Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser (drī´sər, –zər), 1871–1945, American novelist, b. Terre Haute, Ind. A pioneer of naturalism in American literature, Dreiser wrote novels reflecting his mechanistic view of life, a concept that held humanity as the victim of such ungovernable forces as economics, biology, society, and even chance. In his works, conventional morality is unimportant, consciously virtuous behavior having little to do with material success and happiness. While his style and language tended to be clumsy and plodding, he played an important role in introducing a new realism and sexual candor into American fiction. Dreiser was born into a large and poor family. His education was irregular, but, with help from a sympathetic high school teacher, he spent the year 1889–90 at the Univ. of Indiana. After working as a journalist on several midwestern newspapers, in 1894 he went to New York City, where he began a career in publishing, eventually rising to the presidency of Butterick Publications.

His first novel, Sister Carrie (1900), the story of a country girl's rise to material success first as the mistress of a wealthy man and then as an actress, horrified its publisher, who gave it only limited circulation. Dreiser distributed it himself, but it was consistently attacked as immoral; it was reissued in 1982 with many passages from his revised typescript restored. Jennie Gerhardt (1911), again about a "fallen woman," met with a better response; its success allowed Dreiser to work as a writer full time. With these two works, Dreiser started his long battle for the right of the novelist to portray life as he sees it.

In The Financier (1912), he turned his attention more specifically to American social and economic institutions. This novel, the first of a trilogy that includes The Titan (1914) and The Stoic (1947), describes the rise to power of a ruthless industrialist. In both The Genius (1915) and in The Bulwark (1946), Dreiser explores the failings of an American artist. An American Tragedy (1925), often considered his greatest work, tells of a poor young man's futile effort to achieve social and financial success; the attempt ends in his execution for murder. 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).

See his memoirs, A Traveler at Forty (1913), A Book About Myself (1922; republished as Newspaper Days, 1931), and Dawn (1931); his letters, ed. by R. Elias (3 vol., 1959); biographies by W. A. Swanberg (1965) and R. Lingeman (2 vol., 1986–90); studies by E. Moers (1969), F. O. Matthiessen (1951, repr. 1973), J. Lundquist (1974), and L. E. Hussman (1983).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Theodore Dreiser: Selected full-text books and articles

Theodore Dreiser By Burton Rascoe R. M. McBride & Company, 1925 (2nd edition)
FREE! Sister Carrie By Theodore Dreiser Modern Library, 1917
CliffsNotes on Dreiser's Sister Carrie By Frederick J. Balling Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1967
Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy By Harold Bloom Chelsea House, 1988
Librarian’s tip: This is a book of literary criticism
Theodore Dreiser, Apostle of Nature By Robert H. Elias A.A. Knopf, 1949
Theodore Dreiser: Our Bitter Patriot By Charles Shapiro Southern Illinois University Press, 1962
Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature By Donald Pizer Southern Illinois University Press, 1984 (Revised edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "American Literary Naturalism: The Example of Dreiser"
American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream By Charles Child Walcutt Greenwood Press, 1956
Librarian’s tip: Chap. VIII "Theodore Dreiser: The Wonder and Terror of Life"
Theodore Dreiser's Uncollected Magazine Articles, 1897-1902 By Yoshinobu Hakutani University of Delaware Press, 2003
The Financier By Theodore Dreiser World Pub. Co., 1946
Newspaper Days By Theodore Dreiser; T. D. Nostwich University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991
FREE! Twelve Men By Theodore Dreiser Boni and Liveright, 1919
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