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Theodore Dreiser Papers: Scope and Content

Theodore Dreiser Papers
Scope and Content


The Theodore Dreiser Collection at the University of Pennsylvania Library is the principal repository for books and documents concerning Dreiser's personal and literary life. The collection at large includes Dreiser's own library and comprehensive holdings in both American and foreign editions of his writings, as well as secondary works. At the heart of the collection, however, are the Theodore Dreiser Papers. They comprise 503 boxes and include correspondence; manuscripts of published and unpublished writings; notes; diaries; journals edited by Dreiser; biographical material; memorabilia, including scrapbooks, photographs, postcards, promotional material, art, and personal possessions; financial and legal records; clippings covering Dreiser's literary life, beginning with his career as a newspaper reporter in the 1890s; and microfilms of material housed in this and other collections. Also contained in the Papers are correspondence, works, and memorabilia of Dreiser's brother, Paul Dresser; his second wife, Helen Patges (Richardson) Dreiser; and his niece, Vera Dreiser Scott. Finally, the Papers include works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that were sent to Dreiser, as well as works that were written about him. Although the Papers contain documents dated as early as 1858 and as late as 1982, the bulk of the materials falls between the years 1897 and 1955.

Dreiser's initial bequest of materials to the University of Pennsylvania occurred in 1942; shipments continued until 1955, the last following Helen Dreiser's death. Gifts and purchases have enriched Penn's Dreiser Collection, including the Papers, to such an extent that little of significance regarding Dreiser's life and work is unavailable to the researcher working at Penn.

It is no accident that the University of Pennsylvania became the home for Theodore Dreiser's Papers. Historically, the study of American literature was undervalued by English literature departments, which often exhibited a provincial subservience to English letters. At the University of Pennsylvania, however, pioneers like Arthur Hobson Quinn began teaching courses in the American novel in 1912 and in American drama in 1917. Dr. Quinn believed that one reason for the neglect of American writing in colleges was that "the literature had been approached as though it were in a vacuum, divorced from unique historical and economic conditions which had produced it." Emphasizing the necessity for an historical approach to the subject, he was instrumental in the adoption in 1939 of a curriculum in American studies by the graduate school of the University of Pennsylvania and in 1942 by the undergraduate school.

Other Penn faculty, such as E. Sculley Bradley and Robert Spiller, shared Dr. Quinn's devotion to and assessment of American studies. They actively sought to acquire the research materials that they deemed essential to an historical approach. In the late 1930s, Robert Elias, a graduate student in the English Department at Penn, sought out Dreiser in order to use Dreiser's papers for his doctoral dissertation. Penn faculty then approached Dreiser about depositing his collection with the University. Dreiser was aware of his place in the evolution of American literature and of the value of his papers to scholars and collectors. His first literary bequest was the manuscript of Sister Carrie, which was a gift to his friend H. L. Mencken. Dreiser and Mencken often discussed the final disposition of their papers and agreed that settling on one institution for an entire collection was better than dividing it among several.

Unfortunately, during periods of financial insecurity throughout his lifetime, Dreiser offered various pieces of his literary legacy to collectors or auctioneers in return for ready cash. Some of the manuscripts that were sold have found their way back to his own collection at Penn through donations or purchases, but writings not accounted for here or in other collections are presumed to be in private hands or lost. It is unlikely that Dreiser himself destroyed them, although others close to him may have done so to protect their privacy. He blamed his first wife, Sara White Dreiser, for the destruction of the first manuscript of The "Genius", and it is known that she and her relatives destroyed some of his letters to her and bowdlerized others that are held by the University of Indiana.

Although the University of Pennsylvania has the largest and most comprehensive collection of Dreiser's papers, there are some gaps in its coverage. Over the years, Penn has acquired photocopies and microfilms of some holdings from other collections, which are mentioned either in the container list or in an appendix. A study of the series description and the container list confirms that, with few exceptions, even those writing projects for which gaps exist are represented by enough material to give the researcher a sense of Dreiser's plan for the work and its evolution as he worked it out from manuscript to publication. An annotated list of institutions with significant holdings on Dreiser can be found in Theodore Dreiser: A Primary Bibliography and Reference Guide (2nd ed.), by Donald Pizer, Richard W. Dowell, and Frederic E. Rusch (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1991).

Dreiser was a prolific writer and correspondent and one who saved almost everything he wrote, from the initial notes for a piece of writing to the discarded pages from revised manuscripts. In addition to preserving his manuscripts, Dreiser saved incoming personal and business correspondence and made carbons of outgoing correspondence, especially after he began to have regular secretarial help in the 1920s. He was a compulsive rewriter of his own work and enlisted the aid of friends, associates, and professional editors in the work of revision. After a manuscript was transformed into a typescript, carbons of it were often circulated among his associates for their editorial suggestions. Many of these copies, in addition to the drafts Dreiser revised himself, are housed in this collection, so it is possible to determine some of the influences on Dreiser's work and to better understand the way Dreiser carried out the process of writing.

Correspondence is arranged alphabetically by correspondent and then chronologically within each correspondent's file. Items of incoming and outgoing correspondence are interfiled. Care should be taken by researchers not to remove or misplace the white interleaving sheets found in many folders; this paper is acting as a barrier to keep carbons of outgoing correspondence from acid-staining original letters housed next to them.

Unidentified correspondence is housed immediately after the alphabetical correspondence files. Following the "Unidentified Correspondence" are two additional series of correspondence, one entitled "Miscellaneous Correspondence," the other "Legal Matters." "Miscellaneous Correspondence" comprises two case files, one of materials relating to or collected by Estelle Kubitz Williams, the other of correspondence relating to exhibitions or the collecting of Dreiser's works by the Los Angeles Public Library. "Legal Matters" consists of six distinct files pertaining to various legal matters involving Dreiser. The governing criteria for separating correspondence from the alphabetical correspondence file was whether the material in a file was collected primarily by Theodore or Helen Dreiser or by someone else. This rule explains why two other series, entitled "Paul Dresser Materials" and "Vera Dreiser Correspondence" have been separated from the alphabetical correspondence files and housed later in the collection under the general title "Family Members." (It should be noted that, while "Paul Dresser Materials" contains a large addition of materials from outside sources, many items in it were indeed collected by Theodore and Helen Dreiser; this file became so large, however, and contained so much material that was not correspondence that the decision was made to separate it from the main body of correspondence.)

In organizing the manuscripts in this collection, consideration was given to Dreiser's habits of writing, his own presumed plan or arrangement of his papers, the scope of Penn's actual holdings, and the needs of researchers. The fact that the bulk of this collection has been at the University of Pennsylvania since the late 1940s and was opened to scholars before being completely processed makes Dreiser's own organizational schema difficult to determine in 1990. It is known that even before his papers were shipped to the University of Pennsylvania they were reordered several times by his wife or assistants. It is also known that during the preliminary sorting at Penn related items that had arrived clipped together were separated, and no record was kept of their original arrangement. Over the years users of the collection have rearranged files and papers to suit the purposes of their own research and have neglected to restore what they moved to its original order. Most unfortunately, some papers that arrived with the collection in the 1940s have disappeared.

How did Dreiser's habits of research and writing influence the final arrangement of the papers? It is important to remember that he was an extremely productive writer in many genres: novels, essays, short stories, poetry, playscripts, and screenplays. Because his funds were often low, he wanted to recycle his publications so that they generated more than one income. For example, he wrote novel-length works but hoped to sell to the periodicals short pieces adapted from these longer works and thus to collect a book royalty as well as a payment for the extracted piece. He followed this process in reverse: manuscripts originally sold and published as essays, poems, or short stories were often combined later and sold as book-length units. Some books, such as An American Tragedy, were adapted into playscripts and motion picture screenplays and thus could be marketed again. How to order these related writings both to preserve their integrity as particular genres and to show their relationship to one another was an important consideration in processing Dreiser's papers.

Because many of Dreiser's essays, short stories, poems, and playscripts were published both individually in periodicals and later as parts of collections of similar works, they could have been filed with others of the same genre or collected under the book title Dreiser eventually chose for them. Researchers should check the container list under TD Writings: Books and the appendices for other relevant genres because sometimes a piece of writing, or versions of it, will be found in both locations. For example, the stories that comprise Free and Other Stories and Chains are filed alphabetically in TD Writings: Short Stories because the University of Pennsylvania Dreiser Papers lacks the "book manuscript" for these stories that is known to have existed at one time. By contrast, Penn does have manuscripts, typescripts, and typesetting copy for the studies that were published in A Gallery of Women, and Dreiser's lists and correspondence indicate that he wanted these studies to be published as a unit even though he published some of them first in periodicals. Thus, the researcher will find some of these essays in two places: tearsheets from the periodical publication of the essay filed alphabetically in TD Writings: Essays and manuscripts and typescripts of the essays labeled by Dreiser A Gallery of Women housed under that title in TD Writings: Books.

In addition to recycling published works into other publications, Dreiser sometimes used the same title for writings in two different genres. For example, an essay and a short story are both entitled "Kismet"; "The Factory" is the title for both an essay and a poem; "Credo" is an essay but "The Credo" is a short story; three poems bear the title "Love" and two "Life." Using the same story line, Dreiser wrote a playscript and a screenplay called "The Choice." He wrote a playscript "Solution" based on his short story of the same title. The appendices for all the genres should be consulted for titles so that the researcher does not overlook any relevant adaptations.

The autobiographical character of much of Dreiser's writing occasionally makes the distinction between an essay and a short story a problematic one. Unless Dreiser specified directly, his intent is impossible to recover at this point because the policy followed for distinguishing between the two when the collection underwent its preliminary sorting in the 1940s is unknown. With the exception of a few obvious misfilings, the stories and essays have been left in their pre-1990 processing genre. Researchers should check both TD Writings: Essays and TD Writings: Short Stories for titles.

Dreiser's work habits and filing practices also meant that some flexibility was required in defining authorship of the papers in this collection. Sometimes Dreiser developed an idea or a theme for a series of articles, whereupon he would contact lesser-known writers and ask them to compose essays on this theme, with the understanding that he would edit and perhaps rewrite the essays and have the series published under his name. Occasionally the original writer of these pieces cannot be determined because Dreiser had the essay retyped under his name before submitting it to a publisher. Because Dreiser was the author of the idea for the series, as well as the author of one or more of the essays, all manuscripts in the series are housed in TD Writings: Essays under the name of the series, with the name of the actual author of the essay (if known) noted on the folder. The same policy was followed for other works inspired by Dreiser's ideas or writings (see Series Description).

Dreiser's own identifying terminology is used to describe the contents of a folder unless it is clearly incorrect. Most of the manuscript material from the Dreisers was wrapped in brown paper or manila envelopes with a notation by Dreiser or Helen Dreiser describing the contents. Unfortunately, when the papers arrived at Penn and were rehoused in the preliminary sort, some sources of identification were not documented on the folders. Sources of identification that are questionable for any reason are so indicated on the folders. If the item was not identified originally or was identified incorrectly, a descriptive term has been supplied.

In processing the Theodore Dreiser Papers, extensive use was made of the biographies Dreiser (1965), by W. A. Swanberg, and the two-volume study Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871-1907 (1986) and Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey, 1908-1945 (1990), by Richard Lingeman; the biographical study Forgotten Frontiers: Dreiser and the Land of the Free (1932), by Dorothy Dudley; the memoirs My Life with Dreiser, by Helen Dreiser (1951), Theodore Dreiser: A New Dimension, by Marguerite Tjader (1965), and My Uncle Theodore, by Vera Dreiser with Brett Howard (1976); the collections Letters of Theodore Dreiser: A Selection (3 vols.), edited by Robert H. Elias (1959), Dreiser-Mencken Letters: The Correspondence of Theodore Dreiser & H. L. Mencken 1907-1945 (2 vols.), edited by Thomas P. Riggio (1986), and Theodore Dreiser: American Diaries 1902-1926, edited by Thomas P. Riggio (1982); and the reference work Theodore Dreiser: A Primary Bibliography and Reference Guide (2nd ed.), by Donald Pizer, Richard W. Dowell, and Frederic E. Rusch (1991). The last-mentioned work comprises not only a primary bibliography of the works of Theodore Dreiser, but also an annotated bibliography of writings about Dreiser from 1900 to 1989.

The Theodore Dreiser Papers may be examined by researchers in the reading room of Special Collections, Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania. There are no restrictions on the examination of any of the material in the collection. Permission to quote from and to publish unpublished materials must be requested in writing from the Curator of Manuscripts.

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