Born August 27, 1871, Theodore Dreiser was the second youngest of a family of ten children. Dreiser's father had come from Germany twenty-five years before and through hard work became a man of wealth and position. Just before Theodore's birth, a series of misfortunes had struck the family, rendering them penniless. John Paul Dreiser, the father, was crippled shortly after his weaving mill had burned down. While he convalesced, his wife was cheated out of the remainder of the family property by creditors. The elder Dreiser was unable to secure employment to support his large family. Always a devout and orthodox Roman Catholic, he grew increasingly fanatical in his concern for salvation. Forever on guard to preserve the virtue of his children and to pay off his debts lest he die owing money, he became an unbearable despot and led the family into near beggary. Even as an infant, Theodore learned the difficult lessons of poverty, chance, and morality.
Dreiser's mother, in contrast to the stern religious fanaticism of the father, was full of tender sentiment and not subject to his adamant morality. Quiet by nature, sympathetic and gentle, she was nonetheless endowed with endless strength and patience. Sarah Dreiser was eager to be helpful and stood by to aid any child with whom the father was angry.
The father's religious fanaticism, the mother's abiding tenderness, and the family's unbearable poverty worked together in shaping the young Dreiser. As a product of these conditions, Dreiser was possessed of a furious energy, a determination to succeed, and an unalterable will.
In 1879 it was decided that the family should split up. The three youngest children, including Theodore, went with the mother. Free now from the stern wrath of his father, Theodore roamed the open fields and played along the waterways and streams of Evansville, Indiana. He learned much from nature, perceiving in it many analogies to human life. Passenger trains heading for Santa Fe, San Francisco, Denver, and Chicago fired his imagination of faraway places. The boy dreamed especially of Chicago, the magic city where young men and women of the Midwest sought their fortunes.
Appearing after a four-year absence, dressed in silk hat and fur coat, the oldest brother Paul, now a successful song writer, returned to lift the family out of its poverty. In the figure of Paul, Theodore found the concept of fortune in the affairs of men. The strangest of coincidence seemed to him to be the origin of a powerful, arbitrary, interfering fate. The concept of fate finds expression throughout all of Dreiser's novels, in which the loosest of coincidences play a decisive role in human existence.
Although he was a poor grammar student and barely passed in his studies, Dreiser read widely in the classics. His teacher was able to convince him, however, that he was worth something despite his own harsh judgment of himself. At the age of sixteen Dreiser announced to his mother that he was going to Chicago. With the six dollars that she gave him, he took his first steps on the long way to fame and fortune.
After innumerable setbacks and disappointments, he eventually found work in a hardware store. Working closely with the sons of wealthy Eastern executives, he came to hate the disparity between their wealth and his poverty. Out of the comparison of his own lot with that of those more fortunate, he came to see for himself how life was organized. Through contrast of affluence and poverty, Dreiser thought, individuals come to enjoy or disdain what they possess or do not possess.
Through a stroke of fortune, which he believed to be fate itself, Dreiser was given money by his former schoolteacher to attend Indiana University. For the first time in his life he felt important. But the university did not offer the opportunities for learning he had so much hoped for. Life itself was destined to be Dreiser's college. Books were of some value to him but they would never supplant the direct observations of the human struggle that the adolescent Dreiser was already used to. The university only confirmed his notion that success in life came with luck and money and good clothes. He left the university after his freshman year.
Determined to rise above the struggles of the poor, he moved from job to job until he eventually found trial employment with the Daily Globe, Chicago's smallest newspaper. For the next decade he was occupied solely with the work of journalism. He worked as a reporter and editor and wrote scores of feature articles for popular magazines. Journalism offered nothing to change his ideas of life's vicissitudes; it merely reinforced them and gave them shape. He gathered up experience in the "grim, fierce struggle of life," and although he felt no identification with the oppressed, his sympathy lay with the underdog.
Throughout the ten years of his newspaper career Dreiser was continually and forcefully struck by the severe contrast between the truth in life as he saw it daily and the illusion of actual life he was required to present in his articles. Dreiser was invited to New York by his elder brother Paul and decided to go. Perhaps there, Dreiser thought, a man could write the truth and still find success.
He wandered about for five months — Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh — before finally arriving in New York. Much of the panorama of American life in a greatly formative era had passed before his observant eyes.
Finally obtaining a reporting job that sometimes did not even pay for his carfare, Dreiser combed every corner of the city for news. He roamed the East Side, the Bowery, the waterfronts of Brooklyn, Wall Street, and Fifth Avenue. Human survival seemed far more difficult in New York than it was in Chicago or the steel centers of the North. Everywhere he turned he saw in humanity an overwhelming desire for pleasure or wealth, along with a heartlessness which destroyed the soul or caused it to freeze over with misery and deprivation.
It is not surprising that at the time Dreiser read heavily in Balzac, Hardy, and Tolstoy, writers whose views complemented his own. He began to think of becoming a short story writer. Dreiser's overwhelming desire was to record his observations and conclusions about life, not as they had been distorted to fit the requirements of newspaper reporting but as he felt them to be. His first story to be published, "The Shining Slave Makers," presented a portrait of a jungle world where two rival ant colonies meet for a gruesome combat to the death.
A friend of Dreiser's, Arthur Henry, persuaded him to try his hand at a novel. Reluctantly, in the autumn of 1900 Dreiser sat down and wrote at random the title Sister Carrie. It is said that Dreiser had no conception of the plot of the novel when he began to write, but soon after recalling the tragedies of his youth — the injustices which he had seen chance, ignorance, and passion play upon those whom he had known firsthand — he began to write furiously. In the novel are found the wealth of details and the range of ideas which wide experience had brought to him. In this first novel Dreiser succeeded in pointing out the tragic possibilities inherent in the conflict between the individual and a society characterized by narrow and repressive convention on the one hand and the deification of material success on the other.
Despondent and embittered by the poor reception of Sister Carrie, Dreiser contemplated suicide until he was once again rescued by his brother Paul, who got him a job as a magazine editor. Dreiser succeeded so well in this position that he became head of the firm in a few years. Encouraged in his writing by Paul and a few discerning critics, Dreiser published Jennie Gerhardt in 1911. Like Sister Carrie, it is a sympathetic portrait of a "sinful" woman, yet it met with a much better reception than did the first novel and Dreiser began to acquire the reputation he justly deserved.
In 1912 The Financier was published, the first of a "trilogy of desire" concerning the life of Frank Cowperwood, a character, who like many of Dreiser's characters, was based upon an actual person. The Titan, second in the trilogy (1914), shows Cowperwood as a superman who clawed his way upward from poverty to wealth and position. Both novels were very well documented in the tradition of literary naturalism, which was Dreiser's hallmark.
The Genius (1915) centers upon another superman, Eugene Witla, an artist who was the fictional combination of Dreiser himself, along with an artist who fascinated him and a bright young editor who committed suicide. Dreiser's next novel to appear was An American Tragedy (1925), based upon the notorious Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case of 1906. Not only Clyde Griffiths, the man who is convicted for the murder of his pregnant mistress, but society as well is held responsible for the tragedy. The society has erred in fascinating Griffiths with its glitter and wealth without providing him with a background of moral restraint. By suggesting the possibility of social reform, An American Tragedy seems to be less pessimistic than Dreiser's earlier works with their pervading sense of purposelessness.
Rejecting his own early fatalism, Dreiser eventually turned to socialism as a way of answering the needs of the people. Two books, Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928) and Tragic America (1931), express his faith in socialist reform.
Theodore Dreiser died of a heart attack in December, 1945. Two novels were published after his death. The Bulwark (1946) is an awkward story patched together over a period of thirty-six years. Its hero, Solon Barnes, a Quaker, suffers through an oversimplified view of life, for he has divided the world into good and evil. Solon learns that the world is so corrupt that no compromise between idealism and materialism is possible. The Stoic (1947), last of the Cowperwood trilogy, suffers because by the time it was completed Dreiser had abandoned the attitudes which hold together the first two parts. This novel presents a discussion of Oriental philosophy, which Dreiser studied seriously for some time before his death. In the leap to "pure Spirit" Dreiser seems to have found for himself a method of transcending the purposeless wandering of the materialistic flux.
Dreiser's theories of art and philosophy of life are set down at length in his nonfictional autobiographical works: A Traveler at Forty (1913), A Hoosier Holiday (1916), A Book About Myself (1922) (later published as Newspaper Days), and especially Hey-Rub-a-Dub-Dub: A Book of the Mystery and Terror and Wonder of Life (1920). By the time of his death the tide of naturalism had turned and Dreiser's popularity had waned substantially.