In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Theodore Dreiser

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Personal Reminiscences
  • Journals
  • Reception
  • Film
  • Theater
  • Dreiser and Other Writers
  • Women in Dreiser’s Works

American Literature Theodore Dreiser
Gary Totten
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0089


Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, to working-class parents, including a German immigrant father. His family background, including his father’s strong Roman Catholicism, his siblings’ tumultuous romantic relationships, and the family’s financial instability, would influence the themes of his fiction. Dreiser also experienced his share of romantic complications, and his marriages to Sara Osborne White and Helen Richardson were characterized by sustained infidelity. Dreiser never finished high school and attended Indiana University for one year before embarking on a three-year stint as a journalist at a variety of newspapers, including the Chicago Globe, New York World, and St. Louis Globe-Democrat. During his early career, Dreiser also worked as an editor and freelance writer for national magazines. In 1898, Dreiser began his first novel, Sister Carrie (1900), with the encouragement of his wife, Sara Osborne White, and his novelist friend, Arthur Henry. Dreiser based his novel in part on his sister Emma’s relationship with a married man. The Doubleday Company published the novel reluctantly, upholding a verbal agreement to publish it but refusing adequately to promote or distribute the novel because of objections over its moral content. Dreiser suffered severe depression over the incident, and would not publish another novel until Jennie Gerhardt in 1911, again based on family experiences and also controversial because of its moral content. After his second novel, Dreiser entered into a productive period, publishing The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914) (both part of The Trilogy of Desire, based on real-life business mogul Charles T. Yerkes), and The “Genius” (1915), all of which continued to generate controversy. Dreiser’s greatest financial and critical success came with the publication of An American Tragedy (1925), which was made into two movie versions, one in 1951 starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Dreiser spent some time in Hollywood attempting to break into the screenwriting business but was never successful. He also wrote in other genres, including the short story, drama, poetry, several books of travel writing, and nonfiction essays. In his later years, Dreiser’s work became more contemplative and abstract, and his final novels, The Bulwark (1946) and The Stoic (the unfinished third installment in The Trilogy of Desire, published in 1947) explore philosophical and religious ideas. Dreiser also became more involved in political issues during his later years and joined the Communist Party shortly before his death. Although Dreiser is criticized for his cumbersome style, his compelling characters and narratives continue to fascinate readers, and his importance to early 20th-century American literature is undeniable.

General Overviews

The comprehensive studies of Gerber 1992, Lehan 1969, and Pizer 1976 provide good introductions to Dreiser’s works, with discussion and analysis of each novel. Pizer 1976 includes significant reference to archival materials. Gerber 1992 also supplies an historical perspective on changes in Dreiser scholarship between the mid-1960s and early 1990s. Lehan 1969 offers information about Dreiser’s development as a writer, Mencken 1917 offers a defense of Dreiser’s style and content, and Warren 1971 focuses on connections between Dreiser’s life and work. Eby 1998 emphasizes a cultural studies approach to Dreiser’s fiction while Hussman 1983 and Zanine 1993 provide useful analysis of Dreiser’s later life and works.

  • Eby, Clare Virginia. Dreiser and Veblen: Saboteurs of the Status Quo. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.

    Argues that the rhetorical strategies in the works of Dreiser and Veblen serve as a model for postmodern cultural criticism. Part of the trend in late 20th- and early 21st-century Dreiser scholarship to approach Dreiser’s work by way of cultural studies and other new developments in criticism, illustrated by edited collections such as Gogol 1995 and Hakutani 2000 (both cited under Criticism).

  • Gerber, Philip L. Theodore Dreiser Revisited. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1992.

    Originally published in 1964. Good critical introduction to Dreiser’s work, with a chapter devoted to analysis of each novel. This 1992 revised edition includes a useful discussion of changes in Dreiser studies during the decades since the first edition of the book.

  • Hussman, Lawrence E. Jr. Dreiser and His Fiction: A Twentieth-Century Quest. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

    Analysis of Dreiser’s fiction, with emphasis on his emotional responses to experience and how they influenced his spiritual quest. The study covers the full range of Dreiser’s fiction, including his two understudied novels, The Bulwark and The Stoic.

  • Lehan, Richard. Theodore Dreiser: His World and His Novels. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

    Critical biography with analysis of his novels, based on the holograph versions. Discusses Dreiser’s development as a writer and thinker.

  • Mencken, H. L. “Theodore Dreiser.” In A Book of Prefaces. By H. L. Menchen, 67–148. New York: Knopf, 1917.

    Discusses Dreiser’s career through 1916, praising his original and powerful depiction of human experience, despite his clumsy style and structure, and criticizing the academic and critical community for its puritanical approach to Dreiser’s work.

  • Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976.

    Excellent analysis of Dreiser’s eight novels, examining how the sources and composition of each novel affect the themes and formal aspects. Includes considerable references to the archival materials of the Dreiser Collection at the University of Pennsylvania.

  • Warren, Robert Penn. Homage to Theodore Dreiser: On the Centennial of His Birth. New York: Random House, 1971.

    Views Dreiser’s novels as vehicles for him to express his own emotional issues and ambitions and draw upon his life experiences. Also acknowledges the artistic importance of Dreiser’s works.

  • Zanine, Louis J. Mechanism and Mysticism: The Influence of Science on the Thought and Work of Theodore Dreiser. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

    Argues that Dreiser’s interest in science, particularly his intense period of scientific inquiry in the 1930s, represents a quest to answer spiritual questions about human existence and suggests that Dreiser’s mysticism in his later years is influenced by 18th- and 19th-century religious and aesthetic philosophy.

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