Theodore Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, the ninth child of German immigrants. He experienced considerable poverty as a child and at the age of fifteen was forced to leave home in search of work.
After briefly attending Indiana University, he found work as a reporter in Chicago and New York, before Frank Norris persuaded Doubleday to publish Sister Carrie (1900). However, the company's owners disapproved of the novel's subject matter (the moral corruption of the heroine, Carrie Meeber) and it was not promoted, and therefore sold very badly.
Dreiser's second novel, Jennie Gerhardt was not published until 1911. With the support of the literary critic Floyd Dell, who considered Dreiser a major writer, Sister Carrie was republished in 1912. Arnold Bennett was one of the many who praised the book and described it as the "best novel that has ever come out of America".
An American Tragedy (1925), Dreiser’s greatest novel, was based on the Gillette-Brown murder case of 1906. Subsequently, Dreiser became involved in several campaigns against injustice, including the Sacco and Vanzetti Case, the deportation of Emma Goldman, the false conviction of the trade union leader, Tom Mooney, and the Scottsboro Case.
Theodore Dreiser joined the American Communist Party just before his death in 1945.