BIOGRAPHY THEODORE DREISER
American author, outstanding representative of naturalism, whose novels depict real-life subjects in a harsh light. Dreiser's novels were held to be amoral, and he battled throughout his career against censorship and popular taste. This started with SISTER CARRIE (1900). It was not until 1981 that the work was published in its original form. Dreiser's principal concern was with the conflict between human needs and the demands of society for material success.
Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. His parents were German immigrants whose marriage resulted in thirteen children. Because his father was often ill and unemployed, the family struggled against poverty throughout Dreiser's childhood. In rebellion against his father's obsessive religiosity, Dreiser left home at fifteen for Chicago. There, after three years of menial jobs, he found work as a newspaper reporter. While Dreiser churned out hackwork for various periodicals, he was reading the deterministic philosophy of Herbert Spencer and the novels of Honore de Balzac, who believed in the evolutionary doctrine that life is a struggle in which instinctive human desires are often in conflict with conventional morality.
"A woman should some day write the complete philosophy of clothes. No matter how young, it is one of the things she wholly comprehends. There is an indescribably faint line in the matter of man's apparel which somehow divides for her those who are worth glancing at and those who are not. Once an individual has passed this faint line on the way downward he will get no glance from her. There is another line at which the dress of a man will cause her to study her own." (from Sister Carrie)
Theodore Dreiser was born in Sullivan, Indiana, the ninth of ten children. His parents were poor. In the 1860s his father, a devout Catholic German immigrant, had attempted to establish his own woolen mill, but after it was destroyed in a fire, the family lived in poverty. Dreiser's schooling was erratic, as the family moved from town to town. He left home when he was 16 and worked at whatever jobs he could find. With the help of his former teacher, he was able to spend the year 1889-1890 at Indiana University. Dreiser left after only a year. He was, however, a voracious reader, and the impact of such writers as Hawthorne, Poe, Balzac, Herbert Spencer, and Freud influenced his thought and his reaction against organized religion.
In 1892 Dreiser started to write for the Chicago Globe, and moved to a better position with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. In 1898 he married Sara White, a Missouri schoolteacher, but the marriage was unhappy. Dreiser separated permanently from her in 1909, but never earnestly sought a divorce. In his own life Dreiser practised his principle that man's greatest appetite is sexual - the desire for women led him to carry on several affairs at once. His relationship with Yvette Szekely Eastman is recorded in Dearest Wilding by Yvette Eastman (1995) - she was 16 and Dreiser 40 years older when they met.
As a novelist Dreiser made his debut with Sister Carrie, a powerful account of a young working girl's rise to success and her slow decline. "She was eighteen years of age, bright, timid and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth. Whatever touch of regret at parting characterized her thoughts it was certainly not for advantages now being given up. A gush of tears at her mother's farewell kiss, a touch in the throat when the cars clacked by the flour mill where her father worked by the day, a pathetic sigh as the familiar green environs of the village passed in review, and the threads which bound her so lightly to girlhood and home were irretrievably broken." (from the 1981 edition) The president of the publishing company, Frank Doubleday, disapproved of the work - Dreiser illuminated the flaws of his characters but did not judge them and allowed vice to be rewarded instead of punished. No attempt was made to promote the book. Sister Carrie was reissued in 1907 and it became one of the most famous novels in literary history. Among its admirers was H.L. Mencken, an aspiring journalist, whom Dreiser had hired as a ghost-writer in his paper. William Wyler's film version, starring Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones, was made at the height of the Cold War and McCarthy era. Paramount executives delayed the releasing of the film - they thought the picture was not good for America and it was a flop. "It was a depressing story", said Wyler, "and it might not have been a success anyway."
The 500 sold copies of his first novel and family troubles drove Dreiser to the verge of suicide. He worked at a variety of literary jobs, and as an editor- in- chief of three women's magazines until 1910, when he was forced to resign, because of an office love affair. In 1911 JENNIE GERHARDT, Dreiser's second novel, appeared. In the story a young woman, Jennie, is seduced by a senator. She bears a child out of wedlock but sacrifices her own interests to avoid harming her lover's career. A passage in which Jennie's lover Lester Kane, the son of a wealthy family, tells her about contraceptives, was removed by Ripley Hitchcock, the editor at Harper & Brothers. Jennie Gerhardt was followed by novels based on the life of the American transportation magnate Charles T. Jerkes, THE FINANCIER (1912), and THE TITAN (1914), which show the influence of the evolutionary ideas of Herbert Spencer and Nietzsche's concept of the Übermensch. Last volume of the trilogy, THE STOIC, was finished in 1945.
"At the height of his success, when he had settled old scores and could easily have become the smiling public man, he chose instead to rip the whole fabric of American civilization straight down the middle, from its economy to its morality. It was the country that had to give ground." (Nelson Algren, in Nation, 16 May, 1959)
Dreiser's semi-autobiographical novel THE 'GENIUS' (1915) was censured by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The book remained off the market until Liveright reissued it five years later. Dreiser's commercially most successful novel was AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (1925), which was adapted for screen for thefirst time in 1931, directed by Josef von Sternberg. Dreiser had objected strongly to the version because it portrayed his youthful killer as a sex-starved idle loafer. The second time was in 1951 under the title A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. During the filming the stars became attached to one another, which is reflected in the tenderness of their performance. The director George Stevens won an Academy Award, as did the writers Michael Wilson and Harry Brown for Best Screenplay. However, Robert Hatch in the New Republic (September 10,1951) dismissed the film. "Unfortunately, the power and bite of the book have been lost in the polite competence of the screen. These are such nice, such obviously successful people, they must be playing characters . there doesn't seem much use in dragging Dreiser's classic off the shelf just to dress it in this elegant, ambivalent production ." The book made Dreiser the champion of social reformers, but his later works did not attain similar notice.
An American Tragedy tells the story of a bellboy, Clyde Griffiths, indecisive like Hamlet, who sets out to gain success and fame. After an automobile accident, Clyde is employed by a distant relative, owner of a collar factory. He seduces Roberta Alden, an employee at the factory, but falls in love with Sondra Finchley, a girl of the local aristocracy. Roberta, now pregnant, demands that Clyde marry her. He takes Roberta rowing on an isolated lake and in this dreamlike sequence 'accidentally' murders her. Clyde's trial, conviction, and execution occupy the remainder of the book. Dreiser points out that materialistic society is as much to blame as the murderer himself. Dreiser based his study on the actual case of Chester Gillette, who murdered Grace Brown - he hit her with a tennis racket and pushed her overboard at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack in July 1906. An American Tragedy was banned in Boston in 1927.
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