It’s on my Dreiser site at
It beautifully expresses my own feelings about my adopted city.
— Roger W. Smith\
February 6, 2020
It’s on my Dreiser site at
It beautifully expresses my own feelings about my adopted city.
— Roger W. Smith\
February 6, 2020
Chapter XLV of Theodore Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie, is entitled “Curious Shifts of the Poor.” In this famous chapter, which has echoes of Stephen Crane, George Hurstwood — out of work, physically ill and desperate — is reduced to living in Broadway flophouses and to begging.
One afternoon, he goes to a theater where Carrie is appearing as a lead actress and hovers about the entrance, hoping to see her. He thinks he sees her alight from a carriage and enter the theater, but he is not sure it was her. He ambles downtown from 39th Street, where the theater is located, to the corner of 26th Street and Broadway.
He notices an “a peculiar individual [who invariably took his stand” at this particular spot: a chaplain, preacher, and charity worker (known as “the Captain”) collecting donations for homeless men on a freezing cold evening.
(See text below.)
On November 5, 2016, I received an email from Dreiser scholar Thomas P. Riggio:
I just came across that section in Sister Carrie where the “Captain” gathers the homeless men and begs for small change to get them beds for the night. I’ve always felt that the description was so detailed and that the tone suggests that anyone familiar with New York life would recognize the character — sort of like Fleischmann’s bread line. I wonder if you ever came across anything in your research of the period or its newspapers that identified the original for the Captain? I’m almost willing to bet that he was a local well-known figure in the city.
Professor Riggio was convinced that the figure of the “the captain” in Dreiser’s novel must have been based on a real person. He actually had a name (which turned about the right one, something he did not know at the time), but he did not tell me so. Later, after publishing an article based upon my research (without having told me he planned to do so), Professor Riggio told me that he had had a name.
I went to the New York Public Library that day, on a weekend, to see if I could find anything about the real-life model for “the captain.”
To try and find the identity of a figure (perhaps hypothetical for all I knew) in New York City who might have matched Dreiser’s description of his activities. Over a period of a decade or more (sometime presumably in the 1890’s), using generic search terms such as “homeless,” “charity,” “beggar,” etc.?
I was practically in tears due to frustration and was about to give up, exhausted after searching for five or six hours, when I stumbled upon a newspaper article about some sort of chaplain who would solicit donations every evening near Madison Square Park to pay for beds for destitute men:
“Lodging for the Homeless; Evangelist Rotzler Collects Money for 126 Men and Marches the Shivering Crowd Away,” The New York Times, December 20, 1897
This has got to be the right person, I thought.
Now I had a name. Searching on Frederick Rotzler (the chaplain’s name), I found a lot of documentary material — newspaper and magazine articles — that described Frederick Rotzler’s activities as a chaplain before, during, and after the period when he was observed by Dreiser. Some of this material was unearthed by me on subsequent library visits. I promptly sent it all to Professor Riggio.
That same month, I got another email from Professor Riggio: “As to the blog on Rotzler, … I wonder if you could hold off on this for a while?”
I wasn’t quite sure what this vague communique meant. I had been thinking not so much of a blog — not precisely — I was thinking that since, as far as I knew, I had discovered the identity of “the captain” (pursuant to Professor Riggio’s request to research him), perhaps I should or could write an article in which I would explain the source of the figure in “Curious Shifts of the Poor.” It seemed — and was reasonable for me to assume, for all I knew — that I had made the discovery.
I received another email from Professor Riggio a couple of months later:
… if you could hold off for another five or six weeks, that would be helpful; this will give me time to complete my work on the subject which I began before we exchanged material on the subject. I know you have five or six items you have been trying to complete on your site, so there can be no rush on Rotzler for you.
Again, Professor Riggio was making assumptions about what I planned to do about the Rotzler materials. He was constructing a scenario that fit his plans and would give him “cover.” I did not know what he meant by “complete my work on the subject.” (He was being obscure on purpose.) What he was planning was to write an article, but he did not wish to tell me that, any more than he was willing to tell me at the outset that he already had a name for the person whom he suspected was “the captain.”
What he wanted to be able to do was sort of have his cake (for himself) and be able to eat it too (whenever he decided to) — in effect, to use the materials I had unearthed, whenever and however he saw fit, to write an article supposedly his, while ensuring that no one else would see or be able to use my findings, and that I would, not suspecting anything, honor his implicit request to not (for reasons he did not explain) publish an article myself.
His intention in asking me to do library research (pro bono) was to see what I could come up with — it would provide corroboration for his “theories” (surmises about “the captain’s” true identity) — but to make sure I did not think I was entitled to write an article about my findings. He certainly did not want me to write an article, nor to realize he was writing one, which would have perhaps induced me to think I was entitled to do it first.
The words “which I began before we exchanged material on the subject [“the captain”]” were meant to give him “cover,” to justify his writing an article using my materials, so that he could claim the article he was writing was based on his research, not mine.
Around a year later, to my surprise and consternation, the following article was published:
“Oh Captain, My Captain: Dreiser and the Chaplain of Madison Square”
By Thomas P. Riggio
Studies in American Naturalism, vol. 11, no. 2 (Winter 2016)
The article was based largely (though not entirely) on my original research. I was given a perfunctory acknowledgment in a footnote. When I complained to Professor Riggio, he defended appropriating my research on the grounds that he did the writing. Of course he had, using my material without informing me of what use he planned to make of it; without it, he would have had no article.
When I read the article, I saw to my dismay that it was chock full of documentary material, including verbatim transcripts, photographs and illustrations, plus findings of mine such as the location of the square where Dreiser’s chaplain appeared each night (which Dreiser remembered not quite correctly) and data on Rotlzer in the 1910 census. The latter is the kind of documentary material that makes or breaks a scholarly article. They give the reader assurance that the scholar/author has done his homework. But in this instance, the homework wasn’t done by the author; it was done by me, with no credit. Professor Riggio used this information (Dreiser’s mistake about the exact location; census data, which it would never have occurred to him to check) without any footnotes acknowledging that the information came from me. And, almost all of the illustrative and documentary material in the article, he simply cut and pasted using the text and photos I had emailed to him. This I could readily see by merely glancing at the published article.
— Roger W. Smith
I have not gotten over this rip off and scam by Thomas Riggio, an emeritus professor who had no reason to take advantage of a more “junior,” less “credentialed” scholar. A similar instance of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s using someone else’s research comes to mind.
When I first saw Riggio’s article on line, I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach.
I telephoned him that same evening. I tried to be polite (or at least not rude) and non-confrontational.
His response befitted a Donald Trump. He didn’t seem concerned or interested in what I was saying. He kept trying to change the subject. He would not discuss or respond to specific instances of where in the article, it was plain to see, he had ripped off my research in primary sources.
Arrogance, on his part, was the operative word. And a feeling of entitlement.
His manner was totally condescending.
All else failing, he resorted to Trump-style counterattack. Saying that I am essentially a whiner (and loser) whose feelings were hurt because he didn’t get sufficient credit. If one reads his “acknowledgment,” it would appear that I copied a couple of library articles for him, that he knew what he was looking for. This was a deliberate distortion.
Then he counterattacked by trying to portray me as a chronic complainer and misfit who always does this to the Dreiser community and can’t get along with people in general. How he knew this is a mystery, since we hardly knew one another personally.
An example of this: He claimed I was feuding with the independent Dreiser scholar Michael Lydon. My friend Michael would be surprised to learn this.
The Trump/Riggio playbook? When caught red handed, deny, deny, deny. Concede nothing. Counterattack. With anything you can think of.
June 27, 2019
To me it seems outrageous that someone who calls himself a professor would simply ‘steal’ the results of your thorough research. You clearly thought that a fellow Dreiser scholar would acknowledge the results of your study, and instead he used them to his own advantage.
I hope that this bad experience doesn’t diminish your enthusiasm for Dreiser, and that you will keep up this blog and doing research for it.
All the best, Elisabeth
Thank you so much for your thoughtful input, Elisabeth. At times like this, understanding of what I have experienced with this painful, and unasked and uncalled for, “event” (should I say scholarly interchange?) is greatly appreciated.
A scholarly interchange would have meant acknowledging your research!
Elisabeth — You might be interested in what Professor Riggio considered an “acknowledgment.”
Buried in a footnote to his article (which he claims was all his work) “Oh Captain, My Captain: Dreiser and the Chaplain of Madison Square” (Studies in American Naturalism, Winter 2016) was the following footnote: “I want to express my thanks to independent researcher Roger W. Smith, who responded to my request for copies of the Rotzler materials from his seat at the New York Public Library. I am hopeful that he will make good on his intention to provide the full texts of the material on his extremely useful website.”
There was nothing specific about what materials I discovered or supplied or how essential they were to his “research,” and no mention by the professor here or elsewhere about the independent discoveries I made at his behest, for example: (1) “finding” Rotzler (he later told me he had a name all along, but he — incredibly — did not tell me this, giving me the unbelievably difficult task of finding his identity for myself); (2) sharing with him a trove of primary source materials, which he merely cut and pasted, not deigning to acknowledge that they came from me (other than to say that I “responded to [his] request for copies,” making it seem that he knew about them already and told me what materials to look for; he did no such thing); (3) not acknowledging that it was I who informed him about the mistake in Dreiser’s memory as to where “the captain” (chaplain Rotzler) would appear each evening in his charitable work; (4) or giving me credit for alerting him to the Rotzler entry in the 1910 census from New York. Items 3 and 4 were important because: The address where Rotzler solicited donations for the homeless places him in front of the Worth Monument in Worth Square in Manhattan. Dreiser’s mis-remembering the address was characteristic of Dreiser, who could be a careless writer. The census data (which Professor Riggio would most likely have never seen) enabled Professor Riggio to state (in reference to the census data I shared with him) that the census data “identifies Frederick Rotzler as having been born in New York City in 1859. … Both his parents were German immigrants, a factor that may have entered into Dreiser’s attraction to him.” These are important inferences, made on the basis of primary source materials. The problem with Professor Riggio’s use of them is that he did not acknowledge where the data came from: me.
If one merely eyeballed Professor Riggio’s article, one would see how much material is used from me. Text and illustrations (the text about Rotzler, the illustrations of him) jump out from the pages of his article, all of it supplied to Professor Riggio by me.
It seems there’s a huge misconception on the side of Professor Riggio. Unfortunately I don’t expect he will ever admit that.
No he won’t, Elisabeth. From the outset, when I first saw his article, he was totally unapologetic. He ignores many of the specific examples I have given of mis-appropriation of primary source materials and other research findings I shared with him, which provide conclusive proof of it.
As another follower of this blog who has been following this wrote in an email to me:
“Regarding Professor Riggio. How ironic. He attacks you when it is he who should apologize for not giving you credit.
“He completely turns the situation around and obfuscates the matter by trying to make it seem that you did something wrong.
Dear Roger, although not a Dreiser scholar, I have been following your work in recent years and have great respect for the tenacity and precision of your research. So I was surprised and shocked by the appropriation of many of your findings on who was the model for that character in “Sister Carrie” which was puzzling Prof. Riggio. All the more as I had a pleasant exchange with him several years ago when working on an article on contemporary adaptations of major American novels of the early 20th century. I wish he would give you more credit than a footnote.
Claire Bruyère, Prof. emerita, American literature/book history, Univ. Paris7/Denis Diderot
Thanks for your perspicacious comments, Professor Bruyère. Having support from other members of the scholarly community in this case of what I consider to have been mis-appropriation of my research findings without my being informed beforehand of the use that would be made of them and with insufficient (to put it mildly) credit given is much appreciated by me.
After having partnered with you last winter on another, yet unrevealed, Dreiser research project, I know firsthand the quality, depth, and caliber of your work. Your unfortunate mistake was sharing your original findings with someone whom you thought was professional and trustworthy. My immediate reaction to the situation is that you should have been reimbursed for your time, and then each individual discovery of fact, when cited in the article, should have been attributed to you in a footnote.
This is an academic ethical issue. Taking someone’s research without explaining how you intend to use it, then making a profit off its use without sufficient recognition to the individual who did the original research, only diminishes the person who commits such an act.
— Tamie Dehler
Regarding the source materials I shared with Professor Riggio, and what he already knew at the time — what he told me then and told me later, after his article had been published — is significant when it comes to assessing the use (one should say misuse) he made of my materials in writing his published article: “Oh Captain, My Captain: Dreiser and the Chaplain of Madison Square” (Studies in American Naturalism, vol. 11, no. 2, Winter 2016).
On the evening of November 5, 2016, Professor Riggio wrote, in an email to me: “Roger, I figured there had to be an original for the Captain. Nice work! I had always wondered but never got around to checking it out.” From this I should have deduced that he really did have some information, let alone a name (which he later told me he did have)? And, if he did have a name for “the captain” (chaplain Rotzler) — as he told me months afterward — would it not have behooved him to give me the name when asking me to see if could find anything about Dreiser’s “captain,” so that I did not have to go on a wild goose chase in the library?
The next day (after I had gone to the library and struck gold), he emailed me: “Enjoyed learning about the Captain. Fascinating stuff. … if you have anything else on this matter, send it along. …” This does not seem fully forthcoming. He later claimed he had a name (the right one) but was looking for corroboration and additional source materials.
On September 10, 2017, Professor Riggio said in an email to me: “I had the essay outlined before you sent me anything. I only had two instances of the name Rotzler and wasn’t sure that was enough to claim him definitely—one the city death record of a ‘missionary’ and one a brief article about a chaplain by that name. The stuff you sent confirmed it without doubt.” What he does not explain is why he would not, at the outset, tell me what he DID know, such as the name of a chaplain he had found a couple of references to, before asking me to do research. It is also significant that, when it comes to Dreiser’s “captain,” he concedes that he had almost no information, which establishes the fact that almost of all the primary source materials in his article came from me.
On September 11 2017, Professor Riggio emailed me: “I thought I made clear when you began sending me the articles, that he was the fellow I had just a tiny bit of info on and that this stuff really filled out the portrait in ways I couldn’t have with the little I knew about him.” He did NOT do this, AT THE TIME. He said nothing at the time of my sending him stuff (or prior) about having had any information about “the fellow.” So, I thought (and there was no reason for me not to assume this) that it was I who had discovered the identity of Dreiser’s “captain.”
Professor Riggio deliberately kept me in the dark.
Re this post of mine and the comments appended to it:
Professor Riggio continues to insist that my contributions to his article “Oh Captain, My Captain: Dreiser and the Chaplain of Madison Square” (Studies in American Naturalism, vol. 11, no. 2, Winter 2016), while appreciated and acknowledged (barely), were in the nature of helpful research but that they did not form the main body of the article, or that I shouldn’t claim to have done more research than him. And, that the main problem, as he sees it, is that I threw a “hissy fit” over not being given sufficient acknowledgment.
The facts prove otherwise.
The article in question (the above referenced article by Professor Riggio) concludes with a “WORKS CITED” section. Other than “my” source materials (i.e., those I discovered and sent by email to Professor Riggio), the works cited are mostly secondary sources.
There are citations of writings of Dreiser such as “A Touch of Human Brotherhood,” which appeared in Success magazine and which Professor Riggio had available in a published book of Theodore Dreiser’s uncollected magazine articles. And a chapter from Dreiser’s book “Twelve Men.” And so on.
An article by O. Henry, “A Madison Square Arabian Night,” is also cited by Professor Riggio.
What else is there? THIS IS SIGNIFICANT. Because what I am complaining about is mis-appropriation of source martials. Discovered and downloaded by me. Not known (as far as I knew) beforehand to Professor Riggio. Transmitted from me to him.
Here are the primary sources (other than writings of Dreiser and O. Henry) in the Works Cited section of Professor Riggio’s article:
Barton, Bruce. “Tending His Flock by Night.” The Continent 11 Dec. 1913
“Church Services Tomorrow.” New York Times 20 March 1910
“Father Lambert Welcomed.” New York Times 23 May 1894
“The Gospel through the Megaphone.” New York World 6 Sept. 1896
“Met at the Alter to Pray.” New York Times 15 March 1894: 11
“A Preacher Unordained.” New York Times 26 Nov. 1893
“Putting His Congregation to Sleep.” Literary Digest 17 Jan. 1914
“Shelters a Little Army.” New York Times 18 Nov. 1901
These articles were all discovered by me and shared by me with Professor Riggio. As far as I know, he had never seen any of them. Perhaps he will claim now that he already had them (!).
Professor Riggio’s article contains four illustrations. The following are the illustrations, with the captions and citations:
Fig. 1. A Preacher Unordained. (New York Times, 26 Nov. 1893: 6– 7)
Fig. 2. The Gospel through the Megaphone. (New York World, 6 Sept. 1896: 8– 9)
Fig. 3. The “Chaplain” of Madison Square. (“Putting His Congregation to Sleep,” Literary Digest, 17 Jan. 1914: 110)
Fig. 4. “The Chaplain” and a Section of His Transient Night Audience in Madison Square. (“Tending His Flock by Night,” The Continent, 11 Dec. 1913: 1740)
All of these illustrations were taken from the articles I sent Professor Riggio.
CONCLUSION: There is virtually no primary source material, and not that much research, in Professor Riggio’s article other than that which I supplied to him. In an email to Professor Riggio at the time the article was published, I wrote: “… the whole article focuses (with some consideration of related works of Dreiser’s) on the Captain directly or indirectly (he provides the hook), starts out with him; without my material, you would have not have been able to offer new material about this figure or explain who he was in real life. The title indicates the focus of your article, and there is a promise that the reader will find out something new about the background of the ‘Curious Shifts of the Poor’ chapter. The article is illustrated with scanned pages from newspaper and magazine articles that came from me.”
Professor Riggio has not addressed a single substantive complaint of mine. He can’t. The facts are incontrovertible.
Professor Riggio obviously did the writing, and the concept of the article was his. But research is important in almost any work of scholarship, and readers are looking for new findings, new information, such as that there really was “a captain” who would have been known to Dreiser. To find this out and prove it, and then to flesh the article out and make it interesting with details about Rotzler and his charitable work, and illustrative material, “added” a great deal to the article — not just added, formed a major portion of the article. The reader looks for new discoveries by the author, and when they have been made, they should be properly credited.
from Chapter XLV Sister Carrie
At that hour, when Broadway is wont to assume its most interesting aspect, a peculiar individual invariably took his stand at the corner of Twenty-sixth Street and Broadway—a spot which is also intersected by Fifth Avenue. This was the hour when the theatres were just beginning to receive their patrons. Fire signs announcing the night’s amusements blazed on every hand. Cabs and carriages, their lamps gleaming like yellow eyes, pattered by. Couples and parties of three and four freely mingled in the common crowd, which poured by in a thick stream, laughing and jesting. On Fifth Avenue were loungers—a few wealthy strollers, a gentleman in evening dress with his lady on his arm, some clubmen passing from one smoking-room to another. Across the way the great hotels showed a hundred gleaming windows, their cafés and billiard-rooms filled with a comfortable, well-dressed, and pleasure-loving throng. All about was the night, pulsating with the thoughts of pleasure and exhilaration—the curious enthusiasm of a great city bent upon finding joy in a thousand different ways.
This unique individual was no less than an ex-soldier turned religionist, who, having suffered the whips and privations of our peculiar social system, had concluded that his duty to the God which he conceived lay in aiding his fellow-man. The form of aid which he chose to administer was entirely original with himself. It consisted of securing a bed for all such homeless wayfarers as should apply to him at this particular spot, though he had scarcely the wherewithal to provide a comfortable habitation for himself.
Taking his place amid this lightsome atmosphere, he would stand, his stocky figure cloaked in a great cape overcoat, his head protected by a broad slouch hat, awaiting the applicants who had in various ways learned the nature of his charity. For a while he would stand alone, gazing like any idler upon an ever-fascinating scene. On the evening in question, a policeman passing saluted him as “captain,” in a friendly way. An urchin who had frequently seen him before, stopped to gaze. All others took him for nothing out of the ordinary, save in the matter of dress, and conceived of him as a stranger whistling and idling for his own amusement.
As the first half-hour waned, certain characters appeared. Here and there in the passing crowds one might see, now and then, a loiterer edging interestedly near. A slouchy figure crossed the opposite corner and glanced furtively in his direction. Another came down Fifth Avenue to the corner of Twenty-sixth Street, took a general survey, and hobbled off again. Two or three noticeable Bowery types edged along the Fifth Avenue side of Madison Square, but did not venture over. The soldier, in his cape overcoat, walked a short line of ten feet at his corner, to and fro, indifferently whistling.
As nine o’clock approached, some of the hubbub of the earlier hour passed. The atmosphere of the hotels was not so youthful. The air, too, was colder. On every hand curious figures were moving—watchers and peepers, without an imaginary circle, which they seemed afraid to enter—a dozen in all. Presently, with the arrival of a keener sense of cold, one figure came forward. It crossed Broadway from out the shadow of Twenty-sixth Street, and, in a halting, circuitous way, arrived close to the waiting figure. There was something shamefaced or diffident about the movement, as if the intention were to conceal any idea of stopping until the very last moment. Then suddenly, close to the soldier, came the halt.
The captain looked in recognition, but there was no especial greeting. The newcomer nodded slightly and murmured something like one who waits for gifts. The other simply motioned toward the edge of the walk.
“Stand over there,” he said.
By this the spell was broken. Even while the soldier resumed his short, solemn walk, other figures shuffled forward. They did not so much as greet the leader, but joined the one, sniffling and hitching and scraping their feet.
“Cold, ain’t it?”
“I’m glad winter’s over.”
“Looks as though it might rain.”
The motley company had increased to ten. One or two knew each other and conversed. Others stood off a few feet, not wishing to be in the crowd and yet not counted out. They were peevish, crusty, silent, eying nothing in particular and moving their feet.
There would have been talking soon, but the soldier gave them no chance. Counting sufficient to begin, he came forward.
“Beds, eh, all of you?”
There was a general shuffle and murmur of approval.
“Well, line up here. I’ll see what I can do. I haven’t a cent myself.”
They fell into a sort of broken, ragged line. One might see, now, some of the chief characteristics by contrast. There was a wooden leg in the line. Hats were all drooping, a group that would ill become a second-hand Hester Street basement collection. Trousers were all warped and frayed at the bottom and coats worn and faded. In the glare of the store lights, some of the faces looked dry and chalky; others were red with blotches and puffed in the cheeks and under the eyes; one or two were rawboned and reminded one of railroad hands. A few spectators came near, drawn by the seemingly conferring group, then more and more, and quickly there was a pushing, gaping crowd. Some one in the line began to talk.
“Silence!” exclaimed the captain. “Now, then, gentlemen, these men are without beds. They have to have some place to sleep to-night. They can’t lie out in the streets. I need twelve cents to put one of them to bed. Who will give it to me?”
“Well, we’ll have to wait here, boys, until some one does. Twelve cents isn’t so very much for one man.”
“Here’s fifteen,” exclaimed a young man, peering forward with strained eyes. “It’s all I can afford.”
“All right. Now I have fifteen. Step out of the line,” and seizing one by the shoulder, the captain marched him off a little way and stood him up alone.
Coming back, he resumed his place and began again.
“I have three cents left. These men must be put to bed somehow. There are”—counting—”one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve men. Nine cents more will put the next man to bed; give him a good, comfortable bed for the night. I go right along and look after that myself. Who will give me nine cents?”
One of the watchers, this time a middle-aged man, handed him a five-cent piece.
“Now, I have eight cents. Four more will give this man a bed. Come, gentlemen. We are going very slow this evening. You all have good beds. How about these?”
“Here you are,” remarked a bystander, putting a coin into his hand.
“That,” said the captain, looking at the coin, “pays for two beds for two men and gives me five on the next one. Who will give me seven cents more?”
“I will,” said a voice.
Coming down Sixth Avenue this evening, Hurstwood chanced to cross east through Twenty-sixth Street toward Third Avenue. He was wholly disconsolate in spirit, hungry to what he deemed an almost mortal extent, weary, and defeated. How should he get at Carrie now? It would be eleven before the show was over. If she came in a coach, she would go away in one. He would need to interrupt under most trying circumstances. Worst of all, he was hungry and weary, and at best a whole day must intervene, for he had not heart to try again to-night. He had no food and no bed.
When he neared Broadway, he noticed the captain’s gathering of wanderers, but thinking it to be the result of a street preacher or some patent medicine fakir, was about to pass on. However, in crossing the street toward Madison Square Park, he noticed the line of men whose beds were already secured, stretching out from the main body of the crowd. In the glare of the neighbouring electric light he recognised a type of his own kind—the figures whom he saw about the streets and in the lodging-houses, drifting in mind and body like himself. He wondered what it could be and turned back.
There was the captain curtly pleading as before. He heard with astonishment and a sense of relief the oft-repeated words: “These men must have a bed.” Before him was the line of unfortunates whose beds were yet to be had, and seeing a newcomer quietly edge up and take a position at the end of the line, he decided to do likewise. What use to contend? He was weary to-night. It was a simple way out of one difficulty, at least. To-morrow, maybe, he would do better.
Back of him, where some of those were whose beds were safe, a relaxed air was apparent. The strain of uncertainty being removed, he heard them talking with moderate freedom and some leaning toward sociability. Politics, religion, the state of the government, some newspaper sensations, and the more notorious facts the world over, found mouthpieces and auditors there. Cracked and husky voices pronounced forcibly upon odd matters. Vague and rambling observations were made in reply.
There were squints, and leers, and some dull, ox-like stares from those who were too dull or too weary to converse.
Standing tells. Hurstwood became more weary waiting. He thought he should drop soon and shifted restlessly from one foot to the other. At last his turn came. The man ahead had been paid for and gone to the blessed line of success. He was now first, and already the captain was talking for him.
“Twelve cents, gentlemen—twelve cents puts this man to bed. He wouldn’t stand here in the cold if he had any place to go.”
Hurstwood swallowed something that rose to his throat. Hunger and weakness had made a coward of him.
“Here you are,” said a stranger, handing money to the captain.
Now the latter put a kindly hand on the ex-manager’s shoulder.
“Line up over there,” he said.
Once there, Hurstwood breathed easier. He felt as if the world were not quite so bad with such a good man in it. Others seemed to feel like himself about this.
“Captain’s a great feller, ain’t he?” said the man ahead—a little, woe-begone, helpless-looking sort of individual, who looked as though he had ever been the sport and care of fortune.
“Yes,” said Hurstwood, indifferently.
“Huh! there’s a lot back there yet,” said a man farther up, leaning out and looking back at the applicants for whom the captain was pleading.
“Yes. Must be over a hundred to-night,” said another.
“Look at the guy in the cab,” observed a third.
A cab had stopped. Some gentleman in evening dress reached out a bill to the captain, who took it with simple thanks and turned away to his line. There was a general craning of necks as the jewel in the white shirt front sparkled and the cab moved off. Even the crowd gaped in awe.
“That fixes up nine men for the night,” said the captain, counting out as many of the line near him. “Line up over there. Now, then, there are only seven. I need twelve cents.”
Money came slowly. In the course of time the crowd thinned out to a meagre handful. Fifth Avenue, save for an occasional cab or foot passenger, was bare. Broadway was thinly peopled with pedestrians. Only now and then a stranger passing noticed the small group, handed out a coin, and went away, unheeding.
The captain remained stolid and determined. He talked on, very slowly, uttering the fewest words and with a certain assurance, as though he could not fail.
“Come; I can’t stay out here all night. These men are getting tired and cold. Some one give me four cents.”
There came a time when he said nothing at all. Money was handed him, and for each twelve cents he singled out a man and put him in the other line. Then he walked up and down as before, looking at the ground.
The theatres let out. Fire signs disappeared. A clock struck eleven. Another half-hour and he was down to the last two men.
“Come, now,” he exclaimed to several curious observers; “eighteen cents will fix us all up for the night. Eighteen cents. I have six. Somebody give me the money. Remember, I have to go over to Brooklyn yet to-night. Before that I have to take these men down and put them to bed. Eighteen cents.”
No one responded. He walked to and fro, looking down for several minutes, occasionally saying softly: “Eighteen cents.” It seemed as if this paltry sum would delay the desired culmination longer than all the rest had. Hurstwood, buoyed up slightly by the long line of which he was a part, refrained with an effort from groaning, he was so weak.
At last a lady in opera cape and rustling skirts came down Fifth Avenue, accompanied by her escort. Hurstwood gazed wearily, reminded by her both of Carrie in her new world and of the time when he had escorted his own wife in like manner.
While he was gazing, she turned and, looking at the remarkable company, sent her escort over. He came, holding a bill in his fingers, all elegant and graceful.
“Here you are,” he said.
“Thanks,” said the captain, turning to the two remaining applicants. “Now we have some for to-morrow night,” he added.
Therewith he lined up the last two and proceeded to the head, counting as he went.
“One hundred and thirty-seven,” he announced. “Now, boys, line up. Right dress there. We won’t be much longer about this. Steady, now.”
He placed himself at the head and called out “Forward.” Hurstwood moved with the line. Across Fifth Avenue, through Madison Square by the winding paths, east on Twenty-third Street, and down Third Avenue wound the long, serpentine company. Midnight pedestrians and loiterers stopped and stared as the company passed. Chatting policemen, at various corners, stared indifferently or nodded to the leader, whom they had seen before. On Third Avenue they marched, a seemingly weary way, to Eighth Street, where there was a lodging-house, closed, apparently, for the night. They were expected, however.
Outside in the gloom they stood, while the leader parleyed within. Then doors swung open and they were invited in with a “Steady, now.”
Some one was at the head showing rooms, so that there was no delay for keys. Toiling up the creaky stairs, Hurstwood looked back and saw the captain, watching; the last one of the line being included in his broad solicitude. Then he gathered his cloak about him and strolled out into the night.
“I can’t stand much of this,” said Hurstwood, whose legs ached him painfully, as he sat down upon the miserable bunk in the small, lightless chamber allotted to him. “I’ve got to eat, or I’ll die.”
The novelist Theodore Dreiser met Helen (Patges) Richardson in Greenwich Village, where he was then living, in September 1919. They became lovers and moved to Los Angeles shortly after beginning their romance. Helen Richardson was an aspiring actress. She became Dreiser’s second wife.
The following telegram from Helen to Dreiser was dated October 18, 1920.
Can you imagine getting such a telegram? I cannot recall reading any form of correspondence with such a desperate, anguished plea. In fifteen words.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
My Theodore Dreiser site, which has been online for several years, has been updated.
The new web address (URL) is
Please note that, although I haven’t been adding much content lately, the site is not inactive. I have been continually collecting materials and I intend to add some new posts within the next few months. Several posts are in preparation, one of which I am collaborating on with another Deriser researcher. A fair amount of the material is original, meaning that it was obtained from primary sources or sources which seem to have been hitherto overlooked.
I beg forgiveness on account of other writing assignments that have taken priority. I intend to get back to Dreiser soon.
— Roger W. Smith
For the American Literature Association (ALA) conference in San Francisco this coming May:
“Papers are invited on theoretical approaches to [Theodore] Dreiser’s canon and life. Some suggested approaches include Poststructuralism, Feminist Gender Theory, Material Culture, Psychoanalysis, and Philosophy (such as Foucault’s Technology of Self). Topics may include Dreiser’s philosophical writings, fiction, plays, essays, autobiographies, and journalism.”
Yes, but only if they are viewed through the prism of one of the opaque, recondite, and virtually incomprehensible lines of inquiry dear to academia specified in the second sentence above, almost all of them having nothing to do with Dreiser.
The living, breathing Dreiser and most of his works (unless they can be used to support an academically fashionable theory) are of scant interest to them.
— Roger W. Smith
“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Could Theodore Dreiser ever truly love anyone?
The answer is NO.
Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) is an American novelist in whom I have had a longstanding interest.
Roger W. Smith, email to Thomas P. Riggio, November 4, 2016:
“Dreiser (who was not a good husband and never became a parent) was incapable of really, truly loving another person in his adulthood and never did. (See Harry Stack Sullivan’s oft quoted definition of absolute love.) A corollary was that he could never freely accept love or kindness nor trust anyone’s good intentions towards him.
“As Sullivan wrote: ‘When the satisfaction or the security of another person becomes as significant to one as one’s own satisfaction or security, then the state of love exists. Under no other circumstances is a state of love present, regardless of the popular usage of the term.’ (Harry Stack Sullivan, Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry, 1940)
“Dreiser NEVER attained this.”
Thomas P. Riggio, email to Roger W. Smith, November 4, 2016:
“The issue I thought we were discussing was Dreiser’s relationship with women. As to his ability to love another person, that’s another matter — one too complicated, for me at least, to make any judgments about.
“It’s tough enough dealing with that topic in regard to people we know well in our own lives, never mind someone long dead whom we’ve never met. And then there are so many different criteria that people use to determine what it means to love. For instance, you mention only two, not being a husband and not having children, but that could be applied to Christ as well! Philandering husbands might still love their wives: Bill Clinton seems to ‘love’ Hillary, for instance. As I said, it’s too complex for my simple mind to understand, so you may well be correct.”
The following are my conclusions pursuant to the exchange with Professor Riggio.
The issue is not too complex! Biographers and psychobiographers make such judgments all the time.
Dreiser scholars don’t want to go to deeply into his psyche because of what they might find.
The Dreiser archives are massive. He saved practically every letter, telegram, and scrap of paper that ever came into his hands. His love affairs and romantic entanglements have been well documented.
There is much, also, in Dreiser’s own autobiographical writings that reveals how he habitually dealt with other people, his family, relatives, and his spouses. What is notable is that he was constantly worried that someone would be unfaithful to him — or, in the case of non-intimate acquaintances, such as people he had business dealings with — that someone would cheat him. He had many acquaintances, but hardly any in the category of what you would call a best friend. He just plain could not trust or give himself to anyone. In the case of intimate relationships with women, he demanded that they pledge and observe absolute fidelity to him, but would not pledge it to them. See my essay
“Theodore Dreiser, Ervin Nyiregyházi, Helen Richardson, and Marie Pergain” at
for just one example — a very telling one –of how this played out in real life.
— Roger W. Smith
This post is also available as a downloadable Word document (below).
I don’t have a Ph.D. and lack the academic qualifications of many literary scholars, yet I have a broad and deep knowledge of literature from a lifetime of reading. I also happen to be Dreiserian (a devotee of Theodore Dreiser and his works).
When people ask me who my favorite writers are, I will mention a few, usually them same ones: Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Johnson, William Blake, Charles Dickens, George Gissing, Robert Louis Stevenson, Balzac, Tolstoy, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman … and, Theodore Dreiser.
Dreiser is one of the first I mention. I always experience some embarrassment when I do so. He doesn’t seem to belong in such company.
Dreiser’s massive novel An American Tragedy — it is over 900 pages long — was the book which got me deeply into Dreiser; it bowled me over. I have read it at least twice.
I have been rereading portions of the novel recently. I am surprised how well it holds up and that much of its impact seems undiminished.
Yet Dreiser couldn’t write! Here’s what some commentators have said in the past about this:
Dreiser writes bunglingly and poorly. His style is groping, clumsy and crude, and sometimes even outrageous. He has no sense of form, and he constantly piles up irritating and useless detail. (guest contributor, Oakland Tribune, 1934)
His novels are excruciatingly long, clumsily written, with endless stretches of tedium and scarcely a single redeeming touch of lightness or humor. (Charles A. Fecher, Chicago Tribune, 1990)
Smooth prose composition eluded [Dreiser] forever. His style was raw, his sentences often bewildering, and he organized poorly. Dreiser’s major novels are structurally chaotic, causing one to wonder if he outlined his material before commencing a project. (Larry Swindell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 1994)
To read Dreiser is to become aware of a flat declamatory tone apparently unconcerned with niceties of style. He has been described as the kind of writer who triumphs over his own deficiencies of style, and as a writer who rummages through his characters’ thoughts with the impatient thoroughness of a child left alone to explore the contents of an attic. (Geoffrey O’Brien, Bookforum, 2003)
[His] tales of the rise and fall of ordinary people in the Gilded Age retained their power despite slovenly diction, bad grammar, and the author’s penchant for surges of bombastic prose-poetry. (Scott McLemee, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2004)
Theodore Dreiser couldn’t write.
Or could he?
An American Tragedy has stock characters — notably Sondra Finchley, a 1920’s flapper, the love interest of Clyde Griffiths — who are unbelievable. Clyde is infatuated with the vain and emotionally vapid Sondra because of her wealth and social status.
Dreiser’s prose is turgid and leaden.
Dreiser copied whole chunks of the book from press accounts of an actual murder case. (An American Tragedy, Dreiser’s first and only bestseller, was published in 1925.)
Admitted, thricely. The charges against Dreiser qua writer, that is.
The Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case of 1906 (upon which An American Tragedy was based) fixated public attention and still fascinates people today. It remained for Dreiser to make literature out of it — the way, say, Herman Melville (a far greater writer than Dreiser) made literature out of the sinking of the whaleship Essex in Moby-Dick. In so doing, Dreiser created a classic which far outranks his first novel Sister Carrie (which is more widely read).
The power of An American Tragedy is undeniable. It retains that power upon being reread.
Dreiser’s crude, flat prose style is just right for the narrative. I just opened, totally at random, to a page in my 1948 World Publishing Company edition of An American Tragedy. Book Two, Chapter XLV contains the following paragraph about Clyde Griffiths, the central character (Clyde was based a real life model, Chester Gillette):
And Clyde, listening at first with horror and in terror, later with a detached and philosophic calm as one who, entirely apart from what he may think or do, is still entitled to consider even the wildest and most desperate proposals for his release, at last, because of his own mental and material weakness before pleasures and dreams which he could not bring himself to forgo, psychically intrigued to the point where he was beginning to think that it might be possible. Why not? Was it not even as the voice said — a possible and plausible way — all his desires and dreams to be made real by this one evil thing? Yet in his case, because of flaws and weaknesses in his own unstable and highly variable will, the problem was not to be solved by thinking thus — then — nor for the next ten days for that matter.
Is this the prose of a James Joyce? Decidedly not. It is heavy on exposition (granted, this is an expository passage), perhaps too much so. That can be said of the entire book. Yet, there is something about Dreiser’s prose that, in the case of this novel, is extremely effective.
There is a sort of Joycean technique (believe it or not) operating here. The narrator, the author’s, voice is “representing,” standing in for, the thoughts of the character. We thereby enter Clyde’s consciousness.
This is true of the entire book. We are like bystanders of Clyde’s psyche. We are always present, observing him close up without authorial intervention. In fact, Dreiser, by “getting out of the way” — by not distinguishing between what is exposition and what is narration — has merged the two and made the book thereby ten times more powerful in its impact. We almost become Clyde. This makes the book very powerful, very effective.
The narrative flows artlessly yet effortlessly. We are drawn right in. We can’t desist.
To read the book is to identify with Clyde and his predicament. And, we can’t stop reading. It is also very readable because the style — to the extent there is one — aids and abets the story, fits right in with it, doesn’t get in the story’s way; is not pretentious; is entirely unaffected. It’s like some old timer sitting on his front porch and telling you a story he heard about once.
Here, at least, Dreiser gains by being non-literary. He wrote a classic.
An American Tragedy stands by itself. It is not allied with and wasn’t written as a response to or commentary on any literary fashion or trend. It is sui generis, autochthonous.
As was the case with its author, the book has muscled its way into the corpus of great American novels. It belongs there, even if few would care to admit it.
Even though it’s hardly ever taught nowadays in English courses.
— Roger W. Smith
A comment by Professor Emeritus Thomas Kranidas:
Roger — a fine defense. The novel has outlasted many more elegant and “accomplished” books by better writers who can not match the power of the novels that Dreiser has left us. And, “Tragedy” is the best of the bunch. — Tom K