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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

Brother Paul

Family-held photograph of Paul Dresser


Vintage photograph of Paul Dresser after gaining fame as composer of popular songs

Inscription: "For Tom Nelson my boyhood friend & schoolmate. Paul Dresser, Sept. 14th/1901"

Born in 1857, John Paul Dreiser, Jr., eldest son of John Paul and Sarah Dreiser, was quick to flee the family, in particular, his stern father and the conventionality of small-town America. High-spirited and mischievous, Paul Dresser--the professional name that he adopted--was musically gifted. As a composer of popular songs, he enjoyed--at times--enormous financial success. In 1895 and in 1897, for example, he published his two biggest-selling hits, " Just Tell Them That You Saw Me" and "On the Banks of the Wabash," yielding for Paul an income of $80,000 (each title sold over a half million copies). Paul frequently came to the financial rescue of his family, and his connections with music publishers Howley-Haviland & Co. gave Dreiser the entree to propose a new journal--with him as editor--entitled Ev'ry Month, a large format magazine comprising four songs per issue and an array of fiction, poetry, interviews, book reviews, photographs, and advice for women.

The influences of Paul Dresser are manifold in Sister Carrie. Upon arriving in Chicago, Carrie is immediately drawn to the excitement and gaiety of popular entertainment. The theatrical world becomes her means to improve her financial life and free herself not only from the dreariness of working-class employment typical for young women of her background but also from the dependency on male companions to underwrite her room and board. Dreiser had an intimate view of this world through his brother Paul. In addition, many scholars have noted that the characters Charlie Drouet and George Hurstwood resemble Paul Dresser--not in terms of occupation but in terms of personality: tremendously affable but shallow, ultimately weak regarding their vanity and sensual appetites. On 30 January 1906 Paul Dresser, forty-eight years old, died of a heart attack at the home of his sister Emma; he was financially destitute and had been abandoned by most of his friends.


December 1896

by Paul Dresser

Letter to Dreiser



by Theodore Dreiser

"Paul is dying"

"My Gal Sal," the song

My Gal Sal, the movie

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