This week is banned books week
, an annual event highlighting the value of free and open access to information. Resident of Greenwich Village and novelist Theodore Dreiser dealt with censorship with several of his books, including his most famous: Sister Carrie
(1900) and An American Tragedy
(1925). Dreiser’s writing was part of the literary movement naturalism, which was a grittier form of realism. Its defining characteristic is its portrayal of people as passive victims of natural forces and their social environment.
Dreiser was born on August 17, 1871, in Terre Haute, Indiana. While he was growing up, his poverty-stricken family frequently moved between small towns in Indiana and Chicago. He studied at Indiana University, Bloomington for the 1889-1890 academic year before dropping out to become a journalist. Dreiser first inhabited Greenwich Village in 1894, as a resident in a dingy hotel on Bleecker Street. The next two years saw him return to the Village for brief stays as he traveled widely as a journalist and novelist. Dreiser finally settled down in the Village in 1914 when he moved into an apartment at 165 West 10th Street.
In the first few decades of the 20th century, Greenwich Village started to attract a “new type” of resident. This included artists, journalists, and professional people. Thus the Village in this period had thriving literary, artistic, and radical scenes. These early Village residents made up a relatively tight-knit group. They hung out together, criticized each other’s writing, and felt a common bond keeping them together against the outside world. This literary scene and Greenwich Village institutions were a major part of Dreiser’s life and work while he lived there. During the day he would walk in Washington Square Park and browse in the 8th Street Bookshop. In the evenings he would attend the productions of local theater companies. His mistress, Kirah Markham, often performed with the Provincetown Playerrs. The Washington Square Players performed some of Dreiser’s plays. Floyd Dell, Max Eastman, Sinclair Lewis, Margaret Sanger, Hutch Hapgood, and Emma Goldman are just some of the names that made up Dreiser’s New York social circle.
Many of Dreiser’s novels were composed at least partly in New York. Sister Carrie, a novel about a young woman from a small town who moves to Chicago. In the big city, she pursues the American Dream by becoming a mistress to men and then an actress. However, Doubleday, its publisher, limited the novel’s advertising because the central character’s “morality” goes unpunished. Consequently, not many copies of the book sold. In 1916, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice forced Dreiser’s newly published novel The Genius off the market for being blasphemous and obscene. Dreiser’s friends in Greenwich Village signed the many petitions that he circulated in his campaign against the Society. The 1925 publication of An American Tragedy, about a murder case, brought Dreiser his greatest critical and commercial success. Dreiser died on December 28, 1945, at the age of 74, in Hollywood, California.
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