Titles by the Author
Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), perhaps the most important practitioner of realism or "naturalism" in American fiction, was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. Dreiser's family, like the family of Clyde Griffiths in his monumental An American Tragedy, was desperately poor. His father was a rigidly doctrinaire religious bigot. His youth was spent in several Indiana towns, as his family seemed always to be on the move. As a result of this nomadic life his schooling was spotty at best.
Through the generosity of a wealthy woman he was able to attend Indiana University for a year, but left school to pursue a career as a journalist. He worked for a number of newspapers and, in 1910, became editor-in-chief of Butterick Publications.
The publication of his first novel, Sister Carrie, in 1900 began the first of a long series of censorship battles over his writings. The conventional morality of the time could not tolerate a woman who "sinned" and seemed justified in doing so. Sister Carrie, excoriated by the censors, has been described by H.L. Mencken as "a memorable event in American letters." It was a pioneering work of naturalism, and displayed Dreiser's strengths and deficiencies as a writer. Dreiser was not an inspired or gifted stylist, but rather a deliberate, methodical reporter of what he perceived as the reality of a situation. His prose, while sometimes awkward and strained, is offset by an acute perception of detail - an almost photographically accurate ability to establish setting and character. A painstaking researcher, Dreiser took an almost obsessional interest in the factual content of his novels.
As a young man, Dreiser had been exposed to the writings of Darwin, Huxley, and Spencer. The social implications of evolutionalry theory were one of the strongest undercurrents in his examinations of human nature. He saw man as an essentially helpless creature faced with an overpowering and implacable universe. While man could exercise some degree of free will, he would always be at the mercy of forces beyond his control. For a time this view led Dreiser to form his "chemic" theory of human nature - that men are propelled through life by, to use Mencken's phrase, "complexes, suppressions, hormones and vain dreams." To a great extent Dreiser's most successful novel - An American Tragedy - is a fictional examination of the "chemic" side of human nature at work in the person of the unfortunate Clyde Griffiths.
While Dreiser's early works, Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, are often cited as his best, it was not until 1925, with the publication of An American Tragedy (again after a censorship battle) that he achieved some degree of success as a recognized novelist. Through the years, critical controversy has continued over the merits of his work. Some have found in Dreiser a giant of American letters, the most important realist since Zola. Others have found his skill as a writer lacking, and his fatalistic view of human nature depressing. Late in his life, particularly in his last novel, The Bulwark, Dreiser seemed to be groping towards a faith that could comfort man faced by the indifferent universe.