- Historic Sites
Theodore Dreiser’s stark realism brought the American novel into the twentieth century. He paid a heavy price for his candor.
February/march 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 1
The glue holding this fractious brood together was the mother—a fey, dreamy woman by Dreiser’s account, but also a strong, possessive one who sided with her children against her husband’s strict discipline. The daughter of immigrant parents, Sarah Dreiser urged her children to assimilate rather than follow their father’s Old World model.
They were a troubled, even deviant family. The oldest boy, Paul junior, ran off to join a medicine show after being arrested for attempted burglary. Rome, the next oldest, committed petty crimes and then fled to become a railroad man, periodically returning on benders to tearfully beg his mother’s forgiveness. A third brother, Al, disappeared. Two of Theodore’s sisters, Mame and Sylvia, bore children out of wedlock, the former by a much older Terre Haute politician, the latter by a rich Warsaw, Indiana, man. A third daughter, the vain and pretty Emma, was seduced by a married saloon clerk named L. A. Hopkins, and their affair made the Chicago newspapers after the man’s wife hired a private detective to track him down.
Sarah Dreiser despaired of her older children’s behavior and concentrated on saving the three youngest. Leaving the rest of the family in Terre Haute, in 1878 she took little Claire, Theodore, and Ed back to the town of Sullivan, where she planned to run a boardinghouse. The venture failed, and they were reduced to a diet of fried mush. For heat, they gathered discarded lumps of coal at nearby mines. Dreiser later wrote that for years the onset of winter or the sight of a poor neighborhood filled him “with an undefinable and highly oppressive dread.”
Paul junior, who had become a successful blackface comedian, gathered the family and whisked them away to a new house in nearby Evansville. But they did not remain there or anywhere for long as economic necessity and social disgrace drove them from one town to another. They lived the longest—two years—in Warsaw, Indiana. At first Theodore thrived there under the motherly teachers at the public school, after years of terrifying German-speaking nuns and priests. But Emma’s Chicago scandal and Sylvia’s pregnancy destroyed Sarah’s dreams of respectability there and brought renewed social ostracism.
All the childhood uprootings and economic uncertainty left deep-seated insecurities in the boy, permanently stunting his capacity to trust. As he wrote in his autobiography, Dawn , “It always seemed to me that no one ever wanted me enough, unless it was my mother.” When she died in 1890, Theodore was desolate. He later wrote: “The ground shook under me. I dreamed sad, racking dreams for years.” He remained emotionally dependent on women—and there would be many of them—for the rest of his life, seeking from them the unconditional love he had lost when his mother died and rebelling against them when they tried to tie him down.
At the time of Sarah’s death he was nineteen and living in Chicago, a city that captivated him. During his adolescence he had caromed from job to job and spent a year at Indiana University on the largess of a teacher from Warsaw who had seen something in him. But he was a social failure in college, ill clad in his rotund brother Paul’s clothes that had been cut down to fit his skinny six-foot-one-inch frame. An awkward, shy young man with a cast in one eye, he believed himself unattractive to girls, for whom he burned with desire.
He dreamed improbably of becoming either the head of a “great thrashing corporation” or a poet. Since his aptitude for business was nil and he had only a ninth-grade education, he chose journalism as his most accessible steppingstone to literary fame.
As he later wrote to Mencken, “I went into newspaper work … and from that time dates my real contact with life—murders, arson, rape, sodomy, bribery, corruption, trickery and false witness in every conceivable form.” His journalistic experiences in Chicago and St. Louis nourished his resolve to write about “life as it is, the facts as they exist, the game as it is played,” but he wearied of the poverty and violence he witnessed, as well as the chicanery that reporters practiced in pursuit of the almighty scoop. He started reviewing plays and writing musical comedies in his spare time and set his sights on New York City, where his brother Paul was now a successful actor and songwriter (“Just Tell Them That You Saw Me,” “On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away”) under the name of Paul Dresser. In early 1894 Theodore made the break and headed east, wandering from city to city until he landed in Pittsburgh, where he briefly wrote a column for the Dispatch .
While in Pittsburgh, he made two important discoveries: Balzac and Herbert Spencer. The French novelist’s stories of Parisian life were a revelation of how a writer could explore all the facets of human affairs; in Dreiser’s imagination Pittsburgh became the Paris of The Wild Ass’s Skin and The Great Man from the Provinces . At the same time, the philosopher Herbert Spencer’s First Principles “blew me to bits, intellectually,” as he later recalled, leaving the dogmatic Catholicism of his childhood in ruins and replacing it with a vision of human insignificance in a bleak, inscrutable cosmos. People were mere atoms, driven by desire; the fittest survived, and the weak went down.