Theodore Dreiser’s New York

Posted by

She gets a job in the Casino chorus line (at $12 a week). 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. 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. Her clothes improve. ($150 a week). She’s featured in magazines (salary $35). 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. Dreiser liked newsmen. The plot of Sister Carrie drew heavily on the life of his sister Emma. In the “gross and cruel city” impersonal forces lifted up the arrogant rich; fire, disease, and winter storms carried off the shivering poor. Indeed, of the almost 100 articles he published between the fall of 1897 and the fall of 1900, 30 appeared in a new magazine called Success, for which he interviewed Edison, Stieglitz, and his hero, Howells. He moves to a third-rate Bleecker Street hotel with a moth-eaten lobby. 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. His body is freighted off from the 26th Street pier to an unmarked grave in potter’s field. 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 churned out pieces for the growing number of ten-cent magazines, concentrating on New York and New Yorkers, particularly successful ones. In the decade following the Carrie catastrophe, Dreiser made a brilliant (if cynical) recovery by writing what the market would bear. 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 Sumner was unmoved in his insistence that any book that might possibly corrupt a young girl should not be published. “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.  

From Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919 by Mike Wallace. Dreiser went back to full-time writing. He was given bottom-drawer assignments—covering suicides, Bellevue, the morgue—and not many of those, not enough to live on. Teddy Dreiser tries to make it.  
Dreiser crumbled, tumbling into a depression as deep as Hurstwood’s. 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. 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. Ev’ry Month—soon subtitled The Woman’s Magazine of Literature and Music—was launched on October 1, 1895. 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 82nd, overlooking gloomy Blackwell’s Island, then to a 6′ × 8′ hall bedroom in a tattered rooming house at 113 Ross Street, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In the book, it is George Hurstwood and Carrie Meeber who arrive at Grand Central Station. 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. 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 times seemed more propitious. Genteel critics attacked its “Barbaric Naturalism.” The thought police took note. When his wife learned of the affair, he panicked, absconded with $3,500, and ran off with Emma to New York. The “Genius” provoked a backlash. By May, nearly broke, he contemplated suicide. “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. Comstock’s heir John S. They scrimp, eat skimpier meals, wear shabbier clothes. Her picture appears in a weekly. 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. Around March 1895 he quit Pulitzer’s paper. His own fortunes rose as the city’s economy revived. Others either bore up under life’s blows or went to the wall. But when Frank Doubleday returned from Europe, he declared the book immoral and tried to kill the deal. 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. He demurred, unwilling to endorse a woman like Carrie Meeber. 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 17-year-old daughter of a coworker—not the sort of philandering that would have gone down well with the Delineator’s readership. Given the prevailing taste for virtuous costume romances like When Knighthood Was in Flower, perhaps only Howells could have saved it. 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. She gets press attention and is promoted (salary $18). “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. He discovered, moreover, a community of supporters among the rising generation who hailed him as a leader in the rebellion against literary conservatism. This was simply the way things were. When his flat was freezing he wrote in Polly’s. She had had an affair with a married man, a cashier in a Chicago tavern. He steps, as it were, on an escalator that glides slowly downward through layer below layer of metropolitan society, with Dreiser describing each meticulously. As circumstances straiten, they move to a cheaper, smaller flat on 13th Street, west of Sixth, a lesser but still respectable neighborhood. He went to the Anarchists Ball; cultivated Emma Goldman, Floyd Dell, and Hutchins Hapgood; joined the Liberal Club. The couple first move to a flat on 78th Street near Amsterdam Avenue, a bright new fivestory building with steam heat, a call bell for the janitor, and a maid hired by the week. He begins begging. 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. 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. Carrie leaves him. She leaves Hurstwood, moving up to a rented room on 17th Street. Nevertheless, New York shocked him. Mencken, a Baltimore journalist who shared his contempt for bourgeois culture. They condemned the book’s dreary despair, its rejection of idealism, its condoning of unchastity, its crude characters, its use of colloquialisms. 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 fiveweek retreat at a sanitarium near White Plains. He moved to West 10th Street and hovered on the fringe of the Greenwich Village scene. He slips again, to a job in a hotel basement (and a bed in its attic). 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. 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. This semiautobiographical work tracked its realist painter protagonist from the Midwest to the bohemian Village, and dwelt at length on his sexual infidelities. He indulges in Tenderloin dissipation, sinks into depression and impotence. 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. He is the co-author of   Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History. 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). Some were able to ruthlessly wield power and accumulate fortunes. Dreiser’s publisher, intimidated, recalled all copies
Dreiser fought back, blasting “ignorant, impossible puritans.” Mencken (who actually disliked the book) rallied 500 writers to defend the principle of literary liberty. Copyright © 2017 by Mike Wallace and published by Oxford University Press. His Jennie Gerhardt (1911) and Financier (1912) did reasonably well. After nearly two years at the helm of Ev’ry Month, Dreiser moved on to full-time writing. She transforms a bit part into a hit role. Given Norris’s enthusiasm, Walter Hines Page agreed to publish Sister Carrie. The Dreisers were always on the move—being evicted or chasing cheaper rents—and ostracized as trash by “respectable” people. He tried writing fiction pieces and magazine articles but got nowhere. Theodore Dreiser, 1917
In late November 1894, in the depths of the 1890s depression, Theodore Dreiser arrived in New York. (For the latter, he hired the childless H. Its mix of new sheet music—one could prop up the journal on the parlor piano’s music rack—and poems, short stories, 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. The book stayed banned, and Dreiser again stopped writing novels. 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. 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. All rights reserved. No surprise, given the majority of reviews. “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. His family was grit-poor, his father a beaten man. L. 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. His wife rejoined him, and they moved to a modest apartment at 399 Mott Avenue in the Bronx. He rambled the streets with the throngs of depression-era itinerant poor, ate cheap at Child’s, slept in flophouses. Hurstwood signs up as a scab during a Brooklyn trolley strike, is beaten by strikers, quits, subsides into immobility. He edited dime-novel cowboy thrillers for the Street & 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 jumpstarted 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. Millionaires send mash notes. “A crushing sense of incompetence and general inefficiency seemed to settle upon me, and I could not shake it off,” he remembered. Dreiser stood his legal ground, however, and the firm printed a grudging 1,000 copies in November 1900, of which only 456 sold. But if the legal superstructure supporting Victorian sensibilities still stood, it rested on badly weakened foundations. He had gotten Carrie republished in 1907; this time it garnered respectful reviews and respectable sales. He appreciated their cynical dissent from prevailing pieties.