Theodore Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1871. The ninth child of German immigrants, Sarah and John Paul Dreiser, he experienced considerable poverty while a child and at the age of fifteen was forced to leave home in search of work.
After briefly attending Indiana University, he found work as a reporter on the Chicago Globe. Later he worked for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the St. Louis Republic and Pittsburgh Dispatch. In his autobiography, Newspaper Days he recalls reporting a meeting addressed by Terence Powderly: "Some are silk purses and others sows' ears and cannot be made the one into the other by any accident of either poverty or wealth. Just at this time, however, after listening to Mr. Powderly (a significant man in connection with that movement) and taking notes on his speech, I came to the conclusion that all laborers had a just right to much better pay and living conditions, and in consequence had a great cause and ought to stick together - only I was not one of them." He later moved to New York City where he attempted to establish himself as a novelist. Dreiser was influenced by books by authors such as William Dean Howells, Frank Norris, Charles Edward Russell and David Graham Phillips.
Dreiser worked for the New York World before Frank Norris, who was working for Doubleday, helped Dreiser's first novel, Sister Carrie (1900), to be published. However, the owners disapproved of the novel's subject matter (the moral corruption of the heroine, Carrie Meeber) and it was not promoted and therefore sold badly.
Floyd Dell got to know Dreiser during this period: "Theodore Dreiser - a large, cumbrous, awkward, thoughtful, friendly person, with no small talk but with a great zest for serious conversation. A brave lover of the truth, and a rugged, stubborn and gallant fighter for it. I respected him deeply, and laughed at him - a combination which he found it hard to understand."
Dreiser continued to work as a journalist and as well as writing for mainstream newspapers such as the Saturday Evening Post, also had work published in socialist magazines such as the New York Call. However, unlike many of his literary friends such as Floyd Dell, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Max Eastman and Jack London, he never joined the American Socialist Party.
Dreiser's second novel, Jennie Gerhardt was not published until 1911. With the support of the literary critic, Floyd Dell, who considered Dreiser, a major writer, Sister Carrie was republished in 1912. Arnold Bennett was one of the many critics who praised the book and described it as the "best novel that has ever come out of America".
This was followed by two novels The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914) about Frank Cowperwood, a power-hungry business tycoon. These books were influenced by Lawless Wealth: The Origin of Some American Fortunes, a book about the American Tobacco Trust, written by Charles Edward Russell. This was followed by The Genius (1915).
Dreiser was highly critical of the capitalist system: "In my personal judgment, America as yet certainly is neither a social nor a democratic success. Its original democratic theory does not work, or has not, and a trust - and a law-frightened people, to say nothing of a cowardly or suborned, and in case helpless, press, prove it. Where in any country not dominated by an autocracy has ever a people slipped about afraid to voice its views on war, on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the trusts, religion - indeed, any honest private conviction that it has. In what country can a man be thoroughly browbeaten, arrested without trial, denied the privilege of a hearing and held against the written words of the nation's Constitution guaranteeing its citizens freedom of speech, of public gathering, of writing and publishing what they honestly feel? In what other lands less free are whole elements held in a caste condition - the Negro, the foreign born, the Indian?"
A group of left-wing writers including Dreisler, Floyd Dell, John Reed, George Jig Cook, Mary Heaton Vorse, Michael Gold, Susan Glaspell, Hutchins Hapgood, Harry Kemp, William Zorach, Neith Boyce and Louise Bryant, who lived in Greenwich Village, often spent their summers in Provincetown, a small seaport in Massachusetts.. In 1915 several members of the group established the Provincetown Theatre Group. A shack at the end of the fisherman's wharf was turned into a theatre. Later, other writers such as Eugene O'Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay joined the group. Many of the productions that appeared at Provincetown were later transferred to New York City. This were initially performed at an experimental theatre on MacDougal Street but some of the plays, especially by Glaspell and O'Neill were critical successes on Broadway.
Since his early days of journalism Dreiser "began to observe a certain type of crime in the United States that proved very common. It seemed to spring from the fact that almost every young person was possessed of an ingrown ambition to be somebody financially and socially." Dreiser described this as a form of disease. He added that he observed "many forms of murder for money...the young ambitious lover of some poorer girl... for a more attractive girl with money or position...it was not always possible to drop the first girl. What usually stood in the way was pregnancy."
This information inspired Dreiser's greatest novel, An American Tragedy (1925). The book was based on the Chester Gillette and Grace Brown murder case. One critic pointed out that the novel is a "story of a man struggling against social, economic, and environmental forces - as well as forces within himself - that slowly drown him in a tide of misfortune." It has been argued that the novel was an example of naturalism, an extreme form of realism, that had been inspired in part by the scientific determinism of Charles Darwin and the economic determinism of Karl Marx.
Thomas P. Riggio commented: "Although the novel was a critical and commercial success (in fact, Dreiser's only best-seller), he was not yet finished battling such literary vice crusaders as the Watch and Ward Society. The novel was banned in Boston, where the sale of the book led to a trial and an appeal that dragged on in the courts for years. This, however, was now an isolated instance. Dreiser seemed finally to have won over even his most severe critics, many of whom were now applauding the book as the Great American Novel."
Dreiser become involved in several campaigns against injustice. This included the lynching of Frank Little, one of the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Sacco and Vanzetti Case, the deportation of Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and Mollie Steimer, the false conviction of the trade union leader, Tom Mooney, who spent twenty-two years in prison for a crime he did not commit and the Scottsboro Case. His biographer, Jerome Loving, has argued: "Dreiser was an obstinate man. Once he set his mind to something, nothing could change it. As an adult, he also seems never to have admitted either regret or embarrassment over his actions, no matter how ridiculous or wrong-headed some of them might seem today.... His energy would go strictly to social causes, no matter how far afield they would take him from his life in literature or how unflatteringly they might cast him in the public eye."
In 1928 Dreiser wrote: "On thinking back over the books I have written, I can only say this has been my vision of life - life with its romance and cruelty, its pity and terror, its joys and anxiety, its peace and conflict. You may not like my vision but it is the only one that I have seen and felt, therefore, it is the only one I can give you." Dreiser, a socialist, wrote several non-fiction books on political issues. This included Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928) and Tragic America (1931).
Malcolm Cowley recalls that he attended a meeting in April 1931 that was addressed by Dreiser: "Dreiser stood behind a table and rapped on it with his knuckles. He unfolded a very large, very white linen handkerchief and began drawing it first through his left hand, then through his right hand, as if for reassurance of his worldly success. He mumbled something we couldn't catch and then launched into a prepared statement. Things were in a terrible state, he said, and what were we going to do about it? Nobody knew how many millions were unemployed, starving, hiding in their holes. The situation among the coal miners in Western Pennsylvania and in Harlan County, Kentucky, was a disgrace. The politicians from Hoover down and the big financiers had no idea of what was going on." Dreiser then went onto argue that "the time is ripe for American intellectuals to render some service to the American worker."
During the Great Depression Dreiser wrote: "I feel that the immense gulf between wealth and poverty in America and throughout the world should be narrowed. I feel the government should effect the welfare of all the people - not that of a given class." He became a member of the League of American Writers and was an active supporter of the Popular Front government during the Spanish Civil War. As Thomas P. Riggio pointed out: "Dreiser wrote little fiction in the 1930s. He devoted much of himself to political activities. A partial list provides an idea of the range of his social interests: he fought for a fair trial for the Scottsboro Boys, young African Americans unfairly accused of rape in Alabama; he contributed considerable time to the broadly-based political and literary reforms sponsored by the American Writer's League; he spoke out against American imperialism abroad; he attacked the abuses of the financial corporations; he went to Kentucky's Harlan coal mines, as chairman of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, to publicize the wrongs suffered by the striking miners; he investigated the plight of tobacco farmers who were cheated by the large tobacco companies; he spoke on behalf of several antifascist organizations and attended an international peace conference in Paris; he became an advocate in America for aid to the victims of the Spanish Civil War."
Dreiser published America is Worth Saving (1941). Theodore Dreiser joined the American Communist Party in July 1945. He summed up his reasons for his decision: "Belief in the greatness and dignity of Man has been the guiding principle of my life and work. The logic of my life and work leads me therefore to apply for membership in the Community Party."
Jerome Loving, the author of The Last Titan: A Life of Theodore Dreiser (2005) has argued: "Dreiser may have also chosen to become a formal member of the party because of the harassment he had received from the FBI and what was to become the Congressional Committee for Un-American Activities. The latter was already looking askance at the movie industry for its alleged sympathies with communism."
Theodore Dreiser died on 28th December 1945. Henry L. Mencken, who had been a great supporter of Dreiser during his lifetime, argued: "No other American of his generation left so wide and handsome a mark upon the national letters. American writing, before and after his time, differed almost as much as biology before and after Darwin. He was a man of large originality, of profound feeling, and of unshakable courage. All of us who write are better off because he lived, worked, and hoped."