Theodore Dreiser: Biography, Books & Short Stories

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and experience teaching.

This lesson discusses the author Theodore Dreiser, his books and short stories, and his impact on American writing in the 20th century. Read on, and then test your new knowledge with a brief quiz.

Dreiser's Material Girl

The need for more -- more money, more clothes, more everything -- is a driving force in our society today. Sometimes, people even forgo moral codes to gain popularity and material items. You might think this is a modern concept, with so many current-day movie characters and reality stars who need couture clothes and cars seemingly almost as much as they need air to breathe. However, Theodore Dreiser was writing about this concept over 100 years ago!

Dreiser wrote about the original 'material girl' in his novel Sister Carrie, published in 1900. While Sister Carrie is one of his best-known works, it is far from the only novel that Dreiser produced. His naturalist novels were influential upon the literary scene of the 20th century, and provided scope into life therein.


Theodore Dreiser was born in 1871 to a German immigrant father and a former Mennonite mother. He had nine siblings that survived childhood, and he was one of the youngest. He attended Indiana University for a year and then dropped out to become a reporter, writing on luminaries of the day. He married Sara White, but separated from her within eleven years. Dreiser and Sara never actually divorced, but this did not stop him from playing the field. He went on to have several relationships throughout his life, eventually marrying his own cousin.

A portrait of Theodore Dreiser
Theodore Dreiser

Dreiser had strong ideals, and was an activist for socialist causes throughout his lifetime. He was a not-so-secret supporter of communist ideas, and strove to improve conditions for workers in the early 20th century, most notably for Kentucky coal miners. Dreiser was also a supporter of rights for African Americans, and he was particularly interested in anti-lynching movements. This interest bled over into short stories Dreiser produced. He passed away in 1945 due to heart failure. He was 74.

Books and Short Stories

Dreiser's first novel, Sister Carrie, is one of his most well known. It details the life of Carrie Meeber, who moves to the big city of Chicago and stops at nothing, including using the men around her, to achieve material wealth. In the end, Carrie has fame and all the material items she could want as an actress, but still yearns for more.

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