Theodore Dreiser: Contribution as American Novelist

Also Read

      Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), was an early great novelist. He was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, the ninth child of the German-speaking parents. The poverty of his childhood and harsh bigotry of his father are reflected in his fiction. He briefly attended Indiana University, and then obtained a job on the Chicago Globe as a reporter before moving on to New York in 1894. Sister Carrie (1900), his first novel, was accepted by the publisher not by his wife regarding the realistic style and the subject matter. As a result, it was not widely circulated though it was put into print. Continuing to work as a journalist, Dreiser managed to earn a fairly comfortable living as an editor for Butterick, a company specialized in women’s magazines and 10 years passed before the publication of his second novel Jennie Gerhardt (1911). Like the earlier novel, this novel was attacked for its candid and uncompromising naturalism. The Financier (1911) and The Titian (1914) were the first volumes of Dreiser’s Copperwoud trilogy, based on the life of the business magnate, Charles T. Yerkees; it was completed by The Stoic, a posthumously published in 1947. The Genius (1915) is partly an autobiographical novel examining the artistic temperament. Dreiser at last earned popular acclaim with An American Tragedy (1925) based on the Chester Gillette-Grace murder case of 1906. The Bulwork appeared posthumously in 1946.

      An American Tragedy (1925) by Theodore Dreiser, like London’s Martin Eden, explores the dangers of the American Dream. The novel relates, in detail, the life of clayed Griffiths, a boy of weak will and little self-awareness. He grows up in great poverty in a family of wandering evangelists but dreams of wealth and the love of beautiful women. He goes to work as a bellboy in the factory owned by his rich uncle employs him. He enjoys the lively society of his more sophisticated co-workers until he is involved in a car accident and found to be legally culpable. Fleeing the scene, he meets his uncle Samuel Griffiths, a successful manufacturer in New York state who gives him a job in his eastern factory. Clyde falls in love with Sandra Finchley, a rich girl from a nearby town, who represents the elegance and culture to which he has always aspired. Meanwhile however, he has seduced a young factory worker, Roberta who becomes pregnant and demands that he should marry her. Seeing to marry Sandra within his grasp, Clyde decides to dispose of the unfortunate Roberta. He takes her to a lake deserted resort. At end of year, where he plans to murder her. He lacks the resolution to carry out his plan of taking her on a boat trip. But when the boat is accidentally overturns he swims away, leaving Roberta to drown. Roberta on a boat trip but at the last minute, he begins to change his mind. However, she accidentally falls out of the boat. Clyde a good swimmer does not save her, and she drowns and dies. As Clyde is brought to justice, Dreiser vantage points of prosecuting and defense attorneys to analyze each step and motive that led the mild-mannered Clyde, with a highly religious background and good family connections to commit murder.

      Despite his awkward style, Dreiser, in An American Tragedy, displays crushing authority. Its precise details mild up an overwhelming sense of tragic inevitability. The novel is a scathing portrait of the American success myth which has gone sour but it is also a universal story about the stresses of urbanization, modernization, and alienation. Within it roam the romantic and dangerous fantasies of the dispossessed. An American Tragedy is a reflection of the dissatisfaction, envy, and despair that afflicted many poor and working people in America’s competitive, success-driven society. As American industrial power soared, the glittering lives of the wealthy in newspapers and photographs sharply contrasted with the drab lives of ordinary fanner's rising expectations and unreasonable desires. Such problems, common to modernizing nations, gave rise to ‘muckraking journalism’ penetrating investigative reporting and provided an important impetus to social reform.

      The great tradition of American ‘investigative journalism’ had its beginning in this period during which national magazines such as McClure's and Collier’s published Ida, M. Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), Lincoln Steffens’s The Shame of the Cities (1904), and other hard hitting exposes. Muckraking novels used eye-catching journalistic techniques to depict harsh working conditions and oppression. Populist Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901) exposed big railroad companies, while socialist Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) painted the squalor of the Chicago meat-packing houses. Jack London’s dystopia The Iron Heel (1908) anticipates George Orwell’s 1984 in predicting a class war and the takeover of the government. Another more artistic response was the realistic portrait, or group of portraits, of ordinary characters and their frustrated inner lives. The collection of stories Main Travelled Roads (1891), by William Dean or Howells’s protege, Hamlin Garland (1860-1940), is a portrait gallery of ordinary people. It shockingly depicts the poverty of mid-western farmers who were demanding agricultural reforms. The title suggests the many trails west-lowed and the dusty main streets of the villages they settled. Close to Garland’s main Traveled Roads is Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941), begun in 1916. This is a loose collection of stories about residents of the fictitious town of Winesburg seen through the eyes of a naive young newspaper reporter, George Willard, who eventually leaves to seek his fortune in the city. Like Main-Travelled Roads and other naturalistic works of the period, Winesburg Ohio emphasizes the quiet poverty, loneliness, and despair in small-town countryside America.

Previous Post Next Post