Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, to Sarah Maria (née Schanab) and John Paul Dreiser. John Dreiser was a German immigrant from Mayen in the Eifel region, and Sarah was from the Mennonite farming community near Dayton, Ohio. Her family disowned her for converting to Roman Catholicism in order to marry John Dreiser. Theodore was the twelfth of thirteen children (the ninth of the ten surviving). Paul Dresser (1857–1906) was one of his older brothers; Paul changed the spelling of his name as he became a popular songwriter. They were reared as Catholics.
After graduating from high school in Warsaw, Indiana, Dreiser attended Indiana University in the years 1889–1890 before dropping out.
Within several years, Dreiser was writing as a journalist for the Chicago Globe newspaper and then the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. He wrote several articles on writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Dean Howells, Israel Zangwill, John Burroughs, and interviewed public figures such as Andrew Carnegie, Marshall Field, Thomas Edison, and Theodore Thomas. Other interviewees included Lillian Nordica, Emilia E. Barr, Philip Armour and Alfred Stieglitz.
After proposing in 1893, he married Sara Osborne White on December 28, 1898. They ultimately separated in 1909, partly as a result of Dreiser's infatuation with Thelma Cudlipp, the teenage daughter of a colleague, but were never formally divorced. In 1913, he began a romantic relationship with the actress and painter Kyra Markham (who was much younger than he). In 1919 Dreiser met his cousin Helen Patges Richardson (1894-1955) with whom he began an affair. Through the following decades she remained the constant woman in his life, as other more temporary love affairs (such as his 1930s affair with his secretary, Clara Jaeger) bloomed and perished. Helen tolerated Dreiser's affairs, and they eventually married on June 13, 1944.
Dreiser was going to return from his first European vacation on the Titanic but was talked out of going by an English publisher who recommended he board a cheaper boat.
Dreiser later became an atheist.
During 1899, the Dreisers stayed with Arthur Henry and his wife, Maude Wood Henry, at the House of Four Pillars, an 1830s Greek Revival house in the Toledo, Ohio suburb of Maumee. There Dreiser began work on his first novel, Sister Carrie, published in 1900. Unknown to Maude, Henry sold a half-interest in the house to Dreiser, to finance a move to New York without her.
In Sister Carrie, Dreiser portrayed a changing society, writing about a young woman who flees rural life for the city (Chicago) and struggles with poverty, complex relationships with men, and prostitution. It sold poorly and was considered controversial because of moral objections to his featuring a country girl who pursues her dreams of fame and fortune through relationships with men. The book has since acquired a considerable reputation. It has been called the "greatest of all American urban novels." It was adapted as a 1952 film by the same name, directed by William Wyler and starring Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones.
In response to witnessing a lynching in 1893, Dreiser wrote the short story, "Nigger Jeff" (1901), which was published in Ainslee's Magazine. This period is considered the "nadir" of American race relations, with a high rate of lynchings in Southern states, which from 1890 to 1910 also disfranchised most black citizens from voting, legally-enforced white supremacy and Jim Crow, and suppressed black people in second-class status for decades.
His second novel, Jennie Gerhardt, was published in 1911. His featuring young woman as protagonists dramatized the social changes of urbanization, as young people moved from rural villages to cities.
Dreiser's first commercial success was An American Tragedy, published in 1925. From 1892, when Dreiser began work as a newspaperman, he had begun
"to observe a certain type of crime in the United States that proved very common. It seemed to spring from the fact that almost every young person was possessed of an ingrown ambition to be somebody financially and socially." "Fortune hunting became a disease" with the frequent result of a peculiarly American kind of crime, a form of "murder for money", when "the young ambitious lover of some poorer girl" found "a more attractive girl with money or position" but could not get rid of the first girl, usually because of pregnancy.
Dreiser claimed to have collected such stories every year between 1895 and 1935. He based his novel on details and setting of the 1906 murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette in upstate New York, which attracted widespread attention from newspapers. While the novel sold well, it was also criticized for his portrayal of a man without morals who commits a sordid murder. The novel was adapted as a film in 1931, by the same name, and again in 1951 (this time it was titled A Place in the Sun).
Though known primarily as a novelist, Dreiser also wrote short stories, publishing his first collection, Free and Other Stories, in 1918, made up of 11 stories.
His story, "My Brother Paul", was a kind of biography of his older brother, Paul Dresser, who became a famous songwriter in the 1890s. This story was the basis for the 1942 romantic movie, My Gal Sal.
Dreiser also wrote poetry. His poem, "The Aspirant" (1929), continues his theme of poverty and ambition: a young man in a shabby furnished room describes his own and the other tenants' dreams, and asks "why? why?" The poem appeared in The Poetry Quartos, collected and printed by Paul Johnston, and published by Random House in 1929.
Other works include Trilogy of Desire, which was based on the life of Charles Tyson Yerkes, who became a Chicago streetcar tycoon. It is composed of The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The Stoic. The last was published posthumously in 1947.
Dreiser was often forced to battle against censorship, because his depiction of some aspects of life, such as sexual promiscuity, offended authorities and challenged popular standards of acceptable opinion.
Politically, Dreiser was involved in several campaigns defending radicals whom he believed had been the victims of social injustice. These included the lynching of Frank Little, one of the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Sacco and Vanzetti case, the deportation of Emma Goldman, and the conviction of the trade union leader Thomas Mooney. In November 1931, Dreiser led the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners (NCDPP) to the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky, where they took testimony from coal miners in Pineville and Harlan on the pattern of violence against the miners and their unions by the coal operators known as the Harlan County War.
Dreiser was a committed socialist and wrote several nonfiction books on political issues. These included Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928), the result of his 1927 trip to the Soviet Union, and two books presenting a critical perspective on capitalist America, Tragic America (1931) and America Is Worth Saving (1941). He praised the Soviet Union under Stalin during the Great Terror and the nonaggression pact with Hitler. Dreiser joined the Communist Party USA in August 1945. Although less politically radical friends, such as H. L. Mencken, spoke of Dreiser's relationship with communism as an "unimportant detail in his life," Dreiser's biographer Jerome Loving notes that his political activities since the early 1930s had "clearly been in concert with ostensible communist aims with regard to the working class."
Dreiser died on December 28, 1945, in Hollywood, California, at the age of 74.
Dreiser had an enormous influence on the generation that followed his. In his tribute "Dreiser" from Horses and Men (1923), Sherwood Anderson writes:
Heavy, heavy, the feet of Theodore. How easy to pick some of his books to pieces, to laugh at him for so much of his heavy prose ... [T]he fellows of the ink-pots, the prose writers in America who follow Dreiser, will have much to do that he has never done. Their road is long but, because of him, those who follow will never have to face the road through the wilderness of Puritan denial, the road that Dreiser faced alone.
Alfred Kazin characterized Dreiser as "stronger than all the others of his time, and at the same time more poignant; greater than the world he has described, but as significant as the people in it," while Larzer Ziff (UC Berkeley) remarked that Dreiser "succeeded beyond any of his predecessors or successors in producing a great American business novel."
Renowned mid-century literary critic Irving Howe spoke of Dreiser as ranking "among the American giants, the very few American giants we have had." A British view of Dreiser came from the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis: "Theodore Dreiser's books are enough to stop me in my tracks, never mind his letters—that slovenly turgid style describing endless business deals, with a seduction every hundred pages as light relief. If he's the great American novelist, give me the Marx Brothers every time." The literary scholar F. R. Leavis wrote that Dreiser "seems as though he learned English from a newspaper. He gives the feeling that he doesn't have any native language".
One of Dreiser's strongest champions during his lifetime, H. L. Mencken, declared "that he is a great artist, and that no other American of his generation left so wide and handsome a mark upon the national letters. American writing, before and after his time, differed almost as much as biology before and after Darwin. He was a man of large originality, of profound feeling, and of unshakable courage. All of us who write are better off because he lived, worked, and hoped."
Dreiser's great theme was the tremendous tensions that can arise between ambition, desire, and social mores.
Dreiser Hall (circa 1950) on the Indiana State University campus in Terre Haute, Indiana houses the Communications Program. It was named for Dreiser in 1966. Dreiser College, at Stony Brook University located in Stony Brook, New York, is also named after him.Sister Carrie (1900)
Jennie Gerhardt (1911)
The Financier (1912)
The Titan (1914)
The "Genius" (1915)
Free and Other Stories (1918)
An American Tragedy (1925)
Chains: Lesser Novels and Stories (1927)
The Bulwark (1946)
The Stoic (1947)
Plays of the Natural and Supernatural (1916)
The Hand of the Potter (1918), first produced 1921
A Traveler at Forty (1913)
A Hoosier Holiday (1916)
Twelve Men (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1919)
Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub: A Book of the Mystery and Wonder and Terror of Life (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1920)
A Book About Myself (1922); republished (unexpurgated) as Newspaper Days (New York: Horace Liveright, 1931)
The Color of a Great City (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1923)
MOODS Cadenced and Declaimed (1926) strictly limited to 550 numbered copies signed by the author of which 535 were for sale
Dreiser Looks at Russia (New York: Horace Liveright, 1928)
My City (1929)
A Gallery of Women (1929)
Tragic America (New York: Horace Liveright, 1931)
Dawn (New York: Horace Liveright, 1931)
America Is Worth Saving (New York: Modern Age Books, 1941)
Theodore Dreiser: Political Writings, edited by Jude Davies (University of Illinois Press; 2011) 321 pages