Speaking American: A History of English in the United States

By Richard W. Bailey | Go to book overview
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8 Chicago, 1900–1950

IN SISTER CARRIE (1900), Theodore Dreiser imagined a young woman, Caroline Meeber, taking the train from some westward point of departure toward Chicago. She is bent on seeking her fortune, and the grinding toil afflicting her sister, already settled in Chicago, is not to her taste. She soon discovers a more attractive life being supported in leisure by men, and she eventually prospers as a renowned actress in New York.

While morally relaxed, Carrie is linguistically fastidious. In her brief stint of factory work, she is distressed to find that the talk of the other workers is “graced by the current slang.” They are not particular about their language: “there was something hard and low about it all” (Dreiser 1961, 39). The other young women engage in playful banter, make new friends, and speak the language of the city. Carrie is above such connections and such language. She has given up the secure linguistic home of “Crescent City” for Chicago; she is “two generations removed from the immigrant” (2) and ready for something new and different. Dreiser was not reluctant to moralize, though the content of his morality was unlike that of contemporary novelists. At the outset of the tale, the narrator declares that there are only two alternatives for a young woman migrating

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