“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.
But the main story of Dreiser’s early years as a reporter, first in Chicago, then in St. Louis and, briefly, Pittsburgh, is largely of his discovery that he was not a newsman, but a writer. Dreiser’s gift as a reporter was not for ferreting out tips and late-breaking stories, but for gathering impressions. At the St. Louis Globe-Democrat he hit his stride with a column called “Heard in the Corridors,” which mixed invention with interviews and bar-room chatter, and turned them into short vignettes. There are sketches of a restaurant that managed to fleece tourists without raising prices for its regular customers by slicing the tourists’ steaks thinner; of a paralytic who had been buried alive; of a smoker who bled to death from a sore on his lip. He wrote Sunday-supplement features (revival meetings, visits to the morgue, local fairs, baseball games). Dreiser was training his ear and eye for the salient detail—the regional lilt of a voice, the fashionable cut of a suit.2
He became known, in the words of a colleague, as being “better as a writer than in getting news.” But he also won praise for his coverage of a horrible train wreck and of a lynching. It was from these experiences as a reporter, he later wrote, that he began to “misdoubt the motives, professed or secret” of any man, and learned, in pumping a source for a story, “to appear wise when you were ignorant, dull when you were not, disinterested when you were interested, brutal or severe when you might be just the reverse.” These techniques, he concluded, “were the essential tricks of the trade.” Even as he mastered the news trade, he began to feel its distortions and limitations, and turned his hand to fiction—where the problem of responsibility to his subject was quite different.
One of Dreiser’s first short stories, “Nigger Jeff” (1899)—a kind of farewell to the life of reporting the “news”—describes a callow reporter sent south to cover the story of a white woman’s rape by a black man:
Davies smiled. He was always pleased to be sent out of town. It was a mark of appreciation. The city editor rarely sent any of the other men on these big stories.
But before the tale is done Davies’s smile turns to sorrow and horror as he watches the captured black man foam at the mouth while he is dragged bleeding and shuddering to his hanging. One senses Dreiser enlarging his theme beyond the possibilities of journalism; the story is a rebuke for the sort of petty pride the reporter feels before he begins to think about what he is doing.
While Dreiser’s childhood had been spent in small towns where his family’s shame could not be concealed, he had now made his way to the city, a world where most transactions were glancing and impersonal—a shoeshine, a chain-store sale, a delivery. Such are the characteristic details of Dreiser’s fictional encounters: the coin in a gentleman’s pocket thrown the way of a beggar; the sexual fantasy enacted privately in the mind, as when a ticket-booth attendant follows Carrie with his eyes: ” ‘Good-looking,’ he said to himself, and proceeded to visions of condescensions on her part which were exceedingly flattering to himself.” The sense of human isolation in the city became an obsession; this was an earned knowledge, confirmed by Dreiser’s years as a reporter, where he discovered the city to be everywhere “latent,” in Whitman’s phrase, “with unseen existences.”
In his memoir Dawn, Dreiser writes that he wished that “I were able to suggest in prose the throb and urge and sting of my first days in Chicago.” In fact, he had done so thirty years before—in the opening chapters of Sister Carrie, with its portrait of the sublime and brutal city, “open to the sweeping winds and rain…yet lighted throughout the night with long, blinking lines of gas-lamps, fluttering in the wind.” In the novel’s memorable opening, Carrie Meeber, a Wisconsin farm girl, is sitting primly on a train. She nervously watches the farmland blur beyond her window, shifting her gaze shyly to the other passengers, when, “conscious of a man behind [her]…observing her mass of hair…she felt a certain interest growing in that quarter.” At first she is aware only of the sound of the man’s breath and the rustle of his clothes; then he leans forward, acquiring first a face, then a name and a position—Charles Drouet, drummer for the dry goods firm of Bartlett, Caryoe & Company.
As Drouet comes into focus, it is his clothes that define his person. He is dressed in a “rather tight-fitting” suit with “low crotch” vest and “linen cuffs…fastened with large, gold plate buttons.” Later, after he has taken Carrie out of her sister’s drab flat (its walls “discordantly papered. The floors…covered with matting and the hall laid with a thin rag carpet”) into a bright new life as his mistress, we see him in his comfortable rooms through Carrie’s wide eyes: “As he cut the meat his rings almost spoke.”
When Carrie meets Hurstwood, who will replace Drouet as her lover, it is again his clothes—the stiffness of his lapels, his mother-of-pearl buttons, and especially his shoes, which “were of soft, black calf, polished only to a dull shine”—that she chiefly notices. “Drouet wore patent leather, but Carrie could not help feeling that there was a distinction in favour of [Hurstwood’s] soft leather.” She has discovered the relation between status and taste.
Hurstwood’s social position, however, is precarious, and if Carrie does not know it, he does. Left out of the real financial decisions of the saloon that he manages (the power of decision being reserved by the owners, “Messrs. Fitzgerald and Moy”), he screens himself off in “a little office…set off in polished cherry and grill-work” from the faintly grubby job of the cashier, to whom is left the actual handling of money. In his contact with customers he has “a finely graduated scale of informality and friendship,” depending on the social rank of those he is dealing with: he is easy and confidential with the low-paid clerks, quiet and deferential with the occasional well-heeled gentlemen who wander in. Within this narrow stratum—between the owners above him and the petty functionaries below—Hurstwood holds his position by his caution and charm.
On the town, he is more daring, and when he first meets Carrie, he is pleased by her lack of self-consciousness. There is nothing manipulative about her; in her “diffident manner was nothing of the art of the courtesan”; she is open and willing to be pampered and touched; “not so much calculating,” as Dreiser later said of his sisters, “as vain and unthinking.” Carrie’s great talent, and the secret of her later success on stage, is her “passivity of soul, which is always the mirror of the active world.” She has an emotional neediness (her “mouth had the expression at times, in talking and in repose, of one who might be upon the verge of tears”) that men take as a promise to be grateful for their attentions. And she is. Thanks to Drouet, “the narrow life of the country had fallen from her as a garment, and the city, with all its mystery, [had] taken its place.” But Hurstwood’s claim is stronger: “It was an important thing to her to hear one so well-positioned and powerful speaking” of his love for her. For Carrie, Hurstwood is more capable than Drouet of lifting her into the good life.
When she first goes on stage in an amateur theatrical, Carrie’s effect on the audience is exhilarating. Her hold on men like Hurstwood; she senses, can be expanded to a larger audience, since the theater provides a kind of authorized voyeurism for men dulled by the routines of business and marriage. “Drouet,” waiting for her after her first performance, “was palavering himself with the looseness of excitement and passion.” Carrie’s “body tingles” at this kind of public sexual interchange; when men praise her acting, her “eyes [turn]…bright, cheeks red…she radiated…pleasure.” And when Hurstwood, stunned by her grace on stage, presses his advances, and gets her to leave Drouet, her feelings of guilt are as faint as her memory is short. The housemaid and neighbors mutter that she goes with other men when Drouet (whom they take to be her husband) is out of town, but “she gave little thought” to him, “thinking only of the dignity and grace of her [new] lover and of his consuming affection for her.”
Carrie’s fate—first as the mistress of Drouet, then of Hurstwood, then, when she has become a successful actress, of the public—has been set in motion in the subtle opening chapter by her failure to understand a basic principle of the human marketplace: that a woman does not look a strange man steadily in the eye without signaling to him that she is ready to be included in the system of exchange.
This initial failure of social understanding is also an immigrant’s failure.3 But Carrie learns quickly. She has left home; her sister and brother-in-law cannot afford to keep her in their flat in Chicago, and she has lost her ties with her family. Her value to others creates her identity rather than the other way around. She slips easily into whatever manner or style of dress seems to get results, shedding it when fashions change or when she moves on, for she sees that survival in the city depends on adapting. This is why she is a splendid actress: “Instinctively, she felt a desire to imitate” the women whom Drouet eyed on the street, “how they set their little feet, how they carried their chins, with what grace and sinuosity they swing their bodies.” Later, after she has fled to New York with Hurstwood, she becomes, as Hurstwood cannot, a New Yorker: unlike him, she is uninhibited by the past.
Other American writers had begun to write about the new casualness with which human lives meet and separate in the city. William Dean Howells had written about infidelity, alcoholism, and divorce in A Modern Instance (1882), and, in A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), had anticipated Dreiser in his account of the violence of a streetcar strike between workers and police, whose masters are comfortably far from the scene. But, unlike Howells, Dreiser was writing without a remedial purpose, from within his own and his intimately witnessed experience. He was writing as a reporter—telling two inverse stories; the story of an upwardly drifting woman, and of an ordinary man’s fall.
As it proceeds, the book becomes more Hurstwood’s story than Carrie’s. Hurstwood finds himself obsessed with this new enchanting girl. Alone one Saturday in the office, he notices that his employer’s safe has not clicked shut. There begins within him a war of instincts, and, in an astonishingly powerful scene, Dreiser shows him inspecting the pouches of money—a loyal employee checking to be sure that all is in order. Then the door of the safe accidentally closes, and Hurstwood becomes, in that instant, a desperate man grasping a chance for a new life.
What follows is a mixture of panic and elation as Hurstwood coaxes Carrie onto the New York train, and makes his run for freedom. But it is a short and pointless dash; not long afterward he is found, and, to call off the police and the company’s lawyers, he returns the unspent money. Hiding now from old acquaintances, hounded by his wife, he begins his descent.
Some of the most powerful and affecting pages of Sister Carrie are devoted to Hurstwood’s fall. Even as he stares into the open safe, and then makes his break for freedom with Carrie to the New York train, he is trapped, and his ruin has begun. In describing Hurstwood’s subsequent collapse (the character came into his mind, Dreiser said later, as he watched the bums, shuffling about and sleeping, in a park across from New York’s City Hall), Dreiser drew on his newspaper experience in the Chicago and St. Louis slums, and on his own down-and-out days in New York, when he watched how the mannequins and fine linens on the warm side of the department store window were posed and arranged:
The streets were bedded with [snow]—six inches of cold, soft carpet, churned to a dirty brown by the crush of teams and the feet of men. Along Broadway men picked their way in ulsters and umbrellas…. In the [Bowery], crowds on cold errands shifted past dingy stores, in the deep recesses of which lights were already gleaming. There were early lights in the cable cars, whose usual clatter was reduced by the mantle about the wheels.
The images of domestic comfort—beds and carpets—are bitterly evoked here as Hurstwood makes his way through the snow to the Bowery shelter and joins a group of men who
made no effort to go in, but shifted ruefully about, digging their hands deep in their pockets and leering at the crowd and the increasing lamps. With the minutes, increased the number…. There was a face in the thick of the collection which was as white as drained veal.
In the book’s famous ending, Carrie, now a pampered actress, watches from her suite high in the Waldorf—much too high for her to make out that white face—as the defeated men slog below her through the snow.
Here is the real reason that Sister Carrie shocked its first readers—not merely its sexual candor, but its unrelenting assault on the notion that one’s rise or fall has anything to do with a general economy of virtue and reward or vice and punishment. Hurstwood’s unpremeditated act of embezzlement is a small moment of weakness of a small man. But in Dreiser’s hands it becomes the stuff of tragedy. His genius, as Richard Poirier has remarked, involved a “fascinated surrender to the mysterious forces that in the city destroy freedom and even any consciousness of its loss.”
During the writing of Sister Carrie Dreiser released himself from his need—expressed variously in his early interest in Social Darwinism, with its vision of a predestined order beneath the violent surface of life, later in his turn to the Episcopal Church and the Communist party, which promised resolution in a prophesied future—to find some pattern in the apparent randomness of human lives. The novel delivers no such rationale for its events. It describes a world that runs on sex and chance, in which the human attention span is overstretched by anything beyond today’s appointments or tomorrow’s assignation. Hurstwood’s fall is not deserved, and Carrie is not appropriately rewarded. Their fortunes have no moral meaning; they simply happen.
Hurstwood could not be dismissed by Dreiser’s readers as an extreme case; he had stood exactly at the middle point of the American class hierarchy, and was undone by a moment of desire. When Dreiser wrote Sister Carrie, the boundary between the middle class and the swarming lower orders was blurring, and, he makes clear, could be crossed at any moment by almost anyone—in both directions. One of Sylvia’s suitors, Dreiser remembered, liked to recite a popular ballad called “Over the Hill to the Poor House.” For Dreiser, the hill was neither high nor far, and he saw that for every young climber there is someone else on the way down.4
Although he was initially enthusiastic about Sister Carrie, Dreiser’s publisher, Frank Doubleday, became squeamish and limited its distribution, afraid to sponsor the story of a loose woman’s public triumph.5 Dreiser was deeply discouraged by the book’s reception; there were some favorable reviewers, but most, to one degree or another, were shocked by the novel, and Doubleday’s action insured that the royalties would be negligible. Dreiser returned-to journalism and sustained himself as a magazine writer, especially for McClure’s and Harper’s Weekly, with a number of pieces that he eventually collected in Twelve Men—an investigation of a foundling home; a portrait of a labor leader; an account of a retired wrestler who ran a sanatorium (where Dreiser had been a patient) in which therapy took the form of steaming, exercising, and verbally abusing the patients until they sweated out their flabbiness of mind as well as body. Slowly Dreiser rebuilt his confidence, though there were many further bouts of depression. Once, in early 1903, he recounts a particularly “gloomy and wretched” day, on which he
attended mass at the Catholic church,…a spectacle which I enjoyed very much. The church was soothing, the music beautiful and the lights and candles upon the altar a spectacle to behold. I rejoiced enthusiastically in it all and came home feeling as if I were better than ever.6
By the end of the decade he was able to tell his friend H.L. Mencken that “I expect to try out this book game [again] for about four or five books after which unless I am enjoying a good income from them I will quit.” The book with which he renewed himself as a novelist was Jennie Gerhardt, a simple story that Mencken thought “the best American novel…[since] the lonesome but Himalayan exception of Huckleberry Finn.”7 The judgment is extravagant, but Mencken was right to note the intensity of feeling in Jennie Gerhardt.
It had first come into Dreiser’s mind within days of his father’s death in 1900, and old Gerhardt, a master glass blower from Germany who never manages to get a grip on life in the New World, is clearly a portrait of John Paul Dreiser. Substituting rolled newspaper for firewood to save a few pennies, he lumbers about in idleness and bewilderment, having burned his hands in molten glass much as John Paul Dreiser himself had been injured.
For this deeply personal book Dreiser tapped his own memories of youthful awkwardness and poverty. When Jennie keeps and hides a list of difficult words that she has heard in the speech of her better-bred lover, and feigns a lack of appetite in order not to risk using the wrong fork in the hotel restaurant, Dreiser is recreating the embarrassment and deprivation of his own youth. With a force unprecedented in American literature, Jennie Gerhardt exposes the beaten wills of people living in unrelieved exhaustion and worry, teased by the proximity of the good life. And in the portrait of Jennie herself Dreiser gives expression to what his father would have called Sehnsucht—an undirected longing, the unbearable sense of youth taunted by hope, then defeated.
At first, Dreiser called his new novel (which he worked on for nearly a decade) The Transgressor. It was the story of a beautiful girl both cared for and deceived by the higher-caste men who first lust for her, then love her, then find themselves called back to the obligations of their class, to which she can never belong. It is, in some respects, a reprise of Carrie’s story, but this time there is no public rise at the expense of disposable lovers. Dreiser’s sisters had lived this story (Mame and Sylvia had both given birth to illegitimate children, one stillborn, the other given away), and it was becoming a common tale among newly mobile Americans—the story of the female innocent led astray by the big city, the literary version of what was soon to become a stock subject of the movies. But it had never been written like this: from within the mind of the dazzled girl herself, by a writer who traced without moralism or sentimentality the surge of pleasure and hope that she feels in the involuntary power of her body to release her from the grim world into which she had been born.
The novel begins as a conventional cautionary tale. Jennie, working as a hotel maid, goes door to door offering her services as a laundress; she is seduced by a hotel guest who is no less than a United States senator. He dies; she has his child. The terms have been set for a novel of ruin and chastisement.
Much of the book promises to deliver exactly this sort of admonitory moral, as if in compensation for Sister Carrie, but it becomes something entirely different. After her affair with the senator Jennie is thrown out of the house by her father, and, concealing her past, she drifts into the domestic employ of a Cleveland matron, just as Dreiser’s sister Sylvia, pregnant, had been sent off to New York. There Jennie is noticed by a house guest, Lester Kane, an “essentially animal man,” who grows excited by her resistance: “Her hesitancy, her repeated protests, her gentle ‘no, no, no’ moved him as music might.”
Lester Kane, the son of a well-established Cincinnati manufacturer, is not interested in money the way his father and brother are. He even has a touch of contempt for the business class and, consequently, for himself. We see him first as one of Dreiser’s enviable sexual experts, a “strong, hairy, axiomatic” man who dispenses with all the formalities in his initial approach to Jennie: “Look here,” he says, “…You and I might as well understand each other right now. I like you.” Kane, though “born a Catholic…was no longer a believer in the divine inspiration of Catholicism”; he “wanted the comfort of feminine companionship, but…was more and more disinclined to give up his personal liberty in order to obtain it.”
Lester has the characteristics of a brute: he talks patronizingly to Jennie about his plans to make her his mistress: “I’ll do anything to make it easy for you.” Afterward he buys her clothes so that she will turn the eyes of other men and make them envy him. But his brutality is never consummated—to use the verb that Dreiser applies to both sexual relations and business deals. When Lester discovers that Jennie has been hiding her child nearby with a paid nurse, he is furious: “He did not like to see the evidence of Jennie’s previous misdeeds walking about in the shape of a human being.” Though he is at first jealous and angry when he learns that his proprietorship of Jennie has not been exclusive, he nevertheless finds himself strangely softened. It is a feeling that competes with his irritation at losing the comfort of an unencumbered mistress. As for Jennie, she is full of apology—afraid to ask, or even to wonder, if he might extend his affection to her child. The keener-minded Kanes intervene, the prospects of costly scandal grow, and Kane backs away, justifying his behavior by telling himself that he has suffered injury and deceit. He marries a woman of his own class and leaves Jennie with an allowance and a flat.
The chastening moral has been prepared for; when Lester pays anonymously for Jennie’s father to live in a decent house the old man experiences a physical fear at the prospect of living among fine and fragile things: “It’s so easy,” he says, “to scratch things up, and then it’s all over.” In Jennie Gerhardt the rule of the marketplace applies; used goods do not hold their price.
But before it is over, Jennie Gerhardt suspends the rule. The intransigent Gerhardt forgives her for the sin of having had an illicit child, after he has taken his granddaughter to be baptized, and has “brooded on the words and the duties [of] the sacrament.” Seeing the child asleep on the white counterpane in her cradle, he “received a light.”
Here Dreiser seems much closer to the spirit of Old World Catholicism than to the culture of the New World that Carrie has learned to exploit. If Carrie has assimilated, Jennie remains an alien in Protestant America, where the experience of failure—whether moral or material—is articulated as spiritual transgression. Why, Dreiser has Jennie wonder after her “fall,” were the hotel guests always chucking her under the chin and proposing more than talk? “Could it be because there was something innately bad about her, an inward corruption that attracted its like?” Hurstwood is Dreiser’s unforgettable embodiment of the human waste in American culture, a man whom we cannot quite honor or condemn. Though he has moments of anger toward Carrie and others, he blames his fall squarely on himself, judging that “the game is up” and lost. Jennie is beginning to think like Hurstwood, a self-reliant American, but Dreiser himself was only a halfway member of the Gilded Age, in which the Protestant equation between grace and social status was hardening into orthodoxy, and in which the phrase “deserving poor” was becoming a contradiction in terms.
Jennie is a failed Carrie; she goes nowhere on the promise of her beauty. But in another sense Dreiser redeems her. When Kane is dying, after he has been blackmailed by his family into leaving Jennie and making a respectable marriage, she returns to his bedside. It is an exceptional and moving moment in Dreiser because it is a transaction in which the only medium of exchange is love. With his shrewish wife and sister off stage, Kane, who like most of Dreiser’s characters has meager experience with the spoken word as a conveyor of emotion, manages to say: “I’ve always wanted to say to you, Jennie, that I haven’t been satisfied with the way we parted…. I loved you, I love you. I want to tell you that.” Here Dreiser has written, and revised, the bitter lives of his sisters.
After Kane’s death, Jennie enters a Catholic church for the first time, and, in a scene that Saul Bellow may have had in mind for Tommy Wilhelm’s final dissolution in Seize the Day, she sits hidden from the other mourners in a back pew at the funeral:
There were the chanted invocations and responses, the sprinkling of the coffin with holy water, the lighting and swinging of the censer and then the mumbled responses of the auditors to the Lord’s Prayer and to its Catholic addition, the invocation to the Blessed Virgin…. To Jennie the candles, the incense, the holy song were beautiful…. She was as a house filled with mournful melody and the presence of death. She cried and cried.
Some fifty years earlier Nathaniel Hawthorne had described the adulteress Hester Prynne walking in shame through a crowd of merciless New England Puritans. “Had there been a Papist among the crowd,” Hawthorne wrote, “he might have seen in this beautiful woman…an object to remind him of the image of Divine Maternity.” Jennie, too, is driven from the church when she reveals herself. It was as a witness to this expulsion that Dreiser wrote his early novels of modern American life.
November 23, 1989
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. ↩
Some of these early newspaper sketches have been collected in Theodore Dreiser’s ‘Heard in the Corridors’: Articles and Related Writings, T.D. Nostwich, ed. (Iowa State University Press, 1988); and in Theodore Dreiser, Journalism: Newspaper Writings, 1890–1895, T.D. Nostwich, ed. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988). ↩
See, for one of the first recognitions that Dreiser’s ethnic identity stayed with him and is present in his fiction, Thomas P. Riggio, “Theodore Dreiser: Hidden Ethnic,” MELUS, Vol. 11 (1984), pp. 53–63. ↩
For some interesting case studies of contemporary American response to the experience of economic loss, see Katherine S. Newman, Falling from Grace: The Experience of Downward Mobility in the American Middle Class (Free Press, 1988). ↩
Lingeman gives a lucid account (pp. 281–301) of the complicated relations between Dreiser and his publishers. When it finally appeared, the first American edition of Sister Carrie had been worked over by many hands. (It can be followed from typescript into print in A Sister Carrie Portfolio, James L.W. West III, ed., University Press of Virginia, 1985, which gives a “pictorial history of the making” of the book.) Dreiser’s wife, Sara, repaired some ungainly sentences and changed such terms as “bitch” to “wretch,” rather as Sophia Hawthorne had cleaned up her husband’s journals. It was edited too by Dreiser’s friend Arthur Henry, who especially attacked the tiresome digressions with which Dreiser tended to surround his scenes, and even by the typists who prepared the manuscript—who were so engrossed in the story that they sent notes to the lagging author, begging for the next installment. Yet the decision by Richard Lehan and the Library of America to reprint the first edition seems justified, since there is no conclusive reason to believe that Dreiser felt his book had been mutilated. The unedited manuscript version has, however, been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press (1981), and reprinted by Penguin as an “unexpurgated” text. It is in some respects a different book—more sexually candid, more concentrated on Hurstwood (it ends not with Carrie in her rocking chair but with Hurstwood’s death), and also more diffuse. ↩
Theodore Dreiser, American Diaries, 1902–1926, Thomas P. Riggio, ed. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), p. 96. ↩
Dreiser–Mencken Letters: The Correspondence of Theodore Dreiser and H.L. Mencken, 1907–1945, Thomas P. Riggio, ed. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986), Vol. 2, p. 740. ↩