Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)
American author, outstanding representative of naturalism, whose novels depict real-life subjects in a harsh light. Dreiser's novels were held to be amoral, and he battled throughout his career against censorship and popular taste, starting from his first novel, SISTER CARRIE (1900). It was not until 1981 when the work was published in original form. Dreiser's principal concern was with the conflict between human needs and the demands of society for material success.
"A woman should some day write the complete philosophy of clothes. No matter how young, it is one of the things she wholly comprehends. There is an indescribably faint line in the matter of man's apparel which somehow divides for her those who are worth glancing at and those who are not. Once an individual has passed this faint line on the way downward he will get no glance from her. There is another line at which the dress of a man will cause her to study her own." (from Sister Carrie)
Theodore Dreiser was born in Sullivan, Indiana, as the ninth of the ten children. His parents were poor. In the 1860s his father, a devout Catholic German immigrant, had attempted to establish his own woolen mill, but after it was destroyed in a fire, the family lived in poverty. Dreiser's schooling was erratic, when the family moved from town to town. He left home when he was 16 and worked at whatever jobs he could find. With the help of his former teacher, he was able to spend the year 1889-1890 at the University of Indiana. Dreiser left after only a year. He was, however, a voracious reader, and the impact of such writers as Hawthorne, Poe, Balzac, Herbert Spenser, and Freud influenced his thought and his reaction against organized religion.
In 1892 Dreiser started to write for the Chicago Globe, and moved to better position with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. In 1898 he married Sara White, a Missouri schoolteacher, but the marriage was unhappy. Dreiser separated permanently from her in 1909, but never earnestly sought a divorce. In his own life Dreiser practiced his principle, that man's greatest appetite is sexual - the desire for women led him to carry on several affairs at once. His relationship with Yvette Szekely Eastman is recorded in Dearest Wilding by Yvette Eastman (1995) - she was 16 and Dreiser 40 years older when they met.
As a novelist Dreiser made his debut with Sister Carrie, a powerful account of a young working girl's rise to success and her slow decline. "She was eighteen years of age, bright, timid and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth. Whatever touch of regret at parting characterized her thoughts it was certainly not for advantages now being given up. A gush of tears at her mother's farewell kiss, a touch in the throat when the cars clacked by the flour mill where her father worked by the day, a pathetic sigh as the familiar green environs of the village passed in review, and the threads which bound her so lightly to girlhood and home were irretrievably broken." (from 1981 edition) The president of the publishing company, Frank Doubleday, disapproved the work - Dreiser allowed vice to be rewarded instead of punished. No attempt was made to promote the book. Sister Carrie was reissued in 1907 and it became one of the most famous novels in literary history. Among its admirers was H.L. Mencken, an aspiring journalist, whom Dreiser had hired as a ghostwriter in his paper.
The 500 sold copies of his first novel and family troubles drove Dreiser to the verge of suicide. He worked at a variety of literary jobs, and as a editor in chief of three women's magazines until 1910, when he was forced to resign, because of an office love affair. In 1911 appeared Dreiser's second novel, JENNIE GERHARDT. In the story a young woman, Jennie, is seduced by a senator. She bears a child out of wedlock but sacrifices her own interests to avoid harming her lover's career. A passage in which Jennie's lover Lester Kane, the son of a wealthy family, tells her about contraceptives, was removed by Ripley Hitchcock, the editor at Harper & Brothers. Jennie Gerhardt was followed by novels based on the life of the American transportation magnate Charles T. Jerkes, THE FINANCIER (1912), and THE TITAN (1914), which show the influence of the evolutionary ideas of Herbert Spenser and Nietzsche's concept of the übemensch. Last volume of the trilogy, THE STOIC, was finished in 1945.
"At the height of his success, when he had settled old scores and could easily have become the smiling public man, he chose instead to rip the whole fabric of American civilization straight down the middle, from its economy to its morality. It was the country that had to give ground." (Nelson Algren, in Nation, 16 May, 1959)Dreiser's semiautobiographical novel THE 'GENIUS' (1915) was censured by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The book remained off he market until Liveright reissued it five years later. Dreiser's commercially most successful novel was AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (1925), which was adapted into screen first time in 1931, directed by Josef von Sternberg. Dreiser had objected strongly to the version because it portrayed his youthful killer as a sex-starved idle loafer. The second time was in 1951 under the title A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. During the filming the stars became attached to one another, which is reflected in the tenderness of their performance. The director George Stevens won an Academy Award, and the writers Michael Wilson and and Harry Brown for Best Screenplay. However, Robert Hatch in the New Republic (September 10,1951) dismissed the film. "Unfortunately, the power and bite of the book have been lost in the polite competence of the screen. These are such nice, such obviously successful people, they must be playing characters... there doesn't seem much use in dragging Dreiser's classic off the shelf just to dress it in this elegant, ambivalent production..." The book made Dreiser the champion of social reformers, but his later works did not attain similar notice. The novel depicts the rise and fall of an ambitious young man who is determined to acquire wealth and status even if he must commit murder to do so.
Much of Dreiser's works evolved from his own experiences of poverty. Among his rare excursions into the realm of fantasy is the ghost story 'The Hand' (1920). It is a tale of murder and the haunting of the killer, but again behind the nightmare of the protagonist are the familiar themes of Dreiser's novels - fear of losing one' social position, feelings of moral guilt arising during the unrestrained struggle for success.
"People did live, then, after they were dead, especially evil people - people stronger than you, perhaps. They had the power to come back, to haunt, to annoy you if they didn't like anything you had done to them." (from 'The Hand')
In 1919 Sherwood Anderson wrote about Dreiser: "... he is very, very old. I do not know how many years he has lived, perhaps forty, perhaps fifty, but he is very old. Something gray and bleak and hurtful, that has been in the world perhaps forever, is personified in him." After his wife's death in 1942, Dreiser married his cousin Helen Richardson, who had been his companion from 1919. Dreiser died in Hollywood, California, on December 28, 1945. In the last months of his life, Dreiser joined the Communist Party. In the 1920's Dreiser had travelled in Russia and depicted his experiences in DREISER LOOKS AT RUSSIA (1928). During the reign of J. Edgar Hoover, Dreiser was considered security risk and F.B.I. had a dossier on him. Like many intellectuals in the 1930s (Hemingway, John Dos Passos, André malraux, C. Day Lewis etc.), Dreiser had travelled to Spain during the civil war to in support of the socialist government. Only a small number of writers supported Franco - George Santayana and Ezra Pound were the most famous.
"He had an enormous influence on American literature during the first quarter of the century - and for a time he was American literature, the only writer worth talking about in the same breath with the European masters. Out of his passions, contradictions, and sufferings, he wrenched the art that was his salvation from the hungers and depressions that racked him. It was no wonder that he elevated the creative principle to a godhead and encouraged by word and example truthful expression in others." (from Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey 1908-1945 by Richard Lingeman, 1991)