Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, and baptized as Herman Theodore Dreiser. He was the ninth of ten surviving children (three others died as infants) of Säräh Schanab and Johann Dreiser. Dreiser’s childhood coincided with the family’s hard times. Consequently, his earliest memories included the joblessness of his father and older siblings, as well as the constant search for economic stability. His youth was emotionally unstable, and he had few educational opportunities, which was a special hardship for such a bookish boy. This time was further darkened by the strict Roman Catholic training he received in German American parochial schools, an experience that informed his later critique of Catholicism and deeply influenced his quest for alternative forms of religious experience.
Dawn (1931), an autobiography dealing with his first twenty years, is a classic of German American literature. In it Dreiser gives a vivid (clear) picture of his German-speaking, Roman Catholic, downwardly mobile family and offers a moving chronicle of the financial, social, and emotional pressures facing working-class families in the late nineteenth century. Dreiser’s autobiography presents a somber version of the archetypal bilingual and bicultural experiences of first- and second-generation Americans. He incorporated his memories into some of his best fiction, notably Jennie Gerhardt (1911), in which he modeled the Gerhardt family on the Dreisers in Indiana.
Although Dreiser was a serious student, he never finished high school, and decided at age sixteen to seek work in Chicago. There he held a number of nondescript jobs, until he was rescued by a former teacher, Mildred Fielding, who paid his way to Indiana University at Bloomington for one year (1889-90). Another kind of education began when he landed a job as a reporter in Chicago. In June 1892, two months before his twenty-first birthday, he wrote his first news story for the Chicago Globe. Three years later, he abruptly abandoned journalism by walking out of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, where as a space-rate reporter he was being paid, like the garment worker in the city’s sweatshops, by the inch.
In 1898 Dreiser married Sara Osborne White, a schoolteacher from Missouri. With her encouragement and that of his friend Arthur Henry, a novelist and former editor of the Toledo Blade, Dreiser began writing his historic first novel, Sister Carrie.
Dreiser had close relations with the liberal thinkers and artistic avant-garde of the 1910s. He associated with leading political radicals like Max Eastman, Daniel DeLeon, and Floyd Dell; supported the birth-control movement of Margaret Sanger; befriended the anarchist Emma Goldman; and wrote for leftist journals such as The Masses, as well as for magazines with more purely aesthetic goals, like Seven Arts. Dreiser was eclectic in his interests, and although generally progressive in his social thought, he was too eccentric and independent a thinker to fit into any one ideological mode.
The 1925 work An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, like London’s Martin Eden, explores the dangers of the American dream. Despite his awkward style, Dreiser, in An American Tragedy, displays crushing authority. Its precise details build up an overwhelming sense of tragic inevitability. The novel is a scathing portrait of the American success myth gone sour, but it is also a universal story about the stresses of urbanization, modernization, and alienation. Within it roam the romantic and dangerous fantasies of the dispossessed.
An American Tragedy is a reflection of the dissatisfaction, envy, and despair that afflicted many poor and working people in America’s competitive, success-driven society. As American industrial power soared, the glittering lives of the wealthy in newspapers and photographs sharply contrasted with the drab lives of ordinary farmers and city workers. The media fanned rising expectations and unreasonable desires. Such problems, common to modernizing nations, gave rise to muckraking journalism — penetrating investigative reporting that documented social problems and provided an important impetus to social reform.
In the years since its inauspicious debut, however, Sister Carrie has come to be regarded as an American classic. Many call it the first modern American novel, a precursor to the works of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. It captures the exuberance and social transformation of turn-of-the-century America. Littered with the nation’s slang and its distinctive personalities, the novel traces the vagaries of fortune in the developing capitalist society. Simultaneously a tale of rags-to-riches and riches-to-rags, the novel confronts the reader with a vision of both the comic and the tragic aspects of American capitalism.
Sister Carrie tells the story of two characters: Carrie Meeber, an ordinary girl who rises from a low-paid wage earner to a high-paid actress, and George Hurstwood, a member of the upper middle class who falls from his comfortable lifestyle to a life on the streets. Neither Carrie nor Hurstwood earn their fates through virtue or vice, but rather through random circumstance. Their successes and failures have no moral value; this stance marks Sister Carrie as a departure from the conventional literature of the period.
Dreiser touches upon a wide range of themes and experiences in Sister Carrie, from grinding poverty to upper-middle class comfort. The novel dwells on the moment as it is experienced; the characters are plunged into the narrative without the reader being told much, if any, of their histories. Their identities are constantly subject to change, reflecting the modern American experience that had been ushered in by the developing capitalist economy. In the process of this development, thousands of rural Americans rushed to the cities to find jobs and to build themselves new lives and identities. Sister Carrie captures the excitement of that experience.