Theodore Dreiser

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Among the forces which sweep and play throughout the universe, untutored man is but a wisp in the wind. Our civilization is still in a middle stage, scarcely beast, in that it is no longer wholly guided by instinct; scarcely human, in that it is not yet wholly guided by reason.

Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser (August 27, 1871 – December 28, 1945) was an American naturalist author known for dealing with the gritty reality of life.


  • Oh, the moon is fair tonight along the Wabash,
    From the fields there comes the breath of new-mown hay;
    Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming
    On the banks of the Wabash, far away.
    • On the Banks of the Wabash (1896), chorus; this song as a whole was written by Dreiser's brother Paul (known as Paul Dresser); but Dreiser stated that "I wrote the first verse and chorus", in A Hoosier Holiday (1916) Ch. XLIII: "The Mystery of Coincidence".
  • I acknowledge the Furies. I believe in them. I have heard the disastrous beating of their wings.
    • "The First Voyage Over," The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine (August 1913); later published in A Traveler at Forty (1913), ch. I: "Barfleur Takes Me in Hand"
  • If I were personally to define religion, I would say that it is a bandage that man has invented to protect a soul made bloody by circumstance.
  • Art is the stored honey of the human soul, gathered on wings of misery and travail.
    • "Life, Art and America", in The Seven Arts (February 1917)
  • Liberalism, in the case of the Jew, means internationalism. If you listen to Jews discuss Jews, you will find they are money-minded, very sharp in practice. The Jews lack the fine integrity which at last is endorsed, and to a certain degree followed, by lawyers of other nationalities. The Jew has been in Germany for a thousand years, and he is still a Jew. He has been in America for all of 200 years, and he has not faded into a pure American by any means — and he will not.
  • Shakespeare, I come!
    • Intended last words, as told to H. L. Mencken. "When Dreiser wrote that he had already framed his last words — 'Shakespeare, I come!' — and asked Mencken what his would be, Mencken replied acidly, 'I regret that I have but one rectum to leave to my country.'" - William Manchester, Disturber of the Peace: H. L. Mencken (1951) University of Michigan Press, digitized (28 January 2007), pp. 109-110
Online at Project Gutenberg
  • Among the forces which sweep and play throughout the universe, untutored man is but a wisp in the wind. Our civilization is still in a middle stage, scarcely beast, in that it is no longer wholly guided by instinct; scarcely human, in that it is not yet wholly guided by reason. On the tiger no responsibility rests. We see him aligned by nature with the forces of life — he is born into their keeping and without thought he is protected. We see man far removed from the lairs of the jungles, his innate instincts dulled by too near an approach to free-will, his free-will not sufficiently developed to replace his instincts and afford him perfect guidance. He is becoming too wise to hearken always to instincts and desires; he is still too weak to always prevail against them. As a beast, the forces of life aligned him with them; as a man, he has not yet wholly learned to align himself with the forces. In this intermediate stage he wavers — neither drawn in harmony with nature by his instincts nor yet wisely putting himself into harmony by his own free-will. He is even as a wisp in the wind, moved by every breath of passion, acting now by his will and now by his instincts, erring with one, only to retrieve by the other, falling by one, only to rise by the other — a creature of incalculable variability. We have the consolation of knowing that evolution is ever in action, that the ideal is a light that cannot fail. He will not forever balance thus between good and evil. When this jangle of free-will and instinct shall have been adjusted, when perfect understanding has given the former the power to replace the latter entirely, man will no longer vary. The needle of understanding will yet point steadfast and unwavering to the distant pole of truth.
    • Ch. 8 : Intimations By Winter: An Ambassador Summoned
Online text
  • A man, a real man, must never be an agent, a tool, or a gambler—acting for himself or for others—he must employ such. A real man—a financier—was never a tool. He used tools. He created. He led.
    • Ch. VI
  • She had no desire for accuracy, no desire for precise information. Innate sensuousness rarely has. It basks in sunshine, bathes in color, dwells in a sense of the impressive and the gorgeous, and rests there. Accuracy is not necessary except in the case of aggressive, acquisitive natures, when it manifests itself in a desire to seize. True controlling sensuousness cannot be manifested in the most active dispositions, nor again in the most accurate.
    • Ch. XIII
  • The most futile thing in this world is any attempt, perhaps, at exact definition of character. All individuals are a bundle of contradictions—none more so than the most capable.
    • Ch. XIII
  • Literature, outside of the masters, has given us but one idea of the mistress, the subtle, calculating siren who delights to prey on the souls of men. The journalism and the moral pamphleteering of the time seem to foster it with almost partisan zeal. It would seem that a censorship of life had been established by divinity, and the care of its execution given into the hands of the utterly conservative. Yet there is that other form of liaison which has nothing to do with conscious calculation. In the vast majority of cases it is without design or guile. The average woman, controlled by her affections and deeply in love, is no more capable than a child of anything save sacrificial thought—the desire to give; and so long as this state endures, she can only do this. She may change—Hell hath no fury, etc.—but the sacrificial, yielding, solicitous attitude is more often the outstanding characteristic of the mistress; and it is this very attitude in contradistinction to the grasping legality of established matrimony that has caused so many wounds in the defenses of the latter. The temperament of man, either male or female, cannot help falling down before and worshiping this nonseeking, sacrificial note. It approaches vast distinction in life. It appears to be related to that last word in art, that largeness of spirit which is the first characteristic of the great picture, the great building, the great sculpture, the great decoration—namely, a giving, freely and without stint, of itself, of beauty.
    • Ch. XXIII
  • Few people have the sense of financial individuality strongly developed. They do not know what it means to be a controller of wealth, to have that which releases the sources of social action—its medium of exchange. They want money, but not for money's sake. They want it for what it will buy in the way of simple comforts, whereas the financier wants it for what it will control—for what it will represent in the way of dignity, force, power.
    • Ch. XXV
  • The Irish are a philosophic as well as a practical race. Their first and strongest impulse is to make the best of a bad situation—to put a better face on evil than it normally wears.
    • Ch. XXVI
  • Parents are frequently inclined, because of a time-flattered sense of security, to take their children for granted. Nothing ever has happened, so nothing ever will happen. They see their children every day, and through the eyes of affection; and despite their natural charm and their own strong parental love, the children are apt to become not only commonplaces, but ineffably secure against evil. […] The astonishment of most parents at the sudden accidental revelation of evil in connection with any of their children is almost invariably pathetic. […] But it is possible. Very possible. Decidedly likely. Some, through lack of experience or understanding, or both, grow hard and bitter on the instant. They feel themselves astonishingly abased in the face of notable tenderness and sacrifice. Others collapse before the grave manifestation of the insecurity and uncertainty of life—the mystic chemistry of our being. Still others, taught roughly by life, or endowed with understanding or intuition, or both, see in this the latest manifestation of that incomprehensible chemistry which we call life and personality, and, knowing that it is quite vain to hope to gainsay it, save by greater subtlety, put the best face they can upon the matter and call a truce until they can think. We all know that life is unsolvable—we who think. The remainder imagine a vain thing, and are full of sound and fury signifying nothing.
    • Ch. XXVI
  • The conventional mind is at best a petty piece of machinery. It is oyster-like in its functioning, or, perhaps better, clam-like. It has its little siphon of thought-processes forced up or down into the mighty ocean of fact and circumstance; but it uses so little, pumps so faintly, that the immediate contiguity of the vast mass is not disturbed. Nothing of the subtlety of life is perceived. No least inkling of its storms or terrors is ever discovered except through accident.
    • Ch. XXX

Quotes about Dreiser

  • Most of the writers with whom I was most impressed were the French and Russian writers of another period. The one American writer who stood out to me was Richard Wright-and Dreiser. I took to their naturalism. I was able to understand so much of the country through them.
  • Writers in the twenties reacted not only to the shock of the First World War but to the values held dear in the nineteenth century. The stock responses of good will and progressive enlightenment as an explanation of human behavior had failed Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson even before the First World War. The new attitudes were expressed not only in the realm of ideas but were implicit in the texture of the work, its language, its style, even in what came to be tagged "lack of style."
  • Meridel Le Sueur at fifteen had an introduction to one interpretation of "free love" herself, when attending a salon held by Mabel Dodge, a rich patron of radicals. ("Emma was good at getting rich women to give money.") At Meridel's first salon, "Theodore Dreiser spent the entire evening I was fifteen years old!-chasing me around the library." Meridel had read Dreiser's banned book, Sister Carrie. "He kept saying, don't you know who I am? and I said, yes, I thought you were the greatest author in the country but I didn't know you were a satyr!"
    • quote in "Freethinker Meridel Le Sueur" by Annie Laurie Gaylor (1982)
  • Ever since W. A. Swanberg’s roguish portrait of the author of Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy appeared in 1965, Theodore Dreiser’s reputation as the first great American novelist of the twentieth century and the “father of American realism” has been tarnished, if not obscured, by his reputation as a philanderer. Indeed, Dreiser himself is partly to blame because he was painfully honest in his autobiographies and personal statements; moreover, he sometimes boasted of his success with women. The problem has been further compounded by books written by many of his lovers and the publication of his American Diaries in 1983. The heaviest blow was probably dealt by Yvette Eastman in Dearest Wilding: A Memoir (1995), in which it is revealed that the fifty-eight-year-old Dreiser took the sixteen-year-old future author to bed at his country retreat in Mt. Kisco, New York. Two of the book’s illustrations show the virginal-looking (she had earlier been seduced by Max Eastman) Yvette at age seventeen and a foxy-looking Dreiser in front of one of the log cabins on his Mt. Kisco estate.
  • Jerome Loving, (1999). "Review of Love That Will Not Let Me Go: My Time with Theodore Dreiser by Marguerite Tjader, edited by Lawrence E. Hussman". Resources for American Literary Study 25: 268–270. DOI:10.1353/rals.1999.0007.
  • Every reader of the Dreiser novels must cherish astounding specimens—of awkward, platitudinous marginalia, of whole scenes spoiled by bad writing, of phrases so brackish as so many lumps of sodium hyposulfite. Here and there, as in parts of "The Titan" and again in parts of "A Hoosier Holiday," an evil conscience seems to haunt him and he gives hard striving to his manner, and more than once there emerges something that is almost graceful. But a backsliding always follows this phosphoresce of reform.
  • H. L. Mencken, A Book of Prefaces (1917), 2nd edition, pp. 86–87. (1st edition, 1916)
  • Theodore Dreiser

    Should ought to write nicer.
    • Dorothy Parker, reviewing Dreiser's Dawn in The New Yorker (30 May 1931)