Authors: Theodore Dreiser
Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser was an American novelist and journalist of the naturalist school. His novels often featured main characters who succeeded at their objectives despite a lack of a firm moral code, and literary situations that more closely resemble studies of nature than tales of choice and agency. Dreiser's best known novels include Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925).
Theodore Dreiser was born August 27, 1871 in Terre Haute, Indiana, to Sarah and John Paul Dreiser, a strict Catholic family. John Paul Dreiser was a German immigrant from Mayen in the Eifel region, and Sarah was from the Mennonite farming community near Dayton, Ohio; she was disowned for marrying John and converting to Roman Catholicism.
Theodore was the twelfth of thirteen children (the ninth of the ten surviving). The popular songwriter Paul Dresser (1857–1906) was his older brother. Theodore's father had attempted to establish his own woolen mill, but after it was destroyed in a fire, the family lived in poverty.
Theodore Dreiser's schooling was erratic, as the family moved from town to town. He left home when he was 16 and worked at whatever jobs he could find. With the help of his former teacher, he was able to spend the year 1889-1890 at Indiana University. Dreiser left after only a year. Theodore Dreiser was, however, a voracious reader, and the impact of such writers as Hawthorne, Poe, Balzac, Herbert Spencer, and Freud influenced his thought and his reaction against organized religion.
After leaving the University, Theodore Dreiser landed a job as a reporter in Chicago. In June 1892, two months before his twenty-first birthday, he wrote his first news story for the Chicago Globe. As a journalist, Dreiser never came close to realizing his dream of having his own by-line, a column the public would read because his name appeared above it. But he showed enough talent to get decent assignments, as drama critic, special feature writer, investigative reporter, for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the St. Louis Republic, and the Pittsburgh Dispatch.
Dreiser found material for his later fiction in his observations as a big-city reporter in the 1890s. He was adept at writing special feature stories, in which he was able to experiment with local color settings, dialogue, and character sketches. Theodore Dreiser was known even then as, in the words of one editor who knew him, "a writing machine."
Naturally, he was encouraged by his fellow newspapermen to write fiction. He wrote poetry; he worked on a script for a comic opera called "Jeremiah I," of which only a fragment survives; and he began to experiment with short stories.
After a brief stint on the World, Dreiser went to work in the office of Howley, Haviland & Co., a music production firm that published the popular songs of his brother, Paul Dresser, remembered today mainly as the author of the Indiana state song, "On the Banks of the Wabash." Dreiser became the editor of the company's publication, Ev'ry Month, which billed itself as "The Woman's Magazine of Literature and Popular Music." As editor, he wrote reviews, editorials, and a "Reflections" column. In all these forms he expressed for the first time his ideas about books, social problems, art, and philosophy.
The initial failure of Theodore Dreiser's first novel, Sister Carrie (1900), the story of a kept woman whose behavior goes unpunished, plunged him into depression, but he recovered and achieved financial success as editor in chief of several women's magazines until he was forced to resign in 1910 because of his involvement with an assistant's daughter.
In 1911 his second novel, Jennie Gerhardt, was published. It was followed in 1912 by The Financier, and in 1914 by The Titan, two volumes in a projected trilogy based on the life of the transportation magnate Charles T. Yerkes. The 'Genius' (1915), a sprawling semiautobiographical chronicle of Dreiser's numerous love affairs, was censured by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Its sequel, The Bulwark, appeared posthumously in 1946.