Teddy Dreiser tries to make it.
In late November 1894, in the depths of the 1890s depression, Theodore Dreiser arrived in New York. He soon headed for City Hall Park, where he bulled his way into the World building, successfully evading the hired muscle who barred the doors of most Park Row newspapers, keeping desperate job seekers at bay. Once inside, he managed to land an unsalaried position as a space-rate reporter, paid by the column inch, on the strength of having served a lengthy journalistic apprenticeship in various midwestern cities.
Dreiser liked newsmen. He appreciated their cynical dissent from prevailing pieties. “One can always talk to a newspaper man,” Dreiser would write, “with the full confidence that one is talking to a man who is at least free of moralistic mush.”
His own life had rubbed him free of Victorian illusions. His family was grit-poor, his father a beaten man. The Dreisers were always on the move—being evicted or chasing cheaper rents—and ostracized as trash by “respectable” people. The slums of Terre Haute and Chicago taught him that life was hard, amoral, and indifferent to the individual—ideas reinforced by his readings of Spencer, Huxley, and Darwin.
Nevertheless, New York shocked him. “Nowhere before had I seen such a lavish show of wealth, or, such bitter poverty.” On his “reporting rounds,” Dreiser recalled, he was stunned by the numbers of “down-and-out men—in the parks, along the Bowery and in the lodginghouses that lined that pathetic street. They slept over gratings anywhere from which came a little warm air, or in doorways or cellar-ways,” exhibiting a “dogged resignation to deprivation and misery.”
He was astonished and “over-awed” by the “hugeness and force and heartlessness of the great city, its startling contrasts of wealth and poverty, the air of ruthlessness and indifference and disillusion that everywhere prevailed.” Dreiser grew convinced that New York epitomized the Darwinian struggle for existence. In the “gross and cruel city” impersonal forces lifted up the arrogant rich; fire, disease, and winter storms carried off the shivering poor. He wondered why more New Yorkers didn’t protest what Howells had called “the perpetual encounter of famine and of surfeit.”
World work did not go well. He was given bottom-drawer assignments—covering suicides, Bellevue, the morgue—and not many of those, not enough to live on. “A crushing sense of incompetence and general inefficiency seemed to settle upon me, and I could not shake it off,” he remembered. “Whenever I went out on an assignment—and I was always being sent upon those trivial, shoe-wearing affairs—I carried with me this sense of my unimportance.” He began to worry he would wind up as yet another young man from the provinces who had been beaten down by the big city, like a character out of Balzac.
Around March 1895, he quit Pulitzer’s paper. He tried writing fiction pieces and magazine articles but got nowhere. He rambled the streets with the throngs of depression-era itinerant poor, ate cheap at Child’s, slept in flophouses. By May, nearly broke, he contemplated suicide. Then he was rescued by his brother Paul, a songwriter who composed for a start-up Tin Pan Alley firm that was then taking off, flush with profits from its hit ditty “The Sidewalks of New York.” The Dreisers convinced the firm’s principals to publish a monthly company magazine as a device for promoting its sheet music and to make Theodore the editor. Ev’ry Month—soon subtitled The Woman’s Magazine of Literature and Music—was launched on October 1, 1895. Its mix of new sheet music—one could prop up the journal on the parlor piano’s music rack—and poems, short stories, and reviews of books and current New York plays was supplemented with editorial reflections from Dreiser
These included ongoing observations about the city’s rampant economic inequality. In an October 1896 piece, he linked the fates of rich and poor, suggesting that wealth of the former was built on the labor of the latter. “Down in alleys and byways, in the shop and small dark chambers,” he proposed, “are the roots of this luxurious high life,” with the poor “starving and toiling the long year through, that carriages may roll and great palaces stand brilliant with ornaments.” Dreiser did not attribute this state of affairs to the city’s political economy; nor did he advance progressive or socialist proposals for the reformation or overthrow of capitalism. This was simply the way things were. Some were able to ruthlessly wield power and accumulate fortunes. Others either bore up under life’s blows or went to the wall.
After nearly two years at the helm of Ev’ry Month, Dreiser moved on to full-time writing. He churned out pieces for the growing number of ten-cent magazines, concentrating on New York and New Yorkers, particularly successful ones. Indeed, of the almost one hundred articles he published between the fall of 1897 and the fall of 1900, thirty appeared in a new magazine called Success, for which he interviewed Edison, Stieglitz, and his hero, Howells. His own fortunes rose as the city’s economy revived. Making decent money, he got married at the end of 1898; the couple took an apartment on the Upper West Side at 6 West 102nd, and in the winter of 1899 he sat down to write a novel.
The plot of Sister Carrie drew heavily on the life of his sister Emma. She had had an affair with a married man, a cashier in a Chicago tavern. When his wife learned of the affair, he panicked, absconded with thirty-five hundred dollars, and ran off with Emma to New York. In the book, it is George Hurstwood and Carrie Meeber who arrive at Grand Central Station.
It is soon clear to Hurstwood that, though a successful man in Chicago, “he would be an inconspicuous drop in an ocean like New York,” a “common fish” in a sea “full of whales.” His work schemes fall through. He indulges in Tenderloin dissipation, sinks into depression and impotence. He steps, as it were, on an escalator that glides slowly downward through layer below layer of metropolitan society, with Dreiser describing each meticulously.
The couple first move to a flat on Seventy-Eighth Street near Amsterdam Avenue, a bright new five-story building with steam heat, a call bell for the janitor, and a maid hired by the week. As circumstances straiten, they move to a cheaper, smaller flat on Thirteenth Street, west of Sixth, a lesser but still respectable neighborhood. They scrimp, eat skimpier meals, wear shabbier clothes.
Hurstwood signs up as a scab during a Brooklyn trolley strike, is beaten by strikers, quits, subsides into immobility. Carrie leaves him. He moves to a third-rate Bleecker Street hotel with a moth-eaten lobby. He slips again, to a job in a hotel basement (and a bed in its attic). He notices a flaring announcement in the World—“80,000 people out of employment in New York this winter”—which “struck as a knife at his heart.” He sinks farther down the island, to a Bowery lodging house. He begins begging. He joins the community of “pale, flabby, sunken-eyed, hollow-chested” bums—“a class which simply floats and drifts.” He haunts the breadlines at the Sisters of Mercy and Fleischmann’s bakery. Finally, during a lashing sleet storm, he takes a fifteen-cent flophouse room, stuffs its door cracks with his coat and vest, and turns on the gas without lighting it. His body is freighted off from the Twenty-Sixth Street pier to an unmarked grave in potter’s field.
Long before Hurstwood hits the basement, Carrie has switched to the up escalator, having glimpsed high-life possibilities back on the Upper West Side, when a wealthy neighbor walked her around the Broadway shops and theaters and took her to Sherry’s and the Plaza. She gets a job in the casino chorus line (at twelve dollars a week). She gets press attention and is promoted (salary eighteen dollars). Her clothes improve. She leaves Hurstwood, moving up to a rented room on Seventeenth Street. She’s featured in magazines (salary thirty-five dollars). Her picture appears in a weekly. She transforms a bit part into a hit role. (a hundred fifty a week). Millionaires send mash notes. She moves to a showy new Seventh Avenue hotel, becomes a star, and finally settles into richly carpeted chambers in the newly erected Waldorf, snug against the storm that finishes off her former lover.
Carrie’s success, perhaps even more than Hurstwood’s nightmarish slide, contributed to the furor surrounding the novel’s publication. Dreiser turned to the new firm of Doubleday, Page, which had published Frank Norris’s daring McTeague the previous year, and indeed had hired him as a reader. Given Norris’s enthusiasm, Walter Hines Page agreed to publish Sister Carrie. But when Frank Doubleday returned from Europe, he declared the book immoral and tried to kill the deal. Dreiser stood his legal ground, however, and the firm printed a grudging thousand copies in November 1900, of which only 456 sold. No surprise, given the majority of reviews. They condemned the book’s dreary despair, its rejection of idealism, its condoning of unchastity, its crude characters, its use of colloquialisms. Given the prevailing taste for virtuous costume romances like When Knighthood Was in Flower, perhaps only Howells could have saved it. He demurred, unwilling to endorse a woman like Carrie Meeber.
Dreiser crumbled, tumbling into a depression as deep as Hurstwood’s. In an eerie recapitulation of his character’s downward slide through the city, he and his wife moved in 1901 to a cheap apartment on East End Avenue and Eighty-Second, overlooking gloomy Blackwell’s Island, then to a six-by-eight-foot hall bedroom in a tattered rooming house at 113 Ross Street, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. By 1903, he had lost twenty-nine pounds, his wife had left him, and he was hanging around the Wallabout Market, gleaning apples or potatoes that fell off wagons. Then he joined the lost souls in the Mills Hotel at 164 Bleecker, and was flirting with an East River suicide when his brother Paul again rescued him from the urban abyss, financing a five-week retreat at a sanitarium near White Plains. His wife rejoined him, and they moved to a modest apartment at 399 Mott Avenue in the Bronx.
In the decade following the Carrie catastrophe, Dreiser made a brilliant (if cynical) recovery by writing what the market would bear. He edited dime-novel cowboy thrillers for the Street and Smith publishing factory (whose unofficial motto was “The worse the swill, the more the public will buy”), and in 1905 was made editor of a new magazine called Smith’s, which was aimed at “the every-day reader who seeks entertainment.” In 1906, he jump-started the near-defunct Broadway Magazine, transforming that spicy rag into a respectable magazine featuring departments like “Beautiful Women of New York Society.”
He and his wife moved again, to a larger apartment on Morningside Heights. In 1907, he took charge of the Delineator, a ladies’ magazine put out by the Butterick Publishing Company to boost sales of its fashion patterns. He rounded up genteel fiction (no slang, no coarseness) and corralled articles on homemaking, Santa Claus associations, pet animals, and the care and feeding of infants. (For the latter, he hired the childless H. L. Mencken, a Baltimore journalist who shared his contempt for bourgeois culture. Mencken began visiting New York regularly, dining with Dreiser at Luchow’s when in town, and with Dreiser’s help landed a spare-time job as book critic for the Smart Set.)
This idyll ended in 1910 when Dreiser was fired for ardent pursuit of the seventeen-year-old daughter of a coworker—not the sort of philandering that would have gone down well with the Delineator’s readership. Dreiser went back to full-time writing. The times seemed more propitious. He had gotten Carrie republished in 1907; this time it garnered respectful reviews and respectable sales. His Jennie Gerhardt (1911) and Financier (1912) did reasonably well. He discovered, moreover, a community of supporters among the rising generation who hailed him as a leader in the rebellion against literary conservatism.
He moved to West Tenth Street and hovered on the fringe of the Greenwich Village scene. He went to the Anarchists Ball, cultivated Emma Goldman, Floyd Dell and Hutchins Hapgood, joined the Liberal Club. When his flat was freezing he wrote in Polly’s. He lauded the work of Henri and the Ash Can group and visited the studios of Everett Shinn and John Sloan to gather background for his next novel, The “Genius” (1915). This semiautobiographical work tracked its realist painter protagonist from the Midwest to the bohemian Village, and dwelt at length on his sexual infidelities.
The “Genius” provoked a backlash. Genteel critics attacked its “Barbaric Naturalism.” The thought police took note. Comstock’s heir John S. Sumner toted up seventeen profane and seventy-five lewd passages, and in July 1916, his New York Society for the Suppression of Vice got the book banned as blasphemous and obscene. Dreiser’s publisher, intimidated, recalled all copies
Dreiser fought back, blasting “ignorant, impossible puritans.” Mencken (who actually disliked the book) rallied five hundred writers to defend the principle of literary liberty. Dreiser enlisted the radicals in the fight—Eastman, Dell, Rose Pastor Stokes—much to the annoyance of Mencken, who hated the “Washington Square mountebanks.” Sumner was unmoved in his insistence that any book that might possibly corrupt a young girl should not be published. The book stayed banned, and Dreiser again stopped writing novels. But if the legal superstructure supporting Victorian sensibilities still stood, it rested on badly weakened foundations.
From Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919 by Mike Wallace. Copyright © 2017 by Mike Wallace and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Mike Wallace is Distinguished Professor of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the director of the Gotham Center for New York City History. He is the co-author of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History.