Presentation Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser 1871-1945

  • Early Life
    • Born in Indian
    • 9th of 10 surviving children
    • Son of a German Catholic immigrant father and Mennonite Mother (who was disowned for converting to Catholicism to marry his father)
    • His father was a worker in a wool mill who worked his way up to running his own mill but lost it all in a fire.
    • Dreiser’s earliest memories where of having to move around while his father looked, unsuccessfully, for work
    • In his autobiography Dawn, Dreiser describes being part of a “German-speaking, Roman Catholic, downwardly mobile family” who were at times not able to properly feed or cloth their children.
  • Education
    • Due, in part, to the sexual adventures of his sisters (Emma’s exploits became part of the basis for Sister Carrie), Dreiser became disillusioned with school and dropped out.
    • A few years later Dreiser attended the University of Indiana for a year under the patronage of a former teacher but dropped out of college as well.
    • Dreiser was well read, bookish and mostly self-educated.
  • Work life
    • Dreiser went to Chicago at the age of 16 and begin getting work were could
    • Worked mostly for newspapers to start—on a per-inch basis.
    • He also worked for his brother Paul Dresser at his music production company
    • Ended up working for various journals, magazines and newspapers as a writer and reporter
    • During this time he experimented with poetry and fiction and his early short stories, “Nigger Jeff,”   “Butcher Rogaum’s Door,” and “The Shining Slave Makers,” are examples of “urban and rural life in the last decade of the century.”
  • Sister Carrie
    • His First novel Sister Carrie was Published against the publishers wishes
    • Frank Norris was a reader for the firm and convinced a junior partner to offer Dreiser a contract
    • Of Sister Carrie, Norris said, “The best novel I have read in M.S. since I have been a reader for the firm”
    • Doubleday disagreed and tried to rescind the contract calling the book “immoral” due to its depiction of a “fallen” woman obtaining success
    • Because of his trouble with Doubleday, Dreiser became a spokesman against censorship
    • This trouble also led Dreiser to significantly revise the book with the help of close friends, but regardless of the revisions Doubleday didn’t advertise the novel and less than 500 copies were sold in the first printing
    • With Norris’s help, however, the novel did have moderate success in other printings and abroad
    • The book went through multiple additions and revisions finally ending up with the University of Pennsylvania press 1981 edition that was based on original manuscripts before the revisions. A searchable online version is available online through the University of Pennsylvania Library.


How does morality or immorality play a part in the novel? Who is rewarded for what? Are there any good or evil people in the novel? In light of the characters of the other novels we’ve read, which, if any, of characters have redeemable qualities?

How does cityscape, industrialization, material goods, and money play a part in the novel? How may these relate to Dreiser’s own experiences and views? Who benefits from these aspects in the novel? How do they relate to Dreiser’s quote—or do they?


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