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Sister Carrie
"A Strangely Strong Novel
in a Queer Milieu"
Curated by Nancy M. Shawcross
Rare Book & Manuscript Library
University of Pennsylvania

Sister Emma

Photograph of Emma Dreiser

Despite the melodramas of her youth and young adulthood, which provided the raw material for some of Dreiser's tales, Emma Dreiser ultimately tried to live a respectable, middle-class existence, first with Hopkins, then later with her second husband, John Nelson. Dreiser, in fact, published the second volume of his autobiography (entitled A Book About Myself) first, fearing the upset that the first volume would create with Emma, as well as with his other sisters Mame and Sylvia. It appears that the title of Dreiser's first novel derives from the affectionate way that Emma would sign her letters to him: "I remain your/ Sister Emma."

Before there was a sister Carrie, there was Theodore Dreiser's sister Emma. Born 27 August 1871, Dreiser was the ninth child amid a clan that comprised ten surviving siblings. Among his five older sisters were Mame, Emma, Sylvia, and Theresa, young women who bristled under their father's strict moral demands as well as the economic and social limitations resulting from his business failures. In the mid-1880s, when Dreiser was a teenager and his family had left Chicago to live in Warsaw, Indiana, not only did the unwed Sylvia become pregnant by the son of a wealthy family in town, but Emma had also lived the events that would form an essential aspect of the plot for the novel Sister Carrie. Having left her Chicago lover, who was an architect, Emma took up with L. A. Hopkins, the urbane cashier of Chapin & Gore, a fashionable bar in downtown Chicago. Although initially unaware that Hopkins was already married, she nevertheless agreed to elope with him to Montreal, only to learn once they arrived that he had stolen $3,500 from the safe at Chapin & Gore and they were fugitives. Eventually he returned the money, save $800, with the hope that he would not be prosecuted, and the couple fled to New York.

Dreiser's coming of age in a family on hard economic times, which entailed frequent moves and even the splitting up of the family, left an indelible imprint: the social embarrassment and alienation felt by Dreiser, as well as the unfairness of it all, haunted him for the rest of his life. Yet it also provided him with the sensibility as a novelist to present his characters honestly but not necessarily judge them. Their strengths and weaknesses receive equal treatment and the social and economic conditions that shape their lives remain at the center of his re-creation of their stories and milieu. Dreiser was torn by the actions of his sisters: on the one hand, he agreed with his father that their behavior was shameful (if for no other reason than the public scandal and gossiping it engendered), but he was also the one who "rescued" Emma from Hopkins years later in New York (the two were still together but Hopkins was unemployed and urging Emma to rent rooms to prostitutes). Through a pretext that he was leaving New York for Pittsburgh, Dreiser invited Emma to join him there. She told Hopkins that she was accepting her brother's offer; she moved, however, into a small apartment only a few blocks away in Manhattan.


John Paul Dreiser

Sarah Dreiser

Theresa Dreiser

Ed Dreiser

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