Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) is an American author best known for his book Sister Carrie (1900). Dreiser spent a decade working as a journalist, covering stories about urban life in America before becoming an author. This formative experience influenced his writing style as he told stories about the harsh conditions in the big city. Dreiser is considered a key figure in American Naturalism.
Theodore Dreiser: Biography
Here is a biography to look at the life and times of Theodore Dreiser.
Early Life and Education
Theodore Dreiser was born on August 27, 1871, in Indiana. His father was a German immigrant who built his fortune in America. Shortly before Dreiser was born, the family lost their wealth and became destitute. Dreiser was raised in harsh poverty and a strict Catholic household. In 1879, the family split up, and Theodore went to live with his mother. Dreiser thrived in the small Midwestern town and watched trains pass through on their way to the big city.
How did Dreiser's upbringing in extreme poverty influence his moral outlook?
In school, Dreiser began to devour classic literature and was encouraged by a teacher to pursue his talent despite his low opinions of his literary skills. At sixteen, Dreiser moved to Chicago and found work in a hardware store. In the city, he began to notice the disparity between the rich and the poor and became disgusted by the gulf of wealth which dominated so much of urban life.
Fig. 1 - Dreiser learned about the class divide and America's economic disparity in Chicago.
In 1889, Dreiser enrolled at Indiana University and continued to explore classic literature. However, he was dismayed again by the power of influence and wealth many of his peers enjoyed. Dreiser reasoned that he would learn more about people by experiencing the real world. He worked many menial jobs before gaining an early position at The Daily Globe.
Dreiser spent the next decade working as a journalist, learning to write and gaining experience in the real world. He earned a reputation as a committed and prolific writer, talented at capturing the local character in his stories. During his time as a journalist, he made early attempts at fiction writing with his first short story, "The Return of the Genius," (1892) running in The Chicago Tribune. Dreiser's talent as a journalist earned him a position as editor for several magazines allowing him to enjoy financial stability and independence for the first time.
At the invite of his brother Paul, Dreiser moved to New York, where he found work as a journalist and continued to chronicle the harsh reality of life in urban America. He also contributed pieces to Success magazine, including interviews with celebrities like Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie. In 1898, Dreiser married schoolteacher Sara White and, with the encouragement of a friend, started to work on his first novel.
Theodore Dreiser's older brother was known as Paul Dresser. Paul wrote the famous song "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away," (1897) which became the best-selling sheet music of the 19th century.
With Sister Carrie (1900), Dreiser drew upon his personal experiences and the journalistic stories of life in the big city to tell the story of a young woman who moves from rural Wisconsin to Chicago. When Carrie's dreams of metropolitan life are dashed by grinding poverty, she becomes determined to climb the social ladder. The novel was controversial due to its moral ambiguity and depictions of sex outside marriage. Publishers and critics were unwelcoming to Dreiser's debut work, which in conjunction with the disintegration of his marriage, led to a mental breakdown. His brother paid for psychiatric help and secured Dreiser, a lucrative job as a magazine editor.
Fig. 2 - Dreiser's writing style was deeply influenced by his time as a journalist.
Through the next decade, several critics started reevaluating Sister Carrie. The novel began to find a new audience who appreciated Dreiser's complex and realistic depiction of life in urban America. His second novel, Jennie Gerhardt (1911), received a warm welcome and encouraged the writer to continue working. With stories like The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914), Dreiser began to gain recognition as an important figure in the American naturalist movement.
In the late 19th century, Realist literature challenged the romantic forms of writing by presenting a more nuanced and complex view of people. This movement towards a more representative form of literature reflected America and Europe's increased urbanization and industrialization. The characters in Realist works were independent and autonomous figures who faced real-life situations and had control over their actions and behaviors.
Naturalism took the symbolic aspects of realism but stressed the importance of environment and instinct in people's actions. Theodore Dreiser was one of the leading figures in the American Naturalist movement. Inspired by the French writer Émile Zola (1840-1902) and biologist Charles Darwin's (1809-1882) groundbreaking theory of evolution, Naturalist writers sought to present characters driven by natural urges and instincts.
Fig. 3 - Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) greatly influenced the emerging American Naturalist movement.
While the Victorian morals of his day preferred art that depicted individuals as simply choosing between good and evil, Dreiser and the other Naturalists saw human nature as an overwhelming force that overrode choice. His characters are powerless in the face of instinct and desire. This depiction of more animalistic characters shocked many readers. Dreiser's years as a journalist exposed him to the reality of human nature. He saw that the polite social manners of his time contradicted people's real actions and desires.
How was Dreiser's writing style influenced by his time as a journalist?
Later Life and Political Beliefs
Dreiser's later works took on a distinctly political and social outlook. With An American Tragedy (1925), he used the real-life case of Chester Gillette-Grace Brown as the basis for a warning tale about the emptiness of materialism. The novel's protagonist, Clyde Griffth, becomes so obsessed with gaining wealth and status that he murders his pregnant girlfriend to be free from responsibility. The book highlights the shortcomings of modern life in America, which led to the story's tragic ending. While earlier works explored the inescapable nature of human beings, Dreiser was more concerned with social ills later in his career.
In Dreiser's view, many of society's ills could be traced back to the capitalist system that pitted individuals against each other in the pursuit of money. The author developed a deep belief in socialism and used his works to propose alternatives to the country's capitalistic excesses. Nonfiction works Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928) and Tragic America (1931) explored his socialist leanings. During his final decade, Dreiser produced a series of autobiographical books and works on philosophy art. He died of a heart attack on December 28, 1945 at age 74.
In 1930 Dreiser was a finalist for the Nobel Prize in Literature but lost out to Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951).
Theodore Dreiser: Writing Style
Theodore Dreiser's distinct writing style was greatly influenced by his background and formative years as a journalist. Accustomed to reporting the most important facts, Dreiser's prose also contained a blunt and descriptive style. His writing often has long-winded sentences with specific, factual details and is light on imagery and comparison.
Dreiser's harsh and direct style matched the subject matter of the works. As a journalist and author, he was concerned with exposing the brutal reality of life in major American cities at the turn of the century. He strove for a sense of realism and included straightforward depictions of sexuality which appalled critics of the day.
For many of his critics, Dreiser's style was trademarked by bad syntax and clumsily constructed sentences. To others, the long sentences expressed attention to the minute details of every day that mirrored two of Dreiser's literary heroes; Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) and Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). Like Hardy and Balzac, Dreiser was able to create drama and explore human nature through the most ordinary actions and interactions.
Fig. 4 - Like his hero Balzac, Dreiser found drama in life's everyday moments.
Dreiser's style was also profoundly influenced by his background. Growing up in the Midwest, he was one of the first prominent American writers from a lower social and economic environment. Raised in a Catholic household where English was not the first language, Dreiser stood out from the rest of the American literary scene, which was dominated by writers from the East Coast, upper-class Protestant establishment. Since Dreiser was raised in a radically different setting, he ignored many standard conventions and created his unique style.
Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie
Theodore Dreiser's most famous work is the 1900 novel Sister Carrie. Controversial and pioneering, the novel was not an immediate success upon publication but has since gained recognition as an essential work in American Literature.
Sister Carrie is about a young woman from rural Wisconsin named Carrie Meeber. After moving to Chicago with dreams of becoming rich, Carrie encounters poverty and hopelessness until she meets a suave young salesman named Charles Drouet. Against the moral norms of the day, the unmarried couple moves in together. Carrie is initially happy with her new life's relative comfort and security, but after meeting Drouet's more affluent friend Hurstwood, she yearns for more. As Carrie continues to chase material success and possessions, she is left feeling empty and isolated.
At the turn of the 20th century, America was rapidly modernizing. With the growth of urban areas like New York and Chicago, people were beginning to cast off the stuffy Victorian morals which had dominated the previous century. Sister Carrie challenged the moral code that dictated human experience as a simple choice between good and evil. Dreiser shows how the difficulty of life in the city affects people by building nuanced and flawed characters. While some critics attacked the novel for lacking morals, Dreiser uses Carrie's story to warn about the shallowness of wealth and class.
Theodore Dreiser: Books
Here is a look at some of Theodore Dreiser's books. Dreiser wrote novels, plays, poems, and nonfiction pieces throughout his career.
The Financier (1912)
As the son of a low-level banker, Frank Algernon Cowperwood becomes obsessed with the pursuit of money. After his first successful business deal as a teenager, he begins to work his way up the ladder. He marries an older, affluent widow for her connections and wealth but is later caught embezzling funds from the city Treasurer's Office and scrambles to avoid prison.
In The Financier, Dreiser shows Frank's moral corruption as a warning against the dangers of greed. The character is based on a real-life figure, Charles Yerkes, a tycoon who built his fortune through streetcars and developing mass transit systems. The novel is the first entry in the "Trilogy of Desire" and was followed by The Titan (1914) and The Stoic, published posthumously in 1947.
An American Tragedy (1925)
Clyde Griffth is a young man determined to make something of himself. While working as a bellhop at a fancy hotel to help his impoverished family, Clyde begins to enjoy an extravagant lifestyle. After a late-night joyride results in a child's death, Clyde flees town and ends up in New York, where he meets an innocent girl named Roberta. The two begin an affair, and Roberta becomes pregnant. When two abortion attempts fail, a panicked Clyde murders Roberta and is sentenced to death.
Dreiser used the real-life 1906 Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case as the basis for An American Tragedy. The events of brown's murder forced the rapidly modernizing America to take a look at its moral condition. In the novel, Dreiser examines the societal shortcomings of these tragic events.
Theodore Dreiser: Quotes
Here is a look at essential quotes from Theodore Dreiser's works. He uses unique prose to explore important moral concepts and the human condition.
How true it is that words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes." (Sister Carrie, Book I, Ch. 1)
In Sister Carrie, the narrator often shares his ideas and feelings about human behavior. Many of the novel's characters are driven by their urges and shown to be powerless in the force of their true nature; even words fail to describe their predicament.
A man, a real man, must never be an agent, a tool, or a gambler—acting for himself or for others—he must employ such. A real man—a financier—was never a tool. He used tools. He created. He led." (The Financier, Ch. VI)
In works like The Financer, Dreiser explored the corrupting influence of greed and the capitalist system that values profit over morality. As Cowperwood gains power and wealth his outlook becomes increasingly cold and calculating. Dreiser would continue to question America's moral decline throughout the first half of the 20th century.
Theodore Dreiser - Key takeaways
- Theodore Dreiser is an American author best known for his novel Sister Carrie.
- Dreiser worked as a journalist for a decade and chronicled life in the rapidly urbanizing cities of New York and Chicago.
- His writing style was informed by his time as a journalist with long, detail-focused sentences and stories dealing with life's reality in the big city.
- Dreiser was a crucial figure in American Naturalism.
- His later work dealt with social ills and inequality that blighted American society.
- Fig. 1 - Dearborn Street, Chicago, Ill. by Detroit Publishing Company, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dearborn_Street,_Chicago,_Ill_(NYPL_b12647398-69565).tiff
- Fig. 3 - Origin of Species Title Page by John Murray : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Origin_of_Species_title_page.jpg
- Fig. 4 - Portrait of Balzac by French School, 19th Century: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portrait_of_Honor%C3%A9_de_Balzac,_bust-length,_in_brown.jpg