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BIOGRAPHY

THEODORE DREISER

American author, outstanding representative of naturalism, whose novels
depict real-life subjects in a harsh light. Dreiser’s novels were held
to be amoral, and he battled throughout his career against censorship
and popular taste. This started with SISTER CARRIE (1900). It was not
until 1981 that the work was published in its original form. Dreiser’s
principal concern was with the conflict between human needs and the
demands of society for material success.

Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. His
parents were German immigrants whose marriage resulted in thirteen
children. Because his father was often ill and unemployed, the family
struggled against poverty throughout Dreiser’s childhood. In rebellion
against his father’s obsessive religiosity, Dreiser left home at fifteen
for Chicago. There, after three years of menial jobs, he found work as a
newspaper reporter. While Dreiser churned out hackwork for various
periodicals, he was reading the deterministic philosophy of Herbert
Spencer and the novels of Honore de Balzac, who believed in the
evolutionary doctrine that life is a struggle in which instinctive human
desires are often in conflict with conventional morality.

«A woman should some day write the complete philosophy of clothes. No
matter how young, it is one of the things she wholly comprehends. There
is an indescribably faint line in the matter of man’s apparel which
somehow divides for her those who are worth glancing at and those who
are not. Once an individual has passed this faint line on the way
downward he will get no glance from her. There is another line at which
the dress of a man will cause her to study her own.» (from Sister
Carrie)

Theodore Dreiser was born in Sullivan, Indiana, the ninth of ten
children. His parents were poor. In the 1860s his father, a devout
Catholic German immigrant, had attempted to establish his own woolen
mill, but after it was destroyed in a fire, the family lived in poverty.
Dreiser’s schooling was erratic, as the family moved from town to town.
He left home when he was 16 and worked at whatever jobs he could find.
With the help of his former teacher, he was able to spend the year
1889-1890 at Indiana University. Dreiser left after only a year. He was,
however, a voracious reader, and the impact of such writers as
Hawthorne, Poe, Balzac, Herbert Spencer, and Freud influenced his
thought and his reaction against organized religion.

In 1892 Dreiser started to write for the Chicago Globe, and moved to a
better position with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. In 1898 he married
Sara White, a Missouri schoolteacher, but the marriage was unhappy.
Dreiser separated permanently from her in 1909, but never earnestly
sought a divorce. In his own life Dreiser practised his principle that
man’s greatest appetite is sexual — the desire for women led him to
carry on several affairs at once. His relationship with Yvette Szekely
Eastman is recorded in Dearest Wilding by Yvette Eastman (1995) — she
was 16 and Dreiser 40 years older when they met.

As a novelist Dreiser made his debut with Sister Carrie, a powerful
account of a young working girl’s rise to success and her slow decline.
«She was eighteen years of age, bright, timid and full of the illusions
of ignorance and youth. Whatever touch of regret at parting
characterized her thoughts it was certainly not for advantages now being
given up. A gush of tears at her mother’s farewell kiss, a touch in the
throat when the cars clacked by the flour mill where her father worked
by the day, a pathetic sigh as the familiar green environs of the
village passed in review, and the threads which bound her so lightly to
girlhood and home were irretrievably broken.» (from the 1981 edition)
The president of the publishing company, Frank Doubleday, disapproved of
the work — Dreiser illuminated the flaws of his characters but did not
judge them and allowed vice to be rewarded instead of punished. No
attempt was made to promote the book. Sister Carrie was reissued in 1907
and it became one of the most famous novels in literary history. Among
its admirers was H.L. Mencken, an aspiring journalist, whom Dreiser had
hired as a ghost-writer in his paper. William Wyler’s film version,
starring Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones, was made at the height of
the Cold War and McCarthy era. Paramount executives delayed the
releasing of the film — they thought the picture was not good for
America and it was a flop. «It was a depressing story», said Wyler, «and
it might not have been a success anyway.»

The 500 sold copies of his first novel and family troubles drove Dreiser
to the verge of suicide. He worked at a variety of literary jobs, and as
an editor- in- chief of three women’s magazines until 1910, when he was
forced to resign, because of an office love affair. In 1911 JENNIE
GERHARDT, Dreiser’s second novel, appeared. In the story a young woman,
Jennie, is seduced by a senator. She bears a child out of wedlock but
sacrifices her own interests to avoid harming her lover’s career. A
passage in which Jennie’s lover Lester Kane, the son of a wealthy
family, tells her about contraceptives, was removed by Ripley Hitchcock,
the editor at Harper & Brothers. Jennie Gerhardt was followed by novels
based on the life of the American transportation magnate Charles T.
Jerkes, THE FINANCIER (1912), and THE TITAN (1914), which show the
influence of the evolutionary ideas of Herbert Spencer and Nietzsche’s
concept of the Uebermensch. Last volume of the trilogy, THE STOIC, was
finished in 1945.

«At the height of his success, when he had settled old scores and could
easily have become the smiling public man, he chose instead to rip the
whole fabric of American civilization straight down the middle, from its
economy to its morality. It was the country that had to give ground.»
(Nelson Algren, in Nation, 16 May, 1959)

Dreiser’s semi-autobiographical novel THE ‘GENIUS’ (1915) was censured
by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The book remained
off the market until Liveright reissued it five years later. Dreiser’s
commercially most successful novel was AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (1925), which
was adapted for screen for thefirst time in 1931, directed by Josef von
Sternberg. Dreiser had objected strongly to the version because it
portrayed his youthful killer as a sex-starved idle loafer. The second
time was in 1951 under the title A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery
Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. During the filming the stars became attached
to one another, which is reflected in the tenderness of their
performance. The director George Stevens won an Academy Award, as did
the writers Michael Wilson and Harry Brown for Best Screenplay. However,
Robert Hatch in the New Republic (September 10,1951) dismissed the film.
«Unfortunately, the power and bite of the book have been lost in the
polite competence of the screen. These are such nice, such obviously
successful people, they must be playing characters… there doesn’t seem
much use in dragging Dreiser’s classic off the shelf just to dress it in
this elegant, ambivalent production…» The book made Dreiser the
champion of social reformers, but his later works did not attain similar
notice.

An American Tragedy tells the story of a bellboy, Clyde Griffiths,
indecisive like Hamlet, who sets out to gain success and fame. After an
automobile accident, Clyde is employed by a distant relative, owner of a
collar factory. He seduces Roberta Alden, an employee at the factory,
but falls in love with Sondra Finchley, a girl of the local aristocracy.
Roberta, now pregnant, demands that Clyde marry her. He takes Roberta
rowing on an isolated lake and in this dreamlike sequence ‘accidentally’
murders her. Clyde’s trial, conviction, and execution occupy the
remainder of the book. Dreiser points out that materialistic society is
as much to blame as the murderer himself. Dreiser based his study on the
actual case of Chester Gillette, who murdered Grace Brown — he hit her
with a tennis racket and pushed her overboard at Big Moose Lake in the
Adirondack in July 1906. An American Tragedy was banned in Boston in
1927.

Much of Dreiser’s works evolved from his own experiences of poverty.
Among his rare excursions into the realm of fantasy is the ghost story
‘The Hand’ (1920). It is a tale of murder and the haunting of the
killer, but again behind the nightmare of the protagonist are the
familiar themes of Dreiser’s novels — fear of losing ones social
position, feelings of moral guilt arising during the unrestrained
struggle for success.

«People did live, then, after they were dead, especially evil people —
people stronger than you, perhaps. They had the power to come back, to
haunt, to annoy you if they didn’t like anything you had done to them.»
(from ‘The Hand’)

In 1919 Sherwood Anderson wrote about Dreiser: «… he is very, very
old. I do not know how many years he has lived, perhaps forty, perhaps
fifty, but he is very old. Something grey and bleak and hurtful, that
has been in the world perhaps forever, is personified in him.» After his
wife’s death in 1942, Dreiser married his cousin Helen Richardson, who
had been his companion from 1919. Dreiser died in Hollywood, California,
on December 28, 1945. In the last months of his life, Dreiser joined the
Communist Party. In the 1920’s Dreiser had travelled in Russia and
depicted his experiences in DREISER LOOKS AT RUSSIA (1928). During the
reign of J. Edgar Hoover, Dreiser was considered a security risk and the
F.B.I. had a dossier on him. Like many intellectuals in the 1930s
(Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Andre Malraux, C. Day Lewis etc.), Dreiser
had travelled to Spain during the civil war in support of the socialist
government. Only a small number of writers supported Franco — George
Santayana and Ezra Pound were the most famous. «He had an enormous
influence on American literature during the first quarter of the century
— and for a time he was American literature, the only writer worth
talking about in the same breath with the European masters. Out of his
passions, contradictions, and sufferings, he wrenched the art that was
his salvation from the hungers and depressions that racked him. It was
no wonder that he elevated the creative principle to a godhead and
encouraged by word and example truthful expression in others.» (from
Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey 1908-1945 by Richard Lingeman,
1991)

For further reading: Theodore Dreiser by B. Rascoe (1926); Forgotten
Frontiers: Dreiser and the Land of the Free by D. Dudley (1933);
Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature by R.H. Elias (1949); Theodore
Dreiser by F.O. Matthiessen (1951); The Stature of Theodore Dreiser, ed.
by C. Shapiro and A. Kazin (1955); Theodore Dreiser by P.L. Gerber
(1964); Dreiser by W.A. Swanberg (1965); Theodore Dreiser by M. Thader
(1965); Theodore Dreiser: His World and His Novels by R. Lehan (1969);
Homage to Theodore Dreiser by R.P. Warren (1971); Theodore Dreiser by J.
Lundquist (1974); Theodore Dreiser: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography
by D. Pizer (1975); The Novels of Theodore Dreiser by D. Pizer (1977);
Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871-1907 by Richard
Lingeman (1986); The Gospel of Wealth in the American Novel by Arun
Mukherjee (1987); After Eden by Conrad Eugene Ostwalt (1990); Theodore
Dreiser: An American Journey 1908-1945 by Richard Lingeman (1991);
Dearest Wilding by Yvette Eastmaned, ed. by Thomas P. Riggio (1995);
Love That Will Not Let Me Go, ed. by Marguerite Tjader (1998); An
American Tragedy by Paul A. Orlov (1998); Dreiser and Veblen Saboteurs
of the Status Quo by Clare Virginia Eby (1999); Reading the Sympton by
Mohamed Zanyani (1999) — See also: H.L. Mencken

Selected works:

SISTER CARRIE, 1900 — film 1952, dir. by William Wyler, starring
Laurence Olivier, Jennifer Jones. «A famous satirical novel is softened
into an unwieldy narrative with scarcely enough dramatic power to
sustain interest despite splendid production values. Heavy pre-release
cuts remain obvious, and the general effect is depressing; but it it
very good to look at.» (Halliwell’s Film Guide, 1987)

JENNIE GERHARDT, 1911 — suom. — film 1933, dir. by Marion Gering,
starring Sylvia Sidney, Donald Cook, Mary Astor

THE FINANCIER, 1912

THE TITAN, 1914

THE «GENIUS», 1915

A HOSIER HOLIDAY, 1916

PLAYS OF THE NATURAL AND SUPERNATURAL, 1916

FREE AND OTHER STORIES, 1918

THE HAND OF THE POTTER, 1918

TWELVE MEN, 1919

HEY-RUB-A-DUB-DUB, 1920

A BOOK ABOUT MYSELF, 1922

THE COLOUR OF A GREAT CITY, 1923

AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, 1925 — Amerikkalainen murhenaeytelmae — film in
1931, directed by Josef von Sternberg, starring Phillips Holmes and
Sylvi Sidney. «It is the first time, I believe, that the subjects of
sex, birth control and murder have been put into a picture with sense,
taste and reality.» (Pare Lorentz) — A Place in the Sun, 1951, dir. by
George Stevens, starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor

MOODS, CADENCED AND DECLAIMED, 1926

CHAINS, 1927

DREISER LOOKS AT RUSSIA, 1928

A GALLERY OF WOMEN, 1929

EPITAPH, 1929

MY CITY, 1929

TRAGIC AMERICA, 1931

DAWN, 1931

LIVING THOUGHTS OF THOREAU, 1939

AMERICA IS WORTH SAVING, 1941

THE BULWARK, 1946

THE STOIC, 1947

THE BEST SHORT STORIES, 1947

LETTERS OF THEODORE DREISER, 1959

NOTES ON LIFE, 1974

AN AMATEUR LABORER, 1983 (edited and introduced by Richard W. Dowell,
with James L. W. West and Neda M. Westlake)

DREISER’S RUSSIAN DIARY, 1996

THE COLLECTED PLAYS OF THEODORE DREISER, 2000 (includes one previously
unpublished play, The Voice)

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