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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Social Realism Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)

[7110] H. C. White Co., Making Link Sausages–Machines Stuff 10 Ft. per Second (c. 1905), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-50217].

One of the foremost practitioners of American realism, Theodore Dreiser wrote novels and stories that explored such themes as the dangerous lure of urban environments, the conflict between Old World parents and their Americanized children, and the hollowness of the American drive for material success. Dreiser’s own life provided him with many of the experiences and concerns that he later translated into his fiction. He was born into a large, impoverished family in Terre Haute, Indiana. His father, a German immigrant, tried to make his children conform to strict Old World values and dogmatic Catholicism, but Dreiser and most of his siblings rebelled. At fifteen Dreiser left home and took a series of odd jobs in Chicago. After spending a year in college through the help and support of a generous teacher, he became a journalist and wrote for newspapers in Chicago, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh.

By 1899 Dreiser was settled in New York, editing a magazine and selling his freelance writing. With the encouragement of his friends he decided to try his hand at a novel, to be based on the life of one of his sisters. The result, Sister Carrie, was published in 1900, but received neither critical attention nor praise. True to his interest in uncompromising realism, Dreiser had written a novel that portrayed characters who broke the bounds of respectability and engaged in illicit behavior without remorse or repercussions. Shocked by the book’s controversial themes and worried about public opinion, the publisher refused to promote it and it sold poorly. Dreiser’s disagreement with his publisher and his refusal to alter his novel marked the beginning of what would become a lasting commitment to resisting Victorian prudery and narrowness.

After his difficulties with Sister Carrie, Dreiser suffered a nervous breakdown and then opted to return to his career in journalism. He produced no new fiction for almost seven years. Then, in 1910, he lost his position as editor of a leading women’s magazine and took his dismissal as an opportunity to return to fiction writing. The next fifteen years constituted a period of extraordinary productivity for Dreiser, leading to the publication of four novels, four works of travel narrative and autobiography, and numerous short stories and sketches. He published what many critics consider to be his masterpiece, An American Tragedy, in 1925. Based on an actual murder case in upstate New York, the book was hailed as a great American novel and generated substantial profits. With his reputation and finances secure, Dreiser’s productivity dropped off; he completed no other novels until almost the end of his life.

Like many American intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s, Dreiser was fascinated with socialism and the political experiment going on in the new Soviet Union. In 1927 he paid a lengthy visit to Moscow. Upon his return to the United States, he devoted himself to furthering proletarian causes and the Communist party. When he died in 1945 in California, his reputation as a writer and thinker was at low, but later critics have largely revived his standing as an innovative author who defied genteel and romantic traditions to offer realistic portraits of human nature and social conditions in America.

Teaching Tips

  • Ask your students to pay attention to Dreiser’s use of regional dialects in “Old Rogaum and His Theresa.” Which characters speak in dialect? How does Theresa’s language separate her from her father? How does Connie Almerting talk? What conclusions are we supposed to draw from each character’s different way of speaking? You might ask students to compare Dreiser’s use of dialect to some of the “regional realist” writers featured in Unit 8.
  • As many critics have noted, the conclusion of “Old Rogaum and His Theresa,” though not tragic, is not exactly a happy one. Readers are left with the uneasy feeling that the Rogaum family’s disputes are not over. While both Theresa and her father are glad that she has safely returned to her home, the girl’s desires still seem to be in conflict with her father’s Old World ideas about proper conduct. After discussing the lack of resolution in the ending of the story, ask your students to write a sequel to “Old Rogaum and His Theresa” in which they speculate on how Theresa and her father will get along while she continues to live at home.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In “Old Rogaum and His Theresa,” what attracts Theresa to the streets? Why is she reluctant to return to her home when her father calls her?
  2. Context: What kind of neighborhood do the Rogaums live in? Does Dreiser give readers an idea about the different ethnic groups and socioeconomic classes that inhabit the neighborhood? How do you think the community compares to some of the New York neighborhoods whose pictures are featured in the archive?
  3. Context: In “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James claims that writers have a responsibility to represent “the strange irregular rhythm of life” rather than organized morality lessons, pat conclusions, or happy endings. How do you think James would have responded to “Old Rogaum and His Theresa”? Does it meet his criteria for good fiction? Why or why not?
  4. Exploration: Much of the drama of “Old Rogaum and His Theresa” centers on the problem of female chastity. Theresa’s exposure to the unscrupulous Connie Almerting and the elder Rogaums’ encounter with the suicidal prostitute thematize the potential for young women to “go astray” in an urban setting like New York. Why does Dreiser focus on this issue? Does he seem to draw any conclusions? How does his portrait of young women’s desires and temptations compare to earlier American treatments of the same subject (Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, for example?)

Selected Archive Items

[5126] Lewis Wickes Hines, Rear View of Tenement, 134 1/2 Thompson St., New York City (1912),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, National Child Labor Committee Collection [LC-USZ62-93116].
Photograph of the back of a tenement housing-complex in New York City. Like writer Theodore Dreiser, photographer Lewis Wickes Hines documented social conditions in America at the beginning of the twentieth century.

[5967] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Theodore Dreiser (1933),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62- 42486].
Writer Theodore Dreiser, late in life. A practitioner of American realism, Dreiser explored such themes as the lure of urban environments, the conflict between Old World parents and their Americanized children, and the hollowness of the American drive for material success.

[7110] H. C. White Co., Making Link Sausages–Machines Stuff 10 Ft. per Second (c. 1905),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-50217].
Photograph of Swift and Company’s packing house in Chicago. Mechanization and urbanization encouraged some writers’ nostalgia for the United States’s agricultural past.

[8084] Jerome Myers, In Lower New York (1926),
courtesy of the Portland Art Museum, bequest of Winslow B. Ayers.
At the turn of the century, the Lower East Side of New York City was home to some of the nation’s poorest people, the vast majority of whom were European immigrants struggling to eke out a living on America’s “golden shores.”

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Credits

Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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