Coincidentally this was the time in our history when the morose novelist Theodore Dreiser was suffering terribly from the bad reviews and negligible sales of his first book, Sister Carrie. Dreiser was out of work, broke and too ashamed to see anyone...He took to sitting on a wooden chair in the middle of the room. One day he decided his chair was facing in the wrong direction. Raising his weight from the chair, he lifted it with his two hands and turned it to the right, to align it properly. For a moment he thought the chair was aligned, but then he decided it was not. He moved it another turn to the right. He tried sitting in the chair now but it still felt peculiar. He turned it again. Eventually he made a complete circle and still he could not find the proper alignment for the chair...Through the night Dreiser turned his chair in circles seeking the proper alignment.
Theodore Dreiser was born in 1871 in Terra Haute, India, the ninth of ten surviving children. His father had emigrated from Germany in 1844 and moved to the midwest with many other German immigrants. Dreiser's father became a moderately successful wool dealer and even became proprietor of a wool mill in Indiana. In 1869, however, fire struck the Dreiser mill and left his father with a crippling injury and the family with plaguing economic instability. Because of this accident, Theodore had few education opportunities in his troubled childhood. He never finished high school and dropped out of college after just a year. Despite his strict Roman Catholic upbringing, he later became an atheist.
Dreiser first worked as a journalist but found fame as a naturalist novelist. Naturalism is an art movement reaching its height at the turn of the century that did not believe in the existence of free will in enacting change in your life's circumstances. Despite the pessimism of the Naturalist movement, Naturalists were active in improving the conditions of the poor in America. Naturalists are simultaneously accused of being ethnocentric, painting stubbornly unflattering pictures of immigrants and the poor.
Dreiser's first novel Sister Carrie has been called the "greatest of all American urban novels". It tells the story of a young girl who, after leaving her rural community for Chicago, struggles with poverty, prostitution, and complex relationships with me. She becomes a famous yet dissatisfied actress. It received poor critical reception due to moral objections to sordid relationships with men as a way to rise to fame. Despite the lack of recognition in Dreiser's lifetime, Sister Carrie has gained enormous fame since its publication in 1900.
After the release of Sister Carrie, Dreiser suffered a mental breakdown as described by Doctorow in Ragtime. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930. He died in 1945 at age 74.
Dramaturgy for the Ragtime musical and novel.
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