Theodore Dreiser's image of the pathetic Hurstwood sitting idly in his rocking chair ranks as one of the most memorable in all of American literature. The image, like others before and since, is one of the seeker. This seeker's gaze, however, is fixed not on a whale or a green light at the end of a dock but on a newspaper. In his obsession with newspapers, Hurstwood resembled his real-life contemporaries, the Americans of the nineteenth century, who were fascinated by the phenomenon of journalism. "A hunger for print journalism has often seemed to set Americans apart from the lands they came from," Thomas Leonard has noted, adding, "This New World was frequently defined by its obsession with a page of news." Such a hunger and the growing means for satiating it would seem to have held great promise for America's literary realists, who had built a movement around their insistence on an authentic representation of reality. Who could more credibly lay claim to such a representation than journalists, who were—at least in theory—delivering facts about real people and real events to readers? Not surprisingly, many American realist fiction writers—including Mark Twain, W. D. Howells, Stephen Crane, Dreiser, and even Henry James—had, in fact, worked for newspapers or magazines; however, with the exception of Crane, all eventually not only abandoned journalism, but also singled it out for caustic criticism. What went wrong?
One answer lies in Sister Carrie, one of the era's major literary statements on journalism. Dreiser's novel, which he wrote after working for various newspapers and magazines for years, contains scores of references to "news," "the papers," "notices," and related terms. Joseph J. Kwiat, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, and Nancy Warner Barrineau all have provided useful insights into the impact of Dreiser's journalistic experience on his knowledge, outlook, and style, but few scholars have examined his treatment of journalism in his first novel with the same care that Deborah Garfield and Barbara Hochman have taken in their studies of its treatment of drama. One scholar who has examined the role of newspapers in Sister Carrie is Philip Fisher, who has argued that the newspaper serves as a "mediating object," which both Hurstwood and Carrie employ to achieve other ends. According to Fisher, Hurstwood depends on his beloved papers for comfort, for knowledge of the outside world, and even for a kind of sustenance in a time of starvation, while Carrie turns to the Sunday papers for recognition.
There is, however, another dimension to Dreiser's treatment of newspapers in Sister Carrie, one that belongs to a widespread, caustic critique of journalism by nineteenth-century American authors. In the eyes of Dreiser, James, and Howells as well as a host of others stretching back at least to Edgar Allan Poe, American journalism was failing its readers, leaving them with incomplete or inaccurate pictures of reality. In Sister Carrie, newspaper stories, ads, and notices continually fail for a variety of reasons, while more reliable news and recognition manage to flow through other media, namely personal letters and human conversation. Journalism in this novel comes across as a potentially powerful but ultimately failed medium, one constrained not only by readers' uses of it but by its conventions and practices. Sister Carrie implicitly argues that fiction is the way to truth.
Like Howells and other fellow writers, Dreiser sought to capture reality in words. "The extent of all reality is the realm of the author's pen," he proclaims in "True Art Speaks Plainly," "and a true picture of life, honestly and reverentially set down, is both moral and artistic whether it offends the conventions or not." Dreiser's disillusionment with journalism—specifically newspaper journalism—also parallels that of other writers. As he recounted in his autobiography Newspaper Days, he regularly read Eugene Field's "Sharps and Flats" column in the Chicago Daily News as a young man and came to view newspapers with fascination:
Because the newspapers were always dealing with signs and wonders—great functions, great commercial schemes, great tragedies and pleasures—I began to conceive of them as wonderlands in which all concerned were prosperous and happy. Indeed, so...