Miriam Gogol, a professor at Mercy College and president of the International Theodore Dreiser Society, was interviewed by John J. Miller of National Review on February 22, 2022.
I note some things about this interesting and enlightening interview.
In the interview, Sister Carrie is characterized as a “subversive” novel, a characterization that I have not heard before. Professor Gogol provides a good explanation of what is meant by this and uses an apt phrase, “the subversive nature of longing,” referring to Carrie. As Professor Gogol notes, Dreiser could identify with this, coming from a poor working class family himself and longing for things he did not have.
Sister Carrie begins in August 1889, as Professor Gogol notes. In real life — given the incidents that Dreiser based the novel on (Hurstwood’s theft of money from his employer, his flight to New York with Carrie) — the story occurred in 1886.
The novel opens (Chapter I is entitled “THE MAGNET ATTRACTING: A WAIF AMID FORCES”):
When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister’s address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money.
The plainness of Dreiser’s writing — a minimum of well chosen facts that precisely delineate character and setting — says much about what makes Dreiser so readable.
Professor Gogol notes that Hurstwood is approximately 40 years old in the novel. Hurstwood’s real life prototype, Lorenzo A. Hopkins, died in Brooklyn in December 1897 at age 53. He would have been around age 45 in 1889 .
Professor Gogol notes, perceptively, that Carrie in Chicago is a “free woman” with no family attachments. This is how she perceives things, despite her moving in briefly with sister Minnie and Minnie’s husband. It occurs to me that Dreiser perceived things similarly once he had become independent and moved away from Indiana. His family did not have a tug on him. His relationships with siblings and with his parents once he had left was minimal. This was true for the rest of his life.
Minnie’s (Carrie’s sister’s) husband, Sven Hanson, I believe, was modeled on the real life second husband (or common law husband) of Dreiser’s sister Emma: John Nelson. I have done research on this.
Professor Gogol notes that when Carrie finds work at a shoe company the working conditions are such that the girls work at stools with no backs, no footrests. This back breaking work pays $4.50 a week for ten hour days, presumably six days a week.
Hurstwood works at a high class saloon: Fitzgerald and Moy’s on Adams Street in Chicago. The actual saloon (where L. A. Hopkins was a clerk) was Chapin & Gore on Monroe Street.
Hurstwood has two children in the novel. Hopkins, Hurstwood’s real life porotype, when he met the real Carrie (Dreiser’s sister Emma), had one child, a daughter, Maria, who was around nineteen or twenty years old at the time. Census records indicate that Hopkins, his wife Margaret, and their daughter Maria were all born in New York, which probably indicates New York City, but it could be New York State.
Hurstwood steals ten thousand dollars from his employer’s safe. In actuality, Hopkins stole $3,500 and about two hundred dollars’ worth of jewelry, as indicated by news reports at the time,
The interviewer, Miller, states that Dreiser wrote a lot of Sister Carrie in Ohio, where he was visiting his friend Arthur Henry. This is inaccurate. The novel was written in New York, after both Dreiser and Henry had moved there.
Professor Gogol gives a very good explanation of naturalism: a deterministic philosophy where characters do not have free will and are subject to socioeconomic forces and their environment.
She briefly discusses the character Bob Ames and his significance in the novel. It seems to me that Ames is a stand in for Dreiser, the author’s alter ego. Professor Gogol discusses, insightfully, how Ames fosters the development of a Carrie capable of serious thought and aesthetic appreciation. This is the intellectual aspect of New York, which I myself so many years later appreciate and have benefited from. How one can meet thoughtful and highly intelligent persons unexpectedly and be schooled by them.
Ames gets Carrie to read Père Goriot. The influence of Balzac on Dreiser is not mentioned by Professor Gogol. It is unmistakable.
Professor Gogol notes that a new 464-page complete edition of the original novel is now available as a Vintage Classic edition published by Penguin Random House. She briefly discusses An American Tragedy and a recollection of having seen at an early age the uncut version of the film A Place in the Sun. If there was such a version of the film, in which George Eastman’s (Clyde’s) execution is shown, I was unaware of this.
Sister Carrie, in my opinion, was a very good debut novel, a sort of literary miracle, the work of an untutored, autochthonous genius.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
February 23, 2022