Theodore Dreiser’s New York

Mike Wallace in The Paris Review:

Theodore_dreiser_1-1-copyIn 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.

More here.