Dreiser, Theodore (1871-1945)

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Dreiser, Theodore (1871-1945)

A journalist turned novelist, Dreiser was at the forefront of the battle for social fact and sexual candor in the early twentieth-century novel, treating popular sentimental and realist subjects with a refreshing lack of moralizing. Dreiser produced a number of dense, uneven, and controversial novels about the attempts of men and women to adapt themselves to the new urban, secular order of industrial capitalism. An American Tragedy (1925), Dreiser's great public success, is one of the first serious psychological studies of an American murderer.

Dreiser escaped a very poor and deeply religious upbringing through a successful career in journalism in the 1890s, writing his first novel, Sister Carrie, in 1900. Though the book had been recommended by rising author Frank Norris, publisher Doubleday's management was unhappy with what it considered the immorality of the story and published it without publicity. This, coupled with reviews uneasy with both its moral tone and scrappy prose, saw the book achieve initial sales of a mere nine hundred. This fiasco and Dreiser's failing marriage brought on a nervous breakdown, and he returned to journalism, not publishing another novel for a decade. His second novel, Jennie Gerhardt, (1911), began an increasingly fruitful fictional output (though his sexual frankness and social criticism continued to hamper his success) during the next fourteen years, including The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), The Genius (1915), and most favorably, An American Tragedy. This last was based on a number of real-life murder cases and told the story of Clyde Griffiths: his youth, the murder of his pregnant girlfriend, and the court case that followed. The novel became a play and was filmed twice: in 1931 by Joseph von Sternberg and in 1951 under the title A Place in the Sun. Dreiser's output reduced once more as he involved himself with various left-wing causes.

Dreiser grew out of the newspaper and magazine revolution of the 1880s and 1890s, and though his novels reflect many of the themes of the sentimental tradition (marked by the love of the rags-to-riches story), he handles them in a way inflected by issues that came to the fore in the best journalism of his day (crime, disease, prostitution, vagrancy, and the violence and double-dealing behind huge wealth). Dreiser's subject matter also appears journalistic in its use of personal experience (Sister Carrie was based on one of his sisters) and real-life stories (The Financier is the first of a trilogy of novels based on Chicago financier Charles T. Yerkes, and An American Tragedy was based, centrally, on the murder trial of Chester Gillette). Dreiser's books, though berated for their style—their circumlocution, inversion, uncertain vocabulary, and overburdened syntax—are marked by a singular level of excited detail and documented fact. This reliance on facts and details reflects a contemporary scientific methodology pursued eagerly by Dreiser (he read widely on the subjects of biology, psychology, and sociology). Although Balzac, Zola, Tolstoy, and Hardy were all important literary models for him, literary allusions appear much less prevalent than scientific ones: his interest in every minute detail of biological and sociological influences on his characters pushes the literary into the background.

The characterization of his central figures is Dreiser's main achievement. His interest in what drives Carrie Meeber or Clyde Griffiths makes the figures around them appear little more than phenomena affecting them, while these major characters themselves become little more than the drives and desires brought on by economic, genetic, and psychological circumstances. These desires were not necessarily beautiful, imaginative, or morally right, and it was this, coupled with Dreiser's unflinching candor, that made his books so controversial. Dreiser simply ignored genteel aspirations and probity, as he drew characters, logically and objectively, whose aspirations were powerful enough for a poor girl to become a kept woman, for a boy to kill a pregnant lover. Such desires destroy everything in their paths and do not bring happiness, certainly not the familial stability and financial security of the middle classes.

Dreiser was not the first novelist of his generation to write of the squalor, poverty, and violence of the city; both Stephen Crane and Frank Norris had done that before him, but he was singular in his personal experience of poverty. This is undoubtedly a major reason he was able to capture in such detail the desire to escape poverty and the desire to possess wealth in a society that was in a period of transformation. The tide of migration from country to city; the impersonal nature of the urban setting of factories, tenements, and department stores; the contrast of poverty and wealth; the new culture of conspicuous consumption were all at the center of Dreiser's work. Where many of the new journalistic, realist writers around him attempted to represent want, its nature and effects, Dreiser investigated wanting, one of the central mechanisms of the twentieth century. His attempts to delineate desire are what made him interesting and influential to many writers from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Saul Bellow. It is in showing a less intellectualized, aspirational, amorality deep within the American way of life that makes Dreiser the most radical, the most realistic, writer of his generation.

—Kyle Smith

Further Reading:

Moers, Ellen. Two Dreisers. New York, Viking, 1969.

Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1976.

Salzman, Jack. Theodore Dreiser: The Critical Reception. New York, David Lewis, 1972.