Sister Carrie, 1900
Jennie Gerhardt, 1911
The Financier, 1912, 1927
The Titan, 1914
The “Genius,” 1915
An American Tragedy, 1925
The Bulwark, 1946
The Stoic, 1947
Free, and Other Stories, 1918
Chains: Lesser Novels and Stories, 1927
A Gallery of Women, 1929
Fine Furniture, 1930
The Best Stories of Theodore Dreiser, 1947 (Howard Fast, editor)
Best Short Stories, 1956 (James T. Farrell, editor)
Plays of the Natural and Supernatural, pb. 1916
The Girl in the Coffin, pr. 1917
The Hand of the Potter: A Tragedy in Four Acts, pb. 1919
The Collected Plays of Theodore Dreiser, pb. 2000
Moods: Cadenced and Declaimed, 1926, 1928
The Aspirant, 1929
Epitaph: A Poem, 1929
A Traveler at Forty, 1913
A Hoosier Holiday, 1916
Twelve Men, 1919
Hey, Rub-a-Dub-Dub!, 1920
A Book About Myself, 1922 (revised as Newspaper Days, 1931)
The Color of a Great City, 1923
My City, 1929
Dawn, 1931 (autobiography)
Tragic America, 1931
America Is Worth Saving, 1941
Letters of Theodore Dreiser, 1959
Letters to Louise, 1959
American Diaries, 1902-1926, 1982
An Amateur Laborer, 1983
Selected Magazine Articles of Theodore Dreiser, 1985
Dreiser’s Russian Diary, 1996 (Thomas P. Riggio and James L. W. West, editors)
Theodore Dreiser’s Ev’ry Month, 1996 (magazine articles; Nancy Warner Barrineau, editor)
Art, Music, and Literature: 1897-1902, 2001 (Yoshinobu Hakutani, editor)
Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser (DRI-sur), born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on August 27, 1871, is one of the most puzzling figures of twentieth century American literature. No other major author has survived so much hostile criticism, nor has any other author of his stature displayed so much paradoxical thinking. Yet despite his inconsistencies and blunders, Dreiser’s position is unshakable. His influence on the naturalistic American novel has been enormous; moreover, there is in his writing a peculiar power and honesty that is not to be found anywhere else.
The son of a desperately poor and narrowly religious family, Dreiser developed intense feelings about poverty and social restraint that are manifest in all of his work. After a spotty schooling in various Indiana towns, he became a journalist and worked for newspapers and magazines in several cities. This work and his searching reading formed the education for his literary career. The greatest influence on Dreiser’s thinking was his study of the evolutionary writers–especially Herbert Spencer, T. H. Huxley, and Charles Darwin–who taught him to view life as a massive struggle for survival. Starting from these ideas he worked out his own theories about human behavior in terms of compulsions or “chemisms.”
Sister Carrie, his first novel, was suppressed by its publisher, thus initiating Dreiser’s long series of battles with censorship. The novel tells of the young Carrie Meeber, who chooses to live as the mistress of a saloon-keeper, George Hurstwood, rather than to work in sweatshops. After Hurstwood commits a theft, they flee to New York, where Carrie eventually rises to fame as an actress and Hurstwood sinks into poverty and suicide. What some viewed as objectionable in Sister Carrie was not the presence of a “fallen woman,” but rather Dreiser’s unconventional view of her; instead of punishing Carrie, he seems to say that she was justified in seeking her welfare as best she could. Sister Carrie exhibits all of Dreiser’s merits and defects: the clumsy writing, the overpowering earnestness, the loose construction, the massing of realistic detail.
Dreiser’s next novel, Jennie Gerhardt, is another study of a kept woman. Unlike Carrie, however, Jennie leaves her lover, Lester Kane, after years of living together; he does not have the courage to marry her and forsake his position in the family business, and she does not want to stand in his way. After this work came the first volume of the Frank Cowperwood “trilogy of desire”: The Financier (published 1912, revised 1927), followed by The Titan in 1914, and The Stoic in 1947. These novels represent a wide examination of American finance from the time of mid-nineteenth century and deal with the life of a ruthless tycoon. As a boy, Cowperwood sees a lobster devour a squid and realizes, “Things lived on each other–that was it.” The “Genius” again brought Dreiser into conflict with the censors, but this time he was championed by journalist H. L. Mencken. Eugene Witla, the hero of the novel, is a gifted realistic painter whose sexuality conflicts with his artistic career.
An American Tragedy, Dreiser’s highest achievement, was also the victim of censorship. The protagonist, Clyde Griffiths, attempts to drown his pregnant mistress because marriage to her would ruin his hopes of a wealthy match. He proves too indecisive, but ironically the boat overturns, and he is convicted of murder. While awaiting execution, Clyde comes to understand the extent of his guilt. In contrast to this angry book, The Bulwark, Dreiser’s mellowest novel, tells the story of a Quaker banker whose faith is deepened by the failure of his family life.
Dreiser’s stories have been collected in Free, and Other Stories; Chains: Lesser Novels and Stories; and A Gallery of Women. Plays of the Natural and Supernatural, published in 1916, was followed by a tragedy, The Hand of the Potter. Hey, Rub-a-Dub-Dub! is a collection of essays. His other writings include political studies and poems, as well as books of travel sketches and reminiscence. Dreiser’s autobiography, written with characteristic frankness, is contained in A Book About Myself (republished in 1931 as Newspaper Days) and Dawn. A third autobiographical work, An Amateur Laborer, was published for the first time in 1983.
Theodore Dreiser was neither a clear nor original thinker. Though he assimilated many of the ideas of the evolutionists, he remained enough of a skeptic to show marked ambiguities in his work. He was both a determinist and a sentimentalist, evoking considerable pity for his defeated characters. Although he appeared to believe that it is proper for an individual to grab as much as possible from an indifferent or malevolent society, he came to accept many of the ideas of communism. The main theme in Dreiser’s work is that of the conflict between the individual and society. In keeping with this theme, his characters are, typically, either weaklings or strong figures who seize what they want.