Herman Theodore Dreiser

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Herman Theodore Dreiser

American novelist Herman Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) projected a vitality and an honesty that established several of his novels as classics of world literature.

Like other naturalistic novelists of the 1890s Theodore Dreiser believed in evolutionary and materialistic determinism and gave these ideas powerful expression. Preoccupied with sex, he demanded the freedom to write about it as he saw fit. His hard-won victories over narrow-minded censorship marked a turning point in the history of the American novel.

Dreiser was born Aug. 27, 1871, in Terre Haute, Ind., one of 12 children of a German Catholic immigrant and an Ohio woman who gave up her Mennonite religion and her family's good opinion to marry him. Theodore was a sickly child with an almost sightless right eye; he seemed at first to have less chance of survival than the three brothers who had died before him in infancy.

Growing Up Poor

For the elder Dreiser, making a living for his large family was difficult. In 1867 he had moved them to Sullivan, Ind., where, by going deeply into debt, he bought a woolen mill that seemed promising. But in 1869 fire destroyed Dreiser's mill, leaving him even more deeply in debt. This burden was to weigh heavily upon all members of the family for years. Theodore was 7 in 1878, when his parents decided that breaking up their home was necessary for economic survival. The older children followed their father in search of jobs. The younger three, including Theodore, moved with their mother to Vincennes and then back to Sullivan. There one of the older daughters rejoined them; she was pregnant by a man who refused to marry her. When the baby was still-born in April 1878, they buried it secretly.

The family's years in Sullivan were hard for young Dreiser. He was sent home from parochial school because he had no shoes. The family was so poor that his mother took in washing (Dreiser was to remember having to deliver the bundles to affluent homes), and the boys gathered coal from the railroad tracks to keep the fire going. Dreiser's father descended upon the household occasionally to rail about the children's failings in religion and morality.

The year 1881, however, brought a melodramatic reversal for the family. Paul, one of the older brothers, unexpectedly appeared, beaming with good humor and opulence. He had begun to establish his reputation as a songwriter (he would later win fame with such songs as "My Gal Sal" and "On the Banks of the Wabash"; for the latter Theodore supplied the words of the first stanza and chorus). Paul settled his mother with the younger children in a cozy home in Evansville and himself in the town's most spendid brothel, which was kept by Sallie Walker—his "Gal Sal." Food, clothing, and coal were now no problem, but Paul's flagrant life of sin troubled the religious Theodore. Paul's turbulent romance with the beautiful madam ended in 1884; he left town to seek work elsewhere. Dreiser's mother took her family to Chicago, where Theodore got a job in a dry goods store, but he was miserable and soon quit. His father rejoined the family, also out of work. Without Paul's help the Dreisers ran quickly into debt again, and soon they fled the bill collectors to Warsaw, Ind.

The nuns who had been Dreiser's teachers up to that time had made him fear school. In Warsaw he entered the public schools. A young woman teacher encouraged the shy boy to read: he fell in love with her and with the books she recommended. Again older sisters stirred town gossip: one ran off with a bar cashier who had stolen $3,500 from the bar's safe, and another had an affair with the son of a wealthy family that ended in pregnancy. These events would later provide materials for Dreiser's fiction, but at 15 he felt them only as humiliating. He left school and went to Chicago to work as a dishwasher and then a stock clerk.

In 1888 one of Dreiser's Warsaw teachers found him in Chicago and sent him to the University of Indiana the next year. College lasted only a year for him, but it was an important year. As a result of his exposure to college girls, his consciousness of the power of sex, the great theme of his fiction, became acute—and acutely painful. He returned home in 1890 to work and help care for his mother, who died that November. When a Bavarian priest refused her a funeral Mass because she had not received the last rites of the Church, Dreiser lost whatever remained of his father's religion.

Journalistic Career

Before his twenty-first birthday Dreiser had found a job on the staff of the Chicago Globe. Progressing rapidly in newspaper work, he moved to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. In 1893 the St. Louis Republic sent him to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago as leader of a group of schoolteachers, one of whom was a pretty redhead named Sara Osborne White, called "Jug." Dreiser was then having an affair with his landlady and was romantically involved with some other women, but Jug would 6 years later become his wife. To fulfill his dream of quick success, and perhaps also to try to escape Jug, Dreiser quit his job and traveled east, taking a job on the Pittsburgh Dispatch. There he saw the injustices of industrial society in sharp focus, yet his editors stopped his stories about them, explaining, "The big steel men just about own the place."

If he could not write, Dreiser could read: Honoréde Balzac shaped his conception of the novel, and T.H. Huxley and Herbert Spencer gave him a new philosophy. Spencer, Dreiser reported later, "took every shred of belief away from me; showed me that I was a chemical atom in a whirl of unknown forces…." In that frame of mind he moved to New York in 1894 and found work on the World. But the shy young man, very tall, very thin, his bad eye partially hidden by his gold-rimmed glasses, neither looked nor acted the part of the brash metropolitan reporter. If he had not quit, he would surely have been fired.

Almost destitute, Dreiser convinced his brother Paul and two other songwriters to let him edit a magazine that would give their work wider audience. Dreiser titled it Ev'ry Month, and filled it with popular poetry, stories, and essays, as well as the songs; he also published Stephen Crane's "A Mystery of Heroism," some other pieces of literary interest, and many of his own serious articles. He left this magazine in 1897 but found work on other magazines, for which he interviewed Thomas A. Edison, Andrew Carnegie, William Dean Howells, Marshall Field, and other celebrities, writing of their rise to success. For the first time he had money—and no further excuse for postponing marriage to the eager Jug; it took place in December 1898.

For more than a dozen years Dreiser continued his successful journalistic career in New York. He wrote features for the Daily News; edited dime novels; and served as editor of Smith's Magazine, Broadway Magazine, and three magazines published to encourage women to buy Butterick dress patterns, including the Delineator. He raised the Delineator 's circulation dramatically by anticipating the responses of its female readers. (In 1908 he secured H.L. Mencken as a contributor—the beginning of a long, important friendship.) Dreiser was one of the best-paid editors in the country in 1910, when the enraged mother of an 18-year-old girl with whom he was in love got him fired by threatening to make public the sordid history of his philandering. His marriage also suffered: his wife went home to her family in Missouri. She returned now and again, but in 1914 their separation became permanent, although neither sought a divorce.

Career as Novelist

Dreiser had begun experimenting with fiction in 1899. His first important novel, Sister Carrie, occupied him for about 4 months in 1899-1900. Jug helped with the grammar, and literary friends reduced the manuscript by 40,000 words after Dreiser had finished it; although Dreiser required help in polishing the surface of his work, the profundities of the novel's conceptions and characterizations prove that he was from the beginning a master of the essentials of fiction. The novel's heroine, Carrie Meeber, goes to Chicago to live with her sister and seek work but finds working conditions terrible and pay small. She becomes the mistress of a salesman but turns subsequently to Hurstwood, manager of an elegant bar. Hurstwood, whose marriage is breaking up, is tempted to steal money from the bar's safe, which he finds open. He removes the money, then decides to return it to the safe, but the safe door accidently closes and locks: chance has made him a thief. Chance operates again and again in the lives of Hurstwood and Carrie (with whom he runs away), bringing one to suicide and the other to an ungratifying success as a musical comedy star. The novel is far from explicit in its treatment of sex, but in its failure to give virtue and vice their appropriate rewards it constituted an affront to the official moral standards of the day. One publisher turned it down; but at Doubleday, Page and Company, it received a warm reception from Frank Norris, who was reader for the firm. Doubleday contracted to publish Carrie, but when Frank Doubleday and his wife read it, they had second thoughts. Dreiser held the firm to their contract, however, and they published the book in 1901 but did not advertise it. Norris tried hard to publicize it, but the final tally showed 456 copies sold, giving the author a royalty of $68.40. Not until 1907, when another publisher reissued it, did Sister Carrie attract notice and sell.

The initial failure of Sister Carrie drove Dreiser to a nervous and physical breakdown, but with Paul's help he recovered and turned back to his editorial work. When he lost his job at Butterick in 1910, he went to work on the other novels he had begun after Sister Carrie. Now he finished Jennie Gerhardt. Published in 1911, it received critical acclaim and sales success, in part because, without compromising his principles, Dreiser avoided affronting public morals this time: Jennie, also drawn from Dreiser's wayward sisters, does not prosper from her sins. Encouraged by the novel's success, Dreiser pressed ahead on The Financier, which was based on the sensational career of Charles T. Yerkes (named Frank Algernon Cowperwood in the novel), who made a fortune in Philadelphia, went to prison for embezzlement, and made another fortune after his release, while scoring almost as many romantic triumphs as business coups. The Titan (1914) and The Stoic (1947) continue with the same character.

A trip to Europe in 1911 provided material for A Traveler at Forty (1913), but Dreiser devoted his best efforts to fiction. The Genius (1915) is his most autobiographical novel. The romance with the young girl that had ended Dreiser's career at Butterick constitutes a principal incident, but the artist-hero's philosophic calm at the story's end is more wish-fulfillment fantasy than autobiography. Some critics expressed moral outrage. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice got the book banned for over a year; yet out of the storm a critical consensus was emerging: whatever the moral or literary failings of The Genius, it was the work of an artist who possessed elements of genius himself.

An American Tragedy

In the following year Dreiser published several volumes of nonfiction, notably Twelve Men (1919). That same year he met his charming 25-year-old cousin Helen Richardson, who was fleeing an unhappy marriage. They moved to Los Angeles together, where she contributed to their household expenses by taking supporting parts in films. In nearly 3 years in California, Dreiser wrote several volumes of sketches, some bad poetry, and the first 20 chapters of his greatest novel. Based on the highly publicized 1906 murder trial of a young New York man, An American Tragedy (2 vols., 1925) shows Clyde Griffiths, impoverished son of a street evangelist, working in his rich uncle's shirt factory and falling in love with a girl of beauty, wealth, and position. Only one thing blocks their marriage: Clyde has made a factory girl pregnant. Alone with the pregnant girl in a boat on a lake, he plots to murder her but loses his nerve; nevertheless, there is an accident, she drowns, and he later pays with his life. The book is genuinely tragic: Clyde is not villain but victim. If there is a villain, it is society with its conventionalism, its economic injustice, and its hypocrisy about sex. The book was a triumph: Joseph Wood Krutch spoke for most critics when he called it "the greatest American novel of our generation." The first 2 weeks' royalty check was for $11,872.02.

That splendid success was the last of Dreiser's novels to appear in his lifetime (two inferior pieces, The Bulwark, 1946, and The Stoic, 1947, appeared after his death). In 1926 he traveled with Richardson to Europe; in 1927 his trip to the Soviet Union resulted in Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928). In 1929 he and Richardson settled near Mount Kisco, N.Y. In 1942 Dreiser's wife died, and in 1944 he married Richardson. Travel, political activity, and a surprising turn toward mysticism occupied his late years. When he died of a heart attack in Hollywood, Calif., on Dec. 28, 1945, he was already well established in the history of world literature. Distinguished films were made in 1951 of An American Tragedy (under the title A Place in the Sun) and Sister Carrie.

Further Reading

Dreiser's autobiographical works include A Hoosier Holiday (1916), A Book about Myself (1922), and Dawn (1931). W.A. Swanberg's admirable Dreiser (1965) is the standard biography, but Robert H. Elias, Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature (1949), remains valuable for its critical emphasis. Charles Shapiro, Theodore Dreiser: Our Bitter Patriot (1962); John J. McAleer, Theodore Dreiser: An Introduction and Interpretation (1968); and Ellen Moers, Two Dreisers (1969), are full-length discussions of the novels. Larzer Ziff, The American 1890s: Life and Times of a Lost Generation (1966), contains a brilliant assessment of Dreiser's accomplishments and relation to his period. □

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Herman Theodore Dreiser

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