Theodore Dreiser was born August 27, 1871 in Terre Haute, Indiana. The younger brother of Paul Dresser, a well-known songwriter, Theodore was a famous novelist known for his outstanding American writing of naturalism. He was also a leading figure in a national literary movement that replaced the observance of Victorian notions of propriety with the unflinching presentation of real-life subject matter. Even though a majority of his works were about his life experiences, he also wrote about new social problems that had risen in American at the time as well as things sexual in nature.
Dreiser was born the ninth of ten surviving children in a family that was stricken with life-long poverty. His father was a German immigrant that was mostly an unemployed mill worker with a strict attitude because of his narrow Roman Catholic belief. His mother had a Czech Mennonite background and she was a fair lady that was always compassionate to her son. Because of the family’s severe degree of poverty, they moved frequently between small Indiana towns and Chicago in search of a better cost of living.
Dreiser did not have much of an education in his lifetime. He attended parochial and public schools including a year at Indiana University in 1889-1890 throughout his academic years. He began his career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago in 1892 before working his way to the East Coast. While living on the East Coast in 1894, Dreiser found a job working for a Pittsburgh newspaper. In the same year, he move to New York City and started working for several newspapers and magazines. Dreiser would soon meet a woman named Sara White and they would get married in 1898. The marriage did not last that long due to his roving affections and resulting infidelities causing their divorce in 1912.
Dreiser began writing his first novel, Sister Carrie, in 1899 at the suggestion of a newspaper colleague. Doubleday, Page and Company published the novel the following year, thanks in part to the great enthusiasm of the firm’s novelist, Frank Norris. The story line of the novel was about a young kept woman whose “immortality” goes unpunished. The publisher was not fond of the story line and decided to limit the book’s advertising. Because of the limited advertising, the book sold only 465 copies and Dreiser made less than $100 dollars on the deal. In 1890, the disappointment of this book and an accumulation of family and marital troubles sent him into a deep stage of depression. His brother Paul came to the rescue and arranged for Theodore’s treatment in a sanitarium. By 1891, Dreiser had recovered from depression and found work as a editor in chief of several magazines. He was attaining notable financial success in his job for nine years until he was forced to resign in 1910 because of a his romantic fascination with an assistant’s daughter. After gaining some hope and confidence in his writing, Dreiser returned to writing fiction. In 1911, he wrote a novel titled Jennie Gerhardt which was a story of a woman who submits sexually to rich and powerful men to help her poverty stricken family. The success of this book gave him some much needed encouragement and continued on writing more novels. He then wrote The Financier in 1912 and The Titan in 1914. These books were the first two novels of a trilogy dealing with the career of the late 19th century American financier and tycoon Charles T. Yerkes. Dreiser then wrote in 1913 about his experiences in Europe in a book titled A Traveler at Forty. In his next major novel, The Genius was written in 1915 and it dealt with transforming his own life and his numerous love affairs into a sprawling semi-autobiographical chronicle. From 1915 to ten years down the road, Dreiser wrote a great amount of literary works. He wrote such books as A Hoosier Holiday in 1916 and A Book About Myself in 1922 as well as some plays, essays, and short-story collections. In 1925, Dreiser wrote his first novel in more than a decade. The book was titled An American Tragedy and it was based on a celebrated murder case. The book was an instant success and it brought him a lot of fame and fortune in the world. The book’s highly critical view of the American legal system also made him the adopted champion of social reforms. Dreiser became involved in a variety of causes and promotions that he slackened in his literary production. A visit to the Soviet Union in 1927 resulted in a book titled Dreiser Looks at Russia, which was about him being a skeptical critique of the communist society. His only other significant publications in the late 1920’s were a collection of stories and sketches that were not to successful. The Great Depression of the 1930’s ended Dreiser’s prosperity and intensified his commitment to social causes. He came to reconsider his opposition to communism and wrote the anticapitalist Tragic America in 1931. His only important literary achievement in this decade was in 1931 when he wrote an autobiography of his childhood and teen years in a book titled Dawn. In 1938, Dreiser moved from New York to Los Angeles with Helen Richardson, who was his mistress since 1920. The main objective of his was to market the film rights of his earlier works. In 1942, he began to rewrite The Bulwark, which was a novel he began back in 1912. In that same year of 1942, his ex-wife, Sara White Dreiser, died of natural causes. The task of him rewriting the novel was completed in 1944 and that same year he married his mistress Helen. He joined the American Communist Party during his last years in life in order to fulfill his political heritage. The Stoic was the last book written by Dreiser and it was the last volume of his Yerkes trilogy. Helen helped him write this book, just weeks before his death. The Bulwark and The Stoic were published in 1946 and 1947, ending the great career of Theodore Dreiser. He died December 28, 1945 in Hollywood, California.
A majority of Dreiser’s books were about his own harsh experience of poverty as a youth and his early yearnings for wealth and success. The misadventures of his bothers and sisters in early adult life also gave him additional material on which to base his characters. In his later life, Dreiser would bitterly associate religion with his father being unaffectionate and the family’s endless poverty level. He always spoke and wrote of his mother being affectionate and caring at all times.
Theodore Dreiser was born in Terre Haute and lived in Indiana until the age of eighteen. He was born into a family that was stricken with poverty and he had little hope of making it big in the real world. Dreiser did not have much of an education nor any experience in writing. Through hard work and dedication, he ended getting a job in Chicago for a newspaper and then moving to New York a few years later. In New York, Dreiser also got many jobs for magazines and newspapers. While living in the city, he wrote a majority of his famous works. Dreiser’s most famous works were Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. In 1938, he moved to Los Angeles with his mistress, Helen Richardson. Dreiser continued on writing literary works until his death in 1945. Theodore Dreiser was a well-known novelist and a great man as well as a historic member of the Terre Haute area.
Gerber, Phillip. Theodore Dreiser, Chicago, Woodford Publishing., 1986, pp. 34-75
Warren, Robert Penn. Homage to Theodore Dreiser: His World and His Novels, New
York, Coleman Publishing., 1975, pp. 82-140
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