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Theodore Dreiser: Biographical Sketch

Theodore Dreiser
Biographical Sketch


During the Congress on Literature at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, Hamlin Garland expressed America's need for a new kind of literature. Garland called this new literature "veritism" and "local color"--something authentically American rather than derivative of Europe. At the same time, twenty-two-year-old Theodore Dreiser was in Chicago covering the World's Fair as a reporter for the St. Louis Republic. Although Dreiser did not attend the Congress on Literature, he was to play a principal role in the fulfillment of Garland's dream for American literature in the decades that followed.

(Herman) Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) was born in Terre Haute, Indiana on 27 August 1871. He was a sickly child, the ninth in a family of ten surviving children (three older boys had died in infancy). Theodore's mother, Sarah Maria Schänäb, of Czech ancestry, was reared in the Mennonite faith on a farm near Dayton, Ohio. His father, John Paul Dreiser, was a German immigrant, who left Mayen in 1844 at the age of twenty-three to avoid conscription. He eventually travelled to America to follow his trade as a weaver, ending up at a mill in Dayton, Ohio, where he met the then seventeen-year-old Sarah. John Paul Dreiser was a devout Catholic, Sarah Schänäb, somewhat Protestant and decidedly pagan in her approach to the world--she was extremely superstitious and romantic. The couple ran off together and married in 1851, Sarah not quite eighteen, John Paul then twenty-nine. Sarah was immediately disowned by her family, militant anti-Catholics.

The couple settled first in Fort Wayne, Indiana and then in Terre Haute, where John Paul became quite successful in the woolen business. There were six children in the family in 1867 when the Dreisers moved to Sullivan, Indiana and John Paul borrowed significantly in the hopes of becoming an independent wool manufacturer. These hopes were destroyed in 1869 when his factory burned to the ground. John Paul was injured severely by falling timber as he tried to save his dream. By the time he recovered and moved his family back to Terre Haute, the Dreisers were deep in debt, for John Paul insisted on paying back every dollar that he owed. Discouraged to the point of despair, he abandoned his career and became obsessed with religion and the salvation of his family.

When Theodore Dreiser was born in 1871, his family was settled firmly in the depths of poverty. There were eight older siblings: Paul, Marcus Romanus (known as Rome), Mary Frances (Mame), Emma, Theresa, Sylvia, Al, and Claire. Younger brother Ed would follow two years later. Dreiser's father was only sporadically employed. The older children were out of the home, picking up what work they could, mostly getting into trouble. The family had a reputation in Terre Haute for being behind in their bills with wild sons and flirty daughters. Each morning they knelt around the father as he asked for a blessing for the day, and there was a similar blessing each night. Despite these prayers and stern punishments at the hand of John Paul, it was too late. The older boys ran away from home; the older girls were involved in affairs. The Dreiser family was out of control, abetted by Sarah's leniency toward her children.

Young Theodore Dreiser grew up in this environment of uncertainty. He often went to bed hungry. There was no money for coal, and Theodore would go with his older brother Al to pick some up along the tracks of the railroad. His mother took in washing and worked at scrubbing and cleaning. Always sensitive, Theodore was humiliated to wear ragged clothing and to sneak coal from the tracks. He stuttered; he cried easily; he was a homely child, with protruding teeth and a cast in one eye. Thin, pale, bullied by other boys, he spent his days alone for the most part. Yet Dreiser was also intensely curious about life, watching sunrises, observing birds in flight, exploring the Indiana countryside. He hated his father's world of censored joy and authority and loved his mother's romantic dreams. Dreiser realized that his family was poor and that they were looked down upon; he dreamed of having a home like those of the wealthy on Wabash Avenue, of having money and fine clothing.

Within Theodore Dreiser's harsh world of poverty there was always a contrasting element of the fantastic. First it was his mother's world of fancy--the family constantly moved at her whim, for she was always certain that something better was just over the horizon. As he grew older, the world of the wealthy of his town became his fantasy. Then there was the fantastic success of his oldest brother, Paul Dreiser. Paul had left home, joined a minstrel troupe, and achieved much success with his musical talents. Writing, singing, and performing in minstrel shows, he even changed his name to Paul Dresser, which he felt would be more memorable to his public.

When Theodore was twelve he moved with his mother to Chicago where his older sisters had secured an apartment. Again there was the fantastic contrast of his old life in a small Indiana town to the city, with its size, its activity, and its color. The ways of the city would continue to fascinate Dreiser throughout his life. When the venture in Chicago failed, Theodore's mother moved him to Warsaw, Indiana, near where she had some land that had been left to her by her father.

It was in Warsaw that Theodore first attended a non-Catholic school. Instead of the fear and trepidation of his earlier education, he found encouragement, first in the person of twenty-one-year old May Calvert, his seventh grade teacher. Miss Calvert took an interest in Theodore, encouraging him to use the local library and his imagination. She remained his life-long friend and confidant. At the age of seventeen, in a hardware store in Chicago where Theodore had found work, he met up with a former teacher, Mildred Fielding, now principal of a Chicago high school. Miss Fielding had seen promise in him as well, thought him deserving, and wanted to send him to Indiana University at her own expense. In the fall of 1889 Dreiser arrived at the Bloomington campus.

Dreiser spent only a year at Indiana University. The experience showed him a world of possibilities, but he felt socially outcast and unsuccessful and was not really stimulated by any of his courses. Theodore returned home, now almost nineteen years old, and found a job in a real estate office. He enjoyed some success in this field and gained a bit of confidence. That fall, however, his mother became ill. On 14 November 1890, Theodore came home for lunch to find her in bed. As he helped her sit up, she went limp: Sarah Dreiser died in her son's arms at the age of fifty-seven. Theodore, always his mother's favorite because he was so slight and sensitive, felt alone in the world. The Dreiser family, only held together at this point by Sarah's love for all, fell irreparably apart.

Theodore drifted into one job after another: driver for a laundry; collector for a furniture store. While these jobs provided him with an income, none allowed for the expression of ambition and artistic ability that he felt within. In his memoirs Dreiser stated that it occurred to him at that time that newspaper reporters were men of importance and dignity, who by dint of interviewing the great were perceived their equal. It was now 1892 and Theodore had returned to Chicago, which was preparing for the upcoming World's Fair and the Democratic National Convention. Dreiser was curious enough about these events to write his own news stories about them, finding his to be as good as those published in the papers. In June of 1892--after much determined footwork on his part-- Theodore Dreiser landed a job on the Chicago Globe.

Dreiser's intense curiosity about life was well-suited to work as an investigative journalist. In Chicago and later, in 1893 when he went to St. Louis to work for the Globe-Democrat and the Republic, Dreiser became known for his human interest pieces and "on-the-scene" reporting style: his articles were written in a manner that put the reader at the tragedy of a local fire or the action of a public debate.

It was at the Republic in 1893 that Dreiser was given the job of escorting twenty female St. Louis school teachers to the Chicago World's fair and to write about their activities on the journey. One of these was Sara Osborne White, twenty-four and two years older than Dreiser. She came from Montgomery City, seventy-five miles west of St. Louis. Dreiser fell in love with her figure, dark eyes, and thick red hair (it was this last feature which led her friends and family to call her by the nickname "Jug," for her hair was so thick around her face that it was said to resemble a red jug). Dreiser, desiring her and aching for a chance to fulfill his always pressing sexual needs, took little time to propose.

Dreiser, however, was also driven by a desire for fame. His brother Paul showed up in St. Louis, and his talk of New York was alluring. Theodore was ready for a change. A young reporter friend on the Republic told him of a country weekly in his home town of Grand Rapids, Ohio, which could be purchased for very little. Dreiser thought that he could have great success on his own. In 1894, with promises to send for Jug soon, Dreiser boarded a train for Ohio.

He arrived to find that the paper was small, with a subscribership of less than five hundred. The office was a shambles. There wasn't enough to it to even attempt to make a go, Dreiser thought. He moved on to Toledo, where he asked for a job from the city editor of the Toledo Blade, twenty-six year old Arthur Henry. The two men got along quite well, and Henry found a few reporting assignments for Dreiser. Henry was an aspiring poet and novelist; Dreiser was aspiring to be a playwright. The men spent hours in talk about their literary dreams. Unfortunately, no permanent opening materialized at the Blade, and Dreiser moved on to Cleveland to look for work. After doing some feature work for the Leader, he moved to Pittsburgh in the same year, where he immersed himself in research and articles concerning labor disputes that had culminated in the Great Strike of 1892 at Homestead. From there he went to New York and received a job at Pulitzer's paper, The World, which was leading the fight in the yellow journalism war against Hearst's Journal. He covered a streetcar strike in Brooklyn by actually going out and riding the rails during the strike to see angry workers confronting scab drivers. He later incorporated these impressions into his first novel, Sister Carrie.

Dreiser was drawn to the contrasts between the wealthy and the poverty stricken in New York. He quit his job at The World after only a few months, because he wasn't being allowed to produce the type of human interest stories that he thought should be told. He then lived for awhile with his sister Emma, where he took in the life of the downcast. At last he turned up at the New York offices of Howley, Haviland & Company, the music publishing firm run by his brother Paul and associates. He proposed to the men the idea of selling a magazine of popular songs, stories, and pictures. He would edit the magazine and it would help sell the company's songs. Thus, in 1895 Dreiser became "Editor-Arranger" for Ev'ry Month, "the Woman's Magazine of Literature and Music." In addition to writing his own "Reflections" column for each issue--in which he set forth his philosophies on such varied topics as the possibility of life on Mars, working conditions in the sweat shops, yellow journalism, and the plight of New York's poor--Dreiser also solicited syndicated stories by the better known American writers of his day, such as Stephen Crane and Bret Harte.

After he left Ev'ry Month in 1897, Dreiser freelanced articles for various magazines. He was one of the original contributors to Success magazine, for which he interviewed the successful men of his time: Andrew Carnegie, Marshall Field, Philip D. Armour, Thomas Edison, and Robert Todd Lincoln. As the twentieth century approached, Dreiser wrote articles on the advances of technology, with titles like "The Horseless Age" and "The Harlem River Speedway" for some of the most popular magazines of the day, such as Leslie's, Munsey's, Ainslee's, Metropolitan, Cosmopolitan, and Demorest's. He compiled the first article ever written about Alfred Stieglitz, who seemed to combine in one Dreiser's interest in art and technology.

This writing set him in good straits financially. He now could afford to marry Jug, a marriage that, in spite of second thoughts on his part, he undertook in a very small ceremony in Washington, D.C., on 28 December 1898. The Dreisers took up residence in New York, but in the summer of 1899, at the request of Arthur Henry, made an extended visit to Ohio. Henry thought that it was time for Dreiser to work on his fiction.

Together the two men spent the summer churning out articles and splitting the money that they earned fifty-fifty, thus giving each the time to work on his literary endeavors. When he returned to New York in the fall of 1899, Dreiser began Sister Carrie. At the same time he became interested in the plight of workers in the South. He did a series of special articles for Pearson's Magazine, which included investigations of a "Model Farm" in South Carolina, Delaware's "Blue Laws," and Georgia's "Chain Gangs." All three dealt with society's punishment of those who transgressed, a theme that Dreiser would investigate thoroughly in his novels. In addition, Dreiser wrote one article, entitled "The Training of the Senses" (which remained unpublished), on the inventor Elmer Gates, who had invested the money gained from his inventions on a facility for psychological research: it was called the Elmer Gates Laboratory of Psychology and Psychurgy. Gate's studies of learning, perception, the physiological effects of the emotions, and the will underlay the ways in which Dreiser shaped Hurstwood's actions in Sister Carrie.

Journalism remained a steady source of income for Dreiser throughout his life and supported his literary endeavors--he became a top editor for Butterick's Delineator in 1907, a silent publisher of the Bohemian in 1909, and in the 1930s an editor of The American Spectator. The events that led up to the publication of Sister Carrie in 1900, however, began a new phase in Dreiser's career--that of the heavily-edited novelist. Before the book was published, Dreiser was forced to change all names that could be attached to any existing firms or corporations. All "swearing" was to be removed. Frank Doubleday demanded that the novel have a more romantic title, and on the original contract the work bears the name "The Flesh and the Spirit," with Dreiser's "Sister Carrie" penciled in beside it. Editing was performed even after Dreiser returned the author's proofs to Doubleday, Page & Co. When Frank Doubleday read the final draft, he pronounced the book "immoral" and "badly written" and wanted to back out of its publication. Dreiser held Doubleday, Page to its word, however, and Sister Carrie was printed; but only 1,000 copies rolled off the presses, and 450 of these remained unbound. It was not listed in the Doubleday, Page catalogue. The firm refused to advertise the work in any way. A London edition of Sister Carrie (published in 1901), however, did well and was favorably reviewed. The London Daily Mail said: "At last a really strong novel has come from America."

Dreiser would spend his entire literary career struggling with editors, publishers, and various political agencies, all of whom desired to make his works "suitable for the public." Although Dreiser began his second novel, Jennie Gerhardt (1911) on 6 Jaunuary 1901, his intense dissatisfaction with the changes and complaints that the publishers had made to Sister Carrie, caused him to lose his health and delayed completion of Jennie Gerhardt for nearly ten years. In 1916 Dreiser, along with H. L. Mencken, fought against the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice when its president, John Sumner, forced withdrawal of The "Genius" (published in 1915) from bookstore shelves. The fight dragged on through 1918, and The "Genius" remained in storerooms until 1923, when it was re-issued by Horace Liveright.

In 1927 Liveright was to become involved in Dreiser's battle for freedom of literary expression, when Dreiser's An American Tragedy (1925), the story of the Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case, was banned in Boston. Clarence Darrow was a witness for the defense. The case lingered in the courts, at great expense to both Dreiser and the Liveright firm.

Between beginning the writing of The "Genius" and publishing An American Tragedy, Dreiser was prolific. He published the first two novels in his Cowperwood trilogy, The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914); a book of travel articles entitled A Traveler At Forty (1913); a collection of plays, Plays of the Natural and Supernatural (1916); and a travelogue of his experiences on a car trip through his home state of Indiana, A Hoosier Holiday (1916). These were followed with Free and Other Stories in 1918; Twelve Men in 1919; The Hand of the Potter (a Tragedy in Four Acts) also in 1919; Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub in 1920; A Book About Myself, 1922; and The Color of A Great City in 1923.

In the meantime, Dreiser was beginning a third phase in his career, champion of freedom in all aspects of life. He made his first trip to Europe in 1912, and in London he picked up a prostitute and cross-examined her about life. He visited the House of Commons and was sickened by the slums of the East End. This experience reinforced Dreiser's distaste for the British class system and may have had something to do with his sympathy for Germany during World War I. Back home in the United States he tried to organize a society to subsidize art and championed the causes of oppressed artists like himself.

After the publication of An American Tragedy, Dreiser was more highly sought after by political organizations than before. In 1926, while visiting Europe, he commented on the events occurring in Germany: "Can one indict an entire people?" The answer, he felt, was yes. In 1927 Dreiser was invited to the U.S.S.R. by the Soviet Government. The Soviets thought that Dreiser's opinion of their nation would have weight in America and that he would be favorable to their system of government (Dreiser's books sold well in the Soviet Union). During the visit Dreiser met with Soviet heads of state, Russian literary critics, movie directors, and even Bill Haywood, former American labor leader. Dreiser kept extensive journals of the trip. He approved of the divorce of religion from the state, praised new schools and hospitals, but was repelled by the condition of hundreds of stray children scattered about the country. In 1928 Dreiser visited London, where he met with Winston Churchill, with whom he discussed Russia's social and military importance. He also took time to criticize the working conditions of mill workers in England.

Dreiser escalated these political involvements throughout his life. He helped bring former Hungarian premier Count Michael Károly to the United States after the Communist takeover in 1930. During the 1930s he addressed protest rallies on behalf of Tom Mooney, whom he visited in San Quentin, where Mooney was serving a term for his alleged participation in a bombing incident in San Francisco. Dreiser met with Sir Rabindranath Tagore in 1930 to discuss the success of the Soviet government and the hopes of India. In 1931 Dreiser cooperated with the International Labor Defense Organization and took an active part in the social reform program of the American Writers' League, of which he would later become president.

In 1931, as chairman of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, Dreiser organized a special committee to infiltrate Kentucky's Harlan coal mines to investigate allegations of crimes and abuses against striking miners. Dreiser's life was threatened for calling attention to the matter. Dreiser, John Dos Passos, and others on the "Dreiser Committee," as it was called, were indicted by the Bell County Grand Jury for criminal syndicalism, and a warrant was issued for Dreiser's arrest. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Governor of New York at the time, said he would grant Dreiser an open hearing, and John W. Davis agreed to defend the Committee. Due to widespread publicity and public sentiment, however, all formal charges against Dreiser and the Committee were dropped.

Dreiser became even more involved with social reform after this incident. In 1932 he met with members of the Communist Party in the United States. Dreiser criticized the U. S. Communist Party for being too disorganized. That year he was invited to write for a new literary magazine that would be free of advertising, the American Spectator. Dreiser became and remained associate editor of the paper until other editors agreed to accept advertising, at which point he resigned. In 1937 Dreiser attended an international peace conference in Paris, because he was interested in the outcome of the Spanish Civil War. When he returned from Europe, he visited with President Roosevelt to discuss the problem and to try to influence him to send aid to Spain. In 1939 Dreiser again traveled to Washington, D.C. and to New York to lecture for the Committee for Soviet Friendship and American Peace Mobilization. He published pamphlets at his own expense and radio addresses. He published America Is Worth Saving, a work concerning economics and intended to convince Americans to avoid involvement in World War II. In 1945, just before his death, Dreiser joined the Communist Party to signify his protest against America's involvement in the war.

During these years, Dreiser was still publishing--articles, poems, pamphlets, leaflets, and novels. In 1926 he brought out an edition of poetry, Moods: Cadenced and Declaimed. Chains followed in 1927, a book of short stories and "lesser novels." Other works include: Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928); The Carnegie Works at Pittsburgh (written in 1899 but privately published in 1929); A Gallery of Women (1929); My City (1929); Fine Furniture (1930); Dawn (1931); Tragic America (1931); and America Is Worth Saving (1941). In addition, Dreiser was working on several things at the time of his death, some of which were published posthumously: The Bulwark (1946); The Stoic (1947); and a philosophical and scientific treatise that would later be edited and published by Marguerite Tjader and John J. McAleer and titled Notes on Life (1974).

There were many sides to Theodore Dreiser, beyond his literary and political efforts. He was greatly interested in scientific research and development; he collected a great many books and much information on the latest scientific concerns. In 1928 he met Jacques Loeb of the Rockefeller Institute and visited the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Later visits to the Mt. Wilson Observatory in California and the California Institute of Technology would impress him greatly. He had a long-standing correspondence with Dr. A. A. Brill, psychologist, who was largely responsible for introducing Jungian and Freudian analysis to New York. He also championed the works of Charles Fort, a "free-thinker" who was determined to establish that science was "unscientific" and that his own vision of the universe as a place where "anything could happen and did" (Swanberg, 224) was the correct one. Dreiser was particularly fascinated with genetics, which he felt explored the true "mysteries of life." In 1933, he attended the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, specifically with the intent of working on a number of scientific essays, which he continued to compile over his lifetime (and which would later find their way into Notes On Life).

Another area of special interest for Dreiser was philosophy, a subject that he explored in great detail and about which he collected and wrote extensively. His tastes ranged from Spencer to Loeb and from Freudianism to Marxism. His published and unpublished writings indicate that Dreiser drew heavily on such philosophers and philosophies to confirm his own views of the nature of man and life.

No biography of Theodore Dreiser would be complete, however, if it did not touch upon his personal life: as one friend put it, it is hard to understand how Dreiser could be so concerned about humanity and at the same time so utterly cruel to an individual. His marriage to Sara Osborne White was on shaky ground from the start: he never seemed able to devote himself to one woman. As Sara herself put it: "All his life [Theo] has had an uncontrollable urge when near a woman to lay his hand upon her and stroke her or otherwise come into contact with her" (Swanberg, 137). The two separated in 1910, with Sara returning to Missouri for a time (she would later move to New York on her own) and Dreiser moving on to other women. In 1919, Helen Patges Richardson, a second cousin to Dreiser (her grandmother and Dreiser's mother were sisters), showed up at his doorstep. She would become Dreiser's companion for the rest of his life; they eventually married in 1944. Their relationship was stormy at best: Dreiser never changing his ways with regard to other women, Helen persisting--perhaps beyond all reason--in her devotion to his genius. As she phrased it: "He expected his complete freedom, in which he could indulge to the fullest, at the same time expecting my undivided devotion to him" (Swanberg, 290). In November 1951 Helen had the first of several strokes that would eventually incapacitate her; she moved to Oregon to live with her sister, Myrtle Butcher, and died in 1955.

In addition to his infidelities with regard to women, Dreiser's professional relationships were periodically marred by scandal. He was in the habit of lifting material directly from sources and including it, for the most part, unchanged in his works. Many readers of An American Tragedy, for example, who lived in the Herkimer County area (where the Chester Gillete-Grace Brown incident had occurred), wrote to Dreiser concerned that his book contained sentences lifted directly from court documents or local newspapers. In 1926 it was announced by a knowing reader that Dreiser's poem "The Beautiful," published in the October issue of Vanity Fair, was a plagiarism of Sherwood Anderson's poem "Tandy." Since Dreiser and Anderson were friends, the incident blew over rather quickly.

Such was not the case, however, in 1928, when Dorothy Thompson accused Dreiser of plagiarizing her serialized newspaper articles regarding her trip to Russia (she and Dreiser had been there together) in his book Dreiser Looks At Russia (Ms. Thompson had published these articles in her own collected work, The New Russia, two months prior to Dreiser's publication). Ms. Thompson filed suit against Dreiser, and the press took Dreiser to task on this and earlier cribs. Although Dorothy Thompson eventually dropped her suit, it colored the opinion of some of Dreiser's colleagues towards his works. It also led to another ugly incident in 1931, when at a dinner at the Metropolitan Club honoring visiting Russian novelist, Boris Pilnyak, Sinclair Lewis (Dorothy Thompson's husband and that year's winner of the Nobel Prize in literature) stood up to speak to the gathered literary notables and, after stating his pleasure at meeting Mr. Pilnyak, added: "But I do not care to speak in the presence of one man who has plagiarized 3,000 words from my wife's book on Russia" (Swanberg, 372). At the end of the reception that followed, Dreiser walked over to Lewis and demanded explanation. Lewis repeated his accusation, at which point, Dreiser slapped his face. Lewis, undaunted, repeated the accusation a third time and received a second slap. Again, the incident was widely publicized in the papers and fueled an aversion on the part of many for Dreiser's private self.

Yet despite his personal and public scandals, Dreiser's achievements in establishing a truly American literature and his one-man crusade for social justice set standards for those of his time and those who would follow. Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell, Edgar Lee Masters, H. L. Mencken, Upton Sinclair--these and many others-- acknowledged publicly or privately a debt owed to the example of Dreiser. In a final tribute to Dreiser, upon his death in 1945, H. L. Mencken wrote:

. . . no other American of his generation left so wide and handsome a mark upon the national letters. American writing, before and after his time, differed almost as much as biology before and after Darwin. He was a man of large originality, of profound feeling, and of unshakeable courage. All of us who write are better off because he lived, worked and hoped. (Swanberg, 527)
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