very amusing.

Now the vanquished hermit must get a new home. He takes hold of the shell which the other has abandoned. Finding it too small he hurries on, peeping frantically into this shell, poking eagerly at that, hoping to find one untenanted or with an occupant too feeble to defend himself. In the latter event he practices the same annoying tactics that were used on him. If he succeeds, his trouble is passed to the next one. If he loses, heaven defend him. Even now a monster has spied him, or, it may be, he has poked his claw into the wrong shell. It closes. He is grasped by a strong arm. A short, furious struggle ensues. He is pulled irresistibly in and devoured, a victim of what is sometimes called benevolent assimilation.

In the last tank, that of the shark-sucker, you will find an example of the true parasite—the child of fortune who knows just enough to realize that he is weak, and who is willing to attach himself to anyone more powerful than he, in order that he may have some of the good things left after his master has eaten. This curious creature attaches itself to the belly of a shark, and lives on the morsels that fall from its mouth. It is about a foot long, and remotely resembles a three-pound pickerel on its back. Its belly is slightly curved upward, and comes to an edge like the keel of a boat. Its back is flat and on it is an oblong, saucer-like sucker, which enables it to fasten itself to the shark. When it is quite young its habitat is fixed by the location of its parents. It is born in the company of sharks and it dies in the company of them. The fact that it might be able to do something for itself never seems to occur to it.

As might be expected, it never does well when loose from its master or held in captivity. The one in the tank lies in the sand, exactly in the same position it would have if it were fastened to a shark. It protrudes its ugly point of a nose, with its slit of a mouth just behind, and waits for food to be dropped down. It will not skirmish and seek anything for itself. Rather it lies here, and if not fed, starves, a fine example of the parasite the world over.

Do not these examples furnish excellent illustrations of our own physical and social condition? What set of capitalists, or captains of industry, think you, controlling a fine privilege or franchise, which they wish to hatch into a large fortune would not envy the stort minnows their skill in driving enemies away? What sharper prowling about and viewing another’s comfortable home, or his excellent business, or the beauty of his wife, if the desire seized him, would not seize upon one or all of these, and by a process of mental gymnastics, or physical force, not unlike that of the hermit crab, endeavor to secure for himself the desirable shell? What weakling, seeing the world was against him, and that he was not fitted to cope with it, would not attach himself, sucker-wise, to any magnate, trust, political or social (we will not call them sharks), and content himself with what fell from the table?

Bless us, how curiously these lesser creatures do imitate us in action— or how curiously we copy them! The very air we breathe seems to correspond to their sea, and as for the tragedy of it—but we will not talk of the tragedy of it. Let us leave the Aquarium.10

This statement, written during the period when Dreiser was working on the first two volumes of The Cowperwood Trilogy, remained unpublished during his lifetime.

“A Confession of Faith”


I believe in an insoluble, indestructible universe, good undoubtedly, but past all understanding. I do not believe in a father, son, or a holy ghost as these terms are conjoined. They may be. 1 have no inward conviction of them. I believe in the theory of evolution as it relates to this mortal state. What relation that state bears to the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent intelligence in which I do believe, I do not know. I am inclined to believe that it is all a dream and that “there is no life, truth, intelligence nor substance in matter.”11


I believe that the first and crucial principle of life is change and that all human forms and all human institutions, and all human beliefs are subject to it. It is a current of all times, holden of the masses, that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are and that they do not change. The contrary is true. If you leave a new house alone it will soon be old; if you leave a great institution alone it will soon lose its significance; if you leave a human law alone it will become obsolete. There are laws and principles which relate to the universe and which, apparently, do not change. We do not know. I have

faith to believe that the principles of beauty are eternal. Else were this feverish existence unendurable to me.


I believe in the inspiration and genius of men—intoxication of beauty—and of this intoxication I call all revered names in testimony,—Buddha, Zoroaster, the Prophets, Christ, St. Paul, Socrates, and all who have dreamed or sung or worked deeds of mercy and beauty in the history of the world. I believe that there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists some strange link between beauty and happiness; between kindness and a sense of peace; and between a magnanimous and thoughtful policy and public welfare and prosperity. That this has any close relationship to individual thoughts and deeds from hour to hour and from day to day I do not know.


I believe in the supremacy of art and that from first to last and from everlasting to everlasting the universe is artistic. I believe that in art there is neither high nor low; wretched nor distinguished; pure nor vile; but that all in their proper relationship are beautiful and good to look upon. We see but little and having ears hear not. I believe that this art is above the willing of man and that fortunate is he who is called to be its humblest servitor.


I believe in the essential evil (so called) and the essential goodness of man at one and the same time. I believe that all men are liars, robbers, bearers of false witness, murderers, lechers, ingrates, and the like in part and I believe at the same time they are kind, gentle, peaceful, longsuffering, truthful, noble and self sacrificing. 1 believe that good and evil are variously compounded in us all and that but for the accident of chance we might be anything but that we aspire to—either good or evil. I believe that time and change happen to all men.


I believe in the compelling power of love. I do not understand it. 1 believe it to be the most fragrant blossom of all this thorny existence.


I believe in the necessity and dignity of labor for everyone. It is the only solvent of life’s woes.


I believe that we should believe in change, that we should look at life searchingly, work energetically, love joyously and hope eternally. That we can at all times do this, I do not believe.


1 hope that I shall never cease to hope; that life in all its glory shall pass as a cloud at last; that I shall not live clear minded to see that which I have loved so much become the witness of an inane and futile age.12

In this unsigned interview Dreiser discusses the genesis of Frank Cowperwood and the significance of the American financier in the post—Civil War era.

“Theodore Dreiser Now Turns to High Finance”

The race for wealth at the pace set in America has interested Theodore Dreiser, novelist and philosopher. The author of “Jennie Gerhardt” and “Sister Carrie” has been devoting a long period of thought and study to a dramatic picture of exploitation of high finance, particularly in the reckless years following the civil war.

In his forthcoming novel, “The Financier,” which is to be issued on October 24 by his publishers, Harper & Brothers, Mr. Dreiser traces the evolution of a “Napoleon of Finance” from small beginnings before the war to vast dealings which include banks and street railways and close alliance with politics.

The book covers a wide field, and those who know Mr. Dreiser’s work know the characteristic breadth and force of his treatment. The new field which he has entered has piqued the curiosity of readers who have learned to regard him as the leading exponent of the newer school of realistic art, and an interview was sought with the author of “Jennie Gerhardt” in order to obtain some information about his new work, “The Financier.” The title clearly indicated a distinct difference in theme from his former books, and this prompted the first question.

“Have you not changed your field of work, Mr. Dreiser?”’

“Yes, to a certain extent. But ’Sister Carrie’ came very near being a man’s book, and I think if I had it to do over that I would now make it one. Nevertheless as it is I think it gives satisfactory evidence that my tendency was to make an elaborate study of a man.

“In ‘The Financier’ I have not taken a man so much as I have a condition, although any one who follows the detailed study of Cowperwood’s life would fancy perhaps that it was more a man than a condition that I was after. It has always struck me that America since the civil war in its financial and constructive tendencies has represented more the natural action of the human mind when it is stripped of convention, theory, prejudice, and belief of any kind than almost any period in the world’s history.

“In Rome about the date of the accession of the emperors we have an illustration of the strange, forceful ruthlessness of the human mind when it has freed itself from old faiths and illusions, and has not accepted any new ones. There you get mental action spurred by desire, ambition, vanity, without any of the moderating influences which we are prone to admire—sympathy, tenderness, and fair play.

“Many of the emperors were murdered, as the ordinary schoolboy knows, and thereafter the world passed into the shadowy realm of religious belief which endured until the Renaissance. Thereafter the amazing figure of medieval Italy appeared, including such astounding personalities as Machiavelli, Alexander VI, Caesar Borgia and others. There again you have the direct action of the human mind untrammeled by our so-called sense of justice and unmodified in the matter of ambition by any faith or any fear.

“There have been other periods, but few so glitteringly significant until we arrive at the year 1865 A. D. and thereafter. Then here in America we began to breed a race of giants acting directly, wholly financial in their operations, because finance was the one direct avenue to power and magnificence.

“Such men as Rockefeller, H. H. Rogers, Jay Gould, William H. Vanderbilt, E. H. Harriman and perhaps Russell Sage, are conspicuous examples. They knew no law and they would smile with contempt on anyone who did. I do not think that the mind of H. H. Rogers or John D. Rockefeller or E. H. Harriman was far removed from that of either Alexander VI, Caesar Borgia, Machiavelli, or to go back to the Roman Empire, any one of twenty emperors, including Galba and Nero.

“Our giants have been strong, eager, enthusiastic and without compunction. They have taken where they could, and silenced their victims with a bludgeon or ignored their cries. It is nothing new in the world; it will never be old or new. It will be simply different. New times make new methods and new conditions. Our Americans have looked straight at what they wished to do and have proceeded without let or hindrance to secure it.

“It is this atmosphere that I have begun to indicate in ‘The Financier.’ That book is not a complete picture. The full matter, if it could be condensed into one volume, would give possibly an interesting and I hope dramatic interpretation of what has been and still is happening. If I had the time and strength I would select other characters illustrating the same tendency under other conditions. If this is a change from my older method then 1 have changed.”

“What is the theme of ‘The Financier,’” asked the interviewer.

“I have fairly indicated it in just what I have said. The locale is Philadelphia, the period about 1847 to 1873, the character a national type, the conditions not different except in detail from those that have occurred in San Francisco, St. Louis, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. I only hope they are accurate. Aside from a few specific details with which most of us are familiar the color and the characters of the story are created out of whole cloth.

“I spent some time in Philadelphia studying the location of the scenes and familiarizing myself with the machinery of local government, but beyond that I guessed, as I had a right to do. The political atmosphere is simply typical, not accurate. The historical dates, in the main, are correct. I spent most of my time reading of financial characters of one kind or another to familiarize myself with the workings of finance sufficiently to make it intelligent without giving so much accurate detail that nobody would read it.”

“Is it typical, do you think, of American finance in connection with public service?”

“Fairly, so, yes, I believe there have been many worse conditions than I have described. The machinations of Cowperwood are child’s play so far as the Philadelphia end of the story is concerned as compared with the subtle manipulation of financiers in other cities, and even in Philadelphia at a slightly later period.”

“Does your book attempt to picture the civil war?”

“Not at all. Most of the financiers of whom Cowperwood is a fair representative were not interested in the civil war nor the question of slavery or any matter of human right. They were concerned as to what avenues of personal profit the war might open to them. P. D. Armour, for example, got his start by realizing that because of the war pork would be in great demand. It went I think to $9 a barrel. Consequently he stored pork until he had a corner and found himself rich. This is but a single instance. I drew on the civil war just enough to show that this was the attitude that was taken. And the introduction of the figure of Lincoln is merely to prove what I have just said.”

“Did your preparation for ‘The Financier’ require a great deal of time?”

“In all about a year. My greatest difficulty was in acquiring a working knowledge of finance and getting accurately the mental point of view of the proper character. I found a history called a ‘Day by Day History of Philadelphia’ to be of considerable value and the biographies and autobiographies of such men as Daniel Drew, Jay Cooke and others.

“I owe a great deal of gratitude to a private collection of newspaper clippings that was open to me and which covered many phases of the data I was seeking. It was no trouble to indicate the atmosphere of Philadelphia, although I have never lived there. Most of the histories of that city give a very good picture. My greatest difficulty was in making the machinery of my story work so that it gives a sense of movement and not of a vast complicated structure without life.”

“What will be the character of your next book?”

“I shall probably follow the evolution indicated in ‘The Financier.’ Naturally a story which deals with finance and which has its beginning since ‘73 and carries its life to the present hour, or nearly so, would be more involved, more ruthless and more orgiastically magnificent than one located between 1847 and 1873. But I do not know that it would be more human or have more of an intellectual or passional appeal.”13


In 1934 Robert Edwards murdered his pregnant sweetheart when he fell in love with another girl. The case was called “another American Tragedy,” and Dreiser was commissioned by the New York Post to write a series of articles on it. In revised and expanded form, these also appeared in Mystery Magazine in 1935. Dreiser opens the first of his Mystery Magazine essays with a discussion of the ways in which the drive for wealth in America led seemingly average Ameri-cans to commit violent crimes. He then goes on to an account of the origin of his interest in cases of this kind, an interest culminating in the writing of An American Tragedy.

“I Find the Real American Tragedy”

It was in 1892, at which time I began work as a newspaperman, that I first began to observe a certain type of crime in the United States. It seemed to spring from the fact that almost every young person was possessed of an ingrowing ambition to be somebody financially and socially. In short, the general mental mood of America was directed toward escape from any form of poverty. This ambition did not imply merely the attainment of comfort and the wherewithal to make happy one’s friends, but rather the accumulation of wealth implying power, social superiority, even social domination. It all struck me as anomalous, in a supposedly Christian democracy dedicated to the principle of brotherly love.

Of course, in my school days I had swallowed innocently enough stories of patriots who had devoted their lives unselfishly to the upbringing, development, and defense of their native land. They had fought and died for liberty as against privilege, and the right of every man to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But a few years later, on seeking to place myself economically, I found that there were some contradictions not to be overlooked. Most men, as I found, were neither patriots nor advocates of liberty for others, nor were they even fair-minded. Life was a struggle for existence, and a cruel struggle. To be sure, there was operating a so-called social system which sought by law at least to enforce some measure of honesty and fairness. But as to the working of the same, how different! In every town and city with which I came in contact, the well-to-do dominated the less well-to-do, and to the general disad-vantage of the latter. The rich controlled whatever industries there were and fixed all too often the most exacting and not infrequently slave-like hour and wage terms. Altogether, pride and show, and even waste were flaunted in a new and still fairly virgin land— in the face of poverty and want, and not poverty and want on the part of those who would not work, but the poverty and want of those who were all too eager to work, and almost on any terms.

In other words, I was witnessing the upbuilding of the great American fortunes. And once these fortunes and the families which controlled them were established, there began to develop our “leisure class,” the Four Hundred of New York and the slave aristocracy of the South, plus their imitators in the remainder of the states. And this class, as I studied it, presented the very interesting thought that all of its heirs and assigns were not so much interested in work or mental or national development in any form as they were in leisure and show—the fan-fare and parade of wealth without any consideration for the workers from whom it was taken or the country as a whole. I saw also that the maintaining of those privileges was likewise the principle business of those who were not heirs to anything—the young and ambitious in nearly all walks of life. In fact, between 1875 and 1900, it became an outstanding American madness which led first to the great war of 1914—1918 and culminated finally in the financial debacle of 1929.

Indeed, throughout this period, as 1 found, it was the rare American heart that was set, for instance, on being a great scientist, discoverer, religionist, philosopher, or benefactor to mankind in any form. True enough, a man might start out to be a doctor, a lawyer, a merchant, an inventor, perhaps even a scientist, but his private obsession, due to the national obsession which I have just described, was that the quick and sure way to do this was to get money. And one of the quickest ways to get money was to marry it, not develop oneself and so have money come honestly. In short, we bred the for-tune hunter de luxe. Fortune-hunting became a disease. Hence my first notice of and interest in the particular crime first mentioned.

In the main, as I can show by the records, it was the murder of a young girl by an ambitious young man. The Albert T. Patrick case in New York presented the picture of a shrewd attorney murdering his rich old client. For this crime Patrick was sentenced to life imprisonment. Another case—guilt not finally proven—related to the millionaire Swope family of Kansas City. A doctor son-in-law was charged with bringing about not only the diseases but the deaths of Swope and several heirs to his fortune. The doctor was acquitted, but the evidence presented an amazing picture of the mental mood of many Americans in regard to money.

A third variation was that of the young ambitious lover of some poorer girl, who in the earlier state of his affairs had been attractive enough to satisfy him both in the matter of her love and social station. But nearly always with the passing of time and the growth of experience on the part of the youth, a more attractive girl with money or position appeared and he quickly discovered that he could no longer care for his first love. What produced this particular type of crime about which I am talking was that it was not always possible to drop the first girl. What usually stood in the way was pregnancy, plus the genuine affection of the girl herself for her love, plus also her determination to hold him. This the conventionally-minded usually acclaimed as reasonable and right (this determination, I mean), while the more sophisticated looked upon it as a futile and stupid reason for holding that which is not to be held, or if so held, is worthless.

Nevertheless, these murders, based upon these facts and these conditions, proved very common in my lifetime and my personal experience as a journalist. One of the most tragic of them I contacted in 1894, when I first arrived in New York. It was the really tragic case of Carlyle Harris, a young medical student, an interne in one of the leading New York hospitals, who seduced a young girl poorer and less distinguished than he was, or at least hoped to be. No sooner had he done this than the devil, or some anachronistic element in the very essence of life, presented Carlyle with an attractive girl of a very much higher station than his own, one who possessed not only beauty but wealth. The way Carlyle finally sought to rid himself of the other girl was to supply her with a dozen powders, four of which were poisoned, and so intended to bring about her death. One of them did: Result: discovery, trial, execution. In this case I chanced by reason of a strange contact to know his mother, a rather fine and loving, if overly-determined and ruling one. She was a widow and had little money. But she was utterly devoted to her son’s welfare and bent on bringing about his success, socially as well as professionally. She wanted him to get up in the world, be famous, marry money. She told me so. In part I blame her for her urgency and insistence on what was the proper type of life for him. In part I blame America and its craze for social and money success.

After that, this particular type of tragedy, as it seemed to me, became more and more common. As a matter of fact, between 1895 and this present year there has scarcely been a year in which some part of the country has not been presented with crime of this type. For instance, there was one in San Francisco in 1899. In 1900 came a Charleston, South Carolina, case, wherein a girl was shot by her lover because he wanted to better his social condition by marrying a Charleston society girl.

In the summer of 1905, at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks, the murder which I wrote about twenty years later and which I named An American Tragedy was committed. It concerned one Chester Gillette, a young collar worker at Cortland, New York, and Grace (better known as Billy) Brown, who came from a farm near Otselic, New York, but worked in the same fac-tory with Gillette at Cortland. The first America heard of it was when the press in a small dispatch from Old Forge, a small town not far from Big Moose Lake, announced that a boy and girl who had come to Big Moose to spend a holiday had gone out in a boat and both been drowned. An upturned boat, plus a floating straw hat, was found in a remote part of the lake. The lake was dragged and one body was discovered and identified as that of Billy Brown. And then came news of the boy who had been seen with her. He was located as the guest of a smart camping party on one of the adjacent lakes and was none other than Chester Gillette, the nephew of a collar factory owner in Cortland. He was identified as the boy who had been with Billy Brown at the lake. Later, still, because of a bundle of letters written by the girl and found in his room at Cortland, their love affair was disclosed, also the fact that she was pregnant, and was begging him to marry her. In one letter, the last, she even threatened that unless he came to her at once at Otselic’ (where, because of her condition, she had retired), and would take her away and marry her, she would return to Cortland and expose him “before all his fine friends.” He was indicted and charged with murder. The upturned boat, his straw hat (a duplicate of the one he usually wore), a wound over the girl’s forehead—which he said was caused by the overturning boat but which the District Attorney charged was made either by an oar or broken tennis racket found hidden under a log in the woods nearby and which was proved to have been purchased by Gillette—were sufficient to convince a country jury that he had committed the crime. And he was electrocuted at Auburn Penitentiary, a final confession, it is said, having preceded his death.

After that, and cited here in order to show my reason for naming this crime An American Tragedy, came others of the same nature. I will list them as briefly as possible.

In 1907 or 1908 the Roland Molyneux case of New York City. In 1909 or 1910 the Orpet case, in Chicago. In 1914 or 1915 the Avis Linnell-Richardson case of Hyannis, Massachusetts. In this case the facts equally war-ranted the title: An American Tragedy. For here was a young preacher, Richardson, with a small church in Hyannis. He had come up from nothing, learned little or nothing, accumulated no money, and was struggling along on a small salary. Of course, he was good looking, socially agreeable, a fair orator, and so on. From all I could gather at the time, Avis was a charming and emotionally interesting and attractive girl, but of circumstance and parentage as unnoticed as Richardson’s. Alas, love, a period of happiness, seduction with a promise of marriage, and then Mephistopheles, with nothing more and nothing less in his hand than a call to one of the richest and most socially distinguished congregations in Boston. There followed his installation as pastor, and soon after that one of the wealthy beauties of his new congregation fixed her eye on him and decided that he was the one for her. Yet in the background was Avis and her approaching motherhood. And his promise of marriage. And so, since his new love moved him to visions of social grandeur far beyond his previous dreams, he sought to cast off Avis. Yet she in love and agonized, insisted that he help her rid herself of the child or marry her. Once more then, poisoned powders and death. And at last Richardson dragged from his grand pulpit to a prison cell. And then trial, and death in an electric chair because he had killed Avis.

But then on July 31st of this year, at Harvey’s Lake near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, occurred what was immediately announced by the newspapers as an exact duplicate of An American Tragedy. It was a murder said to have been committed by Robert Allen Edwards, a resident of Edwardsville, a part of Wilkes-Barre. His victim was Freda McKechnie, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. George McKechnie of Edwardsville. And by various newspapers I was shortly asked to say whether or not this was a duplicate of my story and whether in my opinion the novel had brought about the murder. My answer was that without much more evidence than was available at that time I could not say, but that because of many related cases which had occurred before this one, I doubted very much that the crime was inspired by the book. It seemed to me rather one inspired by conditions in America which produce, or at least have produced up to this time, exactly that sort of crime.

My reason for saying this was that by the time I had reached the place where I wanted to and did write An American Tragedy—that is, 1924-25—I had concluded that the facts outlined in the introduction to this article were the real cause. Furthermore, in my examination of such data as I could find in 1924 relating to the Chester Gillette-Billy Brown case, I had become convinced that there was an entire misunderstanding, or perhaps I had better say non-apprehension, of the conditions or circumstances surrounding the victims of that murder before the murder was committed. From these circumstances, which I drew not only from the testimony introduced at the trial but from newspaper investigations and information which preceded and accompanied the trial, I concluded that the murder was not one which could either wisely or justly be presented to an ordinary conventional, partly religious, and morally controlled American jury and be intelligently passed upon. Rather I concluded that there were too many elements of a social and economic, as well as moral and religious, character to permit a jury (themselves the representatives, one might even say the victims, of these same financial conditions and social taboos) to judge fairly the guilt or innocence of the alleged murderer.

In the case of Chester Gillette, I soon decided, after examining his background, that he was in the first place not sufficiently developed men-tally to be the deliberate author of a truly anti-social murder. He was too young, too inexperienced in the ways of life, to calculate a crime which would be sufficiently anti-social to warrant his destruction. His parents had been exceedingly poor, victims really of their inability to devise even a moderate physical subsistence for themselves and their children. They were street preachers, running small and unprofitable missions. In short, social pariahs. They had moved about a great deal, forming no connections of any worth, and being ambitious, Chester Gillette had obviously been over-impressed by what he considered the superior state of others. Further-more, and to complicate his illusions in connection with all this, there were rumors of an uncle, the brother of his father, who was a well-to-do collar manufacturer in Cortland, New York. Chester Gillette seems to have built up the notion that if in some fashion he could connect himself with the superior life of this uncle, he would naturally pass from a lower to a higher social and financial state. And that, as you see, ties up with the general social and financial attitude of Americans—their dreams of grandeur, all based on financial advancement.

Furthermore, as I said to myself, this was really not an anti-social dream as Americans should see it, but rather a pro-social dream. He was really doing the kind of thing which Americans should and would have said was the wise and moral thing for him to do had he not committed a murder. His would not ordinarily be called the instinct of a criminal; rather, it would be deemed the instinct of a worthy and respected temperament.

However, when Chester reached Cortland, he found that his better state was not to be as easily come by as he had dreamed. In other words, he was placed in the anomalous position of being at once the nephew of a man who was socially and financially secure and at the same time a mere eight-or-ten-dollar-a week collar worker. His future seemingly depended on his personal skill. And this he did not possess, for he was by no means gifted technically. He was romantic and to a degree vain, but not constructively acquisitive.

Next, his position as a collar worker forced upon him the social opportunities which conditioned the workers themselves. For companionship he had to look to his fellow-workers and among them he found Billy Brown, a girl of beautiful and sympathetic temperament who was drawn to him by his looks and the fact that he was related to the family which owned the factory in which they both worked.

At the trial it was not denied by him that he loved her at first. The general picture seemed to indicate that he was happy enough in this companion-ship, until, by reason of his reputation as the nephew of a rich man, he came to be looked upon finally as worthy of the attention of girls of a higher station than Billy Brown. And finally, one of these girls paid him considerable attention and quickly inflamed him, not only with love for her but with the thought that by marrying her he would be stepping up into the social world represented by his uncle, and which he considered ideal. This fact, which I found to be the outstanding one in the prosecution’s effort to establish and prove motive for murder, was the one which proved to me that it was not a desire for murder that was prompted by that dream of his but rather the reverse. For if it proved anything, it proved that he wished to reach a social state in which no such evil thing as murder could possibly be contemplated. In short, as I said to myself at the time, it cannot be true that this boy is unsocial in his mood or tendencies. It is just the reverse. He is pro-social.

The fact that he aspired to a better social state with this other girl proved, if anything, that he had no desire to go against the organized standards of the society of his day. In fact, having made what he considered a social mistake in connecting himself with Billy Brown, his hope and desire was to rectify that by a conventional marriage with this other girl. And that at first by no means indicated or suggested as existing in his mind and thought, let alone determination, that he would or should be required to murder anybody in order to achieve it. He merely wanted to divest himself of the poorer relationship in order to achieve the richer one. And you may depend upon it that if he had had money and more experience in the ways of immorality, he would have known ways and means of indulging himself in the relationship with Billy Brown without bringing upon himself the morally compulsive relation of prospective fatherhood.

But he did not have the money. And the lack of it, however inimical to his dreams of a happy marriage with the richer girl, was no crime in itself. What crime there was entered at the point when, finding himself frustrated on the one hand by his desire to marry the richer girl and on the other hand by his inability to extricate Billy Brown from her predicament, he thought of murder. But even here it was impossible for me to say that at any time murder was his desire. What he really wanted even to the very end was escape. And up to the moment that he upset the boat and struck her with a tennis racket (if he did), his desire was not to go against the ideals of society, but to go with them. Frustration was not anything which he criminally planned. It came upon him without any desire on his part, and decidedly against every wish of his being. When he found that he could not free himself from this girl, then there entered the thought of escape: murder.

But there again, I was compelled to ask myself: “Was it murder for murder’s sake?” Anyone with a grain of sense knows that it was not. He did not wish to murder. He sought every lane of escape before murder came as the last sad resource. For he was confronted by a state to which he was socially and emotionally fearfully opposed, one which was sufficient, probably, to have affected his powers of reason. It could, and probably did, absolutely befuddle and finally emotionally derange a youth who because of his romantic dreams, and more, because when subject to them he was also subject to those dreadful economic, social, moral and conventional pressures about him, was finally driven romantically mad and brought to the point of committing a crime that was so terrible to the world.

But why so widely heralded at the time? Why the sorrow, sympathy, pain really, to the hearts of millions not only for Billy Brown but for him? Why? I will tell you. Because the emotions, so much more quickly than the far more commonplace scales of the brain, register the essential truth. That is why.

Not Chester Gillette, I said to myself at the time, planned this crime, but circumstances over which he had no control—circumstances and laws and rules and conventions which to his immature and more or less futile mind were so terrible, so oppressive, that they were destructive to his reasoning powers. No more and no less. He was not seeking murder. By no means. To the very last analysis, even when he struck the blow, he was seeking to escape—striking to escape. If at the moment when he stood in the boat and was ready to strike Billy Brown with the tennis racket, a voice had called: “Stop! You don’t have to do that in order to escape. Take the girl to a doctor. Have an operation performed. Give her this money and tell her how deeply you desire to be released and why, and she will release you”—there is no question in my mind, and none in yours, that he would have dropped the racket and gladly gone about the business of giving this girl her life and freedom. Is there any sane person on the face of the earth who would honestly deny the validity of this? But life—circumstances—would not have it so.

And yet in spite of these conditions and circumstances which were plainly to be seen by anyone who could see, the boy was fearfully denounced, tortured with public obloquy and even hatred. It was suggested that he be lynched, and once the case was given to the jury he was quickly convicted of murder and sentenced to death. And though the case was carried to the Court of Appeals and afterwards to Governor (later Chief Justice) Hughes; neither the court nor the governor could trace out these truer rea-sons for the deed which he committed. He must die. . . .14


1. Theodore Dreiser, A History of Myself: Dawn (New York: Liveright, 1931), pp. 172-174.

2. Ibid., pp. 159-160, 297-298.

3. Dreiser, “Reflections,” Ev’ry Month, 3 (October 1896): 6-7.

4. Dreiser, Ev’ry Month, 4 (May 1897): 21.

5. Dreiser, “The Man on the Sidewalk,” Bohemian, 17 (October 1909): 422-423.

6. Dreiser, “True Art Speaks Plainly,” Booklover’s Magazine, 1 (February 1903): 129.

7. Otis Notman, “Talks with Four Novelists,” New York Times Saturday Review of Books, 15 June 1907, p. 393.

8. Dreiser to Fremont Older, 27 November 1923, in Letters of Theodore Dreiser, edited by Robert H. Elias (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959), II: 417-420.

9. Aimer C. Sanborn, “Now Comes Author Theodore Dreiser Who Tells of 100,000 Jennie Gerhardts,” Cleveland Leader, 12 November 1911, Cosmopolitan sec., p. 5.

10. Dreiser, “A Lesson from the Aquarium,” Tom Watson’s Magazine, 3 (January 1906): 306-308.

11. Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health (1875; reprint, Boston: First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1971), p. 468.

12. Dreiser, “A Confession of Faith,” in Theodore Dreiser: A Selection of Uncollected Prose, edited by Donald Pizer (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1977), pp. 181-183.

13. “Theodore Dreiser Now Turns to High Finance,” New York Sun, 19 October 1912, part 2, p. 3.

14. Dreiser, “I Find the Real American Tragedy,” Mystery Magazine, 11 (February 1935): 88-90.

Dreiser as Studied

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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 such writers as Henry James and Joseph Conrad, and that was pursued vigorously by almost all major writers of the 1920s and beyond. Generically, Dreiser can therefore best be read in relation to the great nineteenth-century European novelists who also engaged in telling the story of a life with a full representation of the society in which the story unfolds. In English fiction his novels can be fruitfully compared to those of William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens earlier in the century and George Eliot and Thomas Hardy somewhat later.

In French fiction the work of Honore de Balzac and Emile Zola offers a similar opportunity for comparison. Particularly fertile for comparative study are novels of urban decline, such as Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877; translated as Gervaise, 1879) and Sister Carrie; novels of feminine sexuality, such as Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jennie Gerhardt; and novels about the youthful aspirant in the city—Balzac’s A Great Man of the Provinces in Paris and The “Genius” or An American Tragedy.


Dreiser’s novels constitute the fullest expression in America of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century literary movement known as naturalism. Naturalism had its origin in France, principally in

the criticism and fiction of Zola, whose Le Roman experimental (The Experimental Novel, 1880) and twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series of novels deeply affected the fiction of the time. The naturalist writer, Zola argued, in accord with the spirit of the age, must adopt a scientific perspective and depict man as determined in his thoughts, actions, and fate by his hereditary background and environmental conditions. Typically, the naturalist rendered this truth most clearly and powerfully through the depiction of lower-class life and by a stress on the persistence of destructive, animalistic qualities in human nature. Inevitably, this theory of the role and nature of fiction underwent major modifications in practice, both in Zola’s own fiction and in that of his followers in Europe and America. Thus, most discussions of Dreiser as a naturalist in recent decades have discarded the angle of approaching him as a disciple of Zola and have sought rather to answer the questions inherent in his complex relationship to naturalism: In what ways does he adhere to a naturalistic ethos, in what ways does he strike off radically on his own, and how do these interact to create the distinctive entity that is a Dreiser novel?

Because naturalism is so deeply rooted in the specific conditions of particular countries, Dreiser as a naturalist is more profitably compared with his contemporaries in the American naturalistic movement than with similar writers in France. He and Stephen Crane, for example, shared a deep engagement in the fiction of urban decline, as is seen in Sister Carrie and Crane’s Maggie:A Girl of the Streets (1893) and George’s Mother (1896). Frank Norris not only dealt with this theme in his McTeague (1899) and Vandover and the Brute (1914) but also shared with Dreiser an effort to break new ground in the depiction of feminine sexuality. Both Norris and Dreiser planned and largely completed vast fictional tapestries that sought to render the nature of economic power in post-Civil War America—Dreiser in The Cowperwood Trilogy, especially The Financier, and Norris in the Trilogy of the Wheat, especially The Octopus. Dreiser and Jack London shared an interest in the character and fate of the artist in an American society largely inhospitable to art, a theme depicted in The “Genius” and London’s Martin Eden (1909). Among later American naturalists, James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan Trilogy (Young Lonigan, 1932; The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, 1934; and Judgment Day,1935), with its vivid depiction of Irish-American Chicago life, and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), which resembles An American Tragedy, reveal Dreiser’s impact on writers of that generation. More recently, Joyce Carol Oates’s them (1969) and William Kennedy’s Ironweed (1983), both of which dramatize personal collapse in relation to social decay, suggest the permanent residue of Dreiserian naturalism in American fiction.


Although Dreiser’s eight novels and his prolific work in other forms treat a multitude of themes, it is possible to isolate two central preoccupations in his fictional dramatization of American life: the destructive distinction between conventional moral codes and the actualities of human nature and behavior, and the equally destructive role of the American dream of success. The first he developed in two phases: the social condemnation of a woman for the open expression of her sexual nature (Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt) and the social condemnation of a businessman for the open expression of the rapaciousness required in a business civilization (The Cowperwood Trilogy). Dreiser’s bitter attack on the falsities inherent in the American dream of success, which holds that all are capable of achieving the dream of wealth and status, occurs in An American Tragedy. Both of these themes placed Dreiser in the forefront of the many early-twentieth-century American writers who devoted themselves to depicting the gap in American life between self-serving and often destructive ethical and social conventions and the actual beliefs and actions of most Americans. During the 1920s in particular, many of the younger novelists of the period took their cue from Dreiser and explored these themes in various contexts. The dramatization of the falsity of conventional belief is a powerful common thread in Willa Cather’s My Antonia (1918), Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925), and Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922). The tragic consequences of an acceptance of the American dream of success form the theme of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925).

Study Questions

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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.

3. Discuss the similarities between Dreiser’s portrayal of poverty in Dawn and in Jennie Gerhardt.

4. In Dawn Dreiser describes his father as a stern, moralistic man and his mother as warm-hearted and nurturing. To what extent can Jennie’s parents in Jennie Gerhardt be said to resemble Dreiser’s parents?

5. In your school or public library look for information on Charles T. Yerkes. (The books listed in the American Social and Cultural History section of the Bibliography chapter are a good starting point.) What information can you find on Yerkes? In what ways does his life serve as a model for that of Frank Cowperwood in The Cowperwood Trilogy?

6. Consider the artistic sensibility of Eugene Witla in The “Genius.” What are the similarities between Witla’s work and that of the artists of the Ashcan School of American painting? (Key figures in the movement were John Sloan and William J. Glackens.)

7. Look for historical material on the Grace Brown-Chester Gillette murder case of 1906. (Biographies of Dreiser are one good source.) What details from the murder did Dreiser employ in the story of Clyde Griffiths and Roberta Alden in An American Tragedy?

8. What aspects of the Quaker religion are pertinent to the portrayal of Solon Barnes in The Bulwark?


9. The New Woman movement of approximately 1890 to 1910 was concerned with helping women to achieve economic independence and sexual freedom. How are these issues of importance to the title characters in Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt?

10. Consider Carrie’s drama career in Sister Carrie. What does her experience reveal about the state of popular American theater at the end of the nineteenth century?

11. Using Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, and An American Tragedy as sources, discuss the significance of the hotel in American culture.

12. Consider how the behavior of Frank Cowperwood and Eugene Witla in The Financier and The “Genius,” respectively, violates conventional views of married life. What new ideas about marriage is Dreiser suggesting through these protagonists?

13. The friendship of Dreiser and H. L. Mencken was based in part upon their shared disdain for establishment culture in America. On what points were they in agreement about the limitations of this culture? Useful sources for exploration include Dreiser-Mencken Letters: The Correspondence of Theodore Dreiser & H.L. Mencken, 1907-1945, biographies of Dreiser, and Mencken’s reviews of Dreiser’s earlier books, which can be found in Theodore Dreiser: The Critical Reception. (The friends became estranged after Mencken’s harshly negative review of An American Tragedy in 1925.)

14. The legal issue in An American Tragedy is the guilt or innocence of Clyde Griffiths in the murder of Roberta Alden. Considering Clyde’s actions on the lake the day Roberta drowns, as well as his thoughts and actions leading up to the event, do you think he is guilty of murder in the first degree? Why or why not?

15. Dreiser novels are crammed with details about the material culture of his day. What can you learn from his books about the impact on daily life of such innovations as electric lights, streetcars, the department store, the automobile, the telephone, and so forth?


16. Compare and contrast the depictions of city life in Sister Carrie, Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and Frank Norris’s McTeague.

17. How are the social critic Thorstein Veblen’s ideas on consumerism in The Theory of the Leisure Class confirmed by the consumer society depicted in Sister Carrie?

18. Compare the theme of the “sullied” but “pure” heroine in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbvervilles and Jennie Gerhardt.

19. How is the political corruption described in Lincoln Steffens’s The Shame of the Cities (1904) reflected in the corrupt city governments portrayed in The Financier and The Titan?

20. An American Tragedy can be read as a critical commentary on the “rags to riches” myth of American success embodied in such Horatio Alger novels as Ragged Dick (1868). In what ways does Clyde Griffiths’s downfall demonstrate the inadequacy of the Alger myth as a model for real-life success?

21. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby provides a critique of the Alger myth similar to that of An American Tragedy. Compare the ways in, which the two novels show how the myth is easily perverted, leading to destructive consequences.

22. Discuss the theme of crime and punishment in Richard Wright’s Native Son and An American Tragedy.

23. View A Place in the Sun, the 1951 motion-picture adaptation of An American Tragedy, and compare it to the novel; in what ways is the movie faithful to Dreiser’s book? In what ways does it diverge from the original story? Or, do the same for Carrie, the 1952 movie version of Sister Carrie.


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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.

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