Dreiser in St. Louis

Theodore Dreiser, courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (CC0)

One of the literary figures whose association with St. Louis has been mostly forgotten is Theodore Dreiser, author of the novels Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy.

Dreiser lived and worked in St. Louis for 16 formative months, from November 1892 to March 1894. He was only 21 when he arrived, and other than five months at a short-lived paper called The Chicago Daily Globe, it was his first professional writing experience. He started at the St. Louis Globe (to become the Globe-Democrat), at Sixth and Pine, so green that the city editor sent him to report from a vacant lot as a good hazing.

“The most casual reader of a newspaper would have been as good as myself in many respects,” Dreiser says.

He learned quickly, however. When no one else was available, he covered a train wreck in Alton, Illinois, in which 35 died and hundreds were injured, many after Dreiser had arrived. (There is some contention on this by a former peer at the Globe.) Dreiser’s instinctive precision and graphic detail so impressed his editor that he was given a 25% raise and a week’s pay as a bonus, says biographer Jerome Loving.

He impressed himself with his own pieces. Almost 30 years later he recounted for (perhaps misfired) comic effect in A Book About Myself: “As for myself, I saw no least flaw in my work [on Alton]. It was all all right, especially the amount of space given me. Splendid! ‘My!’ I said to myself vainly, ‘to think I should have written all this, and single-handed, between the hours of five and midnight!’ It seemed astonishing, a fine performance.’ […] Despite the woes of others I could not help glorying in the fact that nearly the whole city, a good part of it anyhow, must be reading my account of the wreck.”

Dreiser was given the police station and criminal court as his beat. He became well-familiar with the bagnios and dives of the seedy riverfront, and he lived in a series of cheap rooming houses (and slept with at least two of his older landladies).

He was experiencing the best and the worst of the city, what he called “the kaleidoscopic character of newspaper work, which, in my case at least, its personal significance to me, cannot be too much emphasized. As I have said, one day it would be a crime of a lurid or sensational character that would arrest and compel me to think, and the same day, within the hour perhaps, it would be a lecturer or religionist with some fine-spun theory of life, some theosophist…at one of the best hotels…talking transmigration and Nirvana. Again, it would be some mountebank or quack of a low order—a spiritualist…or a mind reader…or a third-rate religionist…or the arrival of a prizefighter-actor like John L. Sullivan….”

“If St. Louis was Babylon,” Walter Johnson, author of The Broken Heart of America, says, “…then Theodore Dreiser was its chronicler…. St. Louis was Dreiser’s laboratory for the exploration of human urges and desires, his test kitchen. He devoured St. Louis….”

What he also saw in the laboratory of his wanderings, professional or otherwise, was difference. Dreiser writes, “My favorite pastime, when I was not out on an assignment or otherwise busy, was to walk the streets and view the lives and activities of others…how, for some, the lightning of chance was always striking in somewhere and disrupting their plans, leaving destruction and death in its wake, the while luck or fortune was leading the way for others. Thinking on these things, I would wander here and there, looking into the homes of the big and the little and wondering about them….”

The Globe sent him to the Veiled Profit ball, in a three-dollar tuxedo they rented for him, and the same night, still in the tux, to a triple-murder suicide of a family in South St. Louis.

He studied the concrete details in both situations that would carry the writing’s emotion.

“To me, after my grand ball,” Dreiser says, “a description of which I had just completed, this wretched front room presented a sad and ghastly contrast. The house and furniture were so very poor, the dead wife and children so homely and seemingly work-worn. I could not help remarking the dim, smoky flame cast by the lamp, the cheap bed awry and stained red, the mother and two children lying in limp and painful disorder on it, the bedding dragged half off. “

“I hurried through dark streets to the office. It was an almost empty reportorial room in which I scribbled my dolorous picture. With the feverish impetuosity of youth and curiosity and sorrow and wonder I told it all, the terror, the pity, the leanness, the inexplicability. […] I was allowed finally to amble out into a dark street and seek my little, dark, miserable room with its creaky bed, its dirty coverlets, its ragged carpets and stained walls, my evening’s work done. As I stretched myself out to rest I thought of life and its accidents and tangles and miseries, this terrible tragedy pointing to it, as well as its gauds and glories, illustrated by the ball during the earlier hours.”

Ford Madox Ford says in Portraits From Life, “The difference between a supremely unreadable writer like Zola and a completely readable one like Dreiser is simply that if Zola had to write about a ride on a railway locomotive’s tender or a night in a brothel Zola had to get it all out of a book. Dreiser has only to call on his undimned memories and the episode will be there in all freshness and valour.”

Dreiser’s urge to fiction seems to have originated in St. Louis. He had his eye on being a playwright, but fellow St. Louis newspaperman Bob Hazard apparently inspired him with a novel manuscript he had written, according to biographer Loving, in the manner of Èmile Zola, the chief writer of Naturalism. Dreiser was also given a column to write, called “Heard in the Corridors,” that allowed him to fictionalize interviews.

One of his peers once said he was “better as a writer than in getting the news.”

As a theater critic at the Globe, Dreiser sometimes relied on promotional materials to write reviews, a common practice, but the other papers roasted him and the Globe when he wrote two reviews for plays not staged on those nights due to flooding. Dreiser resigned and a week later was working for the Globe’s competitor, the Republic.

At the Republic he covered the Chicago World’s Fair in the company of young, attractive schoolteachers who had won a Republic contest. On that trip he met then courted Sara Osbourne White, from nearby Florissant, with letters he called his “first and easiest attempt at literary expression.”

He covered a lynching, in Valley Park, St. Louis County, of a Black man named John Buckner. Over the years, Dreiser would write five narratives based on the event, including a short story manuscript called “A Victim of Justice,” which “may have been the author’s earliest attempt at fiction….” Scholars say these different versions “reveal Dreiser’s struggle to find an effective ethical position from which his narrator can tell the story.” The vow for the fictional story’s protagonist, a young white male reporter, becomes: “I’ll get it all in!”

This urge, combined with what critic Alfred Kazin calls Dreiser’s “elephantine style” made Dreiser what some call the worst great American writer. James Agee says, “You feel you’re reading a rather inadequate translation of a very great foreign novel—Russian probably….”

St. Louis’ lessons of high and low, of injustice and greed, in a Midwestern key helped young Dreiser develop a style that would show the devil in the details, even if that was not always appreciated. Sister Carrie was published six years after he left St. Louis, but it earned only $68.40 in royalties. Harper and Brothers publishing company rejected it for its “reportorial realism” that too-straightforwardly portrayed “the continued illicit relations of the heroine….”

“It was the ponderous battering ram of his novels,” John Dos Passos says, “that opened the way through the genteel reticences of American nineteenth-century fiction for what seemed to me to be a truthful description of people’s lives.”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.