Dreiser, Theodore (1871-1945)

Is it necessary to introduce the author of Sister Carrie (1900), Jennie Gerhardt (1911) and An American Tragedy (1925)? Theodore Dreiser is one of the great American writers of the 20th century. He was born in Indiana, in a poor family of German origin and had to work early as a journalist and reporter. In all his work, he drew realistic portraits of the conditions of living in the USA at that time.

His friendship with John Cowper, started in 1915 and lasted until his death. While John Cowper was in America they saw a lot of each other. John Cowper had the greatest admiration for Dreiser and the two men understood each other. He wrote a long piece on Dreiser for The Dial.

Theodore Dreiser
from Spartacus Educational
O we have discovered a Master my dear! Did you read Sister Carrie or The Titan by Theodore Dreiser? Well, this excellent fellow has been discovered by us and has become extraordinarily friendly. He lives in West 10th Street quite close, with a girl who is either his wife or his tart, I know not which. He has the most charming disposition and in appearance resembles Goldsmith or Dr Johnson without their wig. He is nobly and generously ugly, a massive rugged seamed and scarr'd Balzacian type. He talks humorously and dogmatically with quaint American expressions and a sort of genial aplomb....He has that curiously earthy-innocent amorousness and humorous friendliness...He is also, which is rare over here, a real 'gentleman', in his feeling and tact. He has reservation and a sort of generous dignity, which is very pleasing; and he enjoys everything that happens in true terrace-walk fashion. His books have often been suppressed by publishers...(John Cowper Powys, Letters to His Brother Llewelyn, 15 Oct. 1914)

The truth is Dreiser and I are both Magicians. We are two Lamas, who, while understanding black magic and the ways of black magicians, prefer for reasons rather to be concealed than revealed, to practise white magic. We both have morbidly active consciences. Problems of right and wrong are far mmore important to us both than problems of aesthetics. (Autobiography)

Margaret Tjader, who was to work closely with Theodore Dreiser, remembers how on first meeting him in 1928 she came to mention John Cowper, and how he reacted:
"You probably never heard of him, " I said. He took the book [Samphire] out of my hand:
"Jack—and the way he said that word lingers in my memory like the sound of an oath or a vow. Dreiser had a manner of using his voice almost as a musical instrument, to envelop some syllable and give it emotion. No actor could give more impact or richness of meaning to a name than Dreiser gave this one with his warm, purring, scoffing, down-falling tone of love; it was like a word whispered by initiates, a pass-word for the recognition of secret ties of fraternity or blood. (Theodore Dreiser, a new dimension).

After Powys and Phyllis Playter left for Great Britain in 1934, Dreiser came to see them in Corwen, Wales, in the summer of 1938:

We couldn't put him up, but he stayed at 'Glendwr' at the foot of our hill and had all his meals here. By a lucky chance when Marian — for neither Phyllis nor I would have presumed to exercise such pressure — made him ascent our mountain-lane, the peaks of Snowdon were clearly visible and the air was divinely clear; so that lying in or on the heather (which again is a thing I never do!) he really had the happiest moment of his visit to England, and I daresay to Europe! He had never seen heather before and at the first patch of it he was stuck and said, 'What is that?' (John Cowper Powys, Letters to His Brother Llewelyn, 15 August 1938)

After his death, (December 1945), Helen Dreiser asked John Cowper to write an Introduction for Dreiser's posthumous volume Notes on Life. This is an extract from it:

His mind was predominantly attracted by the chemical changes and mutations of the elements. It was not only that such chemical phenomena fascinated him. They haunted him. They obsessed him. They were a mania with him. He was always seeing humanity in relation to the mysterious movements and transformations of the various atomic and electric events and occasions and energies and impressions, apprehended by our senses and worked over by our conscious minds, we accept as the palpable shapes and textures of the visible world. For Dreiser the psychic and the physical world were never divided. He was always seeing mountains as men and men as atoms, and men and mountains and atoms as transitory bubbles in an unfathomable flood of Being, of which there was neither beginning nor end, and where reality was always turning into illusion and illusion into reality. (John Cowper Powys, Introduction to Notes on Life)

Poem to Theodore Dreiser
by Edgar Lee Masters)

Soul enrapt, demi-urge
Walking the earth,
Stalking life.

Jack o'lantern, tall shouldered
One eye set higher than the other,
Mouth cut like a scallop in a pie,
Aslant, showing powerful teeth,
Swaying above the heads of others,
Jubilant with fixed eyes scarcely sparkling,
Touching fingers together, back and forth,
Or toying with a handkerchief,
And the eyes burn like a flame at the end of a funnel,
And the ruddy face glows like a pumpkin
On Hallowe'en!

(extract of a poem to Dreiser, quoted by Helen Dreiser in My life with Dreiser)