Theodore Dreiser Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

ph_0111201205-Dreiser.jpg Theodore Dreiser Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Theodore Dreiser is best known for his novels. Of the eight that he wrote, An American Tragedy (1925), which was twice made into a motion picture, has attracted the most continuing interest. His short fiction is subsidiary to his novels, and his stories are sometimes capsule versions of his longer fiction, or novels in miniature. Additionally, Dreiser, more interested in literature’s power to educate than its ability to entertain, experimented with a variety of different forms in which to express his ideas, writing several autobiographical volumes, various books of essays, sketches, and accounts of his travels, as well as two books of plays and a collection of poems.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Dreiser remains one of the foremost naturalistic writers of the early twentieth century. Best known for his novels, particularly Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy, all the other works help illuminate them. Dreiser’s dark outlook and brooding style is leavened by his richness of language and compassion. His life and art have been closely examined in numerous book-length studies and critical pieces that range in the hundreds. He has been hailed as the most influential figure in American letters at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Mount Everest of American fiction, and he was considered the chief spokesman for the realistic novel. Dreiser was a finalist for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930, but he lost in a close and bitterly contested vote to Sinclair Lewis, a rebuff that he never forgot. In 1944, the year before his death at age seventy-four, Dreiser was given the Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for extraordinary achievement in his art.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The scope of literary accomplishment found in the work of Theodore Dreiser (DRI-sur) includes attempts in every major literary form, including autobiography and philosophy. Dreiser’s poetry is generally of poor quality; his plays have been produced on occasion, but drama was not his métier. His sketches, such as those included in The Color of a Great City (1923), are vivid and accurate, but they seem to be only workmanlike vignettes that Dreiser developed for the practice or for later inclusion in one of his many novels. His short stories are, like the sketches, preparation for the novels, but the compression of scene, character, and idea necessary for the short story lends these pieces a life of their own, distinct from the monolithic qualities of the novels. Dreiser’s philosophical works, such as Hey, Rub-a-Dub-Dub! (1920), and his autobiographical forays are the product of an obsession with explaining himself; the philosophy is often obscure and arcane, and the autobiography is not always reliable. Dreiser’s letters have been collected and offer further insight into the man, as do the massive manuscript collections that are the products of his tortuous composition and editing processes.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The enigma that is Theodore Dreiser divides the critical world into two clearly identifiable camps: those who despise Dreiser and those who honor him just short of adulation—there is no middle ground. With the publication of Sister Carrie in 1900, Dreiser committed his literary force to opening the new ground of American naturalism. His heroes and heroines, his settings, his clear dissection of the mechanistic brutality of American society, and his frank discussion, celebration, and humanization of sex—all were new and shocking to a reading public reared on genteel romances and adventurenarratives. Jennie Gerhardt, the Cowperwood trilogy (at least the first two volumes), and An American Tragedy expand and clarify the themes introduced in Sister Carrie. Dreiser’s genius was recognized and applauded by H. L. Mencken, who encouraged him, praised his works publicly, and was always a valued editorial confidant, but the general reaction to Dreiser has always been negative. He has been called a “crag of basalt,” “solemn and ponderous,” and “the world’s worst great writer,” but his influence is evident in the works of Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, and James T. Farrell, among others. Lewis refused the 1925 Pulitzer Prize, which probably should have gone to Dreiser for An American Tragedy, and in 1930 took the Nobel Prize Committee to task for choosing him as the first American Nobelist in literature instead of Dreiser.

Dreiser’s political and social activism during the long hiatus between An American Tragedy and The Bulwark, and his never-ending battle against censors and censorship, kept him in the public eye, and the failure of The Bulwark and The Stoic consigned him to years of neglect after his death. His works’ technical and stylistic faults have often obscured their real value, but the effects of Dreiser’s works are still rippling through American fiction. He was the first to point out the fragile vulnerability of the facade that was understood to be the American Dream and to depict the awful but beautiful reality that supports the facade.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Americans have long been inclined to apply the adjective “American” freely to all sorts of universals. Is the tragedy of Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy a uniquely or distinctively American tragedy?

Does Carrie Meeber’s persistent inclination to dream keep her from developing into a mature adult in Sister Carrie?

What aspects of Dreiser’s characterization seem least adequately explained by his commitment to literary naturalism?

Is money the root of all evil in Dreiser’s fiction?

What can be said in defense of Dreiser’s communist sympathies?

Do Dreiser’s novels provide evidence of his having been an optimistic man?