Fate gave Dreiser a great subject which we now call juvenile delinquency. A less efficient propagandist than is generally realized, Dreiser called the problem a Tragedy, and merely an American tragedy—for, under the bluster, he was a modest artist. His sexually delinquent girls and criminally delinquent boys are his heroes and heroines, the central self, the “I” of his novels. They are also the repository of social concern, a scandal to the respectable, a responsibility to the teacher, an enemy to the policeman, a trial to the judge; the “they” of fiction as well as of sociology. Finally, they are the children of their parents and the sisters and brothers of their brothers and sisters, the you-we of the human family.
To the genius of the writer we can of course pay tribute for this extraordinary complexity of viewpoint, but we must also give thanks to whatever divinity presides over the destiny of novelists. None has been more richly endowed than Dreiser with the hereditary and environmental materials of fiction. The first twenty-five years of his life were hell to live through, and guaranteed him a lonely bitterness through most of his maturity, deepening to something very like madness in his lengthy old age. But they were marvelously designed to produce just the sort of novels that Dreiser, and no one else, produced.
He was born in 1871 in Terre Haute, Indiana, into as good-for-nothing a family as there was in middlewestern America. His sickly and cranky father was almost unemployable and worse than poor, for he had been just skilled and conscientious enough as a young man to rise to the point where he could contract sizeable debts. Still worse, from a social point of view, he was an immigrant, always more at home in German than in English, and a Catholic. Dreiser’s mother was in her way worse than an immigrant, for, born into a Mennonite farming family, she was brought up illiterate. Theodore, not the youngest, was the twelfth child, Crammed into a shanty near the railroad tracks, the young Dreisers made themselves useful by stealing coal from the railroad, carrying the washing to their mother’s clients, hanging around the principal downtown hotel and, eventually, working as maids, factory girls, peanut vendors, kept women, and medicine-show minstrels. Barely reared or trained, intermittently educated in the worst kind of benighted parochial schools (Dreiser himself probably had about seven years of school in all, including an improbably year of college), most of them started out in life by running away from home.
Dreiser went off suddenly to Chicago, when he was fifteen. During the following ten years he held about a dozen different jobs in half-a-dozen different cities. Though he moved from dishwasher to feature reporter in that period, thus from lower class to middle, his way was nothing like an earnest, steady progression upwards, but rather a series of vague blunderings, false starts, setbacks, failures, and dismissals (once, for stealing money). Thus he learned at …