Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser is one of Indiana’s most well-known writers. Dreiser’s novels explored pressing early 20th century societal concerns such as poverty, income inequality, and prostitution.

Early Life

Theodore Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1871 and lived here as a child. He was born to German immigrants, the ninth of the family’s ten living children. Dreiser’s father, Johann, had owned a wool mill in Sullivan, Indiana before it burned to the ground in 1869. Johann was severely injured in the fire and the Dreiser family never recovered financially, often moving from town to town across Indiana in search of economic prosperity. Dreiser’s impoverished childhood influenced the novels he later wrote about immigrant, working class men and women.

Literary Career and Legacy

By 16, Dreiser left his family for Indiana University, where he spent a year studying. Afterwards, he worked as a reporter for newspapers in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and New York City. In 1899, he started writing his first novel Sister Carrie, which follows a young Midwestern girl to the city in pursuit of the American dream. The novel embraced realistic, gritty depictions of the urban working class. However, it almost went unpublished for being “immoral” as it depicted a successful woman who had sex outside marriage. Many of Dreiser’s works faced similar censorship attacks for their explicit subject matter. Dreiser fought back and eventually helped to encourage free speech in America. After his first novel, Dreiser wrote nine other novels and two plays. The success of his only best-seller, An American Tragedy (1925), which criticized America’s legal system, encouraged him to address social injustices.

During the Great Depression, he helped defend the rights of workers, including striking miners, sought to secure a fair trial for the Scottsboro Boys (a group of young African Americans wrongly accused of rape), and spoke against American imperialism and the abuses of corporations. Dreiser was an avowed socialist all his life and a member of the Communist Party. Though still seen as radical, socialism was common among intellectuals before World War II. In 1945, he became a member of the Communist Party. He wrote many nonfiction books exploring these political views and their social effects globally. Dreiser died in 1945, recognized as one of the best novelists in American literature. His realistic novels brought to light the terrible living and working conditions endured by the working class. His works and life illustrate literature’s power to initiate social change.