Despite a famously ponderous prose style, novelist Theodore Dreiser, born August 27, 1871 in Terre Haute, Indiana, remains one of our most impressive American novelists. The distinguished American critic Irving Howe wrote that Dreiser is “among the American giants, one of the very few American giants we have had.” Although best known for his novels Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925), Dreiser also created a large body of work that includes other novels, short fiction, essays, and travel books, one of which—A Hoosier Holiday (1916)—is an amusing account of a trip Dreiser made back to Indiana from New York in 1916 in the early days of long-distance auto travel. It’s one of the first “road books.”
Dreiser grew up in poverty in Indiana. His father was a German Catholic immigrant, his mother an Ohio woman of Mennonite background. Dreiser was one of the youngest in a large family. He had five sisters and four brothers. His older brother Paul later changed his last name, and as “Paul Dresser” became a successful and wealthy composer. Paul Dreiser is best known for composing the famous song “On The Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” which reflects nostalgia for rural ways and scenes during a time when the U.S. was rapidly developing as an industrial nation.
Dreiser attended Catholic and later public schools. A sympathetic schoolteacher paid for a year at Indiana University—Dreiser’s only experience with higher education. Dreiser then became a reporter, working for newspapers in Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, and New York, learning firsthand details of urban life, and witnessing just how cruel and unrelenting the new industrial America could be to society’s most vulnerable people.
Sister Carrie, the story of a woman who wins success on her own terms—as an actress and chorus girl who enjoys relationships with a number of men– was Dreiser’s first novel. Fellow novelist Frank Norris, an editor for Doubleday, liked the work. Dreiser signed a contract for publication while the company’s president, Frank Doubleday, was out of town. Doubleday was furious when he read the book and tried to cancel the deal with Dreiser. But Dreiser stuck to his guns, and the publisher relented. He published the book, but did nothing to get it distributed, reviewed, or advertised. Frank Norris sent out copies for review. Most reviews were hostile.
Dreiser returned to fiction first with Jennie Gerhardt in 1911, another novel about a young woman trying to make her way in society. He next completed The Financier (1912) the story of a business tycoon’s rise. The character Frank Cowperwood was based on Charles T. Yerkes, a railroad financier, and Dreiser continued his story in The Titan (1914). Dreiser followed The Titan with The “Genius” (1915), the story of a midwestern artist. The Financier and The Titan were the first two novels in a trilogy on Cowperwood known as the Trilogy of Desire. Theodore Dreiser completed the last volume of the trilogy—The Stoic—just days before his death in 1945.
Dreiser turned his hand to other sorts of writing for a number of years after completing The “Genius” before returning to fiction with An American Tragedy. This is one of Dreiser’s best-known and enduring works, the story of a poor boy desperate to rise in the world who murders his pregnant girlfriend. The novel is based on the true story of Chester Gillette, who murdered his lover Grace Brown in upstate New York while out boating in 1906. Gillette was later executed in the electric chair. An American Tragedy was adapted for the screen as A Place In The Sun with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.
Dreiser turned to writing non-fiction in the years after An American Tragedy. He completed collections of essays and biographical portraits, as well as travel works. He visited the Soviet Union and wrote about that in Dreiser Looks At Russia (1928). Tragic America (1931) is a collection of writing about America in the throes of the Depression.
Dreiser’s only other novels after An American Tragedy were published posthumously. The Bulwark (1946) is a study of a man and his search for spiritual values. The Stoic, as noted earlier, appeared in 1947.
Dreiser had to deal with the forces of censorship during the early years of his career. Squeamish critics and readers objected to both Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, but the climate had relaxed by the time he published An American Tragedy. And while there are many dimensions to his work, one of his key themes was the rise of a ruthless and impersonal urban and industrial society that exerts an often crushing force on individuals.
Theodore Dreiser died at the age of 74 in Hollywood, California on December 28, 1945.
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