Theodore Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on August 27, 1871. Dreiser’s father, John Paul, fled to America from Germany to avoid the draft. Although the elder Dreiser had mastered weaving in Germany, he found that employers in his new country did not appreciate his skill. He tried to earn a living in Terre Haute while his wife and children moved from place to place looking for other work and more affordable living. Mr. Dreiser and his wife of Moravian descent raised their family on very little money, with the stringent morals and rules of the old country. They communicated with each other in German and followed strict Catholic practices.
One of ten children, next-to-the-youngest Theodore Dreiser felt the influence of his older brothers and sisters who seemed to always find themselves in trouble. For example, one brother, Paul, robbed a saloon in his teens, kept company with a brothel madam, and died of alcoholism and related depression. Two of Theodore’s sisters were prostitutes. Because Theodore saw his father’s distress over his children’s antics, the younger Dreiser learned early how to avoid being caught for his many misadventures. Fortunately, Dreiser loved reading. His fondness for words led him to writing; writing kept him fed and out of trouble. When Dreiser turned sixteen, he left the family and began working at a variety of odd jobs to try to support himself. He lived for a while with his brother in Chicago, then returned to Indiana to attend Indiana University. He left after a year, however, returning to Chicago where, in 1892, he made his writing debut as a reporter for the Daily Globe. After having been a reporter in Chicago, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh, Dreiser began to discover that he was better at writing impressions than he was at reporting the facts. While working in New York, Dreiser wrote several short stories that quickly sold. Slightly encouraged by this success and the urging of a friend, Dreiser penned Sister Carrie. Based on his sisters’ lives, the novel became Dreiser’s best-known work. Critics today credit Dreiser with being the first writer to portray nineteenth-century American life in a realistic way. Dreiser died in Los Angeles, California, in 1945.