The Paris Review

Theodore Dreiser’s New York

Teddy Dreiser tries to make it.

Theodore Dreiser, 1917.

In 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

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