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Lyrical Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, Twelve Men

edited by Richard Lehan
Library of America, 1,168 pp., $27.50


In this republican country, amid the fluctuating waves of our social life,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, “somebody is always at the drowning-point.” It was not the deprivation of the poor that interested Hawthorne, but rather the fall of those born high—the experience of failure. Like most of his contemporaries, Hawthorne did not look closely at the conspicuous castaways of antebellum America. Even to Melville, the face of social misery tended to be a foreign one. When he wrote in Redburn (1849) of his back-alley encounter with “the figure of what had been a woman…[in whose] blue arms [were] folded to her livid bosom two shrunken things like children,” he was writing about the desperate poor of Liverpool, not New York.

Among post–Civil War writers, Theodore Dreiser was the first to write powerfully about the experience, rather than the spectacle, of poverty. He did not have to acquaint himself with the subject. Born in Terre Haute in 1871 to a pious Catholic millworker who had fled the Prussian draft, and an American-born mother of Moravian descent, he was, F.O. Matthiessen has remarked, “the first major American writer whose family name was not English or Scotch Irish.” Dreiser grew up in a crowded household; there were five boys and five girls born over a period of fifteen years, of whom Theodore was the second youngest. The children’s ventures outside the family tested the tolerance of their father, whom Dreiser remembered in his memoir, Dawn (1931), “as a kind of pleading watchdog of the treasury, weeping in his beard and moaning over the general recklessness of our lives.”

There was reason for the elder Dreiser’s worry. His first son, Paul, was arrested in his teens for robbing a saloon; another, Rome, became known about town as a bouncer and a thug. Among the girls, Mame began to collect from prominent male citizens presents that ranged from trinkets to cash, while Emma and the darkly beautiful Sylvia, as Richard Lingeman puts it in his informative biography of Dreiser’s early years, “bartered their youth to rich older men in return for the trappings of luxury without the legitimization of marriage.”1

Theodore’s sisters called him “big-eared” owing to both his ungainliness and his attentiveness to their affairs. For Theodore, these sisters—especially Emma and Sylvia, whom “for reasons of temperament I class together”—were the first to hint at the “stinging richness” of adult life. They were, he wrote, “a pair of idlewilds, driven helplessly and persistently by their own internal fires.” He remembered Sylvia especially “as nearly always before her mirror, rouging her cheeks and lips, darkening her eyebrows and lashes…feeling her waist and hips to see if they were trim enough.” Adornments were unnecessary, since men flocked to her whether she made herself up or not: a sweet-talking shoe salesman nearly coaxed her onto the next train; a tightrope walker in town for a carnival dazzled her in his “vari-colored fleshings and gorgeous velvet loin cloths”; even “a certain Professor Solax”—one of those traveling quacks of the period that L. Frank Baum had in mind for the Wizard of Oz—“a small, trim, dandified man, in a cutaway coat and high silk hat, with shoebrush whiskers and Jovian curls,” begged her to run away with him. “And while his curly hair and amazing whiskers were entrancing enough, she feared that he had a wife somewhere (by this time this had come to mean an obstacle to her) and she did not go.”

When in his twenties Dreiser, after his apprenticeship as a journalist, undertook to become a novelist, it was out of such scraps of his sisters’ lives that he fashioned his two great first novels, Sister Carrie (1900) and Jennie Gerhardt (1911). Dreiser continued to write fiction for another thirty years, producing a remarkable trilogy—the Cowperwood novels (1912–1947)—about a soaring tycoon who, like the cities he conquers (first Philadelphia, then Chicago), combines ruthlessness with grandeur. An American Tragedy (1925), in its sheer narrative drive, is perhaps Dreiser’s greatest book. But Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, in their emotional intensity, are the most intimate and lyrical of his novels.

These books are in large part imaginative revisions of his sisters’ lives, but with many of the facts intact: the old immigrant Gerhardt rails at Jennie for what he considers her loose morals, as Dreiser’s father had done at his wayward daughters; around the most scandalous episode of Emma’s life—her flight to Canada with a married lover who had embezzled money from his employers—Dreiser built the plot of Sister Carrie.

Theodore himself had brushes with trouble, but he learned, while scrambling for coal as a boy in the railroad yards of Terre Haute, how to evade the trainmen and the police. His was, in many respects, the classic late-nineteenth-century childhood of the poor immigrant’s son—the restless New World boy struggling against the restrictions of an Old World father. John Paul Dreiser had been a master weaver in Germany, but in America he could never turn his tradesman’s skill into a business success. He made bad investments, and grew too timid to try again; he was battered by the volatility of the American markets, and was hurt by his loyalty, and caution, and pride.

The family spoke German at home, and at his father’s insistence, Theodore was sent to a German-speaking parochial school—one reason why his sentences often reflect some discomfort with customary English word order. Dreiser also grew up Catholic in a Protestant country, “drilled in the wornout folderol of the Holy Roman Catholic Church,” and subject to his father’s rantings: “No Bible [in these American schools]; or if there is one, a Protestant Bible…full of lies! No separation of boys and girls as there should be in any well regulated state of society!” Lingeman is right to speak of “the oppressive fears” that Dreiser associated with Catholicism:

At the elevation of the Host, so cowed was I by dogma that I invariably knelt, even behind the organ, not because I felt it to be so sacred or spiritual a moment but because of the fear that if I did not I might die in the act of committing a mortal sin and so be consigned to eternal fire.

Yet when Dreiser conceded that “much as I might dislike the routine of the Catholic Church, it was ever of interest to me as a spectacle,” he may have been understating the hold it had over him.

Dreiser began to learn of the world through reading pulp magazines (The Family Story Paper, The Fireside Companion) and particularly through his brother Paul, who was embarking on a show business career when Dreiser was growing up. Paul had got his start in a Cincinnati minstrel show, but eventually made his way east to become a Broadway songwriter and bon vivant—his most famous song was “On the Banks of the Wabash”—and, after long absences, he would come home on visits with perfumed women in high heels, and with fabulous stories to tell. He changed his name to “Dresser” as “a concession to the American middle west…which thought little of all foreign names.” During the early Nineties he lived for a while near the family in Evansville with the madam of a local brothel—an elegant woman whose “exotic taste for black” young Theodore explained to himself as a sign that she was in mourning.

Paul’s charm and success compensated for his worldliness, even to his disapproving mother. Later in the decade, when Theodore first came to New York to try to become a writer, the two shared an apartment in which Paul made a practice (remembered by Theodore as both a shock to his prudishness and an encouragement to his awakening sexuality) of parading up and down with a bath towel hung on his morning erection. Paul became his younger brother’s guide to the pleasures of New York, where he seemed “one of those great Falstaffian sorts who, for lack of a little iron or sodium or carbon dioxide in his chemical compost, was not able to bestride the world like a Colossus.” A dashing figure (until he became hugely fat and ill from drinking), he introduced Theodore to exotic whore-houses, and came indispensably to his aid when, in his early twenties, he fell into a serious mental depression.

After his brother’s death, Dreiser reflected that he “belongs in a novel, which I shall never find the time to write.” His vivid portrait in Twelve Men, written in 1909, shows Paul in all his “agile geniality”—on drinking binges with cronies like the ex-Western con man “Bat” Masterson, the prizefighter James J. Corbett, and various luminaries of Tammany Hall. He describes Paul in New York hotels, entertaining crowds with his gift for mimicry—how he did the “old Irish washerwoman arguing; a stout, truculent German laying down the law; lean, gloomy, out-at-elbows actors of the Hamlet or classic school complaining of their fate; the stingy skinflint haggling over a dollar.” But Paul is also a character in a Dreiser novel. Hurstwood in Sister Carrie has something of his charm and dandyism, and in the terrible symmetry of Paul’s early success and abrupt decline and death (in 1906), there is a strange reenactment of Hurstwood’s fall.

During Dreiser’s childhood, the younger children moved frequently with their mother—to Evansville, Warsaw, Sullivan, to Chicago, and back to Evansville again—while their father stayed in Terre Haute and tried to earn a living. As Theodore entered what Lingeman calls “the glandular storms of adolescence,” he drew away from the family and returned to Chicago, where, barely sixteen, he kept poverty at arm’s length by working as a dishwasher, as a freight-car tracer, hardware stockpiler, real estate promoter, laundry-truck driver, bill collector—jobs, especially the last, that plunged him into the human chaos of the city. There his fantasies about willing women looking for young men to please were more than occasionally realized. “Plump wives drew me into risqué positions on sight.” And there, too, began the lifelong struggle between his strong sexual urge and an almost equivalent sexual fear—fear of disease, of ineptness, of making a girl pregnant. “I have never known a man more interested in women from the sex point of view,” he said of Paul, adding, “unless perchance it might be myself.”

On his bill-collecting rounds he was stimulated imaginatively as well as physically. “Death-bereaved weepers mourned over their late lost in my presence—and postponed paying me.” He was propositioned “by plump naked girls striding from bed to dresser to get a purse, [who] then offered certain favors for a dollar, or its equivalent—a credit on the contract slip.” He began to think about writing it all down.

These adventures were interrupted when a former high school teacher from Warsaw, having noticed his gifts, talked him into entering Indiana University, at her expense. But Dreiser left a year later, after his mother died, and went back to Chicago. There he began to knock on editors’ doors looking for a job as a reporter, planting himself outside the newsroom, he later wrote in Newspaper Days (1922), like “a homeless cat hang[ing] about…meowing to be taken in.” By sheer persistence, and the luck of being around during the busy political season when the papers needed stringers, he landed a paid-by-the-piece job at the Chicago Daily Globe. His first break came quickly, during the Democratic convention of 1892, when he gave his paper a scoop on the impending nomination of Grover Cleveland.

  1. 1

    Richard Lingeman, Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871–1907 (Putnam’s, 1986), p. 85. Lingeman is at work on the second volume of his biography, which will be the first full life since W.A. Swanberg’s Dreiser, published in 1965. A new biography by Thomas P. Riggio is also under way.

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