Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser

[drahy-ser, -zer]
Dreiser, Theodore, 1871-1945, American novelist, b. Terre Haute, Ind. A pioneer of naturalism in American literature, Dreiser wrote novels reflecting his mechanistic view of life, a concept that held humanity as the victim of such ungovernable forces as economics, biology, society, and even chance. In his works, conventional morality is unimportant, consciously virtuous behavior having little to do with material success and happiness. While his style and language tended to be clumsy and plodding, he played an important role in introducing a new realism and sexual candor into American fiction. Dreiser was born into a large and poor family. His education was irregular, but, with help from a sympathetic high school teacher, he spent the year 1889-90 at the Univ. of Indiana. After working as a journalist on several midwestern newspapers, in 1894 he went to New York City, where he began a career in publishing, eventually rising to the presidency of Butterick Publications.

His first novel, Sister Carrie (1900), the story of a country girl's rise to material success first as the mistress of a wealthy man and then as an actress, horrified its publisher, who gave it only limited circulation. Dreiser distributed it himself, but it was consistently attacked as immoral; it was reissued in 1982 with many passages from his revised typescript restored. Jennie Gerhardt (1911), again about a "fallen woman," met with a better response; its success allowed Dreiser to work as a writer full time. With these two works, Dreiser started his long battle for the right of the novelist to portray life as he sees it.

In The Financier (1912), he turned his attention more specifically to American social and economic institutions. This novel, the first of a trilogy that includes The Titan (1914) and The Stoic (1947), describes the rise to power of a ruthless industrialist. In both The Genius (1915) and in The Bulwark (1946), Dreiser explores the failings of an American artist. An American Tragedy (1925), often considered his greatest work, tells of a poor young man's futile effort to achieve social and financial success; the attempt ends in his execution for murder. In his later life Dreiser became interested in socialism, visiting the Soviet Union as a guest of the government and writing his perceptions: Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928) and Tragic America (1931). Among his other works are such collections of short stories as Free (1918), Chains (1927), and A Gallery of Women (1929).

See his memoirs, A Traveler at Forty (1913), A Book About Myself (1922; republished as Newspaper Days, 1931), and Dawn (1931); his letters, ed. by R. Elias (3 vol., 1959); biographies by W. A. Swanberg (1965) and R. Lingeman (2 vol., 1986-90); studies by E. Moers (1969), F. O. Matthiessen (1951, repr. 1973), J. Lundquist (1974), and L. E. Hussman (1983).

Theodore Dreiser.

(born Aug. 27, 1871, Terre Haute, Ind., U.S.—died Dec. 28, 1945, Hollywood, Calif.) U.S. novelist. Born to poor German immigrant parents, Dreiser left home at age 15 for Chicago. He worked as a journalist, and in 1894 he moved to New York, where he had a successful career as a magazine editor and publisher. His first novel, Sister Carrie (1900), about a young kept woman who goes unpunished for her transgressions, was denounced as scandalous. His subsequent novels would confirm his reputation as the outstanding American practitioner of naturalism. After the success of Jennie Gerhardt (1911), he began writing full-time, producing a trilogy consisting of The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The Stoic (published 1947), which was followed by The Genius (1915) and its sequel, The Bulwark (published 1946). An American Tragedy (1925), based on a murder trial and itself the basis for the 1931 film by that name and for a 1951 film enh1d A Place in the Sun, made him a hero among social reformers.

Learn more about Dreiser, Theodore (Herman Albert) with a free trial on Britannica.com.

Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser (August 27 1871December 28 1945) was an American novelist and journalist. He pioneered the naturalist school and is known for portraying characters whose value lies not in their moral code, but in their persistence against all obstacles, and literary situations that more closely resemble studies of nature than tales of choice and agency.

Life and career

Early life

Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, to Sarah and John Paul Dreiser, a strict Baptist. John Paul Dreiser was a German immigrant 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 (1859–1906) was his older brother.

From 1889 – 1890, Theodore attended Indiana University before flunking out. Within several years, he was writing for the Chicago Globe newspaper and then the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. After proposing in 1893, he married Sara White on December 28 1898. They ultimately separated in 1909, but were never formally divorced.

Literary career

His first novel, Sister Carrie (1900), tells the story of a woman who flees her country life for the city (Chicago) and falls into a wayward life. The publisher did little to promote the book, and it sold poorly, however it was made into an 1952 film by William Wyler and starred Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones.

His second novel, Jennie Gerhardt, was published the following year. Many of Dreiser's subsequent novels dealt with social inequality. His first commercial success was An American Tragedy (1925), which was made into a film in 1931 and again in 1951. In 1892, when Dreiser began work as a newspaperman he "began to observe a certain type of crime in the United States that proved very common. It seemed to spring from the fact that almost every young person was possessed of an ingrown ambition to be somebody financially and socially." "Fortune hunting became a disease" with the frequent result of a peculiarly American kind of crime "many forms of murder for money...the young ambitious lover of some poorer girl...(for) a more attractive girl with money or position...it was not always possible to drop the first girl. What usually stood in the way was pregnancy." Dreiser claimed to have collected such stories every year between 1895 and 1935. The murder in 1911 of Avis Linnell by Clarence Richeson particularly caught his attention. By 1919 this murder was the basis of one of two separate novels begun by Dreiser. The 1906 murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette eventually became the basis for An American Tragedy.

Though primarily known as a novelist, Dreiser published his first collection of short stories, Free and Other Stories in 1918. The collection contained 9 stories.

Other works include The "Genius" and Trilogy of Desire (a three-parter based on the remarkable life of the Chicago streetcar tycoon Charles Tyson Yerkes and composed of The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The Stoic). The latter was published posthumously in 1947.

Political commitment

Politically, Dreiser was involved in several campaigns against social injustice. This included the lynching of Frank Little, one of the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Sacco and Vanzetti case, the deportation of Emma Goldman, and the conviction of the trade union leader Tom Mooney.

Dreiser, a committed socialist, wrote several non-fiction books on political issues. These included Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928), the result of his 1927 trip to the Soviet Union, Tragic America (1931) and America Is Worth Saving (1941). His vision of capitalism and a future world order with a strong American military dictate combined with the harsh criticism of the latter made him unpopular within the official circles. He died December 28, 1945 in Hollywood, aged 74.

Heritage

Dreiser had an enormous influence on the generation that followed his. In his tribute "Dreiser" from Horses and Men (1923), Sherwood Anderson writes:
Heavy, heavy, the feet of Theodore. How easy to pick some of his books to pieces, to laugh at him for so much of his heavy prose ... [T]he fellows of the ink-pots, the prose writers in America who follow Dreiser, will have much to do that he has never done. Their road is long but, because of him, those who follow will never have to face the road through the wilderness of Puritan denial, the road that Dreiser faced alone.

F. R. Leavis remarked that Dreiser wrote as if he did not have a native language.

Renowned mid-century literary critic Irving Howe spoke of Dreiser as "among the American giants, one of the very few American giants we have had.

Selected bibliography

Fiction

Nonfiction

  • A Traveler at Forty (1913)
  • A Hoosier Holiday (1916)
  • Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub (1920)
  • A Book About Myself (1922); republished (unexpurgated) as Newspaper Days (1931)
  • The Color of a Great City (1923)
  • Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928)
  • My City (1929)
  • Tragic America (1931)
  • Dawn (1931)
  • America Is Worth Saving (1941)

Published as

  • Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, Twelve Men (Richard Lehan, ed.) (Library of America, 1987) ISBN 978-0-94045041-7.
  • An American Tragedy (Thomas P. Riggio, ed.) (Library of America, 2003) ISBN 978-1-93108231-0.

References

  • Cassuto, Leonard and Clare Virginia Eby, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Theodore Dreiser. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Loving, Jerome. The Last Titan: A Life of Theodore Dreiser. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

External links

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