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Theodore Dreiser - A Literary Expressionist

Updated on June 19, 2013

American Writers with Impact

Early Life of Theodore Reiser

Born in the town of Terre Haute, Indiana in 1871, Theodore Dreiser would claim his place in literary expressionism. At the end of the 1800s, a refreshing new era of consciousness of American life influenced art, literature and society in general developed as a result of the advancement of the Industrial Age. He was born into a lower middle class family that dealt with hardship and disaster familiar to immigrant families. His father, John Paul Dreiser, owned a flour mill that burned down. Theodore's father was badly injured and supporting his wife and children. It's interesting that John Paul Dreiser, a devout Catholic, preached fear of hell and damnation to his children. His children, however, chose less religious lifestyles as they near adulthood. Theodore had three sisters, Sylvia, Emma and Mary and a brother, Paul. Paul would soon changed his name to Dresser and become a popular singer, songwriter and entertainer in American theater and stage.

Enter the Writer

Among the works of Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, The Financier and the Titan, he portrays the characters in full realism, expanding beyond the mores of the times in which he lived. In Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, he brazenly broke down the walls of literary conventions and dared to include two of his heroines, inspired by his sisters, Emma and Mary. He found their lack of obedience to their father's strict religious values a foundation upon which he could expound in writing. At age 16, Mary Dreiser was seduced by a middle aged paramour lawyer which resulted in pregnancy. He tried to induce her to have an abortion. Mary refused and bore her child at the home of sister, Emma.

Underlying Values of Morality Questioned

To show further examples of the siblings "loose" morals sister, Sylvia also had an illegitimate child whose father was the head of prominent Warsaw, Indiana family of wealth. His brother, Paul, took a mistress who had been the madam of a brothel. This mistress helped the downtrodded Dreiser family during their most difficult period of hardship. All of these figures and situations were worked into the characters and plot of Dreiser's novels. When Dreiser pitched his novel, Sister Carrie, to DoubleDay & Page, leading publishers of these times, the editor, Walter Hines Page disagreed about the story line and seeming sympathy for the immoral life of Carrie. The publishers agreed to publish the work while simultaneously sabotaging the sale of it. As a result, Theodore Dreiser suffered a mental breakdown and was sent for treatment at a sanitorium. Once recovered, he tried to work in unskilled labor and subsequently chose a position at Butterick publishing company. Yet, another genre would capture the literary passions of Theodore Dreiser: predatory tycoons.

A New Beginning

As with many authors of renown, like Wordsworth, Dickens and Wolff, Theodore Reiser focused on social issues and used his literary talents and skills to create novels with poignancy and expressionism. His first attempt at writing about predatory tycoons led him to tycoon, Charles Yerkes. Yerkes life was an expressionist writer's dream. It ran the gamut from multiple divorces, astronomical success and failure, lurid seductions to acquisitions of great collections of art. In his social circle, he was a man of excess in morals and values. This was new beginning for Dreiser and one that would have a crucial impact on the formerly guarded, restrictive literary world. He had no compunctions presenting immorality in a humanistic composite as it existed, albeit denied by society of those times.

A Voice for Women

Theodore Dreiser had an unusual literary talent for developing female characters instinctively. Victorian women of his era were loathed to show emotion and were largely secluded from the seamier sides of life. Dreiser's female characters acted in scenes in his plots in the most altruistic, forthright manner. Dreiser viewed this talent as a type of adventurous crusade upon which his attitudes flowed through his writing. It may seem ironic that Dreiser's lower middle class upbringing in a strict Catholic atmosphere would develop his openness with sexuality, promiscuity and immorality. Thus, Theodore Dreiser opened doors in the literary world formerly sealed and presented a new platform for literature that coupled his philosophies with life as he observed it around him.


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