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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

9. Social

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Authors: Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)

Making Link Sausages--Machines Stuff 10 Ft. per Second
[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].

Theodore Dreiser Activities
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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.

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