Monday, March 7, 2011

How to Become a Writer: Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser, 1933 by Henry Varnum Poor, O...Image by cliff1066™ via Flickr
Brief biographical notes
Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, the ninth of ten surviving children.  His father had emigrated from Mayen, Germany in 1844, marrying Sarah, the daughter of a Mennonite family that had come to Ohio from Pennsylvania; he was seventeen and Sarah twenty-nine. From Ohio they moved to Indiana, where the family, for two decades, prospered in the wool mill business. But disaster hit home. A fire destroyed the mill, and the economic depression of 1870 brought the family hard times.

Dreiser's childhood wasn’t easy by any means, as he was to recount in his memoirs.

Besieged by lack of stability he had no opportunities to get a formal education. He never finished high school. Much of the wisdom one sees in his novels he acquired by reading and later by his experience as a journalist. Yet he never despaired and fought for what he thought was right, engaging in many feuds with censors, critics, and publishers.  Towards the end of his life, weakened by his many battles, he died of heart failure on December 28, 1945.

His latter years he spent in relative fame, befriended, and admired, and financially secure.

How to become a writer

Just as the French writer Zola was the leader of Naturalism in French letters, Dreiser became the leading practi­tioner of the school of writing called "naturalism" in America. Naturalism depicted a deterministic form of realism from which characters could not escape despite their efforts. By many critics’ accounts, Dreiser’s claim to fame is his originality, which he defended often to his detriment.

Because of censorship and lack of publicity, his first novel Sister Carrie was declared “D.O.A” — dead on arrival. Neither fame nor glory, or even less riches accrued to the embattled author. All that Dreiser gained was a tough reputation as defender of freedom of expression.

Main works

Dreiser's first novel, Sister Carrie (1900), focuses on a young woman who survives and gets ahead in the world as a concubine. The novel proved to be too risqué for a publishing house dominated by prude and timorous editors. An abridged version was published in England, a version that was well received by reviewers and critics. Such a victory propelled Dreiser to international acclaim.

In An American Tragedy (1925), Dreiser's most celebrated novel, gives a harrowing account of a murder and its consequences. Violence, sex, and unbridled ambition made the novel a best seller. Yet, not everyone was for it. Prudes and crusaders managed to ban the novel in many places.

The two film versions of the novel helped to extend the shelf-life of An American Tragedy.  And if I am not mistaken there’s talk of a third version being contemplated by Hollywood.

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

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