Authors: Theodore Dreiser

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American writer

Author Works

Long Fiction:

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

Short Fiction:

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.{$I[AN]9810000221}{$I[A]Dreiser, Theodore}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Dreiser, Theodore}{$I[tim]1871;Dreiser, Theodore}

Theodore Dreiser

(Library of Congress)

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.

BibliographyCassuto, Leonard, and Clare Virginia Eby, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Theodore Dreiser. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. A collection of twelve essays discusses the novelist’s examination of (then) new American conflicts between materialistic longings and traditional values.Elias, Robert H. Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970. An excellent scholarly biography on Dreiser, who cooperated on the work. Includes a comprehensive chapter listing a bibliography, biographies, manuscripts and letters, and criticism of the writer.Gerber, Philip. Theodore Dreiser Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. Includes chapters on all Dreiser’s major works, three chapters on the development of Dreiser studies, a chronology, notes and references, and an annotated bibliography.Gogol, Miriam, ed. Theodore Dreiser: Beyond Naturalism. New York: New York University Press, 1995. Divided into sections on gender studies, psychoanalysis, philosophy, film studies, and popular literature. Gogol’s introduction advances the argument that Dreiser was much more than a naturalist and deserves to be treated as a major author.Kazin, Alfred, and Charles Shapiro. The Stature of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Survey of the Man and His Work. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965. Provides a good anthology of articles, essays, and personal reminiscences by noted authors and critics on Dreiser the man and the writer. Kazin’s perceptive introduction sets the tone. Includes a lengthy bibliography.Kratzke, Peter. “’Sometimes, Bad Is Bad’: Teaching Theodore Dreiser’s ‘Typhoon’ and the American Literary Canon.” In Short Stories in the Classroom, edited by Carole L. Hamilton and Peter Kratzke. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1999. Discusses how teaching Dreiser’s story raises a number of issues about how the canon gets established; shows how an analysis of the story reveals its poor literary quality; suggests that canonical authors are not infallible.Lingeman, Richard. At the Gates of the City, 1871-1907. Vol. 1 in Theodore Dreiser. New York: Putnam, 1986.Lingeman, Richard. An American Journey, 1908-1945. Vol. 2 in Theodore Dreiser. New York: Putnam, 1990.Loving, Jerome. The Last Titan: A Life of Theodore Dreiser. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Written by a distinguished biographer, this engrossing survey of the author’s life and work is a welcome addition to Dreiser scholarship.Lydon, Michael. “Justice to Theodore Dreiser.” The Atlantic 272 (August, 1993): 98-101. Argues that Dreiser should be seen without reservation as a giant of American letters who stood at the vanguard of modernism; argues that the incongruities and eccentricities of Dreiser’s life have always affected the critical reception of his writing.McAleer, John J. Theodore Dreiser: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1968. This volume studies the artist with the aim of helping the reader grasp the whole of Dreiser’s fiction. Includes a lengthy chronology and a bibliography.Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976. A solid study and introduction to Dreiser’s eight published novels. Pizer examines each work as a separate unit and points out their respective merits and flaws.Pizer, Donald, ed. Critical Esays on Theodore Dreiser. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. An excellent compilation of articles and essays. The criticism is arranged around Dreiser’s works and ideas in general. A second section is reserved for individual novels.Riggio, Thomas P. “Following Dreiser, Seventy Years Later.” The American Scholar 65 (Autumn, 1996): 569-577. A biographical sketch that focuses on Dreiser as the most famous American to be invited to Moscow for the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1927; describes a visit to Russia to research an edition of a diary kept by Dreiser in the late 1920’s during his three months’ stay in the Soviet Union.Shapiro, Charles. Theodore Dreiser: Our Bitter Patriot. Carbondale: Illinois University Press, 1962. Shapiro expands his original dissertation study into the critical and illuminating examination of the underlying themes found in Dreiser’s works. He believes that An American Tragedy is Dreiser’s most important work because of its thematic richness.Swansberg, W. A. Dreiser. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965. The definitive biography of Dreiser; it has stood the test of time and ranks with the best. Swansberg is less interested in Dreiser the artist, not being a literary critic, and concentrates on Dreiser the man.Zayani, Mohamed. Reading the Symptom: Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and the Dynamics of Capitalism. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. Examines the theme of capitalism in Sister Carrie.
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