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Theodore Dreiser | Biography

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Theodore Dreiser was born on August 27, 1871, in Terre Haute, Wisconsin, and was one of 10 children who survived infancy. His father, Johann, was a German immigrant and a devout Roman Catholic. His mother, Säräh, was a Mennonite 12 years her husband's junior. The couple met in Ohio, but the religious differences of their families forced them to elope and move to Wisconsin. Johann worked his way up through the wool industry, ultimately owning his own mill. When a fire destroyed it in 1869, the family fortune was lost, never to be recovered. The family moved frequently in search of economic stability, and Dreiser had few educational opportunities despite his natural predilection for school. He wrote of his troubled childhood in his autobiography, Dawn, exposing what was all too often the breakdown of first-generation immigrant families due to their religious fervor and unwillingness to accept American ways.

Dreiser left for Chicago at age 16 to seek employment. Not having much luck, he welcomed a former teacher's suggestion—and her offer of tuition—to attend college. After a year in Bloomington at Wisconsin University, Dreiser returned to Chicago and this time landed a journalist job. He worked as a newspaper reporter for three years in Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and New York City before assuming an editorial role at the magazine of the music production firm that published the music of one of Dreiser's favorite brothers, Paul Dresser, a popular songwriter at the time, who used a different family name. This stint was followed by a few years as a freelance writer for well-known magazines.

While Dreiser developed as a writer, he remained a voracious reader. He had a broad working knowledge of world literature, and he read to hone his understanding of diverse topics in science, philosophy, social problems, and the arts. He also interviewed many of the celebrities of his time and dabbled in writing fiction and poetry.

Dreiser's decision to write a novel came after his marriage in 1898, reflecting the urging of his wife Sara as well as encouragement from his friends. This prompting led to Sister Carrie, a book based loosely on his own sister's affair with a married Chicago businessman who, like Hurstwood in the novel, stole money from his employer to finance the relationship. Dreiser submitted the finished manuscript to Doubleday, where Frank Norris—an editor there and a successful novelist with many of the same philosophical leanings as Dreiser—immediately declared it one of the best novels he had read. He pushed to secure a verbal agreement with Dreiser to publish it. Frank Doubleday was in Europe at the time, however, and when he returned he was very much against publishing the book, which he labeled "immoral." But Dreiser would not back down, and Doubleday brought the book out in 1900 without fanfare or publicity, hoping it would die a quick literary death. The book sold fewer than 500 copies. However, the novel soon caught the interest of British publishers and remained in print. It was successfully reissued in America in 1907 to much attention for the book and for Dreiser.

On the heels of the attempted suppression of his book by the publisher, Dreiser suffered a nervous breakdown. When he was able to begin working again, he rose to success as a high-ranking editor of several women's magazines. He would not publish a second novel until 1911, when his popularity as a writer really developed. At the same time, his marriage fell apart; he began moving in the liberal, avant-garde literary world of Europe and Greenwich Village in New York City, which was very different from his early life. Around 1919 he started a tumultuous affair with a beautiful young aspiring actress, Helen Richardson, which would last the rest of his life and lead him to Hollywood. He died there on December 28, 1945, after finally marrying Helen in 1944.

By the time of Dreiser's death, the once controversial and rejected Sister Carrie had come to be viewed as a masterpiece of its day, and Dreiser had become a literary icon. At a commemorative service in 1947, famous satirist and writer H.L. Mencken said about Dreiser, "No other American of his generation left so wide and handsome a mark upon the national letters. American writing, before and after his time, differed almost as much as biology before and after Darwin. He was a man of large originality, of profound feeling, and of unshakable courage. All of us who write are better off because he lived, worked, and hoped."

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