Theodore Dreiser, whose book Sister Carrie helped change the direction of American literature, is born on this day in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Dreiser was the 12th of 13 children born to a poor, unhappy family. Except for one brother who became a songwriter, most of the Dreiser children failed to rise above their squalid roots. Starting in his early teens, Dreiser supported himself with menial jobs. A sympathetic teacher helped him get into Indiana University, but he stayed only one year. In 1892, he began working as a journalist for the Chicago Globe. He continued working in journalism while writing his first novel, Sister Carrie, which was published in 1900. The novel was a major break from the Victorian propriety of the time, and the printer refused to promote the book. Fewer than 500 copies were sold.
Dreiser had a mental breakdown in the early 1900s but was nursed back to health by his songwriter brother. He became a successful magazine editor until he was forced to resign in 1910 following a scandal involving an employee’s daughter. Dreiser was frequently linked to immoral behavior during his lifetime. Sister Carrie was reissued in 1907 and gradually increased in popularity. Dreiser turned to writing full time. He published several more novels between 1911 and 1915, including Jennie Gerhardt (1911), The Financier (1912), and The Titan (1914).
In 1925, his novel An American Tragedy drew his largest popular success to date. Based on a famous murder trial, the book criticized the U.S. legal system, and Dreiser became a spokesman for reform. In 1927, he visited the Soviet Union and published Dreiser Looks at Russia in 1928. Associated with radical politics and the Communist Party in the 1930s, Dreiser focused on political writing until his death in 1945.