Theodore Dreiser (b. 27 August 1871 in Terre Haute, Indiana; d. 28 Dec 1945 in Los Angeles) was the eighth in a family of nine children. His father, Johann Paul Dreiser, was an immigrant from Prussia who operated a woolen mill in Sullivan, Indiana before the business went bad. His mother, Sarah Marie Schänäb, from whom Dreiser was said to have inherited a dreamy and romantic nature, was of Moravian descent.
The Dreiser family was one that might be called dysfunctional (or at least, nearly dysfunctional) today. The parents sometimes lived apart, with some children living with one parent and the rest with the other, for economic reasons. The family often relocated. Several siblings left home early and were involved in activities that were not quite proper: affairs, unwanted pregnancies, and (in the case of a brother or two) petty crime.
The oldest child in the family, Paul Dresser (he changed his last name) became a performer in a minstrel troupe and eventually a successful songwriter.
Theodore Dreiser was educated in Catholic schools at an early age. He rebelled against his Catholic upbringing — his father was (in Dreiser’s view) fanatically religious — and against his father’s authoritarian ways. At a later age, he was placed in the public schools, where he thrived and had a couple of teachers who greatly encouraged him. One of these teachers made it possible through a bequest for Dreiser to attend college for a year.
With the exception of a year spent at Indiana University, which does not seem to have made a significant impact on him, Dreiser spent most of his late teenage years in Chicago. A couple of sisters had moved there, either to work or because of romantic involvements. Dreiser followed, and eventually most of the Dreiser family relocated there, briefly.
While in Chicago, Dreiser worked at menial and low-paying jobs, as is detailed in his autobiography. He had strong romantic and sexual urges, but at this point was very insecure with women. He was overwhelmed with the raw power and up and coming-ness of Chicago, and yearned to make something of himself.
Through his reading of newspaper columnist Eugene Field, Dreiser began to dream of becoming a writer himself. He had a temporary job in the business department of a Chicago newspaper, and he later began to hang out at the offices of the Chicago Globe, one of the city’s less prestigious papers (and therefore thought to perhaps be an easier place to land a position). He got an assignment, finally, by dint of dogged persistence (just being there) and by serendipity got a big scoop. He was hired by the paper and quickly blossomed as a writer of colorful news stories, crime stories, exposés, and the like. He was both intrepid reporter and colorful writer of news stories that read like novelettes.
Dreiser’s stature in the newsroom rose quickly. He was given a letter of recommendation to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, a much better newspaper, one with a national reputation. He spent about a year and a half as a reporter for the Globe-Democrat and the St. Louis Republic, writing stories that still read well today. Also important for Dreiser in St. Louis was the development of his aesthetic sensibilities, through friendships he made with colleagues who had artistic pretensions.
Dreiser’s restlessness impelled him inevitably to move eastward. (The initial impetus was a short-lived, failed venture with a friend to start a country newspaper in Ohio.) He worked for newspapers in Ohio and Pittsburgh, gradually working his way to New York, where he dreamed of becoming a reporter for a big time paper. In Ohio, he made a very important friendship with Toledo Blade city editor Arthur Henry, himself an aspiring novelist, who encouraged Dreiser to write. In Pittsburgh, besides working as a freelance reporter, he read avidly in the public library and became immersed in the novels of Balzac and the writings of the English social philosopher Herbert Spencer (in Spencer’s First Principles).
Spencer’s works greatly influenced Dreiser, impelling him towards a mechanistic or deterministic worldview which he adopted and which is evidenced in his works.
Dreiser eventually made his way to New York City, where his brother Paul, who had become a successful songwriter and music publisher, and his sister Emma, who had basically eloped to New York several years before in a case which would provide the factual underpinnings for Sister Carrie, were both living. Dreiser got a few freelance assignments as a reporter for the New York World, but his newspaper career was basically over. Shortly thereafter, Dreiser embarked on an editorial career which began with the editorship of Ev’ry Month, a magazine published by Howley, Haviland, his brother Paul’s music firm. Ev’ry Month was basically an outlet for publishing sheet music, but it contained an editor’s column wherein Dreiser as editor had free rein to express his views and write pretty much what he wanted, including the occasional poem.
Dreiser left Ev’ry Month in around September 1897. He spent the next five years or so as a freelance magazine writer. He was very good at it. His output was considerable (he occasionally borrowed from his own previous work or that of others) and he could write on a wide variety of topics, from the most pedestrian account of some industry or practice (apple growing, say) to a celebrity profile. He sometimes collaborated on story ideas and articles with Arthur Henry, who had moved to Manhattan. Henry had already encouraged Dreiser to write fiction. In large part because of Henry’s prodding (to get him started at least), Dreiser wrote five short stories in the summer of 1899. He began publishing poems in periodicals. And, in the fall of 1899, again at Henry’s prodding, he began a novel, Sister Carrie.
On an assignment for the St. Louis Republic in 1893, Dreiser met his future wife, Sara White. A long courtship ensued. They were married in December 1898. Dreiser seems to have married Jug, as she was called, largely out of a sense of obligation or at least with some reservations. The marriage did not prosper. In fact, in its early years, the couple was often separated.
Sister Carrie was published by Doubleday, Page, and Company in November 1900. The company, which had accepted the novel in part because of an enthusiastic report from Frank Norris, a reader for Doubleday, almost reneged on its agreement to publish the book. It was not marketed aggressively, and sales were paltry. Dreiser himself later helped (in an article published in 1931) to foster the belief that Doubleday had tried to suppress the novel because of its immoral content. There is still controversy about what actually happened.
Right after Sister Carrie’s publication, Dreiser started another novel, Jennie Gerhardt, which he would abandon and not complete until approximately a decade later. Meanwhile, the scant notice that Sister Carrie received and its low sales seem to have depressed him. Dreiser’s freelance magazine output dropped and he went into a period of decline during which he was mostly unemployed, rootless, living a nomadic life, and thought to be suffering from neurasthenia. His brother Paul helped him to get on his feet again, and he worked for a while at a menial job on the New York Central Railroad, which restored his health and spirits.
From around 1905 to 1910, Dreiser pursued an editorial career, rising to a highly paid position as an editor with the Butterick Company, a major magazine publisher. He lived comfortably on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Then he got involved in the ardent pursuit of the teenage daughter of a coworker. In October 1910, he was fired from Butterick. He separated from his wife, Jug, and moved to Greenwich Village. He resumed work on Jennie Gerhardt, which was published in 1911, and began a period of remarkable literary productivity. He pursued a “varietist” (promiscuous) lifestyle and became associated with the Village’s bohemian element. By around 1915 and no later than 1920, it was customary to refer to Dreiser as America’s foremost novelist — it was indeed a rapid ascent.
The publication of Dreiser’s The “Genius” in 1915 led to controversy over the suppression of the book by anti-vice groups and to support from Dreiser by literary figures such as Ezra Pound, who otherwise would probably not have been inclined to notice Dreiser. Dreiser began to write experimental plays that were produced by “little theaters” in New York and elsewhere. He also began to publish books of essays with a philosophic cast (such as Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub) and travel books and memoirs (such as A Hoosier Holiday).
In 1925, Dreiser published An American Tragedy, his only best seller. The sale of film rights to the novel made Dreiser rich. He moved into a luxurious apartment in midtown Manhattan and bought a country estate in Westchester County. He became a celebrity and began to put on airs while claiming to disdain wealth and celebrity.
Dreiser had for a long time (since shortly after the breakup of his marriage) been living with Helen (Patges) Richardson, a glamorous woman whom he had met when she was embarking on a brief career as a movie actress and with whom he had common ancestry on his mother’s side. Dreiser continued to engage in innumerable liaisons, trysts, and affairs that led to bitterness between the two and short-lived breakups. Shortly before his own death, and shortly after that of his first wife, Jug, Dreiser married Helen Richardson.
The approximately twenty-year period between the publication of An American Tragedy and his death was one which saw a paltry literary output from Dreiser. He became known primarily as an outspoken critic of the capitalist system, a gadfly, and an advocate for the oppressed. He was known for making inflammatory statements that caused outrage, such as inveighing against support of England, then at war with Germany, saying, “I would rather see Germans in England than the damn snobs we have there now.” Leftist groups embraced Dreiser and his views (though not all of them — his anti-British remarks brought almost universal condemnation), and his leanings became more and more communistic. He in fact did join the Communist Party a few months before his death, but it seems to have been more an attention-getting move than a sincere gesture. It should be noted that despite his standing in leftist circles, Dreiser was very much a man of his time in holding what we might now be termed “politically incorrect” views, not being averse to making anti-Semitic remarks, for example.
Theodore Dreiser died of heart failure on December 28, 1945 at his home in Los Angeles and was buried a week later in Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Why is Theodore Dreiser important? Is it because he was a great writer? Some would say he was, but he was an atrocious stylist.
Dreiser’s plots are often soap opera-ish. He never mastered let alone learned even the fundamentals of English prose. Characters like Sondra Finchley seem like crude embodiments of a social class or an ideal, not real. Dreiser was accused (rightly) of plagiarism and he lifted whole chunks of one his best novels, An American Tragedy, out of newspaper accounts and trial transcripts. Some of his nonfiction works (his essays or Dreiser Looks at Russia) border on the inane or are inaccurate. His philosophy was muddle-headed and his opinions often misguided, hateful, and injurious. He wasted years on pseudo-scientific and philosophical speculations which, when finally published posthumously, proved to be unreadable. His prose poetry does not deserve serious critical consideration. Even his so-called classics (e.g., Sister Carrie) have, in my opinion, patches of tepid characterization and weak writing.
Besides being an atrocious stylist, Dreiser can be criticized as a writer on architectonic grounds. He seems a blunderer or groper in practically all respects as a writer. He got there almost by accident, it seems (though one has to admire greatly his persistence). It’s like watching an inept driver drive and wanting to take over the wheel. A Tolstoy or a Joyce seems so superior as a novelist, leaving Dreiser so far behind on all counts.
Does Dreiser stand up to scrutiny? I think there are valid reasons, despite his shortcomings, for considering Dreiser a major American writer, namely:
his place in the literary evolutionary timeline as one of the first and most successful practitioners of naturalism
the readability and durability of his works; people still read them, because they want to
the embodying in his works and life of a bygone generation that came of age at the turn of the nineteenth century when telephones were a novelty, trolley cars connected vast stretches of the country, men wore straw hats, and bars with sawdust on the floor served free lunches, and when social class distinctions were more rigidly observed
his international appeal as a quintessentially American novelist, someone who gives a coherent picture of life in a capitalist country to foreigners who can relate to his works and characters (even if the picture he gives of American life is not always accurate) and who actually read his works, which seem to translate very well
the Horatio Alger-like quality of Dreiser’s own life story, and his doggedness in pushing aside obstacles placed in his way; his rise to fame is a truly rags to rich story which, perhaps, could have only happened in America
his disdain for academic and critical opinion, which seems to be a correlative to his originality as an American authentic, a home grown, self-taught writer and thinker
his incredible frankness and honesty — about himself especially — which is perhaps best seen in Dreiser’s autobiographies. (They merit much higher ratings than they seem to have hitherto received as specimens of American autobiography). No writer (of Dreiser’s time) wrote with such candor, or anything close to it, of taboo subjects such as prostitution, premarital sex, marital infidelity, masturbation, oral sex, youthful fear of sexual impotence, abortion, and the like — at a time when to write for publication about such topics was practically unthinkable. If publishers took them out, Dreiser could do nothing about it; but it didn’t stop him from continuing to write with the same astonishing candor, and, incredibly, without, it would seem, a sense of compunction or embarrassment. His sincerity about not only these taboo subjects, but about himself in general, the lack of pretension that can be seen in his autobiographies, this and the genuine sympathy and unaffected concern he shows for the characters in his novels, make him easy to read. He is not striving to impress us with his erudition or to impress the reader in a literary sense. I think what happens, then, is something magical where readers relax and really get into his stories. There is no disjunction between reader and writer. Dreiser’s very artlessness makes him an easy read. His sincerity makes his books compelling. The wealth of detail he often provides is impressive and has a strong cumulative effect, as critics have observed.
In the end, Dreiser got there. Somehow, he arrived, as a writer. He hewed out a place for himself in the American literary pantheon.
A lot of young would be writers should take heed from the example of Dreiser. He was, in fact, an inspiration to a whole generation of realistic writers who followed him.
Dreiser’s stature is assured, in part, because he was there, because he stands firmly in a line that extends from the naturalists to writers who followed him such as Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and James T. Farrell.
— Roger W. Smith