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Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)


American author, outstanding representative of naturalism, whose novels depict real-life subjects in a harsh light. Dreiser's novels were held to be amoral, and he battled throughout his career against censorship and popular taste. This started with Sister Carrie (1900). It was not until 1981 that the work was published in its original form. Dreiser's principal concern was with the conflict between human needs and the demands of society for material success.

"A woman should some day write the complete philosophy of clothes. No matter how young, it is one of the things she wholly comprehends. There is an indescribably faint line in the matter of man's apparel which somehow divides for her those who are worth glancing at and those who are not. Once an individual has passed this faint line on the way downward he will get no glance from her. There is another line at which the dress of a man will cause her to study her own." (from Sister Carrie)

Theodore Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, the ninth of ten children. His parents were poor. John Paul Dreiser, his father, a devout Catholic German immigrant, had attempted to establish his own woolen mill in the 1860s, but after it was destroyed in a fire, the family lived in poverty. Dreiser's mother, Sarah Maria Schänäb, was an American-born Mennolite.

As the family moved from town to town, Dreiser's schooling remained erratic. He left home when he was 16 and worked at whatever jobs he could find. With the help of his former teacher, he was able to spend the year 1889-1890 at Indiana University. A voracious reader, the impact of such writers as Hawthorne, Poe, Balzac, Herbert Spencer, and Freud influenced his thought and his reaction against organized religion.

In 1892 Dreiser started to work for the Chicago Globe, and moved to a better position with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. During this period he wrote the short story 'Nigger Jeff,' probably based on a lynching he witnessed. The story appeared in Ainslee (November 1901), a small monthly journal, and collected in Free and Other Stories (1918). In 1894 Dreiser published the Republic an article, 'Ten-Foot Drop,' about lynching outside St. Louis. Unfortunately, Dreiser chose to use the "N-word" in the title of the story and today it is no longer anthologized in college surveys of American literature. In the manuscript its title was 'A Victim of Justice.'

Dreiser moved to New York City late in 1894. Through the connections of his older brother Paul Dresser (1858-1906), an actor, singer and songwriter, he was employed as editor of a music-publishing magazine for a period. In 1898 he married Sara White, a Missouri schoolteacher; the marriage was unhappy. He separated permanently from her in 1909, but never earnestly sought a divorce. In his own life Dreiser practised his principle that man's greatest appetite is sexual – the desire for women led him to carry on several affairs at once. While in Kentucky reporting on coal miners' strike, he was charged with adultery. His relationship with Yvette Szekely Eastman is recorded in Dearest Wilding by Yvette Eastman (1995) – she was 16 and Dreiser 40 years older when they first met in 1929. Yvette was the stepdaughter of a female acquaintance. Dreiser seducted Yvette when she was seventeen. "I lay down on the sheet," she recalled, "hoping this part of the 'business' would soon be over with." Yvette was hired as Dreiser's secretary and put to work on his scientific essays. She remained his friend long after the seuxual relationship had ended.

As a novelist Dreiser made his debut with Sister Carrie, a powerful account of a young working girl's rise to success and her slow decline. The story was partly based on the life of his sister. "She was eighteen years of age, bright, timid and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth. Whatever touch of regret at parting characterized her thoughts it was certainly not for advantages now being given up. A gush of tears at her mother's farewell kiss, a touch in the throat when the cars clacked by the flour mill where her father worked by the day, a pathetic sigh as the familiar green environs of the village passed in review, and the threads which bound her so lightly to girlhood and home were irretrievably broken." (from the 1981 edition) The president of the publishing company, Frank Doubleday, disapproved of the work – Dreiser illuminated the flaws of his characters but did not judge them and allowed vice to be rewarded instead of punished. No attempt was made to promote the book.

Sister Carrie was reissued in 1907 and it became one of the most famous novels in literary history. Among its admirers was H.L. Mencken, an aspiring journalist, whom Dreiser had hired as a ghost-writer in his paper. William Wyler's film version, starring Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones, was made at the height of the Cold War and McCarthy era. Paramount executives delayed the releasing of the film – they thought the picture was not good for America and it was a flop. "It was a depressing story", said Wyler, "and it might not have been a success anyway."

The 500 sold copies of his first novel and family troubles drove Dreiser to the verge of suicide. He worked at a variety of literary jobs, and as an editor-in-chief of three women's magazines until 1910, when he was forced to resign, because of an office love affair. Jennie Gerhardt (1911), Dreiser's second novel, told the story of a young woman, Jennie, who is seduced by a senator. She bears a child out of wedlock but sacrifices her own interests to avoid harming her lover's career. Again Dreiser drew on the life of his sisters. A passage in which Jennie's lover Lester Kane, the son of a wealthy family, tells her about contraceptives, was removed by Ripley Hitchcock, the editor at Harper & Brothers. Jennie Gerhardt was followed by novels based on the life of the American transportation magnate Charles T. Yerkes, The Financier (1912), and The Titan (1914), which show the influence of the evolutionary ideas of Herbert Spencer and Nietzsche's concept of the Übermensch. Last volume of the Frank Cowperwood trilogy, The Stoic, was finished in 1945.

"At the height of his success, when he had settled old scores and could easily have become the smiling public man, he chose instead to rip the whole fabric of American civilization straight down the middle, from its economy to its morality. It was the country that had to give ground." (Nelson Algren, in Nation, 16 May, 1959)

While in Chicago, Dreiser began an affair with the actress Elaine Hyman. His semi-autobiographical novel The "Genius" (1915) was censured by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The book remained off the market until Liveright reissued it five years later. Dreiser's commercially most successful novel was An American Tragedy (1925), which was adapted for screen for the first time in 1931, directed by Josef von Sternberg. Dreiser had objected strongly to the version because it portrayed his youthful killer as a sex-starved idle loafer. The second time was in 1951 under the title A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. During the filming the stars became attached to one another, which is reflected in the tenderness of their performance. The director George Stevens won an Academy Award, as did the writers Michael Wilson and Harry Brown for Best Screenplay. However, Robert Hatch in the New Republic (September 10,1951) dismissed the film. "Unfortunately, the power and bite of the book have been lost in the polite competence of the screen. These are such nice, such obviously successful people, they must be playing characters... there doesn't seem much use in dragging Dreiser's classic off the shelf just to dress it in this elegant, ambivalent production..." The book made Dreiser the champion of social reformers, but his later works did not attain similar notice. Also as a short story writer Dreiser never gained similar fame as a novelist. 'The Last Phoebe' (1914) was rejected by more than ten magazines, and 'Free' (1918) was criticized for promoting divorce.

An American Tragedy tells the story of a bellboy, Clyde Griffiths, indecisive like Hamlet, who sets out to gain success and fame. After an automobile accident, Clyde is employed by a distant relative, owner of a collar factory. He seduces Roberta Alden, an employee at the factory, but falls in love with Sondra Finchley, a girl of the local aristocracy. Roberta, now pregnant, demands that Clyde marry her. He takes Roberta rowing on an isolated lake and in this dreamlike sequence 'accidentally' murders her. Clyde's trial, conviction, and execution occupy the remainder of the book. Dreiser points out that materialistic society is as much to blame as the murderer himself. Dreiser based his study on the actual case of Chester Gillette, who murdered Grace Brown – he hit her with a tennis racket and pushed her overboard at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack in July 1906.

In 1927, An American Tragedy was banned in Boston after a jury declared New York publisher Donald Friede guilty of violating the Massachusetts antiobscenity statue by selling the novel. When the case went to court, neither the judge nor the members of the jury read the entire novel. Dreiser was denied the opportunity to show that he had never intended to write an indicent or obscene book.

Much of Dreiser's works evolved from his own experiences of poverty. In 1929 the stock market crash wiped out approximately half of his financial worth. Among his rare excursions into the realm of fantasy is the ghost story 'The Hand' (1920). It is a tale of murder and the haunting of the killer, but again behind the nightmare of the protagonist are the familiar themes of Dreiser's novels – fear of losing ones social position, feelings of moral guilt arising during the unrestrained struggle for success.

"People did live, then, after they were dead, especially evil people  people stronger than you, perhaps. They had the power to come back, to haunt, to annoy you if they didn't like anything you had done to them." (from 'The Hand')

Dreiser's friend Edgar Lee Masters included "Theodor the Poet" in his Spoon River Anthology (1915): "As a boy, Theodore, you sat for long hours / On the shore of the turbid Spoon / With deep-set eye staring at the door of the crawfish’s burrow, / Waiting for him to appear, pushing ahead, / First his waving antennæ, like straws of hay, / And soon his body, colored like soap-stone, / Gemmed with eyes of jet." In 1919 Sherwood Anderson wrote about Dreiser: "... he is very, very old. I do not know how many years he has lived, perhaps forty, perhaps fifty, but he is very old. Something grey and bleak and hurtful, that has been in the world perhaps forever, is personified in him." After his wife's death in 1942, Dreiser married his second cousin Helen Richardson, who had been his companion from 1919. Her grandmother, Esther Schänäb Parks and Dreiser's mother had been sisters. Helen had been married to the actor Frank Richardson. While in Hollywood, she had bit parts in movies, including Rudolph Valentino's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).

Dreiser died in Hollywood, California, on December 28, 1945. In the last months of his life, Dreiser joined the Communist Party. In the 1920's Dreiser had travelled in Russia and depicted his experiences in Dreiser Looks at Russia  (1928). During the reign of J. Edgar Hoover, Dreiser was considered a security risk and the F.B.I. had a dossier on him. Like many intellectuals in the 1930s (Hemingway, John Dos Passos, André Malraux, C. Day Lewis etc.), Dreiser had travelled to Spain during the civil war in support of the socialist government. Only a small number of writers supported Franco – George Santayana and Ezra Pound were the most famous. "He had an enormous influence on American literature during the first quarter of the century – and for a time he was American literature, the only writer worth talking about in the same breath with the European masters. Out of his passions, contradictions, and sufferings, he wrenched the art that was his salvation from the hungers and depressions that racked him. It was no wonder that he elevated the creative principle to a godhead and encouraged by word and example truthful expression in others." (from Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey 1908-1945 by Richard Lingeman, 1991)

For further reading: Theodore Dreiser by B. Rascoe (1926); Forgotten Frontiers: Dreiser and the Land of the Free by D. Dudley (1933); Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature by R.H. Elias (1949); Theodore Dreiser by F.O. Matthiessen (1951); The Stature of Theodore Dreiser, ed. by C. Shapiro and A. Kazin (1955); Theodore Dreiser by P.L. Gerber (1964); Dreiser by W.A. Swanberg (1965); Theodore Dreiser by M. Thader (1965); Theodore Dreiser: His World and His Novels by R. Lehan (1969); Homage to Theodore Dreiser by R.P. Warren (1971); Theodore Dreiser by J. Lundquist (1974); Theodore Dreiser: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography by D. Pizer (1975); The Novels of Theodore Dreiser by D. Pizer (1977); Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871-1907 by Richard Lingeman (1986); The Gospel of Wealth in the American Novel by Arun Mukherjee (1987); After Eden by Conrad Eugene Ostwalt (1990); Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey 1908-1945 by Richard Lingeman (1991); Dearest Wilding by Yvette Eastmaned, ed. by Thomas P. Riggio (1995); Love That Will Not Let Me Go, ed. by Marguerite Tjader (1998); An American Tragedy by Paul A. Orlov (1998); Dreiser and Veblen Saboteurs of the Status Quo by Clare Virginia Eby (1999); Reading the Sympton by Mohamed Zanyani (1999); The Last Titan: A Life of Theodore Dreiser by Jerome Loving (2005) - See also: H.L. Mencken

Selected works:

  • Sister Carrie, 1900
    - film: Sister Carrie, 1952, prod. Paramount Pictures, dir. by William Wyler, starring Laurence Olivier, Jennifer Jones, Miriam Hopkins. "A famous satirical novel is softened into an unwieldy narrative with scarcely enough dramatic power to sustain interest despite splendid production values. Heavy pre-release cuts remain obvious, and the general effect is depressing; but it it very good to look at." (Halliwell's Film Guide, 1987)
  • Jennie Gerhardt, 1911
    - Jennie Gerhardt: romaani (suom. Helvi Vasara, 1939)
    - film 1933, prod. B.P. Schulberg Productions, dir. by Marion Gering, starring Sylvia Sidney, Donald Cook, Mary Astor
  • The Financier, 1912
  • A Traveler at Forty, 1913 (illustrated by W. Glackens)
  • The Titan, 1914
  • The "Genius", 1915
  • A Hoosier Holiday, 1916 (with illustrations by Franklin Booth)
  • Plays of the Natural and Supernatural, 1926, 1916
  • Life, Art and America, 1917
  • Free and Other Stories, 1918
  • The Hand of the Potter:  A Tragedy in Four Acts, 1918
  • Twelve Men, 1919
    - film: My Gal Sal, 1942, prod. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, dir. Irving Cummings, starring Rita Hayworth, Victor Mature, John Sutton, Carole Landis
  • Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub: A Book of the Mystery and Wonder and Terror of Life, 1920
  • Neurotic America and the Sex Impulse and Some Aspects of Our National Character, 1920
  • A Book About Myself, 1922
  • The Color of a Great City, 1923 (illustrations by C. B. Falls)
  • An American Tragedy, 1925
    - Amerikkalainen murhenäytelmä (suom. Lauri Miettinen, 1947)
    - films: An American Tragedy, 1931, prod. Paramount Pictures, dir. by Josef von Sternberg, starring Phillips Holmes, Sylvi Sidney, Frances Dee. "It is the first time, I believe, that the subjects of sex, birth control and murder have been put into a picture with sense, taste and reality." (Pare Lorentz); A Place in the Sun, 1951, prod. Paramount Pictures, dir. by George Stevens, starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters;  Um Lugar ao Sol, TV series 1959, prod. TV Tupi (Brazil), dir. Dionísio Azevedo;  Una tragedia americana, TV mini-series 1962, prod. Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), starring Warner Bentivegna, Gabriele Antonini and Luigi Vannucchi; Americká tragédia, TV mini-series 1976, prod. Ceskoslovenská Televize Bratislava, dir. Stanislav Párnicky; Nakaw na pag-ibig, 1980, prod. Associated Entertainment Corporation (Philippines), dir. Lino Brocka
  • Moods, Cadenced and Declaimed, 1926
  • Chains: Lesser Novels and Stories, 1927
  • Dreiser Looks at Russia, 1928
  • Moods, Cadenced & Declaimed, 1928 (symbols by Hugh Gray Lieber)
  • Twelve Men, 1928 (introd. by Robert Ballou)
  • The Aspirant, 1929
  • The Carnegie Works at Pittsburgh, 1929 (decorations by Martha Colley)
  • A Gallery of Women, 1929
  • Epitaph: A Poem, 1929 (decorations by Robert Fawcett)
  • My City, 1929 (illustrated with eight etchings in color by Max Pollak)
  • Fine Furniture, 1930
  • Tragic America, 1931
  • Dawn, 1931
  • How the Great Corporations Rule the United States, 1931
  • Newspaper Days, 1931
  • Moods, Philosophic and Emotional, Cadenced and Declaimed [by] Theodore Dreiser, 1935
  • Living Thoughts of Thoreau, Presented by Theodore Dreiser, 1939
  • America Is Worth Saving, 1941
  • The Bulwark, 1946
  • The Stoic, 1947
  • The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser, 1947 (edited, with an introduction, by Howard Fast)
  • Essays and Articles, 1951 (foreword and commentary by Y. Zasursky)
  • Letters of Theodore Dreiser: A Selection, 1959 (edited with pref. and notes by Robert H. Elias)
  • Letters to Louise: Theodore Dreiser's Letters to Louise Campbell, 1959
  • Theodore Dreiser: His Autobiography, 1965 (2 vols.)
  • Selected Poems (from Moods), 1969 (with introd. and notes, by Robert Palmer Saalbach)
  • Trilogy of Desire: Three Novels, 1972 (introd. by Philip L. Gerber)
  • Notes on Life, 1974 (edited by Marguerite Tjader and John J. McAleer)
  • Theodore Dreiser: A Selection of Uncollected Prose, 1977 (edited by Donald Pizer)
  • American Diaries, 1902-1926, 1982 ( edited by Thomas P. Riggio)
  • An Amateur Laborer, 1983 (edited and introduced by Richard W. Dowell, with James L. W. West and Neda M. Westlake)
  • Selected Magzine Articles of Theodore Dreiser, 1983 (edited with an introduction and notes by Yoshinobu Hakutani)
  • Dreiser-Mencken Letters: The Correspondence of Theodore Dreiser & H.L. Mencken, 1907-1945, 1986 (2 vols., edited by Thomas P. Riggio)
  • Journalism, 1988- (edited by T.D. Nostwich)
  • Theodore Dreiser's "Head in the Corridors" Articles and Related Writings, 1988 (edited by T.D. Nostwich)
  • Fulfilment and Other Tales of Women and Men, 1992 (collected and edited by T.D. Nostwich)
  • Dreiser's Russian Diary, 1996 (edited by Thomas P. Riggio, James L.W. West III)
  • The Collected Plays of Theodore Dreiser, 2000 (includes one previously unpublished play, The Voice)
  • Art. Music and Literature, 1897-1902, 2001 (edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani)
  • Theodore Dreiser's Uncollected Magazine Articles, 1897-1902, 2003 (edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani)
  • A Picture and a Criticism of Life, 2008 (edited by Donald Pizer)
  • Letters to Women: New Letters. Volume 2, 2009 (edited by Thomas P. Riggio)
  • Political Writings, 2011 (edited by Jude Davies)

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