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Dreiser, Theodorelocked

(27 August 1871–28 December 1945)
  • Thomas P. Riggio

Theodore Dreiser

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1933.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-42486).

Dreiser, Theodore (27 August 1871–28 December 1945), author, was born Hermann Theodore Dreiser in Terre Haute, Indiana, the son of Johann Paul Dreiser and Sarah Schänäb. Dreiser’s father had emigrated from Germany in 1844 and had been a moderately successful wool dealer until 1869, when a fire destroyed his factory in Sullivan, Indiana. The family never recovered either economically or psychologically from the disaster. Theodore, the twelfth of thirteen children, was born into poverty, and in his childhood his parents moved from town to town in search of employment. His family life was emotionally unstable, and he had few educational opportunities. These experiences colored his worldview and influenced the character of his writing. In addition, his youth was further darkened by the strict Roman Catholic training he received in German-American parochial schools, an experience that fed his later anti-Catholicism and deeply influenced his quest for alternative forms of religious experience.

In Dawn (1931), an autobiography of his youth, Dreiser gives a vivid picture of his German-speaking, Catholic, downwardly mobile family and offers a classic account of the financial, social, and emotional pressures facing nineteenth-century ethnic families. Dreiser describes the typical bilingual and bicultural experiences of first- and second-generation Americans. Some of his best fiction, as well as his autobiographical writing, draws from these experiences. Examples from the fiction are the novel Jennie Gerhardt (1911) and the Edward Butler/Aileen Butler sections of The Financier (1912). In such works, as in Dreiser’s life story, one finds certain themes: the figure of the foreign-born father who fails to understand his children’s American ways and loses authority over the family, the second generation’s rebellion against Old World religious and moral values, the role of the public school system in the Americanization process, and the isolated, beleaguered mother who attempts to mediate between traditional customs and the emotional needs of her children.

Although a good student, Dreiser never finished high school. He felt shame over the conduct of his siblings, especially the sexual adventures of his sisters. He also became depressed over his family’s poor economic standing in the community, and as a result he left Warsaw, Indiana, at age sixteen to find work in Chicago. There he held a few commonplace jobs, from which he was rescued by a former teacher, Mildred Fielding, who paid his way to Indiana University (Bloomington) for one year (1889–1890). But his real education began as a reporter in Chicago. In June 1892, two months before his twenty-first birthday, he wrote his first news story for the Chicago Globe. Three years later he abruptly abandoned journalism by walking out of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, where as a space-rate reporter he was being paid, like a garment worker in the city’s sweatshops, by the inch.

As a journalist, Dreiser never came close to realizing his dream of having his own byline, a column the public would read because his name appeared above it. But he showed enough talent to get decent assignments—as drama critic, special feature writer, and investigative reporter—for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the St. Louis Republic, and the Pittsburg Dispatch. Dreiser drew many of the images and stories for his later fiction from his observations as an urban reporter in the 1890s. He was especially adept at writing special feature stories for the newspapers, in which he was able to experiment with local-color settings, dialogue, and character sketches. In addition, he was encouraged by editors and fellow journalists to write fiction. He wrote poetry; worked on a script for a comic opera, called “Jeremiah I,” of which only a fragment survives; and began to experiment with short stories.

After he left the World, Dreiser went to work in the office of Howley, Haviland, publisher of the songs of his brother, Paul Dresser, remembered today mainly as the author of the Indiana state song, “On the Banks of the Wabash.” Theodore became “editor-arranger” for the firm’s publication, Ev’ry Month, which billed itself as a “Woman’s Magazine of Literature and Music.” As editor, he wrote reviews, editorials, and a “Reflections” column, in which he formulated his ideas on the leading social and philosophical issues of the day.

In 1897 Dreiser left Ev’ry Month and spent the next three years as a freelance writer for the national magazines. For O. S. Marden’s Success he interviewed the famous of the day, including Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Marshall Field, William Dean Howells, and Philip Armour. For other magazines he wrote articles on a wide range of subjects, such as America’a fruit-growing industry, the meatpacking business in Chicago, and the making of stained-glass windows. He continued to write poetry and fiction. The first four short stories he published were written in the late 1890s: “Nigger Jeff,” “When the Old Century Was New,” “Butcher Rogaum’s Door,” and “The Shining Slave Makers.”

Sister Carrie (1900)

In 1898 Dreiser married Sara Osborne White, a schoolteacher from Missouri whom he had met when he covered the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition as a reporter for the St. Louis Republic. With her encouragement and that of his friend Arthur Henry, a novelist and former editor of the Toledo Blade, Dreiser began writing his historic first novel, Sister Carrie (1900). He began the book with a story based on his own sister Emma’s affair with Harry Hopkins, a married man who had run off with funds embezzled from his employer. In the pages of what is now generally considered the first great urban novel in America, he also included philosophical speculations and much of what he had learned as a reporter and observer of city life, and he created one of the most memorable characters in American literature, George Hurstwood, a dramatic portrait of a well-to-do gentleman who degenerates into a derelict on the Bowery and then a suicide buried in a potter’s field.

Even before Sister Carrie was published, Dreiser began Jennie Gerhardt, a novel that tells the story of a German-American girl compelled by economic forces to abandon her family life for the larger American world of her lover, Lester Kane, the son of a wealthy Irish immigrant. The character of Jennie was based in part on his sister Mame; Lester, on her future husband, Austin Brennen; and Jennie’s father was modeled after Dreiser’s own father, who like the fictional Old Gerhardt, disowned his daughter when she became pregnant outside the bonds of marriage.

Dreiser wrote forty chapters of the novel before it and his writing career were interrupted by an extended nervous breakdown, brought on, Dreiser claimed, by the suppression of Sister Carrie. The publisher, Doubleday, Page, did, in fact, try to renege on its contract. When Dreiser refused to give in to the firm’s pressures, the company did nothing to promote a book that its president, Frank Doubleday, considered “immoral.” Frank Doubleday was on vacation when his staff, which included novelist Frank Norris, read the manuscript of Sister Carrie. Norris enthusiastically recommended it as the best work of American realism he had ever read, and a contract was issued. When Doubleday returned and read the new work, he protested. It was said, but later denied by Doubleday, that Doubleday’s wife Neltje de Graff Doubleday was the person most adamant in her opposition to the novel. In later years Dreiser developed this episode into a story of censorship and “puritanical” repression that became legendary, and the book became a symbol of literary freedom for an entire generation.

Dreiser’s disability lasted nearly three years, after which he recovered enough to seek employment in editorial jobs with Smith’s and Broadway. By 1907 he had worked his way up to become editor in chief of the prestigious Butterick Publications. In the meantime Sister Carrie continued to enjoy an underground reputation, and a new edition was issued in 1907. Dreiser continued at Butterick until 1910, when an infatuation with an employee’s seventeen-year-old daughter cost him his job. With the encouragement of his friend, critic H. L. Mencken, Dreiser completed Jennie Gerhardt, and he once again became a full-time writer. With this, Dreiser’s life changed dramatically. He separated from his wife, moved into the artistic community developing in Greenwich Village, and began the lifelong practice of what he called “varietism,” a term he used to describe his practice of being sexually involved with more than one woman at the same time.

Dreiser had close relations with the liberal thinkers and artistic avant-garde of the 1910s. He associated with leading political radicals such as Max Eastman, Daniel De Leon, and Floyd Dell; supported the birth-control movement of Margaret Sanger; befriended anarchist Emma Goldman; and wrote for left-wing journals such as The Masses, as well as magazines with more purely aesthetic goals, such as Seven Arts. Dreiser was nothing if not eclectic in his interests, and although generally progressive in his social thought, he was too eccentric and independent a thinker to fit into any one ideological camp.

Battles against Censorship

For more than a decade after 1911, H. L. Mencken’s reviews in the Smart Set promoted his friend’s case as America’s greatest living realist. Despite such support, the threat of censorship haunted everything Dreiser wrote between 1900 and 1925. Publishers often refused to issue manuscripts as Dreiser wrote them. Fiction such as Jennie Gerhardt and nonfiction such as A Traveler at Forty (1913) were drastically cut by editors before publication. Moreover, censorship was not always limited to publishers and editors. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice caused The “Genius” (1915), an autobiographical novel, to be removed from the bookshelves, precipitating a court battle that lasted for years before the book was finally reissued in 1923. Dreiser was further embattled during the period of the First World War, when some of his critics attacked his “barbaric naturalism” and unconventional writing style as representative of “a new note in American literature, coming from the ‘ethnic’ element of our mixed population.”

Despite such problems, Dreiser continued to write, and he did so prolifically. Although Dreiser is remembered primarily for his novels, he wrote in many genres. In fact, of his twenty-seven published books only eight were novels, one of which was published posthumously. Besides journalism, which he wrote throughout his life, he published volumes of poetry, Moods, Cadenced and Disclaimed (1926; enlarged ed., 1928) and Moods, Philosophical and Emotional (1935); short stories, Free and Other Stories (1918) and Chains, Lesser Novels and Stories (1927); plays, Plays of the Natural and Supernatural (1916) and The Hand of the Potter (1918); travel books, A Traveler at Forty, A Hoosier Holiday (1916), and Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928); autobiographies, Newspaper Days (1922) and Dawn; philosophical essays, Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub (1920); social criticism, Tragic America (1932) and America Is Worth Saving (1941); character sketches, Twelve Men (1919) and A Gallery of Women (2 vols., 1929); and The Living Thoughts of Thoreau (1939).

His novels, however, remain the center of critical attention and the main source of his reputation. After the publication of Jennie Gerhardt, Dreiser turned to a very different subject. At the center of his first two novels are women who battle poverty and the conventional prejudices of society; for this third novel he portrayed an American Nietzschean Superman, Frank Algernon Cowperwood, a character based on the Philadelphia and Chicago “traction king” Charles T. Yerkes. Dreiser decided that he needed a trilogy to explore this character, and he named it “The Trilogy of Desire.” The first book, The Financier, was soon followed by The Titan (1914), but he did not return to the third volume, The Stoic (1947), until the last year of his life. Although the trilogy is based on the life of Yerkes, readers have often identified the drives and aspirations of Cowperwood with Dreiser himself—particularly in the financier’s love of beauty, his sexual appetites, and his will to power. The censor again intervened when Dreiser’s publisher, Harper and Brothers, decided that The Titan would be too risky to publish, due in large part to Cowperwood’s promiscuous sexuality. Fearing a repeat of the Sister Carrie conflict, Dreiser signed with English publisher John Lane Company.

Despite all the controversies surrounding Dreiser’s books, they enjoyed critical esteem rather than high sales. Dreiser’s distrust of publishers kept him constantly embattled in contractual disputes. He often depended on minor work for the magazines to make ends meet, and he diverted other energies to projects for movie scripts, most of which were unsuccessful.

Move to Hollywood (1919)

In 1919, when he was at a low point financially and mentally, he met Helen Patges Richardson, a distant cousin who had decided to pursue a career as an actress in Hollywood. They immediately began a stormy 25-year relationship that survived periods of separation and many other romantic affairs on Dreiser’s part. He went to Hollywood with Richardson in 1919 and settled in a small bungalow to write as she worked in films that are now forgotten. Dreiser tried to write The Bulwark (1946), the story of a Quaker family whose children and traditional values are exposed to the corrupting forces of modern American life. He struggled with it but was distracted from his writing by attempts to cash in on the big money offered for Hollywood film scripts.

More significantly, he began to be obsessed by a story that was rooted in a youthful love affair he had had in Chicago. There in 1892 he had met Lois Zahn, a friend of one of his sisters. They had dated and planned to be married. Zahn was from the same working-class background as the young Dreiser, and with her he found himself making invidious comparisons to the wealthy girls he saw in the city. He dreamed of marrying one of those girls and thereby escaping poverty and raising his social status. He eventually found an excuse to leave Zahn, but he carried the guilt of her sorrow and his dishonest motives with him for decades. Dreiser eventually came to associate this personal experience with a type of sensational crime that he believed characterized American life. It consisted of a murder in which the motive is not personal hatred but the desire of a man to escape from a romantic entanglement in order to marry another woman who brings with her upper-class position and wealth.

In California Dreiser began experimenting with this theme, and by 1922 he had written twenty chapters of a novel. Soon after, however, he decided that they amounted to a false start. He then turned to his notes on the Chester Gillette murder of Grace Brown in 1906, an upstate New York case that had been covered extensively in the newspapers. The Gillette-Brown trial rekindled his imagination, and he decided he needed to return to New York for purposes of research and inspiration. The story took hold of him again, and he isolated himself for nearly a year in a Brooklyn apartment, where Helen Richardson joined him until he finished the book in 1925. A huge manuscript, it was cut nearly in half by editors at Horace Liveright before it was published in two volumes as An American Tragedy (1925).

Although the novel was a critical and commercial success, in fact Dreiser’s only bestseller, he was not yet finished battling the censors. In 1927 the Watch and Ward Society of Boston banned distribution of the novel, and a sale of the book led to a trial and an appeal that dragged on in the courts for years. This, however, was an isolated instance. Dreiser seemed finally to have won over even his former critics, and many were applauding the work as the Great American Novel. Dreiser soon sold the movie rights to the book, the first version of which appeared in 1931, followed in 1951 by a popular remake titled A Place in the Sun. For the first time, Dreiser could afford to live something of the high life he had yearned for since his youth. He moved into the fashionable Rodin Studios apartments at 200 West Fifty-seventh Street, across from Carnegie Hall. There he held open-house gatherings on Thursday evenings at which he entertained famous and talented celebrities. In addition, he built a country home at Mount Kisco, New York, which he called “Iroki” (Japanese for “beauty”).

Dreiser’s Political Activism

Dreiser’s fights for freedom of expression found new outlets in the last two decades of his life. Although he had always prided himself on being “radically American,” he had in the past championed the rights of socialists, anarchists, and other radical groups who criticized American capitalist values. In 1927 he visited Russia at the invitation of the Soviet government for the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. He accepted on condition that he be allowed to extend his stay and tour the Soviet Union to see what he called the “real, unofficial Russia.” He arrived as an American “individualist,” eager to question the reality of an ostensibly humane economy that claimed to have abolished social hierarchies. He left far from convinced of the new experiment, but when he returned to America in 1928 to find the first breadlines since 1910, he was outraged and began to compare the efforts of the Russians with what he felt was the neglect of American capitalists.

The personal significance the Russian program eventually came to have for Dreiser appeared in a muted way in the first newspaper articles he wrote after returning to America in early 1928. He speculated in the New York World that in the new Russia it might “be possible to remove that dreadful sense of social misery in one direction or another which has so afflicted me in my life in America ever since I have been old enough to know what social misery is.” This aspect of his feelings about Russia emerged more powerfully in the 1930s, a decade in which Dreiser was one of many whose idealization of the Soviet Union was stimulated by the economic breakdown and social malaise of the depression years.

Dreiser wrote little fiction in the 1930s. Instead he devoted his energies and writing to political activities. He fought for the release of imprisoned labor leader Tom Mooney, and he played an active role in the social reform program of the League of American Writers. In 1931 he became chairman of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, for which he organized a committee to investigate the allegations of abuses against the striking miners in Kentucky’s Harlan coal mines. Dreiser and other members of his committee, including John Dos Passos, were indicted for criminal syndicalism. His introduction to Harlan Miners Speak (1932) expresses his outrage at the deplorable living and working conditions of the miners whose testimony he heard.

Dreiser attempted to collect his thoughts and research on the social problems of the day in Tragic America. This large volume of more than four hundred pages is a polemic against the organizations that Dreiser felt were responsible for the lack of economic equity in American society. Gathering a large amount of raw data, he focused his attack on large corporations, the banks and railroads, organized religion, the school system, and the leisure class in the United States. He tried also to publicize these ideas as associate editor of American Spectator, a new literary magazine whose other editors included Eugene O’Neill and George Jean Nathan. Dreiser withdrew after a year, protesting that the magazine was too literary and not concerned enough with the important issues of the day.

Before he left the journal, he became embroiled in a public debate with author Hutchins Hapgood on the nature of what Hapgood felt were anti-Semitic remarks Dreiser and the other editors made in an “Editorial Conference (with Wine)” article in May 1933. Always contentious, Dreiser responded angrily with a combination of Zionist and anti-Semitic remarks that haunted him for the rest of his days. He believed, he said, that the Jews should establish a national homeland and that they should otherwise assimilate completely into American life. In listing the unassimilated characteristics of American Jews, he used ugly ethnic stereotypes that convinced many that he was either anti-Semitic or, at the very least, totally insensitive to the events occurring in Europe at the time. Although he retracted his extreme language, he never could redeem himself completely.

Besides politics, Dreiser’s other passion in the 1930s was a scientific-philosophical study for which he collected data from various sources. He visited scientists in their laboratories; he read in physics, biology, chemistry, and philosophy; he discussed the organization of matter with such kindred spirits as John Cowper Powys and George Douglas; he employed research assistants to collect notes and clippings on findings that fit into the categories he was developing in his philosophy; and he began to organize these materials into essays with titles such as “The Myth of Individuality,” “Good and Evil,” and “You—The Phantom.” Dreiser died before completing the book he tentatively called “The Formula Called Man.” Although the text he left behind suggests his book would not have revolutionized modern philosophy, this work is an important key to understanding Dreiser’s thought in the last decades of his life. A selection of these essays and notes, titled Notes on Life, was edited by Marguerite Tjader and John McAleer in 1977.

Late in 1938 Dreiser left New York to live permanently in California with Helen Richardson. His last years were spent promoting his political views, working on his philosophical tract, and finishing The Bulwark and The Stoic. With the approach of war in Europe and the possibility of American involvement, Dreiser continued his political activism. In 1938 he attended an international peace conference in Paris and visited Spain to speak to supporters of the Spanish Civil War. He returned to meet with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and urged him to aid the Spanish Loyalists and the poor citizens who were victims of the war. In 1939 Dreiser traveled to Washington, D.C., and New York to lecture for the Committee for Soviet Friendship and American Peace Mobilization. He published pamphlets at his own expense and gave speeches on the radio and at public rallies. In 1941 he published America Is Worth Saving, which argued against support for the British and urged that America not involve itself in another world war.

America’s Greatest Naturalist

The accolades from the literary establishment that he had sought most of his life came to him late. In 1944 he traveled for the last time to New York to receive the Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. When he returned he married his longtime companion Helen Richardson. (His first wife had died in 1942; both marriages were childless.) There were other signs of recognition. A movie was produced called My Gal Sal, which was based loosely on Dreiser’s story of his songwriter brother Paul. The aging writer laughed at the portrait of himself in the film, a scene showing young Theodore in Indiana breaking into tears over some minor incident.

In July 1945, five months before his death, Dreiser made his last dramatic gesture of public protest by joining the Communist party. In the public statement he issued at the time, he tried to sum up his reasons for his decision: “Belief in the greatness and dignity of Man has been the guiding principle of my life and work. The logic of my life and work leads me therefore to apply for membership in the Communist Party.” While this did nothing to increase his popularity, he was at the time of his death generally recognized as the greatest naturalist in American literary history—and among the best novelists in world literature. And his many battles with censors and publishers gained him a legendary reputation as an advocate of freedom of expression. These judgments have withstood the test of time.

His strength clearly ebbing, Dreiser died in Hollywood before completing the last chapter of The Stoic, which was published later with an appendix by Helen Dreiser that outlined the novelist’s plans for the ending.


The Dreiser papers are housed in the Special Collections Department of the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania. The Dreiser collection contains 503 boxes and includes manuscripts of published and unpublished writings; notes; diaries; magazines edited by Dreiser; biographical documents of all kinds, including photographs, letters, family memorabilia, scrapbooks, postcards, personal possessions, business contracts, and correspondence; newspaper clippings covering Dreiser’s career; and microfilms of materials housed in other collections. The most exhaustive bibliography is Donald Pizer et al., Theodore Dreiser: A Primary Bibliography and Reference Guide, 2d ed. (1991). Personal memoirs written by those who knew Dreiser include Helen Dreiser, My Life with Dreiser (1951); Vera Dreiser, My Uncle Theodore (1976); Dorothy Dudley, Forgotten Frontiers: Dreiser and the Land of the Free (1932); Clara Clark Jaeger, Philadelphia Rebel (1988); Ruth Kennell, Theodore Dreiser and the Soviet Union (1969); Marguerite Tjader, Theodore Dreiser: A New Dimension (1965); and Yvette Eastman, Dearest Wilding: A Memoir, with Love Letters from Theodore Dreiser (1995). Dreiser’s personal diaries are collected in Thomas P. Riggio, ed., Theodore Dreiser: American Diaries, 1902–1926 (1982), and Thomas P. Riggio and James L. W. West III, eds., Dreiser’s Russian Diary (1996). The first scholarly biography by an author who also knew Dreiser is Robert H. Elias, Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature (1949). The most detailed biography is the two-volume work by Richard Lingeman, Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871–1907 (1986) and Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey, 1908–1945 (1990). W. A. Swanberg’s informative Dreiser (1965) takes a generally negative view of Dreiser’s personal and political life. There are two important collections of letters: Robert H. Elias, ed., Letters of Theodore Dreiser (3 vols., 1959), and Thomas P. Riggio, ed., The Correspondence of Theodore Dreiser and H. L. Mencken, 1907–1945 (2 vols., 1986). Jack Salzman, Theodore Dreiser: The Critical Reception (1972), collects the published reviews of all of Dreiser’s books. Dreiser’s writing is the subject of numerous critical studies, but Ellen Moers, Two Dreisers (1969), is outstanding for its combination of biography, historical context, and critical analysis. For more than a decade, the University of Pennsylvania’s Dreiser Edition has been publishing authoritative editions of the uncensored manuscripts of Dreiser’s works, including novels, diaries, and travel books, as well as previously uncollected documents, such as Dreiser’s letters and his journalism of the 1890s.