The Dudeliness of Dreiser Studies

Theodore Dreiser

Recently on Tiger Beatdown, The Rejectionist wrote a post on “manfiction” that reminded me of the seminar on Postmodernist American Literature I took in my first year of graduate school, a course that probably should have been called “Bonerfest–the Twentieth Century.” Aside from Susan Sontag and Cynthia Ozick (of the fourteen books assigned, women wrote two), this course was pretty much a non-stop parade of dudes talking about their dicks. The status of women in most of these works is pretty much summed up by the cover art for Wille Masters’ Lonesome Wife (NSFW). In case you’re afraid to click the link, the cover features a photograph a headless lady’s nekkid boobs, and the central conceit of the book is that the text…wait for it…is a woman. Let that sit for a minute. In the course of embodying “the text” (i.e. William Gass’s brilliant creation), the unclothed female in the photographs masturbates and has coffee stains imprinted on her body, because dudes sometimes put their coffee mug down on the chick *erm* they are currently doing/reading.  The text is essentially all about the male gaze, in which the text–gendered female–bounces around promiscuously between multiple readers–gendered male.

By the time we had gotten to Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, I had pretty much had it and went on a lengthy public rant about how dudes seriously need to get a new metaphor for their writerly prowess. Because, PENIS. WE GOT IT THE FIRST 50,000 TIMES. IT’S BEEN DONE. And then I held the entire class hostage while I read Gilbert and Gubar to them. Ok, that last part isn’t true, but shoulda woulda and all that.

This is not to say that I dislike literature by men. Many of my favorite writers are men. But the penis as pen thing really is pretty worn out, and I find it increasingly difficult to get geared up for Roth or Updike or Hemingway or Kerouac or McCarthy because of their inability to portray women as actual human beings.

And that’s why, when it came time to write the Dreiser chapter of my dissertation–because he’s a Writer I Have to Account For–I was prepared for it to be a real drag.  I had always thought of Dreiser as a Dude Writer in the Frank Norris/Ernest Hemingway mold because of when he was writing (roughly 1900-1945) and the fact that most of the critics who write about him are Great Dude Critics in the Walter Benn Michaels mold.

But then I read the actual novels and was surprised. I had read Sister Carrie a while back, but I hadn’t really reflected on the significance of the fact that Dreiser’s first two novels featured strong female protagonists with total sexual autonomy and–here’s a shocker–jobs. In fact, all of the barriers to ladies obtaining sex and/or jobs in Dreiser novels prove to be societal and economic rather than biological. Women do not meet with unfortunate circumstances in his novels because they are in possession of female reproductive systems but because the system is rigged against them and they are oppressed by dude-centered morality. An American Tragedy, widely lauded as his greatest novel is essentially a 900 page argument for legalized abortion. In 1925.

Emma Dreiser, the purported inspiration for Sister Carrie

Here, for example, is the plot of Sister Carrie: Carrie Meeber travels from her hometown to the city of Chicago in search of a better life. On the train, she meets a hot guy named Charles Drouet, who suggests that they hook up sometime. She says “maybe” and goes to live with her sister’s family while looking for a job. Carrie finds a job sewing designer shoes, but her sister and brother-in-law start taking most of her wages. At this point, Carrie has begun dating Drouet, who is just a salesman but can afford nicer things than she can, and seeing her loneliness and economic desperation, he suggests they shack up together. By this point, Carrie has lost her job due to illness, and she agrees, and we never hear from the sister or brother-in-law again. I feel that it is important to mention that most Dreiser novels begin this way, no matter what the gender of the protagonist is. Wide-eyed, ambitious young person arrives in the big city, finds a menial job, struggles on the brink of starvation, and starts screwing someone. Much would be made of Carrie’s economic opportunism (gold digger!), but dating above one’s socio-economic station is something that virtually every one of Dreiser’s male protagonists (including Eugene Witla, Frank Cowperwood, and Clyde Griffiths) does. The same goes for screwing someone whom you later lose interest in, as Carrie does about a quarter of the way through the novel. People falling into bed together and then realizing they are poorly suited for one another is a pretty consistent theme in Dreiser’s works.

Enter George Hurstwood. Hurstwood, like Drouet and Carrie, is an ambitious social climber (EVERYONE in Dreiser’s world is a rank materialist) who has made it to the next rung. He is, essentially, the manager of a high-end bar and even more of a metrosexual than Drouet. Drouet, who is kind of an idiot but who is also probably banging another lady anyway, introduces the two of them. Hurstwood and Carrie get the hots for each other. In the meantime, Carrie gets one job as a stage actress and has proves to be quite good at it. As she and Drouet have begun fighting (namely over her clandestine meetings with Hurstwood), she makes plans to move out of their apartment and try to make it on her own.

Meanwhile, Hurstwood’s wife has begun to suspect something, and because said wife actually holds most of the family property in her own name, Hurstwood is in something of a pickle. So–and this is where things get weird–he gets hammered, steals a buttload of money from his place of employment, lures Carrie onto a train (by telling her Drouet is injured), and kidnaps her. They go to Canada, where the police finally catch up with them and make Hurstwood give all the money back and promise to return to Chicago so he can face justice. He gives part of the money back and then forces Carrie to come with him to New York, promising that he will marry her. Since she is now an accomplice to grand larceny in the eyes of the law and has no way to get back to Chicago, she doesn’t have much choice. The two of them shack up in New York under a different name. Hurstwood temporarily invests in another high-end bar but finds that his stock isn’t all that high in this much fancier town, especially when he can’t trade on his own name.

Hurstwood eventually loses his business, and the two of them muddle through in reduced circumstances for a while. Hurstwood spends some time looking for a job, any job, but he is so psychologically defeated by the whole ordeal that he mostly winds up wandering the city and sitting forlornly in the lobbies of expensive hotels, dreaming of the old days. Then he starts gambling. Once he finally reveals to Carrie–the woman he kidnapped, if you recall–that they are destitute, she decides to go looking for a job herself. She gets a bit part as an actress that leads to full time employment in a theater chorus. Meanwhile, Hurstwood spends most of his time reading the newspaper in their apartment. No longer attracted to him, Carrie decides to move out and get a room with a female co-worker. Her career takes off, and she becomes a major Broadway actress and eventually moves into the Waldorf-Astoria. Hurstwood eventually commits suicide in a flop house.

The thesis (theses really) of Sister Carrie is similar to that of all Dreiser novels: compulsory monogamy is problematic for everybody; affordable birth control is super-duper important; the system is rigged in favor of the already wealthy; a lack of a social safety net results in tragedy; American consumerism supports economic exploitation. In other words, while far from perfect, Dreiser was one of the most progressive authors of the early twentieth century of any gender, really. He was interested in women’s experiences, because, as far as he was concerned, they were human experiences. While he did have a creepy fascination with nubile eighteen-year olds, his novels contained plenty of fully realized older female characters. While his male characters have a tendency to hop from woman to woman, even if that means leaving at least one of them in disadvantaged economic circumstances, he championed birth control and legal, affordable abortion as a basic human right and socio-economic necessity. And he portrayed plenty of compelling female characters who wanted sex but had no interest in marriage, like Christina Channing of The “Genius,” who, upon hearing that her former lover is getting married, promptly gets on with her opera career. In fact, if there is one major way in which Dreiser’s gender politics fail it is in his frustration with the fact that all women aren’t like Carrie or Christina Channing, that many women of his time remained deeply invested in traditional morality and compulsory monogamy, without really considering the fact that except for the very privileged, the sexual license he idealizes would typically mean social and economic death for the average woman. (One might say that this critique actually remains in the sub-text of his work).

So why have I thought for so long that Dreiser was a Dude Writer of Manfiction? I guess it’s because of this:

Naturally, Hurstwood drew more sympathy than Carrie. To many reviewers (all male in this case), Carrie was regarded as an irresponsible shopgirl who got lucky, but Hurstwood drew their empathy.

From Jerome Loving, The Last Titan


See, early reviewers and virtually every male academic critic thereafter have sort of looked at Sister Carrie like this: “So there this chick in this book, and it’s named after her, but she’s kind of gross because she sleeps around and [does all the stuff that typical Dreiser heroes do, but does them while female]. That guy who kidnaps her and implicates her in a crime that she didn’t commit is incredibly sympathetic, though.” In other words, the reason why Dreiser exists somewhere in the zeitgeist as a Dude Who Writes About Dudely Things is because Dudes like that have been in charge of his legacy, and those dudes could not manage to identify with female protagonists who do precisely what Dreiser’s male protagonists do and so attached themselves to a male character who does not appear until page 60 and call him the hero while ignoring the character the book is named after. And what’s remarkable is how this perception has persisted even into the present day. Loving’s biography of Dreiser was published in 2005, the most recent to date, but even he summarizes Sister Carrie thus:

Carrie Meeber […] moves from the country to the city, exchanging her virginity for material comfort. Her successive lovers, Charles Drouet and George Hurstwood, see her, reciprocally, as a symbol of the pleasure money and power can purchase. Carrie abandons the unmarried Drouet for the married Hurstwood, who in turn leaves his family and his position as manager of a post Chicago saloon, steals money from his employers, and flees with Carrie to New York. There, as he eventually fails in his new investment, Carrie abandons him as well, and he soon finds himself homeless, sick, and dazed by fate in the winter of 1896.

Yes, poooooooooor Hurstwood. Except, you know, KIDNAPPING, which Loving doesn’t really mention, because by consenting to romantic relations with him she was consenting to abduction, I guess.  Because women exist in a perpetual state of “yes.” I like how Carrie is only ever allowed agency in this paragraph when she is doing something reprehensible: “exchanging her virginity” or “abandoning” one of her men. Otherwise, she is an object to be traded. Loving goes on about this novel for several pages, talking about the confluences between Dreiser’s own economic insecurity and Hurstwood’s rapid decline:

Dreiser worried about money, as we know, most of his life, and this phobia is dramatized in the increasing shabbiness of Hurstwood’s living quarters.

Forget the far more explicit connection between Carrie and Dreiser’s attempts to make it in Chicago, between their early sexual exploits. In fact, there is a marked similarity between the early chapters of Sister Carrie and the early chapters of the semi-autobiographical novel The “Genius” and probably no small amount of wishful thinking in the way that Dreiser depicts Carrie’s rise as an actress, much in the way, perhaps, he imagined his own rise as a novelist. For most Dreiser scholars, there is just no freaking way that the Beloved Male Author could have identified with a female protagonist, yet there is substantial evidence that he did.

If you look at his photo, featured at the beginning of this essay, you can sort of see that there were ways in which Dreiser did not live up to the standards of hegemonic masculinity at just about any time. I mean really, he was kind of a wiener. He wasn’t conventionally attractive or physically able. He suffered from frequent bouts of neurasthenia (what we might call depression or chronic fatigue syndrome). Despite his early interest in sex, he was often unlucky in love and had difficulties consummating the act as a youth. He was a card carrying member of the Communist Party. He was into all kinds of weird spiritual stuff–like going to astrologers and Christian Scientists and reading tea leaves and performing seances–much of which was associated with women at the time.  His Professional Author friends were often sort of like, “You should really shut up about that stuff, because it DOESN’T LOOK GOOD.” Reading his biography, I’ve come to see that while Dreiser needed the assistance of people like H.L. Mencken to help translate his vision into literary success, much of his legacy has been controlled by a public relations team, a team of literary professionals who were frequently a little embarrassed by his failure to conform.

So, why the hell did I just write all of that? Well, I guess it’s because I’m immersed in all of this stuff right now, this being the chapter I’m currently working on and whatnot. But I’m also trying to point out that the project of Backlash Literature in the twentieth century has not only been about erasing emergent female voices and asserting larger-than-life masculine voices but policing the masculinity of the Great Male Authors of the relatively recent past. One of these days, I will write a great post about a female author that I love that didn’t inspire the title of this blog. But if you want a recommendation, I’d say go for Toni Morrison’s Paradise or Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, both excellent books about women’s relationships with women. And for an excellent feminist reading of Dreiser, check out Jennifer Fleissner’s Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism.

6 thoughts on “The Dudeliness of Dreiser Studies

  1. This was awesome! (Here from the Shakesville blogaround.) I tried to read Sister Carrie in high school for an independent reading project, but gave up early (I found it really dry) and swore that nothing could ever make me want to try Dreiser again. Then in college I realized that I was totally uninterested in most of the major male American novelists of the 20th century for the reasons you outlined at the beginning of the post, and of course I thought Dreiser was one of them. So this is a great revelation to me–I think I may have to give up on that high school oath someday.

  2. Great article! I’ve always liked Dreiser, and am mystified as to why he isn’t more widely recognized as a progressive author. Sister Carrie is a wonderful book.

  3. Wow! This makes me want to read Sister Carrie. What a great post. Who knew that policing masculinity was a historical project for literary scholars as well?

    1. It is, for sure, and certain male scholars of early twentieth century U.S.-American lit tend to be especially bad about it. The legacies of dudely writers like Dreiser, Howells, James, Twain, Hemingway, Norris, and London have been mediated by biographers and critics who had considerable investment in masculinizing literature, because female writers so dominated the nineteenth century literary market.

  4. Aw, this was an incredibly good post. Spending some time and actual effort to create a good article… but what
    can I say… I hesitate a lot and don’t manage to get anything done.

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