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
hours at a time while thinking—sometimes brooding—but
also continually delighted by the natural spectacle (Gerber
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
soft brown pine needles as soft and brown as a rug. We
could gather basket upon basket of resiny cones with which
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, 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
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
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:
Just under 100 years later, this description
of the central till region of the state is
still arguably accurate.
The centre of Indiana is a region of calm and simplicity,
untroubled to a large extent, as I have often felt, by
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
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).
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 oil wells, and the marshes
of this southern area of the state. He also vaguely discusses
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.
deep-bodied, green painted wagons came creaking by, four,
five, and six in a row, hauling melons to the nearest
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
which a sky or a scene becomes a delicious presence in
the human brain or the human blood, carried around for
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
that curious, so-called law…of the transmutation
of energy (Holiday 290)
(read an excerpt).
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
he takes upon himself greater isolation. He spends seven
years looking for her and communicating with what he believes
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,”
in Daniel H. Borus’s 1992 collection of state-focused
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,
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
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
solid earth. At any rate, there it was, strange and fearsome.
And then when a stern-propelled steamboat, of no doubt
size but to me enormous, came into view around a bend and
after passing, left in its wake a ripple which rocked
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
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
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
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>.
Theodore Dreiser Society