Novels set in Chicago: Sister Carrie

Being one of the great cities of the world, many novels have been set in Chicago. This is the first of a series looking in how the city has been portrayed/described in novels.

While it would be difficult to find anyone shocked by Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie nowadays, it almost never made it to the shelves. While it was accepted for publication by Doubleday & McClure Company, it was thought too sordid. Their hands tied, however, Dreiser was able to get them to publish about 1,000 copies in 1900. The company did everything they could to downplay the book, refusing to advertise for it. Eventually, through Dreiser’s refusal to let the book die, it ultimately became extremely popular and is now considered a classic.

In brief, Sister Carrie is the story of Carrie Meeber, who leaves her small town in Wisconsin to move to Chicago when she is 18. The first half of the book is set in turn-of-the-century Chicago and it’s this portion that interests me here. As a note on Dreiser’s connection with the city, he was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, and moved to Chicago when he was 16. He would eventually write for the Chicago Globe. Seeing as how he was a newspaper writer, Dreiser offers some great naturalistic descriptions of the city prior to 1900.

Now let’s dive into some excerpts from the text.

Chapter 1

While Carrie is on the train from Columbia City, Wisconsin to Chicago in 1889 she meets a man named Drouet and this is part of their exchange.

“I am going to visit my sister,” she explained.
“You want to see Lincoln Park,” he said, “and Michigan Boulevard. They are putting up great buildings there. It’s a second New York—great. So much to see—theatres, crowds, fine houses—oh, you’ll like that.” (pg. 11)

Discussing where he works and where she’ll live –

“That’s me,” he said, putting the card in her hand and touching his name. “It’s pronounced Drew-eh. Our family was French, on my father’s side.”

She looked at it while he put up his purse. Then he got out a letter from a bunch in his coat pocket. “This is the house I travel for,” he went on, pointing to a picture on it, “corner of State and Lake.” There was pride in his voice. He felt that it was something to be connected with such a place, and he made her feel that way.

“What is your address?” he began again, fixing his pencil to write.

She looked at his hand.

“Carrie Meeber,” she said slowly. “Three hundred and fifty-four West Van Buren Street, care S. C. Hanson.”

He wrote it carefully down and got out the purse again. “You’ll be at home if I come around Monday night?” he said.

“I think so,” she answered. (pg. 12)

Right beside the Chicago River, 354 W. Van Buren is where Van Buren currently intersects with S. Wacker and, according to Google Maps, there doesn’t seem to be anything at this address.

Chapter 2

Description of her sister’s apartment –

“Minnie’s flat, as the one-floor resident apartments were then being called, was in a part of West Van Buren Street inhabited by families of labourers and clerks, men who had come, and were still coming, with the rush of population pouring in at the rate of 50,000 a year. It was on the third floor, the front windows looking down into the street, where, at night, the lights of grocery stores were shining and children were playing. To Carrie, the sound of the little bells upon the horse-cars, as they tinkled in and out of hearing, was as pleasing as it was novel. She gazed into the lighted street when Minnie brought her into the front room, and wondered at the sounds, the movement, the murmur of the vast city which stretched for miles and miles in every direction.” (pg. 16)

Description of the city –

“Before following her in her round of seeking, let us look at the sphere in which her future was to lie. In 1889 Chicago had the peculiar qualifications of growth which made such adventuresome pilgrimages even on the part of young girls plausible. Its many and growing commercial opportunities gave it widespread fame, which made of it a giant magnet, drawing to itself, from all quarters, the hopeful and the hopeless—those who had their fortune yet to make and those whose fortunes and affairs had reached a disastrous climax elsewhere. It was a city of over 500,000, with the ambition, the daring, the activity of a metropolis of a million. Its streets and houses were already scattered over an area of seventy-five square miles. Its population was not so much thriving upon established commerce as upon the industries which prepared for the arrival of others. The sound of the hammer engaged upon the erection of new structures was everywhere heard. Great industries were moving in. The huge railroad corporations which had long before recognized the prospects of the place had seized upon vast tracts of land for transfer and shipping purposes. Street-car lines had been extended far out into the open country in anticipation of rapid growth. The city had laid miles and miles of streets and sewers through regions where, perhaps, one solitary house stood out alone—a pioneer of the populous ways to be. There were regions open to the sweeping winds and rain, which were yet lighted throughout the night with long, blinking lines of gas-lamps, fluttering in the wind. Narrow board walks extended out, passing here a house, and there a store, at far intervals, eventually ending on the open prairie.” (19-20)

“The entire metropolitan centre possessed a high and mighty air calculated to overawe and abash the common applicant, and to make the gulf between poverty and success seem both wide and deep.” (20)

Chapter 5

“On this particular evening he dined at “Rector’s,” a restaurant of some local fame, which occupied a basement at Clark and Monroe Streets. Thereafter he visited the resort of Fitzgerald and Moy’s in Adams Street, opposite the imposing Federal Building. There he leaned over the splendid bar and swallowed a glass of plain whiskey and purchased a couple of cigars, one of which he lighted. This to him represented in part high life—a fair sample of what the whole must be.” (44)

Rector’s, a seafood restaurant, was opened by Charles Rector in 1884. He opened a second restaurant in New York City in 1899. The corners of Clark and Monroe currently contain Walgreens, McDonalds, Loft, and the Hyatt Centric.

“His preference for Fitzgerald and Moy’s Adams Street place was another yard off the same cloth. This was really a gorgeous saloon from a Chicago standpoint. Like Rector’s, it was also ornamented with a blaze of incandescent lights, held in handsome chandeliers. The floors were of brightly coloured tiles, the walls a composition of rich, dark, polished wood, which reflected the light, and coloured stucco-work, which gave the place a very sumptuous appearance. The long bar was a blaze of lights, polished wood-work, coloured and cut glassware, and many fancy bottles. It was a truly swell saloon, with rich screens, fancy wines, and a line of bar goods unsurpassed in the country.” (45)

Chapter 8

“They walked north on Wabash to Adams Street and then west. The lights in the stores were already shining out in gushes of golden hue. The arc lights were sputtering overhead, and high up were the lighted windows of the tall office buildings. The chill wind whipped in and out in gusty breaths. Homeward bound, the six o’clock throng bumped and jostled. Light overcoats were turned up about the ears, hats were pulled down. Little shop-girls went fluttering by in pairs and fours, chattering, laughing. It was a spectacle of warm-blooded humanity.” (77)

Chapter 12

“Mrs. Hale loved to drive in the afternoon in the sun when it was fine, and to satisfy her soul with a sight of those mansions and lawns which she could not afford. On the North Side had been erected a number of elegant mansions along what is now known as the North Shore Drive. The present lake wall of stone and granitoid was not then in place, but the road had been well laid out, the intermediate spaces of lawn were lovely to look upon, and the houses were thoroughly new and imposing. When the winter season had passed and the first fine days of the early spring appeared, Mrs. Hale secured a buggy for an afternoon and invited Carrie. They rode first through Lincoln Park and on far out towards Evanston, turning back at four and arriving at the north end of the Shore Drive at about five o’clock. At this time of year the days are still comparatively short, and the shadows of the evening were beginning to settle down upon the great city. Lamps were beginning to burn with that mellow radiance which seems almost watery and translucent to the eye. There was a softness in the air which speaks with an infinite delicacy of feeling to the flesh as well as to the soul. Carrie felt that it was a lovely day. She was ripened by it in spirit for many suggestions. As they drove along the smooth pavement an occasional carriage passed. She saw one stop and the footman dismount, opening the door for a gentleman who seemed to be leisurely returning from some afternoon pleasure. Across the broad lawns, now first freshening into green, she saw lamps faintly glowing upon rich interiors. Now it was but a chair, now a table, now an ornate corner, which met her eye, but it appealed to her as almost nothing else could. Such childish fancies as she had had of fairy palaces and kingly quarters now came back. She imagined that across these richly carved entrance-ways, where the globed and crystalled lamps shone upon panelled doors set with stained and designed panes of glass, was neither care nor unsatisfied desire. She was perfectly certain that here was happiness.” (112-113)

From there the story moves on to New York, and so I’ll leave those descriptions to someone out there who’s as interested in NY literary history as I am in Chicago literary history.

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