Although Theodore Dreiser never received the Nobel Prize for literature, he is recognized today as a genuine American literary pioneer, and his massive An American Tragedy is acclaimed as one of the most important novels in American literature.
Theodore Dreiser’s beginnings were not auspicious. The twelfth of thirteen children, he was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1871. His parents were poor and rootless, and, like Clyde Griffiths, his protagonist-victim, Dreiser spent much of his youth tortured by dreams of girls, wealth, and high society. Also like Clyde Griffiths, he left alone for Chicago, without finishing high school, and worked at odd jobs.
After a year at Indiana University, Dreiser became a reporter for the Chicago Globe and hoped to enter the homes of luxury and beauty instead of looking in through their bright windows. He drifted from the Globe to other newspapers in the Middle West and finally got a job with the Pittsburgh Dispatch. In Pittsburgh, he discovered the novels of Balzac.
At the age of twenty-three, Dreiser moved to New York, where his brother (Paul Dresser) was a popular songwriter. Here Dreiser began his first novel, Sister Carrie, a pioneering work in American literary naturalism. Because of its erotic and moral frankness, its own publishers suppressed the book in 1900.
Failing as a journalist in New York, Dreiser next turned to magazines, hoping to treat his assignments more imaginatively than newspapers permitted. By the time his second novel, Jennie Gerhardt (1911), was published, he had influential support from such writers as Frank Norris (who had earlier championed Sister Carrie), H. G. Wells, and Hugh Walpole.
Dreiser then seriously devoted himself to writing novels. The first two volumes of his “Trilogy of Desire” — The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914) — drew a harsh portrait of a ruthless businessman. The “Genius” (1915) was a study of the artistic temperament in a materialistic society. In addition, Dreiser wrote stories, plays, essays, and travel sketches. But wide fame and financial success did not come to the leader of the school of American realism until the publication in 1925 of his monumental and controversial An American Tragedy.
Dreiser continued to write steadily — stories, poems, travel books, sketches, autobiography, and novels — but none of his works made an impact comparable to An American Tragedy. Toward the end of his career, Dreiser devoted himself to questions of socialism and religion. His last novel, The Bulwark (1946), was published a year after his death and is a Quaker novel of considerable power. Also published posthumously was The Stoic (1947), the third and not-really-finished volume of his “Trilogy of Desire.”