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Theodore Dreiser

Dreiser, Theodore (drĪˈsər, –zər) [key], 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).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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