Theodore Dreiser was born in 1871 in Terre Haute, Indiana, the twelfth of thirteen children born to Sarah and Johann Dreiser. His father was a German immigrant who became proprietor of a wool mill, but the mill was burned down in 1869, and he was seriously injured. During the 1870s the German-speaking family was poor and had to move from place to place. By the time he was sixteen, Dreiser had lived in five different locations in Indiana. In spite of his interrupted education—he left school at sixteen and did odd jobs—he had already developed a love of books and read Hawthorne, Poe, Emerson, Longfellow, and other American and British authors. He studied for a year at Indiana University (1889-90), and then in 1892 became a reporter for the Chicago Globe. The same year he moved to St. Louis where he worked for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and later the St. Louis Republic. In 1894 he moved to New York and worked as a journalist.
Dreiser married Sara White, a schoolteacher, in 1899, but the marriage was not a happy one and the couple separated in 1909. Meanwhile, Dreiser had published his first novel, Sister Carrie, about the rise and fall of a working-class girl, in 1900. Lacking support from the publisher, the novel sold poorly, but achieved more success when it was republished in 1907, garnering good reviews and better sales.
In 1911, he published his second novel, Jennie Gerhardt, about a young woman exploited by a senator, and then a number of novels in the space of a few years: The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), based on the real-life story of an American business tycoon, and the semi-autobiographical The “Genius” (1915). But it was not until the publication of An American Tragedy in 1925 that Dreiser achieved full recognition for his work as the leading voice in the American naturalistic literary movement. The book is based on an actual murder case that happened in 1906 in New York, when a man named Chester Gillette drowned his pregnant girlfriend in a lake. Gillette was executed in 1908. An American Tragedy sold well, although it was also controversial, being banned in Boston. It was made into a movie in 1931 and again in 1951, under the title, A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. In 2005, the novel was adapted as an opera by Tobias Picker and performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Dreiser continued to publish a range of works, including stories, essays, novels, and travel books, but without repeating the success of An American Tragedy. He died in Hollywood, California, of heart failure on December 28, 1945. Two of his novels, The Bulwark (1946) and The Stoic (1947) were published posthumously.