“This Disintegrating Force”: Reading Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie as a Narrative of Black Upward Mobility

Abstract: In this essay, I argue that Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie can be read as a narrative of African American migration to the Northern cities. Sister Carrie engages with social change at the turn of the century, of which the migration of African Americans and others to large urban centers was a significant part. The novel describes the social fall and ruin of the middle-class figure Hurstwood while it depicts Carrie as an ethnic Other becoming rich and famous. In numerous accounts of Carrie’s attitudes and behavior, there are striking similarities to stereotypes of African Americans, which were widely circulated through the era’s popular culture. Moreover, the way in which Carrie achieves fame as a Broadway actress echoes the success that a number of black performers were experiencing there for the first time. Through these resemblances, the turn-of-the-century reader could come to recognize an important subtext in Sister Carrie—the possibility of upward mobility for African Americans moving to places such as New York City or Chicago.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, there was a sense among many Americans that the United States was facing an ethnic crisis (Howard 86; Wonham 88). This was largely due to the mass arrival of Southern and Eastern European immigrants who were settling in America as well as to the so-called Negro problem that was starting to develop into a nationwide concern.1 This essay proposes that the title character of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) evokes certain African American stereotypes in such a way that her journey toward success could resonate with fears of black upward mobility that were prevalent at the time of the novel’s publication.

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