Theodore Dreiser (Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser) Biography
(1871–1945), (Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser), Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, The Financier, The Titan, The Stoic
American novelist, born in Terre Haute, Indiana, into an impoverished Catholic family. Despite a largely negative and irregular pattern of formal education, he became a journalist for newspapers in St Louis, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and New York. He drew frequently on the social and economic vicissitudes of his own large family for the material of his early novels, and his powers of keen observation gave his fiction a vivid sense of accuracy and detail. Impressed by Herbert Spencer's writings on evolution, and inspired by the literary works of Balzac, Tolstoy, Zola, and Hardy, his fiction arose from specific domestic situations in the context of precisely visualized social and economic circumstances. His first novel, Sister Carrie (1900), portrays the transformation of a poor working girl into a successful New York actress. Doubleday were reluctant to promote the novel because of the amoral behaviour of the heroine, and initially only 900 copies were sold. Public denunciations of the novel pushed Dreiser towards a breakdown, and he worked as an editor for magazines before completing his second novel Jennie Gerhardt (1991), which was given a similarly disapproving reception. Over the next fifteen years, however, he was to write the bulk of the work on which his considerable reputation rests. The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914) were the first two volumes of a trilogy ultimately completed by the posthumous publication of The Stoic (1947). In these novels the unscrupulous tycoon Frank Cowperwood is subjected to a minute analysis deriving from Dreiser's fascination with extreme wealth and the vested interests which control it. An American Tragedy (1925) shows the other pole within his work, namely his concern for the condition of the deprived. The Genius (1915) is the novel in which he works most closely with autobiographical material, and examines the problematic relationship between aesthetics and finance in modern society. The complex and sometimes contradictory philosophical thought in Dreiser's fiction has often been subsumed under the title of naturalism, but while he certainly believed in the power of society to shape individuals, he also believed in the capacities of individuals to shape the world in which they lived. The tension between abstract philosophizing and concrete, detailed description sometimes produces an ungainly prose style, as many critics have pointed out. Despite this, F. O. Matthiessen's Theodore Dreiser (1951) makes a vigorous defence of his power as a writer, and Alfred Kazin is also a strong advocate for his work. He also wrote many volumes of social criticism, including Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928) and Tragic America (1931); plays including Plays of the Natural and the Supernatural (1916) and the tragedy The Hand of the Potter (1918); poetry including Moods, Cadenced and Declaimed (1926); two volumes of memoirs, A Book about Myself (1922) and Dawn: A History of Myself (1931); volumes of essays, including Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub (1920); and collections of short stories, including A Gallery of Women (1929). At the end of his life, the contradictions in Dreiser's thought were indicated by his joining of the Communist Party and the completion of his novel of religious faith lost and found, The Bulwark (published posthumously in 1946). A three-volume selection of The Letters of Theodore Dreiser was published in 1959.