Theodore Dreiser found a doctor who treated neurasthenics.
Figuring old stuff s good stuff, I went to the bookstore and brought home a used, ragged-jacketed Modern Library edition of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Instantly, Dreiser built a world (Chicago and New York, 1890s) I could move right into and set up housekeeping, and a big world Carrie is, too — some 600 pages.
August 1889,18-year-old Caroline Meeber — “Sister Carrie,” her family called her—boards the train in Columbia City, Wiscon-Theodore Dreiser sin, headed for Chicago. Her plan: live with her sister Minnie, Minnie’s husband, and their infant; find work. — “She realized that hers was not to be a round of pleasure, and yet there was something promising...”
On the train while “green landscape” passes in “swift review,” traveling salesman Charlie Drouet — “flush, colourful cheeks, light moustache, grey fedora hat” — flirts with Carrie. “Her figure is evidently not bad, and her eyes were large and gentle.” Carrie at first remains distant, but Drouet wins her over, and she gives him permission to call on her in Chicago. — “Let him [Drouet] meet with a young woman once and he would approach her with an air of kindly familiarity, not unmixed with pleading, which would result in most cases in a tolerant acceptance.”
Minnie lives in a neighborhood “inhabited by families of laborers and clerks, men who had come, and were still coming, with the rush of population pouring in at the rate of 50,000 a year.” Minnie’s husband is “a silent man, American bom, of a Swede father, and now employed as a cleaner of refrigerator cars at the stockyards.” Her first evening there, Carrie feels “the drag of a lean and narrow life.” She recognizes in Minnie and Minnie’s husband “a settled opposition to anything save a conservative round of toil.” She writes to Drouet, tells him he can’t call on her.
Next day, she begins her search for work. The city “was all wonderful, all vast, all far removed, and she sank in spirit inwardly and fluttered feebly at the heart as she thought of entering any one of these mighty concerns and asking for something to do — something that she could do — anything.”
Drouet has received Carrie’s letter, and “laid aside all thought of Carrie.” He is “floating around having what he considered a gay time.” He visits the elegant saloon, Fitzgerald and Moy’s. He “leaned on the splendid bar and swallowed a glass of plain whiskey and purchased a couple of cigars.” He chats with Mr. G.W. Hurst-wood, Fitzgerald and Moy’s manager, a man slightly under 40, with “a good, stout constitution, an active manner, and a solid, substantial air, which was composed in part of his fine clothes, his clean linen, his jewels, and above all, his own sense of his importance.... He had risen by perseverance and industry, through long years of service, from the position of barkeeper in a commonplace saloon to his present altitude.... He knew by name, and could greet personally with a ‘Well, old fellow,’ hundreds of actors, merchants, politicians, and the general run of successful characters about town.”
Carrie finds a job at a wholesale shoe house, punching eye holes in the upper part of shoes. Her pay: $4.50 per week, $4 of which she must give to Minnie for board. Carrie “studied over the problem of finding clothes and amusement on 50 cents a week. She brooded over this until she was in a state of mental rebellion.” And when she receives her first pay, she “pockets her 50 cents in despair.”
After several months of six-day weeks in the noisy, dirty factory, winter wind blows in cold over the city. Carrie, without jacket or boots, falls ill. Misses work. Loses her job.
Back on her feet, Carrie again looks for a position. Three chilly days pass. On the fourth, she runs into Drouet. He takes her for lunch. “As he cut the meat his rings almost spoke. His new suit creaked as he stretched to reach the plates, break the bread, and pour the coffee.”
He is not a bad man, Drouet. Not “a cold-blooded, dark, scheming villain.” And he talks Carrie into letting him take a flat for them where they will live as man and wife. Carrie agrees. “She was alone; she was desireful; she was fearful of the whistling wind. The voice of want made answer for her.”
Carrie blooms: Drouet buys pretty dresses and shoes and jackets for her. She becomes more confident, sensuous: “Her form had filled out until it was admirably plump and well-rounded.... Her dresses draped her becomingly for she wore excellent corsets and laced herself with care.”
Drouet invites Hurstwood to the flat to meet Carrie. Hurstwood suspects Drouet and Carrie are not married. His own marriage is precarious. (Carrie does not realize Hurstwood is married.) He determines that he must have Carrie. He begins to visit her while Drouet is out of town on selling trips and Carrie, although she does not “give ’way” to him, nevertheless begins to compare Hurstwood and Drouet, and Drouet compares less favorably. And Hurstwood, who respects “circumspectness,” who “lost sympathy for the man that made a mistake and was found out,” nevertheless begins to behave carelessly, putting marriage and position at risk.
Drouet, thinking to give Carrie something to do, proposes her for a part in an amateur play being given at the Elks lodge. Taking the stage name Carrie Madenda, she so convincingly, so poignantly plays the heroine that the audience is struck silent. She begins to consider a stage career, but her naivete is such that she has no notion as to how to commence.
Carrie and Hurstwood begin meeting secretly in a park, and Hurstwood urges Carrie to take a post office box so that they can correspond. They write to one another almost daily.
Meantime, one day while Carrie is out, Drouet’s and Carrie’s maid (who finds Drouet attractive) tells Drouet that in his absence, Hurstwood has been paying calls on Carrie. Drouet confronts Carrie. They argue. In the course of their quarrel, Drouet tells Carrie that Hurstwood’s married.
Drouet takes a room in a nearby hotel. A desperate Carrie doesn’t know what to do. Although the rent is paid and Drouet has left her money, she knows she will have to find work. Shocked, angry, hurt by Hurstwood’s lies to her, she decides to cut contact with him and does. They were to meet the next day. She does not go. She stops writing to him.
Hurstwood’s wife, long suspicious of her husband, tosses him out and demands money. A frenzied, lovesick Hurstwood resolves to ditch his job and “elope” with Carrie. He steals money from Fitzgerald and Moy’s safe, rushes to Carrie’s flat, tells her Drouet has been hurt and spirits her off in a carriage and thence onto a train bound for Canada. When the train stops in Detroit, he confesses his ruse, promises to marry her and take her to five in New York City. Carrie, away from home now for a year and a few months, succumbs.
In New York Hurstwood uses part of his stolen money to buy a partnership in a saloon. He rents an apartment; Carrie keeps house. Several years pass. Carries becomes disenchanted with Hurstwood. In Chicago, he seemed such an impressive gentleman; against the canvas of a larger city, he seems small. Then he loses his partnership, has insufficient money to buy another. Looks for work. Finds nothing he considers “in his class.” His will sapped, he begins to sit at home, rocking in the rocking chair, reading newspapers.
The couple is nearly destitute. Carrie takes a job in the chorus line of a comic opera at a popular theater. Her charm and innocence delight audiences. She leaves Hurstwood. Carrie rises, Hurstwood falls. Reduced to beggary, Hurstwood undergoes a heartbreaking, hideous decline. In rags, he shambles through the heaped and sooty city snow, stopping before a poster showing Carrie in her triumph. Finally, he kills himself.
“Of Hurstwood’s death she was not even aware. A slow, black boat setting out from the pier at 27th Street upon its weekly errand bore, with many others, his nameless body to the Potter’s Field.”
The book ends with Carrie, wealthy, famous but not happy. “And now Carrie had attained that which in the beginning seemed fife’s object, or, at least, such fraction of it as human beings ever attain of their original desires. She could look about on her gowns and carriage, her furniture and bank account. Friends there were, as the world takes it—those who would bow and smile in acknowledgement of her success. For these she had once craved. Applause there was, and publicity—once far off, essential things, but now grown trivial and indifferent. Beauty also — her type of loveliness — and yet she was lonely. In her rocking-chair she sat, when not otherwise engaged — singing and dreaming.”
His era’s Tom Wolfe, Dreiser heaps up physical detail, vividly, pictorially describing minutiae of turn-of-the-century American fife. He opens hearts, lays bare motive. As when Carrie, hungry and shivering cold, clad in flimsy jacket and thin poor shoes, trod-ding through Chicago’s snow in search of work, gives in to Drouet’s invitation to be his mistress: “The voice of want made answer for her.” Then there is Hurstwood’s decline. Every day, downtown, we see beggars, men and women who show glimmers of once fine faces and gestures and speech that we associate with privilege. Many are alcoholics or drug addicts. Some aren’t. About the latter, we wonder, “What happened to him, to her?” Dreiser’s Hurstwood can help us to understand.
Carrie left me curious about the man who was able to bring all this to paper. Back to the bookstore. A great find. Not only a used paperback copy of W.A. Swanberg’s biography of Dreiser (on the worn cover “At Last — The True Inside Story! The Stormy Passionate Life of a Tormented American Genius!”), but volume I of Richard Lingeman’s two-volume biography Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871-1907 and a new copy of volume II (Theodore Dreiser, An American Journey, 1908-1945) and a brand new book with several chapters about Dreiser, American Nervousness, 1903.
Dreiser, born in Indiana, into a large, troubled and poverty-stricken family, began Sister Carrie several years before his 30th birthday. He had been a newspaperman and freelance writer, selling articles to the era’s popular magazines—Success, Harper's Weekly, Ev’ry Month.
Sister Carrie was Dreiser’s first novel. The plot follows events familiar to Dreiser. One of his four sisters “lived in sin” first with one man, then another. The second of her lovers, like Hurstwood, stole money from his employers to pay for their elopement. And for most of his life, Dreiser had been poor and longed to be wealthy.
Like Drouet and Hurstwood, Dreiser—over six feet tall, bucktoothed, with an eye that tended to cross—was a successful womanizer, approaching women with Drouet’s “air of kindly familiarity, not unmixed with pleading.” Dreiser wrote, about himself, “Love of beauty as such — feminine beauty, first and foremost, of course — was the dominating characteristic of all my moods. ... Nature has given me a cross of passion.” Like Hurstwood, Dreiser did not let marriage stop his womanizing. He staggered veritable shifts of amatory affairs, always seeking, Richard Linge-man notes, “The ideal woman, who would forever be younger, prettier, richer, more loving, more brilliant, more sacrificing than the woman he was with.” His obsession was so powerful, Lingeman adds, that “there was some feeling in [his] family that he was abnormal, even talk that he should be sterilized.”
Dreiser’s struggle after Sister Carrie’s publication is as absorbing and heartbreaking a story as Sister Carrie. Doubleday, Page editor (and novelist) Frank Norris enthusiastically bought Sister Carrie for publication. But almost immediately, trouble began. Frank Doubleday, in Europe at the time Norris bought Dreiser’s novel, on his return home read the manuscript and hated it. Not only did Doubleday not wish to publish Dreiser’s book under his imprint, he thought it so filthy and so morally wanting in its portrayal of Carrie’s “fall from virtue” — not with one man but two — that he believed no one should publish it. American readers in 1900 were accustomed to a literature in which virtue was rewarded and vice punished; that Carrie managed to skate through two illicit romances and go on to success, even in the low profession the stage was felt to be, Reading
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made the novel seem obscene.
Dreiser refused to let Doubleday, Page renege on its contract. So the book was published. But Doubleday declined to advertise Sister Carrie or to list it in the Doubleday catalogue. The book was published in a brick-red binding that Dreiser biographer Richard Lingeman suggests “would have been more appropriate on a plumbing manual.” A thousand copies were printed, and 450 of those were not bound. Four hundred fifty-six volumes were sold in the first 18 months.
Frank Norris was determined that Sister Carrie would have a chance. He sent over 100 copies to reviewers. He accompanied each copy with a personal letter. Think of it! In an era before word processors, to write over 100 letters! Because of Norris’s efforts, the book was fairly widely reviewed. And not entirely unfavorably. (The Seattle Post Intelligencer wrote about Sister Carrie that “You would never dream of recommending it to another person to read. Yet...as a work of literature and the philosophy of human life, it comes within sight of greatness.”) But Dreiser had a wife to support, and Carrie brought him no money.
A year after Carrie's publication, Dreiser signed a contract with J.F. Taylor Company
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for a second novel (which in 1911 would be published as Jennie Gerhardt). At the same time, the English publication of Carrie was being praised by that country’s leading critics.
Toward the end of 1901, advance in hand for the second novel, Dreiser sent his wife home to her family in Missouri, left New York, and headed for a boarding house in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains to work on the new book. No sooner had his Taylor editor received pages from this novel than that editor wrote Dreiser, “To the majority of readers some moral coloring seems essential. One of the criticisms, for instance, which some of the women readers have brought against your story of Carrie is that it points no moral.”
Over the next 18 months, Dreiser would fall deeper into despair. Work on Jennie faltered. He left Virginia, moved
on to Philadelphia. His wife stayed with him a while and then returned again to Missouri. Dreiser became increasingly depressed. Couldn’t sleep. Wrote little. The Taylor editor pressed for the manuscript. The money from the advance dribbled away.
As Dreiser found himself progressively paralyzed, exhausted, unable to work, with symptoms including insomnia, constipation, indigestion, skin irritations, and headaches, he came to believe that he suffered from “neurasthenia,” or “American nervousness.” At the turn of the century, neurasthenia had acquired a notoriety similar to that captured in our day by Epstein-Barr disease or Yuppie flu. In American Nervousness, 1903, Tom Lutz writes: “By 1903, neurasthenic language and representations of neurasthenia were everywhere: in magazine articles, fiction, poetry, medical journals and books, in scholarly journals and newspaper articles, in political rhetoric and religious discourse, and in advertisements for spas, cures, nostrums, and myriad other products in newspapers, magazines and mail-order catalogs.”
Dreiser wasn’t alone. Medical wisdom had it that neurasthenia afflicted only those with the most refined sensibilities. Among turn-of-the-century luminaries who claimed neurasthenia were Mark Twain, Henry and William James, William Dean Howells, Theodore Roo-
sevelt, Edith Wharton, W.E.B. Du Bois, Hamlin Garland, and Frank Norris.
Lutz writes that physician George M. Beard, “the father of neurasthenia,” developed a theory of mental and physical health modeled on economic theory. “People were assumed to have a certain amount of‘nerve force’ or nervous energy, which was subject to a strict bodily economy. When the supply of nerve force was too heavily taxed by the demands upon it, or when the available nerve force was not properly reinvested, nervous bankruptcy, or nervousness, was the result. Some spending of4 nervous energy — productive work and procreation are prime examples — was considered to be effectually a reinvestment, a reinvestment that led eventually, Beard said, to peace and ‘finer and spiritual things.’ Other ways of spending one’s nerve force—the paradigmatic examples are masturbation, gambling, and other forms of illicit sexual or financial activity — constituted a waste, a drain on nerve force without any corresponding reinvestment.”
The theory that sexual activity drains people of their vital force. Lutz notes, has a long history in America. “Dreiser accepted this view of a ‘spermatic economy.’ ... (He) was convinced that his condition worsened after every sexual encounter. He wrote in his diary that on one occasion he was ‘foolish enough to indulge in copulation, which put me back a number of days, no doubt, in my recovery’ and three weeks later ‘Nervous condition rather worse this morning owing to a foolish hour of trifling with Mrs. D.’”
Lutz adds that Dr. Beard urged patients to replenish “nerve force” with “electric treatments that would send new currents coursing through the system. Heidelberg Electric Belts, with genital attachments, were available through the Sears, Roebuck catalog and sold in stores and through mail order. The ad in the Sears catalog for the $12 belt promised ‘a wonderful cure for seminal or vital weakness, nervous debility, or impotence, which stops almost immediately; the unnatural waste or loss of vitality.’ ”
Dreiser found a Philadelphia doctor who treated neurasthenics, albeit not with the Heidelberg Electric Belt. The physician prescribed scopolamine, chloral hydrate, and “a standard tonic of the day, a cocktail of small amounts of arsenic, strychnine, and quinine” (Richard Lingeman) for his neurasthenic patients. Dreiser took the drugs. He worsened. Again, his wife returned home to Missouri. Perhaps it was that Dreiser couldn’t support her and perhaps that he feared his desire for her, probably both.
Alone, Dreiser sat in the boarding house rocker and rocked, back and forth, back and froth, as Hurstwood did in Carrie. To cut expenses, he quit eating boarding-house meals (which were costing $4.50 per week) and made do on a bottle of milk and half a loaf of bread a day, together with an apple or potato he would grab up from the gutter outside a produce market. He lost 25 pounds. He regularly considered suicide. With $32 left and Jennie abandoned, Dreiser packed his trunk and moved to a cheap Brooklyn boarding house.
In New York, he hoped he would find an editorial job, but no one was hiring. Imagine the scene — the chilly city, wind blowing, Dreiser tramping into Manhattan to look for work. On an afternoon when he was down to $3.31 and on his way back to the Brooklyn boarding house from a fruitless search for work, his hat blows off his head. He chases after the hat. But it’s lost. In those years, gentlemen wore hats. To be seen on the street without a hat was to be seen as a bum. A new hat, like that blown from his head, would cost at $2. Dreiser compromised; he bought a workman’s cap for 50 cents.
Unlike Hurstwood, Dreiser was able to save himself. In 1907, Sister Carrie was republished by B.W. Dodge and Company and received acclaim from reviewers and readers, establishing Dreiser as an important American novelist. In 1920, Dreiser looked back on his post-Carrie, neurasthenic months: “I wandered here and there, unable to write. My mood made worse by the fact that the money that was being sent me was being used up, and I was getting nowhere.” And Lingeman writes, about this period, “Instinctively, Dreiser was groping his way out of the cave; his desire to write was the guiding thread that would lead him to daylight.” After Carrie, Dreiser wrote seven more novels, a play, several travel books, and several volumes of essays. In the mid-1930s, he came to live in California, where he died in 1946. He was buried in the Whispering Pines section of Forest Lawn, next to the grave of cowboy star Tom Mix.