Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, Twelve Men
“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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.