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Sister Carrie
"A Strangely Strong Novel
in a Queer Milieu"
Curated by Nancy M. Shawcross
Rare Book & Manuscript Library
University of Pennsylvania

Sarah Schänäb Dreiser
Theodore's Mother

ca. 1880s

Theodore Dreiser's mother was born in a log cabin on 8 May 1833, just a few miles outside of Dayton, Ohio. The daughter of Mennonites who were vigorously anti-Catholic, Sarah eloped with John Paul Dreiser and was married on 1 January 1851. Their first three children died young, but the couple managed to produce ten who survived to adulthood. Dreiser's unwavering love for his mother is legendary: "I was always a mother child," he wrote, "hanging to her skirts as much as I was permitted until I was seven or eight years old." Supportive of all her children's ambitions, she remained non-judgmental towards them and thereby represented to Dreiser the true ideal of home and shelter.

Theodore Dreiser
"Sarah Schanab"
incomplete manuscript (pages 1 & 2 shown), n.d.
The first page of this essay about his mother reveals Dreiser's strained start: "I have often wondered whether it is possible for a son or daughter to present his or her mother truthfully in letters -- to make of her a portrait -- critically & hence detached." In a subsequent section of the tribute, he writes: "to realize, but dimly even then, the nature of the storms that she had weathered, the losses she had endured, the disillusionments she had survived. And yet all this with a faith in the worthwhileness of life that now strikes me as not a little remarkable."
Sister Emma
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