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One of the most prominent naturalistic authors in the United States during the early twentieth century, Theodore Dreiser was an instrumental figure in promoting a realistic portrayal of life in America. He is best known for his novels Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925), both of which paint unflattering portraits of American culture before and after the turn of the twentieth century.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Career in Journalism Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana; he was the twelfth of thirteen children. His father, a German immigrant, had been a successful businessman, but a series of reversals left the family in poverty by the time of Dreiser’s birth, and the family members were often separated as they sought work in different cities. While Dreiser did not excel as a student, he did receive encouragement from a high school teacher who paid Dreiser’s tuition when he entered the University of Indiana in 1889. Dreiser was acutely self-conscious about differences between himself and wealthier, better-looking classmates, and he attended the university for only one year. On leaving, he worked at a variety of jobs, including a part-time position in the offices of the Chicago Herald that kindled in him an interest in journalism, and in April 1891 he obtained a post with the Chicago Globe. After several years as a reporter in Chicago, Dreiser pursued a career as a newspaper and magazine writer in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and New York. Commentators maintain that his years as a journalist were instrumental in developing the exhaustively detailed literary style that is the hallmark of his fiction.
In New York, Dreiser supported himself—and, after 1898, his wife—with freelance magazine writing and editing while he worked on the manuscript of Sister Carrie (1900), a story about a woman who moves to Chicago, becomes a prostitute, and eventually achieves success as an actress. The novel was not promoted by the publisher, and it sold poorly. Marital difficulties and failing health further contributed to Dreiser’s suffering from severe depression. After not working for several years, he was aided by an older brother, who had become a successful music-hall performer and songwriter under the name Paul Dresser. Dresser arranged for his brother to recuperate at a health resort and then helped him find work. Dreiser later credited several years of light manual labor with restoring his mental as well as physical health.
In 1905, Dreiser resumed freelance magazine writing and editing, and over the next two years he rose to the editorship of three prominent women’s magazines. He lost this position in 1907 because of a scandal involving his romantic pursuit of a coworker’s teenage daughter; that same year Sister Carrie, which had been received favorably in England, was reissued to positive reviews and good sales in the United States.
The Trilogy of Desire Over the next eighteen years, Dreiser published a succession of novels to widely varied but rarely indifferent critical notice. His next novel was The Financier (1912), the first in the Cowperwood series, or Trilogy of Desire. It described the life and career of businessman Frank Algernon Cowperwood. Both The Financier and The Titan (1914), the second volume of the trilogy, utilized imagery based on Darwinian evolutionary theory and offered somewhat didactic presentations of Dreiser’s deterministic philosophy. Influenced by Charles Darwin, the economic determinism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and the forerunners of literary naturalism—Hippolyte Taine, Edmond and Jules Goncourt, and Emile Zola—these novels outline Dreiser’s “chemicomechanistic” concept of life as little more than a series of “chemisms,” or chemical reactions. Cowper-wood’s rise, fall, and second triumph in the world of high finance are recounted with a journalistic attention to detail that some commentators contend becomes an overly extensive listing of discrete facts. The third volume of the trilogy, The Stoic (1947), is considered vastly inferior to its predecessors. It concludes with the death of Cowperwood and the dispersal of his fortune and ends on an incongruous note of Eastern mysticism, which was an interest of Dreiser’s second wife.
Attempts at Suppression
Dreiser’s fifth novel, The “Genius” (1915), was controversial for its portrayal of the artist as a person who is beyond conventional moral codes. Commentators maintain that this semiautobiographical work is Dreiser’s thinly veiled self-justification of his own behavior and view some unflatteringly portrayed characters as Dreiser’s revenge upon those who, he believed, had mistreated or misunderstood him. Sales of The “Genius” were initially good and early reviews largely favorable; however, in the year following its publication The Genius”” came to the attention of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which labeled the book immoral and sought to block its distribution. Like other Americans of German descent, Dreiser was castigated and labeled “unpatriotic” during World War I (1914-1918). H. L. Mencken, who disapproved of the book on artistic grounds, nevertheless circulated a protest against the suppression of The Genius””. The protest was signed by hundreds of prominent American and British authors, including Robert Frost, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, and H. G. Wells.
A Career as Novelist Leads to Activism
The publication of An American Tragedy (1925) established Dreiser as among the country’s foremost novelists then living. In this story the protagonist, Clyde Griffiths, leaves his religious upbringing in Kansas City behind and travels to New York, where he is ruined by the American system. The book was inspired by and closely modeled on the real-life murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette in 1906. Dreiser had studied the case for years, and he was interested not only in the scandalous details of the murder but also in the social-class inequalities that drove the ambitious Gillette to kill his girlfriend. The book was a popular success and brought Dreiser financial security until the Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash of October 1929. Following An American Tragedy, Dreiser became involved in social and political affairs. He went to Russia in 1927 to observe the results of the Communist Revolution, and he published his findings in Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928). He also joined investigations of labor conditions in Kentucky coal mines in 1931.
Ideological Reversal and Activism
In his final novel, The Bulwark (1946), Dreiser seemingly repudiated both naturalism and the pessimistic determinism that informs his earlier novels. In The Bulwark the moral scruples of a Quaker businessman, Solon Barnes, conflict with the reality of American business dealings. In a reversal for Dreiser, Barnes, who upholds traditional mores and values, is portrayed sympathetically.
Dreiser published four autobiographical works, A Traveler at Forty (1913), A Hoosier Holiday (1916), A Book about Myself (1922), and Dawn (1931), as well as volumes of poetry, short stories, sketches, and essays, many of the latter pertaining to his social and political activism. Attention to this aspect of Dreiser’s life exceeded the critical attention given his literary works during the 1930s and 1940s. At the time of his death on December 28, 1945, Dreiser was better known as a social and political activist than as a novelist. He had not published a novel in twenty years, and his career as a novelist was considered by many to have ended with An American Tragedy.
Works in Literary Context
As one of the principal American exponents of literary naturalism at the turn of the century, Dreiser led the way for a generation of writers seeking to present a detailed and realistic portrait of American life. The philosophy of Herbert Spencer and the realism of Honore de Balzac influenced Dreiser’s beliefs and written work.
Naturalism and Biological Determinism
Naturalism was a movement in literature that sought to portray events and characters as realistically as possible. Another important element of naturalism is the idea that a story’s characters should be primarily affected by their environ mental, social, and genetic circumstances. In such novels as Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, Dreiser departs from traditional plots in which hard work and perseverance inevitably yield success and happiness. Instead, he depicts the world as an arena of largely random occurrences. For example, Sister Carrie differs markedly from the gentility and timidity that characterized much realistic fiction during the nineteenth century. Dreiser uncompromisingly detailed the events that led his protagonist first into prostitution and then, as if the author were pointedly avoiding a moral, to the attainment of success and financial security as an actress. The novel illustrates Dreiser’s interpretation of complex human relationships as purely biological functions: Carrie exhibits what has been called ”neo-Darwinian adaptability,” surviving and prospering because she is able to adjust to whatever advantageous situations develop.
Critique of the American Dream
An American Tragedy is considered Dreiser’s most important work. Although some critics deplored Dreiser’s stylistic and grammatical flaws—Mencken labeled his lack ”of what may be called literary tact”—they considered An American Tragedy a powerful indictment of the gulf between American ideals of wealth and influence, and the opportunities available for their realization. The entire American system is blamed for the destruction of Clyde Griffiths, a weak-willed individual who aspires to the American dream of success.
Many commentators contend that Dreiser’s chief importance is one of influence. His sprawling, flawed, but powerful novels helped to establish the conventions of modern naturalism.
Works in Critical Context
Many conservative critics, who favored the gentility and Puritan moralism characteristic of most writing at the time, attacked Dreiser’s works for their awkward prose style, inadequately conveyed philosophy, and excessive length and detail. Nevertheless, he won the regard of other commentators for his powerful characterizations and strong ideological convictions in novels considered among the most notable achievements of twentieth-century literature. During his lifetime, the closest Dreiser got to winning a major literary award was when he was the runner-up for the 1930 Nobel Prize in Literature. The award went instead to Sinclair Lewis, who acknowledged Dreiser in his acceptance speech.
An American Tragedy
Reaction to An American Tragedy was generally positive. In a New Republic article, Irving Howe called the novel ”a masterpiece, nothing less,” observing that in this work the author ”mines his talent to its very depth.” Joseph Warren Beach, author of The Twentieth Century Novel: Studies in Technique (1932), asserted that An American Tragedy ”is doubtless the most neatly constructed of all Dreiser’s novels, as well as the best written.” Still, a number of reviewers found flaws in the book, most of which concerned problems that a number of critics found in all of Dreiser’s books. For example, Arnold Bennett, author of The Savour of Life: Essays in Gusto (1928) withheld his recommendation of An American Tragedy because it is written abominably, by a man who evidently despises style, elegance, clarity, even grammar. Dreiser simply does not know how to write, never did know, never wanted to know.” The Shape of Books to Come (1944) author, J. Donald Adams, added that ”Dreiser’s thinking was never more confused and never more sentimental than it was in the writing of An American Tragedy.”
Reevaluation of Dreiser’s literary reputation began with the posthumous publication of The Bulwark (1946) and The Stoic (1947). Widely varied critical opinions still stand regarding the merit of Dreiser’s individual novels, with the exception of An American Tragedy, which is almost uniformly regarded a masterpiece of American literature.
- Bloom, Harold, ed. Twentieth Century American Literature, Volume 2. New York: Chelsea House, 1986,pp. 1124-1154.
- Dudley, Dorothy. Dreiser and the Land of the Free. New York: Beechhurst, 1946.
- Elias, Robert H. Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970.
- Hakutani, Yoshinobu. Young Dreiser: A Critical Study. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1980.
- Moers, Ellen. Two Dreisers. New York: Viking, 1969.
- Swanberg, William Andrew. Dreiser. New York: Scribner’s, 1965.
- Hakutani, Yoshinobu. ”Theodore Dreiser’s Editorial and Free-Lance Writing.” Library Chronicle 37 (Winter 1971): 70-85.
- Katz, Joseph. ”Theodore Dreiser. Ev’ry Month.” Library Chronicle 38 (Winter 1972): 44-66.
- Pizer, Donald, Richard W. Dowell, and Frederic E. Rusch. Theodore Dreiser References. Retrieved October 23, 2008, from http://sceti.library. upenn.edu/dreiser/References.pdf.
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