This Day In Writing History
On August 27th, 1871, the famous American novelist and journalist Theodore Dreiser was born. He was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, the twelfth of thirteen children. The popular songwriter Paul Dresser was Dreiser's older brother. In 1889, Dreiser entered Indiana University, but he flunked out a year later.
Several years after flunking out of university, Theodore Dreiser became a journalist, writing first for the Chicago Globe, then for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. He wrote articles about famous writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Burroughs and interviewed public figures such as Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison. On December 28th, 1898, Dreiser married his girlfriend, Sara White. The couple separated in 1909, but were never formally divorced.
In 1900, Theodore Dreiser's acclaimed first novel, Sister Carrie, was published. The controversial novel told the story of 18-year-old Caroline "Sister Carrie" Meeber, a young girl living an unhappy life in rural Wisconsin. So, Carrie takes a train to Chicago, where she has made arrangements to move in with her older sister Minnie and her brother-in-law, Sven. On the train, Carrie meets a traveling salesman named Charles Drouet. He is attracted to her and they exchange information.
Carrie finds life at her sister's apartment not much happier than it was in Wisconsin. To earn her keep, Carrie takes a job at a shoe factory. She finds her co-workers (both male and female) to be vulgar and the working conditions squalid. The job takes a toll on her health. After getting sick, Carrie loses her job. She is reunited with Charles Drouet, who is still attracted to her. He takes her to dinner, where he asks her to move in with him, lavishing her with money. Tired of living with her sister and brother-in-law, Carrie agrees to be Drouet's kept woman.
Later, Drouet introduces Carrie to George Hurstwood, the manager of his favorite bar. Hurstwood, an unhappily married man, falls in love with Carrie, and they have an affair. But she returns to Drouet because Hurstwood can't provide for her financially. So, Hurstwood embezzles a large sum of money from the bar and persuades Carrie to run away with him to Canada. In Montreal, Hurstwood becomes trapped by both his guilty conscience and a private detective and returns most of the stolen money. He agrees to marry Carrie and the couple moves to New York City, where they live under the assumed names George and Carrie Wheeler.
Carrie believes she may have finally found happiness, but then she and George grow apart. After George loses his source of income and gambles away the couple's savings, Carrie, who has been trying to build a career in the theater, leaves him. She becomes a rich and famous actress, but finds that wealth and fame don't bring her happiness and that nothing will.
When it was first published, Sister Carrie sold poorly. Due to its controversial nature, even though parts of it had been altered by editors, the publisher refused to promote it and gave it a bland, red cover, with only the names of the novel and the author on it. When the publisher's wife complained that the novel was too sordid, he finally withdrew it. Later, it was republished when Frank Norris, a reader for Doubleday & McClure, sent a few copies to reviewers. All the subsequent editions of the novel came from the first publisher's edited version of the manuscript. In 1981, Dreiser's original, unaltered manuscript of Sister Carrie was finally published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
Still, even in its edited form, Sister Carrie was regarded as a classic American novel. In his 1930 Nobel Prize Lecture, Sinclair Lewis said of it: "Dreiser's great first novel, Sister Carrie, which he dared to publish thirty long years ago and which I read twenty-five years ago, came to housebound and airless America like a great free Western wind, and to our stuffy domesticity gave us the first fresh air since Mark Twain and Whitman."
Theodore Dreiser wrote more classic novels, including his Trilogy of Desire series, The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The Stoic (1947). But his 1925 novel, An American Tragedy, became his first commercial success. It's also considered a classic novel. Inspired by a real life criminal case and set in Kansas City, it tells the story of Clyde, the son of poor, devoutly religious parents who force him to join in their street missionary work. Dreaming of better things, he takes a job as bellboy at a local hotel, where the other boys introduce him to alcohol and prostitution. He falls in love with a girl, Hortense Briggs, and does everything he can to impress her.
While driving a stolen car, Clyde accidentally kills a child. He flees Kansas City. After staying briefly in Chicago, Clyde reinvents himself as a foreman at a collar factory in Lycurgus, New York, owned by his long-lost uncle. Although Clyde promised himself that he wouldn't let his passions cause his downfall again, he falls for Roberta Alden, a poor farm girl who works under him at the factory. He enjoys their secret relationship (which is forbidden by factory rules) and manipulates Roberta into having sex with him. But he's not about to marry a poor farm girl. He falls for Sondra Finchley, an elegant rich girl whose father is a friend of his uncle's.
Just as his relationship with Sondra becomes promising, Roberta discovers that she's pregnant with Clyde's child. After his attempt at arranging an illegal abortion for Roberta proves unsuccessful, she threatens to reveal their relationship unless he marries her. So, Clyde plans to murder her and make it look like an accident. He takes her for a canoe ride, where he ends up hitting her with his camera. The boat capsizes, and Roberta, who can't swim, drowns while Clyde swims back to shore, unwilling to save her.
The narrative is deliberately unclear as to whether Clyde hit Roberta on purpose, with the intention of capsizing the boat and causing her to drown, or if it was just out of anger. But the circumstantial evidence suggests murder, and the authorities are so determined to convict Clyde that they resort to manufacturing evidence in order to secure a conviction. Despite a strong defense by lawyers hired by his uncle, Clyde is convicted and sentenced to death. The novel's greatest scenes of pathos take place in prison, where Clyde corresponds with his mother until the day of his execution.
In addition to his novels, Theodore Dreiser also wrote short story collections and non-fiction books about political issues. A devout socialist, Dreiser wrote of his 1927 trip to the Soviet Union in Dreiser Looks At Russia and criticized American capitalism in Tragic America (1931) and America Is Worth Saving (1941). But he was best known for his fiction and is rightfully considered to be one of the all-time greatest American novelists. Theodore Dreiser died on December 28th, 1945, at the age of 74.
Quote Of The Day
"Art is the stored honey of the human soul, gathered on wings of misery and travail." - Theodore Dreiser
Today's video features a Bloomberg TV segment about the world premiere of Tobias Picker's opera adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's classic novel, An American Tragedy, at the Met. Enjoy!