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Theodore Dreiser Return to the Timeline
John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser and Samuel Ornitz
American writers John Dos Passos (l), Theodore Dreiser, (c), and Samuel Ornitz (r), are shown in New York City on November 12, 1931. They returned from Harlan County where they and other writers investigated the Eastern Kentucky coal fields on behalf of striking coal miners. Ornitz wrote a play based on the experience, "In New Kentucky."


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Theodore Dreiser, (1871-1945), ranks as the foremost American writer in the Naturalism movement (a pessimistic form of Realism). Dreiser's characters are victims of apparently meaningless incidents that result in pressures they can neither control nor understand. He based such novels as SISTER CARRIE and AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY on events from real life. He condemned not his villains, but the repressive, hypocritical society that produced them. Dreiser's style lacks grace, but his best stories are powerful and sobering.

Dreiser was born on Aug. 27, 1871, in Terre Haute, Indiana. His older brother was Paul Dresser, who wrote the song "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away." Dreiser's family was poor, and he soon saw a profound difference between the promise and the reality of American life. This realization was a major source of Dreiser's discontent and an important influence on his works.

Dreiser attended Indiana University for a year. In the 1890's, he worked as a newspaperman in Chicago and St. Louis. By 1907, he was the successful editor of the very sort of woman's magazine whose sentimentality and superficiality he despised.

Dreiser's first novel, SISTER CARRIE, was partly based on the experiences of one of his sisters. The novelist Frank Norris, an editor at Doubleday, Page, and Co., enthusiastically accepted the manuscript for publication. But Neltje Doubleday, wife of the president of the company, was shocked by the manuscript's amorality, and the publisher tried to cancel the contract to publish the book. Dreiser insisted the agreement be honored. Doubleday printed the book in 1900, but did not advertise or distribute it. The novel became generally available in 1912, after another publisher issued it.

SISTER CARRIE is the story of Carrie Meeber, a poor girl alone in Chicago. She lives with a traveling salesman and then runs off to New York with George Hurstwood, a prosperous married man. Hurstwood's fortunes decline, and he becomes a bum and commits suicide. Carrie finds success, but not happiness, as an actress.

Dreiser wrote JENNIE GERHARDT (1911), another novel of desire and fate. However, his reputation was assured with the publication of THE FINANCIER (1912), the most purely naturalistic of his works. It is the story of an industrial tycoon who claws his way to great power. Dreiser intended the novel as the beginning of a "Trilogy of Desire." But the second volume, THE TITAN (1914), was a failure, and the third volume, THE STOIC, was not published until two years after his death.

AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (1925) is the finest of Dreiser's books. It concerns a weak young man who is executed for the murder of his pregnant girl friend. Again, Dreiser did not condemn his villain, but the amoral society that produced and destroyed him. Dreiser died on Dec. 28, 1945.

Samuel Chase Coale, Ph.D., Professor of English, Wheaton College.

From THE WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA © 2007 World Book, Inc. By permission of the publisher. Visit World Book Encyclopedia for more information on Theodore Dreiser and related subjects.

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The American Novel