Scanning the help-wanted advertisements in the Chicago Herald, the Hoosier spied a listing asking for a “number of bright young men” to assist in the newspaper’s business department during the holidays to distribute gifts to needy children. Hoping that the position might be an entrée into journalism, Theodore Dreiser jumped at the chance to work for the newspaper.
Although this initial step into journalism failed to lead to a reporting job with the Herald, Dreiser, then twenty-one-years old, remained determined to “shake off the garments of the commonplace in which I seemed swathed and step forth into the public arena, where I could be seen and understood for what I was.” To achieve this goal, he saw connecting himself with a newspaper to be “the swiftest” route to fulfilling his dreams. Eventually, Dreiser obtained work as a reporter with the Chicago Daily Globe, which, in turn, led to jobs with newspapers in Saint Louis, Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and New York.
Born on August 27, 1871, in Terre Haute, Indiana, Theodore was the ninth of ten surviving children of Johann Paul and Sarah Schänäb Dreiser. Before the family lived in Terre Haute, it had enjoyed some financial success in the wool business in Sullivan, Indiana, where Johann worked as a foreman at the Sullivan Woolen Mills. After an 1866 fire destroyed the mill, Johann was seriously injured by falling timber during construction of a new mill. The injury, coupled with an economic depression in America in the 1870s, resulted in long stretches of poverty for the Dreiser family. Theodore remembered his early years as “one unbroken stretch of privation and misery.”
Through the years, the Dreiser family lived in a succession of Indiana towns. While living in Warsaw, Indiana, Theodore attended high school and won the favor of a teacher, Mildred Fielding, who encouraged his fascination with books and writing. He left Warsaw at age sixteen for Chicago, where he found work in a variety of low-paying jobs, including dishwasher and a stock boy at a hardware company. His former teacher Fielding, who taught in a nearby suburb, found Dreiser and offered to pay for his education at IndianaUniversity in Bloomington. Dreiser enrolled at IU in the fall of 1889, but only stayed a year.
Dreiser returned to Chicago and worked driving a delivery wagon for a laundry at $8 a week and served as a bill collector before deciding he wanted to become a reporter. After his initial attempt at employment with the Herald failed, Dreiser began to haunt the various offices of the city’s newspapers seeking employment. Luckily for Dreiser, John Maxwell, a copyreader for the Chicago Daily Globe, gave the young writer a chance, making him one of the extra correspondents the paper used to cover the 1892 DemocraticNational Convention. Dreiser’s perseverance paid off with a full-time job with the newspaper following the convention.
Although he had at first anticipated “comfortable salaries” for his work, Dreiser learned that beginners “were very badly served” when it came to wages. Still, his early promise as a journalist—especially his colorful feature writing for the paper’s Sunday supplement on such subjects as the city’s slum dwellers—caught the attention of the newspaper’s editors. Daily Globe city editor John T. McEnnis urged Dreiser to seek advancement at a better newspaper. McEnnis recommended Dreiser to the Saint Louis Globe-Democrat, and in late October 1892 he left Chicago for Saint Louis.
A visit from his successful actor/songwriter brother Paul Dresser soon had Dreiser thinking of moving to New York. Leaving St. Louis, Dreiser worked his way across the country at various newspapers from Toledo to Pittsburgh. In Toledo, he made friends with Toledo Blade editor Arthur Henry, who later encouraged Dreiser to write his first novel, Sister Carrie. Covering a streetcar strike while in Toledo, Dreiser found his sympathies lay with the workers. He later used his experience reporting on the strike for Sister Carrie.
Arriving in New York, Dreiser found work with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, but discovered he was to be paid by the amount of copy he produced. Wandering through the city’s numerous boroughs on assignment, Dreiser observed that everywhere there seemed to be “a terrifying desire for lust or pleasure or wealth, accompanied by a heartlessness which was freezing to the soul, or a dogged resignation to deprivation and misery.” Although he wished to abandon journalism for the life of a writer, Dreiser still needed a dependable salary. His brother’s connection to a music publishing company helped Dreiser earn a job as editor of the firm’s monthly magazine called Ev’ry Month.
One of the contributors Dreiser used for Ev’ry Month was his old friend Henry of Toledo, who continued to pester Dreiser about writing a novel. Visiting Henry in Ohio in the summer of 1899, Dreiser produced a number of successful short stories. Henry also prodded his friend to begin writing a novel. “He began to ding-dong about a novel,” Dreiser recalled. “I must write a novel. I must write a novel.” Perhaps to silence Henry’s urgent appeals, Dreiser took pen to paper in September 1899 and wrote a title for the projected work: Sister Carrie.
Although it was through his work as a novelist that Dreiser achieved fame with such controversial, realistic fiction through the years as Jennie Gerhardt, The Financier, The Titan, and An American Tragedy, his journalism career proved to be crucial for his writing. Reflecting on time as a reporter for an interview in 1911 following the publication of Jennie Gerhardt, Dreiser indicated that his work on newspapers furnished him with a keen “insight into the brutalities of life—the police courts, the jails, the houses of ill repute, trade failures and trickery.” He added that the seamy surroundings were not depressing, but wonderful. “It was like a grand magnificent spectacle,” Dreiser said.