American Radicals Some Problems and Personalities

By Harvey Goldberg | Go to book overview

2
Theodore Dreiser: Ishmael in the Jungle

JOHN LYDENBERG


I

"I WAS AN ISHMAEL, a wanderer."1 So Dreiser spoke of himself during his homeless newspaper days in the 1890s. Did he think of himself as an outcast, too? As the son of Hagar, the slave girl, instead of Sarah, the proper wife? Whether he did or no, his birth on the wrong side of the Terre Haute tracks marked him as drastically as did Ishmael's birth in the wrong tent. America does not cast out the sons of its servant girls to wander in the desert, but in the 1870s it did not readily accept them as priests in its Back Bay or Fifth Avenue temples. If not an outcast, Dreiser was at least an outsider.

At one time the outsider seemed about to push his way in. Only a few years after he had stood on the banks of the East River so lonely and disheartened that he planned to jump in, he was a $10,000-a-year editor of the Butterick publications. Flashily dressed, confident behind his shiny desk, he fashioned articles that would please the new-rich ladies who sought culture and chic in the slick pages of the Delineator.

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