“He was the first American novelist to invest the big city with such a hungry, avid sense of power. No one after him has yet rendered the physical discovery of a city in such haunting detail, with so much feeling brought up from the depths of the old small-town experience. . . . Dreiser’s images of the city have a lasting hold because he described the most familiar objects in a great city as if they were foreign to him. The pathos of distance became his fictional perspective, the medium in which his most affecting characters move. Every appearance of the modern city became single, hallucinatory, distinct with that first impression of a new world.”
—Alfred Kazin, An American Procession (1984)
Sister CarrieTheodore Dreiser
They were nearing Chicago. Signs were everywhere numerous. Trains flashed by them. Across wide stretches of flat, open prairie they could see lines of telegraph poles stalking across the fields toward the great city. Far away were indications of suburban towns, some big smoke-stacks towering high in the air.
Frequently there were two-story frame houses standing out in the open fields, without fence or trees, lone outposts of the approaching army of homes.
To the child, the genius with imagination, or the wholly untravelled, the approach to a great city for the first time is a wonderful thing. Particularly if it be evening—that mystic period between the glare and gloom of the world when life is changing from one sphere or condition to another. Ah, the promise of the night. What does it not hold for the weary! What old illusion of hope is not here forever repeated! Says the soul of the toiler to itself, “I shall soon be free. I shall be in the ways and the hosts of the merry. The streets, the lamps, the lighted chamber set for dining, are for me. The theatre, the halls, the parties, the ways of rest and the paths of song—these are mine in the night.” Though all humanity be still enclosed in the shops, the thrill runs abroad. It is in the air. The dullest feel something which they may not always express or describe. It is the lifting of the burden of toil.