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Theodore DreiserTheodore Dreiser

Hoosier Connection: Though he grew up in the Indiana cities of Terre Haute, Sullivan, Vincennes, Ft. Wayne, Evansville, and Warsaw, Dreiser's popular fiction novels do not even mention Indiana. His nonfiction works A Hoosier Holiday and Dawn, however, dig deep into Dreiser’s past and discuss how the time he spent in Indiana affected his writing and his person.

Works Discussed: A Hoosier Holiday, Free and Other Stories, "Indiana: Her Soil and Light," Dawn

Theodore Dreiser is one of the most notable authors of twentieth century American literature. One of ten children born to a German immigrant, Theodore Dreiser’s childhood was plagued with unhappiness and poverty. Some of the characters and plots of his most successful fiction, Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, and An American Tragedy, were shaped by his family members and the unfortunate conditions under which they lived. Dreiser’s parents were polar opposites: his father a stern and stubborn authority figure and his mother the comforting, understanding one. They are the models for the parents in one of his early short stories, “Old Rogaum and His Theresa,” included in the 1919 collection Free and Other Stories. Dreiser’s father was frequently in debt due to failed business ventures, and it was this poor economic and social standing that affected Dreiser’s status as “the foremost creator of those ‘hopeless unfortunates’ [stories]” (Vanausdall 57). Dreiser is associated with the naturalist movement in American literature, described by Jeanette Vanausdall as "a logical product of the growing complexity of American society, which, naturalists believed, rendered the individual powerless and isolated. As a literary school, naturalism was a product of an immigrant, industrial, and urban society" (Pride & Protest 72). Dreiser is said to have lived in saddening conditions throughout Indiana during his childhood, including a house of prostitution in Evansville, before experiencing the more natural and invigorating setting of Warsaw, IN, where:

Life for a time seemed 'lush, full and sweet, a veritable youthdream of lotus land.' Warsaw stood at the beginning of a chain of small lakes extending for 30 miles eastward, and this uninhabited country allowed him to walk alone for hours at a time while thinking—sometimes brooding—but also continually delighted by the natural spectacle (Gerber 9).

Dreiser's Terre Haute home
Dreiser's childhood home in Terre Haute (Indiana Writers Project).

At the age of 16, Dreiser left Warsaw for Chicago only to return to Indiana for a brief one-year experience at Bloomington’s Indiana University with the monetary aid of a former grade school teacher. Still impoverished and unpopular among his peers, Dreiser was not happy with the school and despised the pomp of academia. He took up journalism as a profession, a job that instigated some traveling for the aspiring writer. It was during this period that Dreiser composed one of his most famous novels, Sister Carrie, supposedly modeled after the experiences of himself and his sisters. The book was published in 1900, but shelved because of poor sales resulting from a lack of publicity. The novel was reprinted two years later and recieved much critical support. Dreiser then moved to New York City, assuming the lifestyle of a professional fiction writer.

In 1916’s A Hoosier Holiday, Dreiser writes about his road trip the previous year with artist Franklin Booth. Twenty-six years after he left the state for good, Dreiser traveled back to Indiana. He is detailed in the description of the automobile ride from his home city of New York to Warsaw, and upon arrival, becomes sentimental about the landscape of his childhood home:

In grey or rainy weather the aspect of the whole place was solemn, historic. In snowy or stormy weather, it took on a kind of patriarchal significance. When the wind was high these thick, tall trees swirled and danced in a wild ecstasy. When the snow was heavy they bent low with their majestic plumes of white. Underneath them was a floor of soft brown pine needles as soft and brown as a rug. We could gather basket upon basket of resiny cones with which to start our morning fires. In spring and summer these trees were full of birds, the grackle of blackbird particularly, for these seemed to preempt the place early in March and were inclined to fight others for possession. Nevertheless, robins, bluebirds, wrens and other of the less aggressive feathers built their nests here. I could always tell when spring was certainly at hand by the noise made by a tree full of newly arrived blackbirds on some chill March morning. Though snow might still be about, they were strutting about on the bits of lawn we were able to maintain between groups of pines, or hopping on the branches of trees, rasping out their odd speech (300).

Beautiful Tree on a Vile Road
"A Beautiful Tree on a Vile Road, Warwick County, Indiana" is one of several Franklin Booth drawings from 1916's publication of A Hoosier Holiday.

Though idyllic in this passage, Dreiser’s grief regarding the Midwest is apparent in other writings. In his American Diaries, Dreiser writes about a 1919 trip back to Indiana. Dreiser’s frustration with the area is alluded to in an entry describing an early morning walk to a lake in Culver, IN. He seems unsure, possibly confused, about his true feelings for the state: “The porches of the houses, swings. Histories of people. Whats wrong with the middle west” (What right 262).

Regardless of these feelings, A Hoosier Holiday is laden with more sentimentality. Dreiser ignores any personal conflict with Warsaw, which was probably the least volatile of the areas he lived in as a child, to present the reader with a peaceful idea of this location and much of the flat areas of the state:

The centre of Indiana is a region of calm and simplicity, untroubled to a large extent, as I have often felt, by the stormy emotions and distresses which so often affect other parts of America and the world. It is a region of smooth and fertile soil, small but comfortable homes, large grey or red barns, the American type of windmill, the American silo, the American motor car—a happy land of churches, Sunday schools, public schools and a general faith in God and humanity as laid down by the Presbyterian or the Baptist or the Methodist Church and by the ten commandments, which is at once reassuring and yet disturbing (335).

Just under 100 years later, this description of the central till region of the state is still arguably accurate.
The Ferry at Decker
"The Ferry at Decker" is another of Franklin Booth's drawings from A Hoosier Holiday.

Dreiser’s trip to Terre Haute, after traveling from Warsaw to Carmel and Indianapolis, and then further south, is painful due to the misery he experienced there. He is at odds with the area, but he deals with these feelings in a way that does not promote further suffering, but rather as a nostalgic past that is long over. After Terre Haute, Dreiser and Booth drive through Sullivan (another former home of the author) and remain in the southern, hillier part of the state for the duration of A Hoosier Holiday. In passing, Dreiser mentions the waterways, the forests, the oil wells, and the marshes of this southern area of the state. He also vaguely discusses Brown County, possibly the most popular tourist area of his home state. Near Vincennes, they drive by a melon farm that elicits ideas of the plentitude and sustenance of Indiana farmland:

The fields were so rich and warm and moist that they were given over almost entirely to the growing of melons—water and cantaloupe, great far flung stretches of fields. Large, deep-bodied, green painted wagons came creaking by, four, five, and six in a row, hauling melons to the nearest siding where there were cars. Here were melon packing sheds to be seen here and there, where muskmelons were being labeled and crafted. It was lovely (435).

A Hoosier Holiday gives the reader interesting insight into the past of one of American literature’s most notable authors, and depicts Indiana’s landscape as one possessing the qualities necessary for inspiration:

Right here, I began to ponder on the mystery of association and contact, the chemistry and physics of transference by which a sky or a scene becomes a delicious presence in the human brain or the human blood, carried around for years in that mystic condition described as ”a memory” and later transferred, perhaps, or not, by conversation, paint, music, or the written word, to the brains of others, there to be carried around again and possibly extended in ever widening and yet fading circles in accordance with that curious, so-called law…of the transmutation of energy (Holiday 290) (read an excerpt).

Dreiser’s Free and Other Stories (1919) features a short story, entitled "The Lost Phoebe," which takes place on an Indiana farm (read full text). In this story, he writes about the confinement of an Indiana farm and the solitary qualities of the family that lives there. A husband becomes unhealthily dependent on his wife, and when she dies, he takes upon himself greater isolation. He spends seven years looking for her and communicating with what he believes to be her specter. In this story, Dreiser uses the setting of Indiana to emphasize the character's confinement and isolation.

In a 1923 essay entitled “Indiana: Her Soil and Light,” included in Daniel H. Borus’s 1992 collection of state-focused narratives, These United States: Portraits of America from the 1920s, Dreiser portrays a “long and happy intimacy” with his home state (read full text). The writing highlights the many unique characteristics of Indiana, including its literary background, industries, and the 500-mile race. The essay opens with a delightful description of some of the state’s natural landscape, and ends with a discussion of what it is to be a Hoosier and the spirituality of Indiana’s natural heritage. Similar to the sentimental and romantic overtones exhibited in A Hoosier Holiday, Dreiser makes his relationship with his home state seem significant and alluring.

Dawn, Dreiser’s autobiography of his childhood and adolescence, most of which takes place in Indiana, was published in 1931. The work describes in detail his large family and his relationships with each member, as well as vividly portraying each Indiana city in which he lived. By revealing his early life experiences, Dreiser opens a curtain to the ways in which his early life in Indiana led him to become an important American literary figure, and also reveals how he feels about these memories. He spends time elaborating on a few of the areas of Indiana that impacted him the most, such as the Wabash River, a body of water that inhibited for him a fear of water:

I had been made fearful by my brother Rome, who once took my brother Al, my sister Trina and myself out in a small boat upon the Wabash River, a to me mysterious, ominous and most uncertain body or thing which had motion, and hence life, maybe. I think I must have been overawed by its quantity and movement as well as its difference from solid earth. At any rate, there it was, strange and fearsome. And then when a stern-propelled steamboat, of no doubt minute size but to me enormous, came into view around a bend and after passing, left in its wake a ripple which rocked our small craft, I was panic-stricken (28).

Early on in the work, Dreiser spends an entire chapter discussing his childhood fondness for the natural world, inclusive of birds, fish, domestic animals, and nature walks (57-64), before going on to romanticize the setting of Evansville with the same childlike innocence with which he witnessed it:

Those first days in Evansville! Looking back on it now, it seems a kind of dream city -- made so, of course, by my very fervid and youthful imagination. A marvelous river, a sylvan creek, trees, birds, flowers, open common, spires, towers, sunlight and moonlight; indeed, a perfect swirl of youth and life in which everything moves as in a dream, sentient and delightful (119).

Dreiser also writes a chapter in which he is visiting the caves of Bloomington (402-08):

Giant stalagmites and stalactites of lime rose from the floor or fell from the ceiling, as the case might be, forming not infrequently yellow columns of lime which looked not unlike sulphur. Tall pointed, arched caverns frequently led away for so great a distance as eight hundred or a thousand feet, giving the impression of correct if not exactly tremendous cathedral aisles (403).

Alongside a detailed history of his childhood and adolescence in the state, Dreiser presents several aspects of the Indiana environment that affected him in different ways, and inhibited certain feelings of fear, inspiration, and awe, among the many discussed in Dawn.

Dreiser’s status as a truly Hoosier author is debatable, but certainly the Indiana environment he experienced during his childhood and adolescence affected the material he was to produce as a famous American author. The influence of his experiences in Indiana, and the natural landscape of his home state, is significant to the most famous pieces, as well as his lesser known works.



Dreiser, Theodore. A Hoosier Holiday. New York: John Lane Co., 1916.

---. Dawn. New York: Horace Liveright Inc., 1931

---. “Indiana: Her Soil and Light.” These United States: Portraits of America from the 1920s. Ed. Daniel H. Borus. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992.

Elias, Robert H. Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1970.

Gerber, Philip. Theodore Dreiser Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Hakutani, Yoshinobu. Young Dreiser: A Critical Study. Rutherford, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson UP, 1980.

Vanausdall, Jeanette. Pride and Protest: The Novel in Indiana. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1999.


Indiana Writers Project. Indiana, A Guide to the Hoosier State. New York: Oxford UP, 1941. No page numbers.

In Dreiser. A Hoosier Holiday. No page numbers.

"Theodore Dreiser." Archives, Spartacus Educational. 20 November 2002 <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jdreiser.htm>.

The International Theodore Dreiser Society