Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser (/ˈdrsər, -zər/;[1] August 27, 1871 – December 28, 1945) was an American novelist and journalist of the naturalist school. His novels often featured main characters who succeeded at their objectives despite a lack of a firm moral code, and literary situations that more closely resemble studies of nature than tales of choice and agency.[2] Dreiser's best known novels include Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925).

Theodore Dreiser
Theodore Dreiser, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1933
Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser

(1871-08-27)August 27, 1871
DiedDecember 28, 1945(1945-12-28) (aged 74)
Sara Osborne White
(m. 1898; sep 1909)

Helen Patges Richardson
(m. 1944; his death 1945)
RelativesPaul Dresser (brother)

Early life

Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana to John Paul Dreiser and Sarah Maria (née Schanab).[3] John Dreiser was a German immigrant from Mayen in the Eifel region, and Sarah was from the Mennonite farming community near Dayton, Ohio. Her family disowned her for converting to Roman Catholicism in order to marry John Dreiser. Theodore was the twelfth of thirteen children (the ninth of the ten surviving). Paul Dresser (1857–1906) was one of his older brothers; Paul changed the spelling of his name as he became a popular songwriter. They were reared as Catholics.

After graduating from high school in Warsaw, Indiana, Dreiser attended Indiana University in the years 1889–1890 before dropping out.[4] Dreiser was going to return from his first European vacation on the Titanic but was talked out of going by an English publisher who recommended he board a cheaper boat.[5]


Within several years, Dreiser was writing as a journalist for the Chicago Globe newspaper and then the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. He wrote several articles on writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Dean Howells, Israel Zangwill, and John Burroughs, and interviewed public figures such as Andrew Carnegie, Marshall Field, Thomas Edison, and Theodore Thomas.[6] Other interviewees included Lillian Nordica, Emilia E. Barr, Philip Armour and Alfred Stieglitz.[7]

Dreiser later became an atheist.[8]

Literary career

During 1899, the Dreisers stayed with Arthur Henry and his wife Maude Wood Henry at the House of Four Pillars, an 1830s Greek Revival house in Maumee, Ohio.[9] There Dreiser began work on his first novel, Sister Carrie, published in 1900.[10] Unknown to Maude, Henry sold a half-interest in the house to Dreiser to finance a move to New York without her.[11]

In Sister Carrie, Dreiser portrayed a changing society, writing about a young woman who flees rural life for the city (Chicago), fails to find work, falls prey to several men, and ultimately achieves fame as an actress. It sold poorly and was considered controversial because of moral objections to his featuring a country girl who pursues her dreams of fame and fortune through relationships with men. The book has acquired a considerable reputation. It has been called the "greatest of all American urban novels."[12]

In response to witnessing a lynching in 1893, Dreiser wrote the short story "Nigger Jeff" (1901), which was published in Ainslee's Magazine.[13].

His second novel Jennie Gerhardt was published in 1911.[14]:44 His featuring young women as protagonists dramatized the social changes of urbanization, as young people moved from rural villages to cities.

Dreiser's first commercial success was An American Tragedy, published in 1925. From 1892, when Dreiser began work as a newspaperman, he had begun

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, a form of "murder for money", when "the young ambitious lover of some poorer girl" found "a more attractive girl with money or position" but could not get rid of the first girl, usually because of pregnancy.[15]

Dreiser claimed to have collected such stories every year between 1895 and 1935. He based his novel on details and setting of the 1906 murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette in upstate New York, which attracted widespread attention from newspapers.[16] While the novel sold well, it also was criticized for his portrayal of a man without morals who commits a sordid murder.

Though known primarily as a novelist, Dreiser also wrote short stories, publishing his first collection Free and Other Stories in 1918, made up of 11 stories.

His story "My Brother Paul" was a kind of biography of his older brother Paul Dresser, who became a famous songwriter in the 1890s. This story was the basis for the 1942 romantic movie My Gal Sal.

Dreiser also wrote poetry. His poem "The Aspirant" (1929) continues his theme of poverty and ambition: A young man in a shabby furnished room describes his own and the other tenants' dreams, and asks "why? why?" The poem appeared in The Poetry Quartos, collected and printed by Paul Johnston, and published by Random House in 1929.

Other works include Trilogy of Desire, which was based on the life of Charles Tyson Yerkes, who became a Chicago streetcar tycoon. It is composed of The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The Stoic. The last was published posthumously in 1947.

Dreiser often was forced to battle against censorship because his depiction of some aspects of life, such as sexual promiscuity, offended authorities and challenged popular standards of acceptable opinion. In 1930 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature by Swedish author Anders Österling, but was passed over in favor of Sinclair Lewis.[17]

Political commitment

Politically, Dreiser was involved in several campaigns defending radicals whom he believed had been the victims of social injustice. These 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 Thomas Mooney. In November 1931, Dreiser led the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners (NCDPP) to the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky, where they took testimony from coal miners in Pineville and Harlan on the pattern of violence against the miners and their unions by the coal operators known as the Harlan County War.[18]

Dreiser was a committed socialist and wrote several nonfiction books on political issues. These included Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928), the result of his 1927 trip to the Soviet Union, and two books presenting a critical perspective on capitalist America, Tragic America (1931) and America Is Worth Saving (1941).[19] He praised the Soviet Union under Stalin during the Great Terror and the nonaggression pact with Hitler. Dreiser joined the Communist Party USA in August 1945. Although less politically radical friends, such as H.L. Mencken, spoke of Dreiser's relationship with communism as an "unimportant detail in his life,"[14]:398 Dreiser's biographer Jerome Loving notes that his political activities since the early 1930s had "clearly been in concert with ostensible communist aims with regard to the working class."[14]:398

Personal life

After proposing in 1893, he married Sara Osborne White on December 28, 1898. They ultimately separated in 1909, partly as a result of Dreiser's infatuation with Thelma Cudlipp, the teenage daughter of a colleague, but were never formally divorced.[20] In 1913, he began a romantic relationship with the actress and painter Kyra Markham (who was much younger than he).[21][22]

In 1919, Dreiser met his cousin Helen Patges Richardson (1894-1955) with whom he began an affair.[23] Through the following decades, she remained the constant woman in his life, as other more temporary love affairs (such as his 1930s affair with his secretary Clara Jaeger) bloomed and perished.[24] Helen tolerated Dreiser's affairs, and they eventually married on June 13, 1944.[23]

Dreiser died on December 28, 1945, in Hollywood, California at the age of 74.[14]:399



Dreiser had an enormous influence on the generation that followed his. In his tribute "Dreiser" from Horses and Men (1923), Sherwood Anderson writes (almost repeated 1916 article[25]):

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.[26]

Alfred Kazin characterized Dreiser as "stronger than all the others of his time, and at the same time more poignant; greater than the world he has described, but as significant as the people in it,"[27] while Larzer Ziff (UC Berkeley) remarked that Dreiser "succeeded beyond any of his predecessors or successors in producing a great American business novel."[28]

Renowned mid-century literary critic Irving Howe spoke of Dreiser as ranking "among the American giants, the very few American giants we have had."[29] A British view of Dreiser came from the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis: "Theodore Dreiser's books are enough to stop me in my tracks, never mind his letters—that slovenly turgid style describing endless business deals, with a seduction every hundred pages as light relief. If he's the great American novelist, give me the Marx Brothers every time."[30] The literary scholar F.R. Leavis wrote that Dreiser "seems as though he learned English from a newspaper. He gives the feeling that he doesn't have any native language".[31]

One of Dreiser's strongest champions during his lifetime, H.L. Mencken,[32] declared "that he is a great artist, and that no other American of his generation left so wide and handsome a mark upon the national letters. American writing, before and after his time, differed almost as much as biology before and after Darwin. He was a man of large originality, of profound feeling, and of unshakable courage. All of us who write are better off because he lived, worked, and hoped."[33]

Dreiser's great theme was the tremendous tensions that can arise among ambition, desire, and social mores.[34]


Dreiser Hall, erected 1950 on the Indiana State University campus in Terre Haute, Indiana, houses the University's Communications Programs, Student Media (WISU), Sycamore Video and "The Sycamore" (annual yearbook), classroom and lecture space as well as a 255-seat proscenium theater. It was named for Dreiser in 1966.

Dreiser College, at Stony Brook University located in Stony Brook, New York, is also named after him.

In 2011, Dreiser was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.[35]




  • Plays of the Natural and Supernatural (1916)
  • The Hand of the Potter (1918), first produced 1921


  • Moods: Cadenced and Declaimed (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926), 127 poems in a strictly limited edition of 550 numbered copies signed by the author, of which 535 were for sale; revised and enlarged as Moods: Philosophical and Emotional (Cadenced and Declaimed) (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1935)


  • A Traveler at Forty (1913)
  • A Hoosier Holiday (1916)
  • Twelve Men (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1919)
  • Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub: A Book of the Mystery and Wonder and Terror of Life (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1920)
  • A Book About Myself (1922); republished (unexpurgated) as Newspaper Days (New York: Horace Liveright, 1931)
  • The Color of a Great City (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1923)
  • Dreiser Looks at Russia (New York: Horace Liveright, 1928)
  • My City (1929)
  • A Gallery of Women (1929)
  • Tragic America (New York: Horace Liveright, 1931)
  • Dawn (New York: Horace Liveright, 1931)
  • America Is Worth Saving (New York: Modern Age Books, 1941)
  • Notes on Life, edited by Marguerite Tjader and John J. McAleer (University of Alabama Press; 1974)
  • Theodore Dreiser: Political Writings, edited by Jude Davies (University of Illinois Press; 2011) 321 pages


  1. "Dreiser". Retrieved June 27, 2016.
  2. Van Doren, Carl (1925). American and British Literature since 1890. Century Company.
  3. Finding aid to the Theodore Dreiser papers at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries
  4. Lingeman, Richard (1993). Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey (Abridged Edition). Wiley.
  5. Daugherty, Greg (March 2012). "Seven Famous People Who Missed the Titanic". Smithsonian Magazine.
  6. Dreiser, Theodore (1985). Hakutani, Yoshinobu (ed.). Selected magazine articles of Theodore Dreiser : life and art in the American 1890s. 1. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. p. 10. ISBN 0838631746.
  7. Riggio, Thomas P. (2004). "Preface". In Rusch, Frederic E.; Pizer, Donald (eds.). Theodore Dreiser: Interviews. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. p. 335. ISBN 9780252029431.
  8. Cowie, Alexander, Alfred Kazin, and Charles Shapiro. "The Stature of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Survey of the Man and His Work." American Literature 28.2 (1956): 244. Web. "he turned against his father's orthodox religion and became an atheist."
  9. "Lucas County : 2-48 House of Four Pillars". Remarkable Ohio. Retrieved June 27, 2016.
  10. "House of Four Pillars". The Toledo Regional Tour. Archived from the original on July 1, 2016. Retrieved June 27, 2016.
  11. Newlin, Keith (2003). "Henry, Maude Wood (1873-1957)". A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 186–188. ISBN 0-313-31680-5.
  12. Miller, Donald (2003). City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 263. ISBN 9780684831381.
  13. Rice, Anne P. (2003). Witnessing Lynching: American Writers Respond. Rutgers University Press. pp. 151–170. ISBN 978-0813533308.
  14. Loving, Jerome (2005). The Last Titan: A Life of Theodore Dreiser. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520234819.
  15. Srebnick, Amy Gilman; Lévy, René (2005). Crime and Culture: An Historical Perspective. Burlington: Ashgate. p. 17. ISBN 9780754623830.
  16. Fishkin, Shelley Fisher (1988). From fact to fiction : journalism & imaginative writing in America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195206388.
  17. "Nomination Database Theodore Dreiser". Nobel Retrieved June 27, 2016.
  18. Dreiser, Theodore; National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners (1932). Harlan miners speak : report on terrorism in the Kentucky coal fields. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.
  19. Cunningham, Hugo S. (1999). "Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) His Friendship to the Soviet People in 1938-1941". Cyber-USSR.
  20. Newlin, Keith (2003). "Cudlipp, Thelma (1892-1983)". A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 77–78. ISBN 0-313-31680-5.
  21. Clayton, Douglas (1994). Floyd Dell, The Life and Times of An American Rebel. Ivan R. Dee.
  22. Crosse, John (November 1, 2012). "Edward Weston, R. M. Schindler, Anna Zacsek, Lloyd Wright, Lawrence Tibbett, Reginald Pole, Beatrice Wood and Their Dramatic Circles". Southern California Architectural History Blog.
  23. Newlin, Keith (2003). "Dreiser, Helen Richardson (1894-1955)". A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 101. ISBN 0-313-31680-5.
  24. Lean, Mary (November 21, 2005). "Clara Jaeger Secretary and mistress to Theodore Dreiser". The Independent.
  25. Anderson, Sherwood. Dreiser, Little Review, 1916, No. 2 (April), p. 5.
  26. Anderson, Sherwood (2012). Baxter, Charles (ed.). Sherwood Anderson : collected stories. New York, N.Y.: Library of America. ISBN 978-1598532043. Retrieved June 28, 2016.
  27. Kazin, Alfred (1970). On native grounds : an interpretation of modern American prose literature (Fiftieth Anniversary ed.). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 89. ISBN 978-0156687508. Retrieved June 28, 2016.
  28. Hillstrom, Kevin; Hillstrom, Laurie Collier (2005). The industrial revolution in America. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio. p. 227. ISBN 978-1-85109-625-1. Retrieved June 28, 2016.
  29. Rodden, John (2005). Irving Howe and the Critics: Celebrations and Attacks. Nebraska U.P. p. 100.
  30. Lyttelton, George (1982). "Letter dated August 30, 1959". In Hart-Davis, Rupert (ed.). The Lyttelton Hart-Davis letters : correspondence of George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis. 4. London: John Murray. ISBN 978-0-7195-3941-1.
  31. Leavis, F. R. (2005). Mackillop, Ian; Storer, Richard (eds.). F.R. Leavis essays and documents. London: Continuum. p. 77. ISBN 1847144578.
  32. Riggio, Thomas P. (1986). Dreiser-Mencken letters : the correspondence of Theodore Dreiser & H.L. Mencken, 1907-1945. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0812280083.
  33. Riggio, Thomas P. "Biography of Theodore Dreiser". University of Pennsylvania. Penn Libraries. Retrieved June 27, 2016.
  34. Cassuto, Leonard; Eby, Clare Virginia, eds. (2004). The Cambridge companion to Theodore Dreiser. Cambridge: Cambridge university press. p. 9. ISBN 9780521894654.
  35. "Theodore Dreiser". Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. 2011. Retrieved October 8, 2017.


  • 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.
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