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.
Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. His parents were German immigrants whose marriage resulted in thirteen children. Because his father was often ill and unemployed, the family struggled against poverty throughout Dreiser's childhood. In rebellion against his father's obsessive religiosity, Dreiser left home at fifteen for Chicago. There, after three years of menial jobs, he found work as a newspaper reporter. While Dreiser churned out hackwork for various periodicals, he was reading the deterministic philosophy of Herbert Spencer and the novels of Honore de Balzac, who believed in the evolutionary doctrine that life is a struggle in which instinctive human desires are often in conflict with conventional morality.
"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 Sullivan, Indiana, the ninth of ten children. His parents were poor. In the 1860s his father, a devout Catholic German immigrant, had attempted to establish his own woolen mill, but after it was destroyed in a fire, the family lived in poverty. Dreiser's schooling was erratic, as the family moved from town to town. 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. Dreiser left after only a year. He was, however, a voracious reader, and 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 write for the Chicago Globe, and moved to a better position with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. In 1898 he married Sara White, a Missouri schoolteacher, but the marriage was unhappy. Dreiser 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. 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 met.
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. "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.