Theodore Dreiser

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Theodore Dreiser
Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser
BirthplaceTerre Haute, Indiana

Dreiser, Theodore

(drī`sər, –zər), 1871–1945, American novelist, b. Terre Haute, Ind. A pioneer of naturalism in American literature, Dreiser wrote novels reflecting his mechanistic view of life, a concept that held humanity as the victim of such ungovernable forces as economics, biology, society, and even chance. In his works, conventional morality is unimportant, consciously virtuous behavior having little to do with material success and happiness. While his style and language tended to be clumsy and plodding, he played an important role in introducing a new realism and sexual candor into American fiction. Dreiser was born into a large and poor family. His education was irregular, but, with help from a sympathetic high school teacher, he spent the year 1889–90 at the Univ. of Indiana. After working as a journalist on several midwestern newspapers, in 1894 he went to New York City, where he began a career in publishing, eventually rising to the presidency of Butterick Publications.

His first novel, Sister Carrie (1900), the story of a country girl's rise to material success first as the mistress of a wealthy man and then as an actress, horrified its publisher, who gave it only limited circulation. Dreiser distributed it himself, but it was consistently attacked as immoral; it was reissued in 1982 with many passages from his revised typescript restored. Jennie Gerhardt (1911), again about a "fallen woman," met with a better response; its success allowed Dreiser to work as a writer full time. With these two works, Dreiser started his long battle for the right of the novelist to portray life as he sees it.

In The Financier (1912), he turned his attention more specifically to American social and economic institutions. This novel, the first of a trilogy that includes The Titan (1914) and The Stoic (1947), describes the rise to power of a ruthless industrialist. In both The Genius (1915) and in The Bulwark (1946), Dreiser explores the failings of an American artist. An American Tragedy (1925), often considered his greatest work, tells of a poor young man's futile effort to achieve social and financial success; the attempt ends in his execution for murder. In his later life Dreiser became interested in socialism, visiting the Soviet Union as a guest of the government and writing his perceptions: Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928) and Tragic America (1931). Among his other works are such collections of short stories as Free (1918), Chains (1927), and A Gallery of Women (1929).


See his memoirs, A Traveler at Forty (1913), A Book About Myself (1922; republished as Newspaper Days, 1931), and Dawn (1931); his letters, ed. by R. Elias (3 vol., 1959); biographies by W. A. Swanberg (1965) and R. Lingeman (2 vol., 1986–90); studies by E. Moers (1969), F. O. Matthiessen (1951, repr. 1973), J. Lundquist (1974), and L. E. Hussman (1983).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Dreiser, Theodore


Born Aug. 27, 1871, in Terre Haute, Ind.; died Dec. 28, 1945, in Hollywood, Calif. American writer and public figure.

Dreiser was the son of an economically ruined small entrepreneur, who was an immigrant from Germany. From his youth, he changed professions many times. He studied at the University of Indiana in Bloomington from 1889 to 1890 and began his literary career in 1892 as a reporter for the Chicago newspaper the Daily News. In 1897 his first stories and essays appeared in magazines.

In 1900, Dreiser published the novel Sister Carrie, in which the fate of a girl from a worker’s family was drawn against a broad social background. The novel opened a new page in the history of American literature. Like H. B. Fuller, S. Crane, H. Garland, and F. Norris, Dreiser rebelled against the literature of the so-called genteel tradition, creating a broad social canvas. In 1911 he published the novel Jennie Gerhardt, returning to the theme of the fate of a working-class girl. However, unlike Carrie, Jennie is the victim of bourgeois society and the embodiment of the best qualities inherent in ordinary toiling people.

The subsequent development of Dreiser’s realistic method was connected with his novels The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914), the first two parts of the Trilogy of Desire (the Yerkes trilogy). The typical features of the American capitalist-plunderer are reproduced in the character of Frank Cowperwood. Dreiser devoted the novel The Genius (1915) to the fate of an artist ruined by the capitalist system.

Dreiser welcomed the October Revolution in Russia. In the book Hey, Rub-a-dub-dub (1920), consisting of 17 articles and three plays, Dreiser opposed anti-Soviet intervention. He attained the summit of realistic mastery in the novel An American Tragedy (1925). Depicting the path of moral corruption of Clyde Griffith, Dreiser exposed the destructive effects of American bourgeois society on the individual. The novel brought Dreiser world fame and became the banner for realistic US literature of the 1920’s.

In November 1927, Dreiser visited the USSR on the invitation of the Soviet government. He set forth his impressions in the book Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928). On the basis of materials from his journey to the USSR, Dreiser wrote the story “Ernita,” which was included in the collection Gallery of Women and presented the first positive Communist hero in American literature. Dreiser was one of the organizers of the Amsterdam Congress in Defense of Peace and Culture (1932). In the journalistic book Tragic America (1931) he adopted the standpoint of socialist realism. He actively engaged in antifascist work and visited republican Spain. During World War II (1939-45), Dreiser passionately supported the heroic struggle of the Soviet people and unmasked Hitlerism and its accomplices in Great Britain and the USA. He joined the Communist Party of the USA in July 1945. Dreiser’s novels The Bulwark (1946) and The Stoic (1947, the unfinished third part of the Trilogy of Desire) were published posthumously.


The Best Short Stories. Cleveland-New York, 1956.
In Russian translation:
Sobr. soch., vols. 2-7, 10-12. Edited by S. Dinamov. Moscow-Leningrad, 1928-30.
Sobr. soch., vols. 1-12. [Introductory article by I. I. Anisimov.] Moscow, 1951-55.
Sobr. soch., vols. 1-12. [Introductory article by I. I. Anisimov.] Moscow, 1955.


Anisimov, I. I. “Teodor Draizer i Amerika.” In the collection Sovremennaia amerikanskaia literatura. Moscow, 1950. Pages 118-91.
Zasurskii, la. N. Teodor Draizer. Moscow, 1964. (Contains a bibliography.)
Matthiessen, F. O. T. Dreiser. New York, 1951.
Lehan, R. D. Theodore Dreiser: His World and His Novels. Carbon-dale (111.) [1969]. (Bibliography, pp. 269-72.)
McDonald, E. D. A Bibliography of the Writings of Theodore Dreiser. New York [1968].


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Dreiser, Theodore (Herman Albert)

(1871–1945) writer; born in Terre Haute, Ind. Raised in poverty and in a German-speaking environment, he left home for Chicago at age 16. After a period of odd jobs and a year at the University of Indiana he became a Midwestern newspaper reporter, and, in New York after 1894, a magazine feature writer. Sister Carrie (1900), his first and still highly regarded novel, was withheld from general distribution because of its supposed amorality; its commercial failure plunged him into financial distress and mental breakdown (1904). He reestablished himself as a magazine editor, however, and self-published a second, successful edition of Sister Carrie (1907). The success of the novel Jennie Gerhardt (1911) allowed him to write full time; The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914) followed. These novels were ungainly in style but groundbreaking in their naturalism and critique of American capitalist society. The withdrawal from distribution, on moral grounds, of his autobiographical novel, The Genius (1915), ignited a national anticensorship campaign supported by most of the leading literary figures of the day. His next decade, marked by an energetic output of plays, stories, memoirs, and travel books, culminated in An American Tragedy (1925), a major popular success despite its bleak view of American values. He publicly supported left-wing causes through the 1930s and 1940s and propounded socialist ideas in his late works, joining the Communist Party shortly before his death. He had also returned to writing novels, two of which—The Bulwark (1946) and The Stoic (1947)—were among his various works published posthumously. As insensitive in his treatment of the English language as he was of many women in his life, he seems destined to survive as a major American writer.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.