Naturalist Novelist, Social Critic 1871-1945
Theodore Dreiser was born in a small town – Terre Haute, Indiana – to German immigrant parents who struggled financially and could not support their ten children. He was an outsider from the very beginning: isolated, impoverished, and inexperienced in the very center of America’s heartland. Like the characters of his later fiction, however, he dreamed of leading an important, influential life. And like those characters, he left his humble origins for the promise of the big city.
When Dreiser first arrived in Chicago, he was fifteen years old and forced to work a series of menial jobs to survive. Despite the hardships of urban living, he valued his freedom. After a short stay at Indiana University – a supportive schoolteacher offered to pay his tuition – he returned to Chicago, determined to achieve financial stability on his own. In 1892 he found a job as a cub reporter for a daily newspaper. The work appealed to him; newspaper writing brought him closer to the important events of his era. During the following decade, he took jobs with several Midwestern newspapers, learning his craft, before accepting an editorial position at a New York magazine.
In New York, Dreiser proved especially skillful as a writer of feature articles. Recognizing the relationship between good features and good fiction, he began experimenting with short stories. In 1899 he started his first novel, writing its title, “Sister Carrie”, on a sheet of paper and then drafting a story to fit the title. The result was one of his most important works, the first great American novel of the twentieth century.
Sister Carrie (1900) describes an affair between a married man, George Hurstwood, and a midwestern girl, Carrie Meeber, who has already lost her innocence by living with a traveling salesman in Chicago. Together they flee to New York, where Hurstwood suffers a series of emotional and financial setbacks while Carrie fulfills her dreams and rises to prominence as a Broadway actress. Dreiser’s initial readers were shocked that Carrie is never punished for her affairs, and his publishers discontinued the book to quiet the outcry. Nevertheless, Sister Carrie announced Dreiser’s arrival as an important new writer of the naturalist school, one who tried to describe the social forces influencing his characters without judging his characters’ actions.
Supporting himself as a magazine editor for the next ten years, Dreiser worked on his second novel, Jennie Gerhardt (1911), another exploration of marital infidelity. He also planned the Cowperwood trilogy – The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The Stoic (1947) – a sweeping critique of American business that examined in greater detail the political ideas he first explored in Sister Carrie. He continued these investigations in his 1915 novel about the exploration of artist and writers, The “Genius”. And then he combined the lessons he learned from each of these studies to produce his crowning achievement, the 1925 novel An American Tragedy. Based on the true story of a 1906 murder, An American Tragedy recounts the sad life of Clyde Griffiths, a poor boy who aspires to wealth and fame but kills his girlfriend when she becomes an obstacle to his rise. The pinnacle of Dreiser’s naturalist style, the novel blames America’s obsessions with money and status as much as Griffiths’s own weaknesses for the murder. It achieved a level of popularity and success previously unknown to Dreiser, and it was quickly adapted for the stage and screen. Still, it did little to improve Dreiser’s reputation among audiences critical of his realistic depictions of American life, and it was even banned in Boston in 1925.
In his later years, Dreiser negotiated movie contracts for several of his other works. He also used the success of An American Tragedy and his growing literary fame as a platform for his political ideas. Sympathetic to the plight of the poor since his own impoverished childhood, he was increasingly attracted to the revolutionary ideas of socialism and, later, communism. After visiting the Soviet Union to study its communist system, he returned to the United States to publish Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928). This book, a sympathetic portrait of the nation’s enemy, along with his increasingly vocal criticism of American business made him unpopular with the U.S. government. Over time, his reputation as a political radical overshadowed his reputation as a writer. Nevertheless, Dreiser professed his revolutionary beliefs for the rest of his life, and even joined the Communist Party before his death in 1945.
Theodore Dreiser was not the most skillful or poetic novelist of his era. He may not even have been the best storyteller. But he was among the most courageous. At a time when American writers were avoiding difficult social issues – infidelity, crime, murder, exploitation – Dreiser based his career on them. As a result, he forced American writers to take a closer, more honest look at the society surrounding them and to write more truthfully in the hope of describing the country more accurately.
More detailed information can be found in the "Extraordinary American Writers" John Tessitore, and issued by The Scholastic Inc. in the USA.Information should be used just for educational purposes.