When Theodore Dreiser bumped into William Dean Howells in the offices of Harper and Brothers, Publishers, in 1901, the older man—by then possessed of the most influential name in American letters—commented, “You know, I didn’t like Sister Carrie.” Dreiser’s life and fortunes were already too complex for the chance remark of any critic, no matter how important, to play a determining role in his career, but it is one of the achievements of Richard Lingeman’s satisfying biography, Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871-1907, that the encounter of these two authors, representing opposite traditions in the cultural history of the country, can be understood in a way that diminishes neither.
Sister Carrie, published in its earlier version in the opening year of the twentieth century, is for many readers the first modern American novel. Although it differs little in actual subject matter from a number of popular nineteenth century cautionary tales—it tells the story of the rise and fall and rise again of a small-town girl who encounters for the first time social and economic realities of city life—Dreiser’s novel is suffused with a bitterness, a sentimental cynicism that would come to characterize much of the urban fiction of the fifty years following its appearance. Carrie Meeber, Dreiser’s heroine, lacks the sensitivity and refinement of Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart (The House of Mirth, 1905) or the several lost ladies of Willa Cather and Kate Chopin, but it is precisely her lack of refinement, her shrewd instinctive self-interest, and her spiritual inarticulateness that constitute her pathos and appeal. Carrie is the logical successor to Henry James’s Isabel Archer and all those clear-eyed girls who spoke for a more confident generation. Dreiser’s prose is cumbersome and his philosophy unsophisticated, but few people can read the history of Carrie’s survival or the death of George Hurstwood, her lover, and remain unmoved.
Sister Carrie is a novel about the City, not about the specific cities of Chicago and New York, although Dreiser’s picture of both is vivid and precise, but the City itself, the symbol of success, seen by the outsider whose longing is fueled by ambition and dreams. As Lingeman’s subtitle indicates, Dreiser was himself that outsider. An idealist and dreamer who grew up in a series of small towns on the fringes of respectable society, he longed throughout his early years for money and acceptance and fame, for an urban break such as Carrie got when she was plucked out of the chorus or like Horatio Alger’s poor but deserving heroes got when they rescued the boss’s daughter and were given a white-collar job. Eventually, Dreiser did get what he wanted, but not until, like so many in the American pantheon from Ulysses S. Grant to P. T. Barnum, he had not only knocked at the gates to success in vain but also observed so many others knocking without a hope of entry that he could not deal comfortably with admission when it did come. The City became his milieu as an adult, but the provincial American town, harsher in its way and less forgiving than the anonymous urban streets, shaped him. More than any novelist who preceded him, Dreiser seemed to speak for the disenfranchised and hopeless, the drifters and dreamers. It is ironic but perhaps also prophetic that he achieved the American Dream by recording so vividly the lives of those for whom the gates would remain closed.
Theodore Dreiser’s father, John Paul Dreiser, was a devout and dour, German-speaking immigrant from Mayen, a town near Alsace-Lorraine, who married Sarah Schänäb, an Indiana farm girl, within seven years of his settling in Castle Garden, Indiana. Embarked on what promised to be a prosperous career as a spinner and later supervisor of a woolen mill, John Paul was injured by a blow on the head several years before Theodore, the ninth of ten children, was born in 1871. The family, dragged down into poverty, survived as it could. While his wife took in wash and fed boarders, John Paul worked as an occasional laborer, periodically raging at his family and absorbing himself in religious fantasies and Catholic ritual. The effects of the fall, social and psychological as well as economic, were felt long before Theodore reached adolescence. The family myth of a lost paradise bound together the brothers and sisters, along with resentment at John Paul’s financial impotence and a craving for a half-remembered life of luxury and ease.
The dominant figure in Dreiser’s life and later memories was not John Paul, however, although the father’s harshness and fanaticism played a role in the collective psychology of the family. It was the fierce and superstitious Sarah who by force of will and charm united the group. She inspired her children, particularly her sons, with an almost religious devotion. When the oldest boy, Paul, became a successful Broadway composer under the name Paul Dresser and made a career out of the sentimental exploitation of the mother image with such songs as “On the Banks of the Wabash,” he only expressed what all the children seemed to feel. When Sarah died, one brother remarked to the rest, “Well, that’s the end of our home,” and Theodore at least seemed to retain until the end of his life a longing to return to Sarah’s loving and all-forgiving embrace.
From the distance of a century, it appears that she had much to forgive. The Dreiser household was fragmented and relationships between the siblings and parents vituperative and bitter. Sarah and John Paul often lived apart; the children as they grew squabbled and drifted in and out of one another’s lives aimlessly, often existing outside the bounds of small-town respectability or on the far side of the law. The older Dreiser girls—Mame, Em, Tess, and Syl—survived on the favors of married men or other unsuitable lovers, sometimes sporting new finery and at other times coming home to live while they regrouped their forces for another assault on the world. Brother Rome (Markus Romanus) was an alcoholic and petty criminal whose run-ins with the law inevitably damaged the family...
(The entire section is 2522 words.)