Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser (August 17, 1871 – December 28, 1945) was an American journalist and novelist, who was one of the leading literary figures to employ naturalism in his writings. His intense and real-life portrayals of characters whose lives were considered amoral pitted him against the forces of censorship. His characters were often guilty of sexual improprieties like infidelity and prostitution, but the American public felt his portrayals were far too sympathetic. Public discussion of sexual matters were taboo in his day, especially those of an immoral nature.
The censorship lasted well past his death, as Dreiser did not live to see many of his novels published in their original form. Sister Carrie (1900) was not published in its entirety until 1981. It was the story of a young girl who had two illicit sexual relationships. His An American Tragedy, published in 1925, would later come to be considered a landmark work in American fiction, even though it was banned in Boston, in 1927. The novel dealt with the apparent opposites of religious fundamentalism and the extreme individualism and money-worship that is presented as the "American Dream." He employed a variety of religious viewpoints in his works, which dealt with the conflict between religious and materialistic points of view, including Evangelical Protestantism, Quakerism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
While his writings often focused on the commonplace and sordid in human existence they also challenged contemporary perspectives on the ideal American family. His works explore the conflict between a foreign-born father who fails to understand American ways and the second generation's rebellion against Old World religious and moral values. He also explored the role played by heredity and environment in shaping a character's fate. These motifs were all prominent in An American Tragedy, Jennie Gerhardt (1911), and in The Bulwark (1946).
Theodore Dreiser was the ninth child born to John Paul Dreiser and Säräh Schanab in 1871. His father had emigrated from Mayen, Germany, in 1844, worked briefly in New England wool mills, and then moved to the Midwest, where large numbers of Germans had settled. He went first to Dayton, Ohio, where he met Sarah, the 17 year old daughter of a Mennonite family. Since he was a Roman Catholic and 12 years her senior, her anti-papist family threatened to disown her. They eloped and she converted to Catholicism. She never had contact with her family again.
The couple raised their children to follow the Catholic faith. John was successful enough to own his own woolen mill but their fortunes changed dramatically in 1869, when it burned down and he suffered a serious injury. The family became nomadic as Dreiser's father looked for work during the national economic depression of the early 1870s. The constant moving made Theodore's education erratic at best. He would begin a school and three months later be pulled out, only to repeat the process in the next town he moved to. The brief education he did have came in Catholic parochial schools. The strictness he encountered there bred in him a severe abhorrence to the religion. As a result, Dreiser's real education came from self study of books.
At the age of 16, Dreiser left home and worked at odd jobs until he came across a former teacher, Mildred Fielding, in Chicago. She paid for him to attend one year at Indiana University in Bloomington (1889-90).
After his brief stint in college, he made his first step to a literary career with a job at the Chicago Globe newspaper in 1892. He soon left the globe for a more lucrative position at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, where he gained a reputation for being "a writing machine," as one of his editors referred to him. He excelled at writing local feature pieces where he vividly captured the flavor of communities and their local characters. As his reputation grew, Dreiser was asked to contribute fiction as well, and he often wrote poetry and even a script for a comedic opera. He continued to educate himself by reading widely in fiction, science, natural history, and philosophy.
While working for O. S. Marden's Success, he interviewed celebrities like Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Marshall Field, William Dean Howells, and Philip Armour. For other magazines, he wrote articles on a variety of subjects that included America's fruit growing industry, the meatpacking business in Chicago, modern art, and the photography of Alfred Stieglitz.
During this time, Dreiser's experiments with poetry and fiction led him to write a short story about a lynching he had witnessed. "Nigger Jeff" was published in a small monthly journal called Ainslee.
In 1893, Dreiser was sent by the Globe to cover the Columbia Exposition, and while there he became acquainted with a local school teacher, Sara White. In 1898, they were married and Sara encouraged him to write his first novel, Sister Carrie (1900). The novel is based partly on the scandalous behavior of his sister, Emma, who had an affair with a married man who embezzled funds from his employer. It tells the story of a young country girl who moves to the urban city of Chicago, and falls into a life of degradation.
She was eighteen years of age, bright, timid and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth. Whatever touch of regret at parting characterized her thoughts it was certainly not for advantages now being given up. A gush of tears at her mother's farewell kiss, a touch in the throat when the cars clacked by the flour mill where her father worked by the day, a pathetic sigh as the familiar green environs of the village passed in review, and the threads which bound her so lightly to girlhood and home were irretrievably broken (Sister Carrie, 1981 version).
Even though the book was a critical success, it was a commercial failure because the publishers cowed in the face of social pressures against the immoral character of the heroine in the book. Dreiser went into a decline after the problems encountered in publishing his first novel. His marriage to Sara began to come apart and it was not until 1904, that he again took up literary work. To make ends meet he edited a magazine in New York and then a decade later, in 1910, he wrote his second novel, Jennie Gerhardt (1911).
Jennie Gerhardt was the story of a young woman (again based on the life of one of his sisters, Mame) who was seduced by the town Senator. She becomes pregnant, has a child, and lives a life of poverty while never telling anyone who the father was in order to protect the Senator's career. With its publication, he began a decade and a half of literary productivity which included fourteen books of fiction, plays, autobiography, travel writing, sketches, and philosophical essays.
In 1912, he published The Financier. In this work, he shifts his earlier attention on female protagonists to a male protagonist, Frank Cowperwood. Dreiser decided that he needed a trilogy to explore this figure, and it came to be called "The Trilogy of Desire." The second book was The Titan (1914), but Dreiser had difficulty completing the third book and was still working on the final chapter of The Stoic when he died in 1945.
In 1947, thirty-three years after The Titan, the final volume was published. The novel's emphasis from the material to the spiritual is generally viewed as evidence of Dreiser's decline while at the same time the trilogy is considered to be among the finest American historical novels. The Stoic reflected his late interest in Hinduism, which, like his earlier attraction to Quakerism, centered on the mystical element in its system of belief. The book was published with an appendix by Helen Dreiser that outlined the novelist's plans for the ending.
Censorship was an issue Dreiser faced throughout his writing career. After his experience with Sister Carrie, censorship became an issue again when Dreiser's publisher, Harper and Brothers, decided that The Titan would be too risky to publish because of the heroes' promiscuous sexuality.
Soon afterwards, with the publication of Genius (1915), an autobiographical novel, The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice pushed for it to be removed from bookshelves, precipitating a court battle that lasted for years. The book was finally reissued in 1923.
His first taste of commercial success came with the publication of An American Tragedy (1925), but it also caused cries for censorship and it was banned from Boston bookshelves in 1927. And in 1935, the library trustees of Warsaw, Indiana, ordered that all the library's works by Dreiser should be burned. One publishing company even cut the original text of A Traveler at Forty, omitting over forty chapters and diluting many of the sequences that did appear in print. Dreiser's distrust of publishers, born of his continual mistreatment, resulted in continual contractual disputes.
He even faced a form of censorship from Hollywood with William Wyler's film version of Sister Carrie, starring Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones, when its release was delayed because studio executives decided the picture was not good for America. It ended up being a flop.
Dreiser separated permanently from Sara White in 1909, but never earnestly sought a divorce. In his own life, Dreiser proved that he was just as controlled by his sexual appetite as were his characters. He carried on several affairs at once.
In 1919, he met Helen Patges Richardson, whose grandmother was a sister of Dreiser's mother. She was a young and beautiful actress. They had a twenty-five year relationship that survived periods of separation, estrangement, and his affairs.
Dreiser and Richardson left New York in 1938, and permanently settled in California. In 1942, Dreiser's wife, Sara died, and Dreiser married Richardson in 1944.
Early in his career, Dreiser had a host of distinguished supporters of his work, such as Sherwood Anderson, H. L. Mencken, and Randolph Bourne. Dreiser had a unique style characterized by his excessively long sentences that depict his scrutinizing attention to detail. But his contemporaries overlooked his style because his rich realism and naturalism were so powerful. His stunning character development and his portrayal of rural and urban American life had an enormous influence on generations to follow. In his tribute "Dreiser" from Horses and Men (1923), Sherwood Anderson wrote:
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… The 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.
Dreiser was a man of eclectic interests that included scientific research and development; he collected a great many books and much information on the latest scientific concerns. He also had a special fondness for philosophy, a subject that he explored in great detail and about which he collected and wrote extensively. His tastes ranged from Herbert Spencer to Jacques Loeb and from Freudianism to Marxism. His writings indicate that Dreiser drew heavily on scientists and philosophers to confirm his own scientific and philosophical views of the nature of man and life.
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). For this reason, the Federal Bureau of Investigation(FBI) kept his actions under surveillance. Dreiser joined the American Communist Party just before his death in 1945.
As a champion of public causes in the last two decades of his life, he had always prided himself on being what he called "radically American," which for him had included his freedom to defend the rights of speech of socialists, anarchists, and other radical groups who had criticized American capitalism. Dreiser joined many American intellectuals whose idealization of the Soviet Union was stimulated by the economic breakdown and social malaise of the Depression years.
In 1944, he traveled to New York to receive the Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Dreiser died of heart failure at his home in Hollywood, California, on December 28, 1945. He was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood.
His novel, An American Tragedy, was adapted for screen for the second time in 1951, under the title A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. The director, George Stevens, won an Academy Award, as did the writers Michael Wilson and Harry Brown for Best Screenplay.
He had an enormous influence on American literature during the first quarter of the century—and for a time he was American literature, the only writer worth talking about in the same breath with the European masters. Out of his passions, contradictions, and sufferings, he wrenched the art that was his salvation from the hungers and depressions that racked him. It was no wonder that he elevated the creative principle to a godhead and encouraged by word and example truthful expression in others (Richard Linegman, Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey 1908-1945).
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