a “ ‘past-lack’ motivating impulse”


Culhane … resented people using him or his methods to get anywhere, do anything more in life than he could do, and yet he received them. He felt, and I think in the main that he was right, that they looked down on him because of his lowly birth and purely material and mechanical career, and yet having attained some distinction by it he could not forego this work which raised him, in a way, to a position of dominance over these people. Now the sight of presumably so efficient a person in need of aid or exercise, to be built up, was all that was required to spur him on to the most waspish or wolfish attitude imaginable. In part at least he argued, I think (for in the last analysis he was really too wise and experienced to take any such petty view, although there is a subconscious “past-lack” motivating impulse [italics added] in all our views), that here he was, an ex-policeman, ex-wrestler, ex­prize fighter, ex-private, ex-waiter, beef-carrier, bouncer, trainer; and here was this grand major, trained at West Point, who actually didn’t know any more about life or how to take care of his body than to be compelled to come here, broken down at forty-eight, whereas he, because of his stamina and Spartan energy, had been able to survive in perfect condition until sixty and was now in a position to rebuild all these men and wastrels and to control this great institution. — “Culhane, The Solid Man,” in Theodore Dreiser, Twelve Men, edited by Robert Coltrane (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), pg. 152




“[T]here is a subconscious ‘past-lack’ motivating impulse in all our views.” So wrote Theodore Dreiser. This is a clever, original way of saying something by Dreiser, essentially about himself. He had a way of struggling to come with the right word or phrase, and inventing rough-hewn ones, near neologisms to make his meaning plain. Dreiser could identify with Culhane because he himself never overcame the feelings of deprivation and poverty he had experienced growing up — I would be inclined to say emotional deprivation and neglect as well as poverty and want in the commonly understood sense.


– posted by Roger W. Smith

   December 2021

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