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, starting from his first novel, SISTER CARRIE (1900). It was not until 1981 when the work was published in 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 Sullivan, Indiana, as the ninth of the 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, when 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 the University of Indiana. Dreiser left after only a year. He was, however, a voracious reader, and the impact of such writers as Hawthorne, Poe, Balzac, Herbert Spenser, and Freud influenced his thought and his reaction against organized religion.
In 1892 Dreiser started to write for the Chicago Globe, and moved to 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 practiced 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 1981 edition) The president of the publishing company, Frank Doubleday, disapproved the work - Dreiser 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 ghostwriter in his paper.
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 a editor in chief of three women's magazines until 1910, when he was forced to resign, because of an office love affair. In 1911 appeared Dreiser's second novel, JENNIE GERHARDT. In the story a young woman, Jennie, is seduced by a senator. She bears a child out of wedlock but sacrifices her own interests to avoid harming her lover's career. 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. Jerkes, THE FINANCIER (1912), and THE TITAN (1914), which show the influence of the evolutionary ideas of Herbert Spenser and Nietzsche's concept of the übemensch. Last volume of the 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)