Theodore Dreiser · 2003
By Ray E. Boombower
During the Christmas season of 1891, a young man from Indiana working as a bill collector for a Chicago installment-plan firm decided to seek employment as a reporter, conceiving of newspapers “as wonderlands n which all concerned were prosperous and happy,” and seeking inspiration for his career change from the writings of Chicago Daily News columnist Eugene Fields. Scanning the help wanted advertisements in the Chicago Herald, the Hoosier spied a listing asking for a “number of bright young men” to assist in the newspaper’s business department during the holidays to distribute gifts to needy children. Hoping that the position might be an entrée into journalism, Theodore Dreiser jumped at the chance to work for the newspaper.
Although this initial step into journalism failed to lead to a reporting job with the Chicago Herald, Dreiser, then twenty-one years old, remained determined to “shake off the garments of the commonplace in which I seemed swathed and step forth into the public arena, where I could be seen and understood for what I was.” To achieve this goal, he saw connecting himself with a newspaper to be “the swiftest” route to fulfilling his dreams. Eventually, Dreiser obtained work as a reporter with the Chicago Daily Globe, which, in turn, led to jobs with newspapers in St. Louis, Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and New Your, and work as an editor and freelance writer on a number of national magazines of the day.
Born on Aug. 27, 1871, in Terre Haute, Ind., Theodore Dreiser was the ninth of 10 surviving children of Johann Paul and Sarah Schänäb Dreiser. A weaver and woolen worker, Johann Paul Dreiser had emigrated from Mayen, Germany, in 1844. Raised in Dayton, Ohio, Sarah Schänäb eloped to marry Johann in 1851 (her Protestant Mennonite family had strong objections to her husband’s Roman Catholicism). Before the move to Terre Haute, the Dreiser family had enjoyed some financial success in the wool business in Sullivan, Indiana, where Johann worked as a foreman at the Sullivan Woolen Mills. After an 1866 fire destroyed the mill, Johann was seriously injured by falling timber during construction of an new mill. The injury, coupled with an economic depression in America in the 1870’s resulted in long stretches of poverty for the Dreiser family. Theodore Dreiser remembered his early years as “one unbroken stretch of privation and misery.”
Through the years, the Dreiser family lived in a succession of Indiana towns, with Johann and Sarah even dividing the children between them and living in separate communities. Living in Warsaw, Indiana, Theodore Dreiser attended high school and won the favor of a teacher, Mildred Fielding, who encouraged his fascination with books and writing. Faced with poverty, Dreiser left Warsaw at age sixteen for Chicago, where he found work in a variety of low-paying jobs. His former teacher Fielding, who taught in a nearby suburb, found Dreiser and offered to pay for his education at Indiana University in Bloomington. Dreiser enrolled at IU in the fall of 1889, but only stayed a year, later claiming that the institution’s “technical education value to me was zero.”
He returned to Chicago and worked driving a delivery wagon for a laundry at $8 a week and served as a bill collector before deciding he wanted to become a reporter. After his initial attempt at employment with the Chicago Herald failed, Dreiser began to haunt the various offices of the city’s newspapers seeking employment. “Picture a dreamy cub of twenty-one, long, spindling,” Dreiser wrote in his book Newspaper days, “a pair of gold-framed spectacles on his nose, his hair combed à la pompadour, an new spring suit consisting of light check trousers and bright blue coat and vest, a brown fedora hat, new yellow shoes, starting out to force his way into the newspaper world of Chicago.”
Luckily for Dreiser, John Maxwell, a copyreader for the Chicago Daily Globe, gave the young writer a chance, making him one of the extra correspondents the paper used to cover the 1892 Democratic National Convention. Dreiser’s perseverance paid off with a full-time job with the newspaper following the convention. The change from working as a bill collector to becoming a reporter “was one of the most delightful that ever befell me,” said Dreiser, predicting that he new career would lead him “to great heights.”
Although he had at first anticipated “comfortable salaries” for his work, Dreiser learned that beginners “were very badly served” when it came to wages. Still, his early promise as a journalist – especially his colorful feature writing for the paper’s Sunday supplement on such subjects as the city’s slum dweller – caught the attention of the newspaper’s editors. “maybe you’re cut out to be a writer after all, not just an ordinary newspaper man,” Maxwell told Dreiser, who began to write poetry, plays, and fiction in his spare time. Another Daily Globe employee, city editor John T. McEnnis, urged Dreiser to seek advancement at a better newspaper. McEnnis recommended Dreiser to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and in late October 1892 he left Chicago for St. Louis.
During his time at the Globe-Democrat, Dreiser continued to report on regular news stories but also branched out into writing a column of hotel news titles “Heard in the Corridors,” which sometimes included fictionalized accounts.
One of the copy editors on the newspaper remembered Dreiser as “a splendid writer” – in fact, better as a writer than as a reporter ferreting out the news. “He had an inventive fictional mind,” the copy editor, Captain Webb, said. During his years struggling with poverty and reporting on those with less means than their fellow men, Dreiser had learned some hard truths: “All men were honest – only they weren’t; all women were virtuous and without evil intent or design – but they weren’t; all mothers were gentle, self-sacrificing slaves, sweet pictures for song and Sunday Schools – only they weren’t; all fathers were kind, affectionate, saving, industrious – only they weren’t. But when deciding actual facts fort he news columns, you were not allowed to indicate these things.”
A visit from his successful actor/songwriter brother Paul Dreiser soon had Dreiser thinking of moving to New York. Leaving St. Louis, Dreiser worked his way across the country at various newspapers from Toledo to Pittsburgh. In Toledo, he made friends with Toledo Blade editor Arthur Henry, who later encouraged Dreiser to write his first novel, Sister Carrie. Covering a streetcar strike while in Toledo, Dreiser found his sympathies lay with the workers. “I had seen enough of strikes, and of poverty, and the quarrels between the money-lords and the poor, to be all on one side.” He later used his experience reporting on the strike for Sister Carrie.
Arriving in New York, Dreiser found work with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, but discovered he was to be paid by the amount of copy he produces. Wandering through the city’s numerous boroughs on assignment, Dreiser observed that everywhere there seemed to be “a terrifying desire for lust or pleasure or wealth, accompanied by a heartlessness which was freezing to the soul, or dogged resignation to deprivation and miser.” Although he wished to abandon journalism for the life of a writer, Dreiser still needed a dependable salary. His brother’s connection to the Howley, Haviland and Company music publishers helped Dreiser earn a job as editor of the firm’s monthly magazine called Ev’ry Month. In addition to featuring the company’s songs, the periodical also featured short stories and articles furnished by Dreiser and various freelance writers. While working on Ev’ry Month Dreiser collaborated with his brother on Paul Dresser’s most famous work, the song “on the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away.”
One of the contributors Dreiser used for Ev’ry Month was his old friend Arthur Henry of Toledo, who continued to pester Dreiser about writing a novel. Visiting Henry in Ohio in the summer of 1899, Dreiser, urged on by Henry, produced a number of successful short stories. Henry also prodded his friend to begin writing a novel. “He began to ding-dong about a novel,” Dreiser recalled. “I must write a novel. I must write a novel.” Perhaps to silence Henry’s urgent appeals, Dreiser took pen to paper in September 1899 and wrote a title for the projected work: Sister Carrie.
Although it was through his work as a novelist that Dreiser achieved fame with such controversial, realistic fiction through the years as Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, The Financier, The Titan, and An American Tragedy, his journalism career proved to be crucial for his writing. Reflecting on the time as a reporter for an interview in 1911 following the publication of Jennie Gerhardt, Dreiser indicated that his work on newspapers furnished him with a keen “insight into the brutalities of life – the police courts, the jails, the houses of ill repute, trade failures and trickery.” He added that the seamy surroundings were not depressing, but wonderful. “It was like a grand magnificent spectacle,” Dreiser told the reporter.