Theodore Dreiser 1871-1945
American short story writer, novelist, playwright, journalist, critic, and essayist. See also Theodore Dreiser Criticism.
After the publication of his novel An American Tragedy in 1925, Theodore Dreiser was generally considered the United States's greatest living author. He received early encouragement from the influential critic, H. L. Mencken, and his novel Sister Carrie (1900) enjoyed a warm critical reception in England, though its poor sales in the United States drove Dreiser to clinical depression. Dreiser wrote thirty-one short stories, and many of these were revised and collected in two volumes: Free and Other Stories (1918) and Chains (1927). Dreiser pioneered Naturalism in the United States along with Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and James T. Farrell, all of whom maintained that men and women had very little agency in their lives, and that their fate was determined largely by such ungovernable forces as biology, economics, and society.
Dreiser's formative years were marked by poverty and personal struggle; he was one of thirteen children whose lives were strictly governed by their father, a staunch Catholic who steadfastly adhered to the conservative doctrines of his faith. Largely because of his early experiences, Dreiser came to view the world as an arena for struggle and survival. He left his family home in Terre Haute, Indiana, when he was sixteen, and eventually began a journalism career, moving to Chicago, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh. In New York, Drieser's brother Paul, a successful Tin Pan Alley song writer, helped him achieve the editorship of Ev 'ry Month, and Dreiser published his first story in that magazine. After his sixteen-year marriage to Sara Osborne White ended, Dreiser lived with his distant cousin, Helen Richardson, whom he eventually married in 1944. Following a long illness, Dreiser died in Hollywood on December 28, 1945, leaving his novels The Bulwark and The Stoic unfinished.
Major Works of Short FictionPerhaps more so than with his novels, Dreiser tended to revise his short fiction nearly obsessively, and those pieces which he collected for his two volumes of stories were almost all rewritten after their first appearance in magazines. Scholars have singled out several of Dreiser's stories as worthy of re-evaluation: "Free," "McEwan of the Shining Slave Makers," "The Lost Phoebe," "Chains," and "Marriage—For One." "Nigger Jeff," however, became Dreiser's most widely-anthologized story, and, like many of his short works, was based upon actual events. In this case, the plot revolves around the criminal trial and eventual lynching of an alleged rapist. This early story, written in 1901, evidences a common theme in Dreiser's fiction: his concern with legal justice, and his contention that all men and women are driven by primal instincts.
Of his initial attempts as a short story writer, Dreiser wrote: "After every paragraph I blushed for my folly—it seemed so asinine." Known for his long, ponderous novels, the short story form at first appeared alien to Dreiser, and editors rejected many of his stories even when he was at the height of his popularity. While some scholars have lauded Dreiser's willingness to explore grand themes in the short form, many more have maintained that his literary talents were uniquely suited to the long novel form and that his writing style was far too loquacious and circuitous for shorter narratives. Even so, commentators have praised Dreiser's stories for their departure from the conventions of highly-plotted fiction. Moreover, Dreiser's works significantly influenced the realistic narratives by such authors as Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, Jack London, and Ernest Hemingway.