Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, to Sarah Maria (née Schanab) and John Paul Dreiser. John Dreiser was a German immigrant from Mayen in the Eifel region, and Sarah was from the Mennonite farming community near Dayton, Ohio. Her family disowned her for converting to Roman Catholicism in order to marry John Dreiser. Theodore was the twelfth of thirteen children (the ninth of the ten surviving). Paul Dresser (1857–1906) was one of his older brothers; Paul changed the spelling of his name as he became a popular songwriter. They were reared as Catholics.
He grew up poor, one of 10 children, in a family that was regularly involved in scandals — his siblings seemed to be in constant trouble with adultery, unwanted pregnancies, jail time, or alcoholism. Dreiser was quiet and studious. In high school, he had a teacher named Mildred Fielding. She was 35 years old and unmarried, tall and thin with big teeth. She had also grown up poor in a dysfunctional family, and she sympathized with Dreiser at the same time that she recognized his potential. She encouraged his studies and told him to ignore the gossip of his schoolmates; but when he was 16, he was so frustrated by his family's poverty and scandals that he dropped out of school, determined to make it on his own. He set off for Chicago with a change of underwear and socks, and a few dollars.
Two years later, he was working a menial job at a warehouse when his old teacher, Mildred Fielding, found him once again. She was now the principal of a Chicago school, and she insisted on paying for his tuition at Indiana State College in Bloomington. He only stayed for one year, but he said, "If ever [...] a year proved an oasis in a life, this one did." He returned to Chicago, where he found work as a reporter and became a prolific writer.
After proposing in 1893, he married Sara White on December 28, 1898. They ultimately separated in 1909. In 1919 Dreiser met his cousin Helen Richardson and they eventually married on June 13, 1944.
He could crank out stories for hours on end, and had a talent for plagiarizing himself. He had never tried to write fiction before the fall of 1899, when he was staying with a friend who convinced him to try writing a novel. Dreiser wrote the novel Sister Carrie (1900) based on the widely-publicized scandal of one of his sisters. His other novels include The Financier (1912) and An American Tragedy (1925).
Dreiser was a committed socialist, and wrote several non-fiction books on political issues.
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