- Historic Sites
Theodore Dreiser’s stark realism brought the American novel into the twentieth century. He paid a heavy price for his candor.
February/march 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 1
He resolved to write about “life as it is, the facts as they exist, the game as it is played.”
Spencer’s philosophy provided Dreiser with an intellectual touchstone for interpreting life. The Briton’s Darwinian picture of society confirmed what Dreiser had observed in workers’ slums and the grand estates of privilege. He concluded that it was in the nature of “big brains” to exploit little people for their own aggrandizement. Yet he admired the great capitalists, seeing them as latter-day Borgias who swept aside law and convention and grabbed the spoils. America was in the “furnace stage” of industrialization. Great figures like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Frick were beau ideals to this lonely parvenu, who had glimpsed a finer, untroubled world through the windows of the mansions he gaped at on his travels.
But he could not accept the full social Darwinist implications of Spencer’s thought; his sympathy for the underdog, formed in the dirt and humiliation of poverty, ran too deep. Spencer’s magisterial assurances that evolution tended toward the betterment of the race seemed small consolation to the starving, discarded men he saw shambling along the Bowery after he moved to New York, late in 1894.
He could not resolve his inner conflict between awe for the rich and pity for the poor, whose fate he feared for himself. Drawing on Spencer’s law that every action in society provokes a reaction, Dreiser formulated a theory of an “equation inevitable,” wherein nature always tends to a balance between two extremes. Whenever the strong—the banks or the trusts—became too powerful, he reasoned, the masses would spontaneously rise up and reclaim their share.
Such a theory made him an avid Populist and a supporter of William Jennings Bryan. In the column of editorial reflections he wrote for Ev’ry Month , a magazine he edited for his brother Paul’s song-publishing company, he heaped scorn on the lavish banquets of the Four Hundred and deplored the working conditions in the “sweaters” on the Lower East Side. His radical sentiments, along with his pessimistic broodings on the universe, angered Paul’s partners, and they fired him. He struck out freelance, writing prolifically about lady harp players, weapons factories, and dozens of other subjects. He interviewed Carnegie, Armour, and other great men for a magazine called Success , dutifully recording their maxims.
The precepts of Samuel Smiles and Horatio Alger had inspired him as a boy, but now he began to question them. A few hardworking clerks or office boys might rise to become captains of industry, but what of the thousands who did not? Or who did not even try, because they lacked “genius” or education or imagination? Didn’t some boys have a head start in wealth and connections? And weren’t the great corporations closing off opportunities for the small entrepreneur?
Dreiser’s own success as a “magazinist” enabled him to marry Sara Osborne White, a young woman to whom he had been engaged for more than five years. A former schoolteacher from Missouri, she was nearly two years his senior. She gave him the mothering he needed, but he came to resent her conventional values, and the marital vow to forsake all others suffocated him. He later made it the epigraph of The “Genius,” which told the story of his unhappy marriage and philandering urges.
Sara and Theodore spent the summer of 1899 in an old pillared house on the Maumee River in Ohio with their friend Arthur Henry and his wife, Anna. Urged on by Henry, Dreiser wrote several short stories, his first real forays into fiction. Upon his return to New York, he began Sister Carrie . It was inspired by Emma’s affair with Hopkins in Chicago, but he infused those sordid ingredients with the dignity of tragedy.
Sister Carrie is the first true American novel of the city. The Chicago where Carrie Meeber hesitantly debarks with her single suitcase is the Chicago Dreiser knew in the 1880s. It is the Chicago of the first skyscraper, the splendid mansions on North Lake Shore Drive, Marshall Field’s great department store, and the granite office buildings of State Street, with their new plate-glass windows through which Carrie peers in awe and fear. It is a city swollen with immigrants fresh from the farm, a city bursting at the seams, a city where people are atoms buffeted by great forces of nature and chance. And it is the Chicago of the “way-up swell saloon,” where the resplendent manager George Hurstwood greets visiting celebrities.
Slyly subverting the cautionary shopgirl novels of the day, Dreiser shows Carrie rising by falling. She escapes the grim life of the factory girl by accepting the offer of the traveling salesman Drouet to live with him. Then she runs off with Hurstwood, who has stolen money from his employer’s safe. In New York Hurstwood sinks into apathy and failure. But Carrie, who has youth and desire, parlays her looks into success as an actress in musical comedies.