- Oh Captain, My CaptainDreiser and the Chaplain of Madison Square
Among the many minor characters in Sister Carrie, none is more striking than a solitary unnamed figure called the "Captain." He enters the novel when Hurstwood is at his lowest point, a relic of his old self at one hundred and thirty-five pounds, reduced to wandering the streets in shabby clothes.1 A bout of pneumonia had cost him his janitorial job at the storied Broadway Central Hotel, and after being released from Bellevue Hospital, he is "a short step to beggary" (463). He becomes one of the many homeless of the city and is close to the suicidal moment that comprises the original climax of the novel. He goes to the theater where Carrie is playing, hoping for a handout, but with no luck. At that moment, "when Broadway is wont to assume its most interesting aspect," when the night revelers and well-heeled crowd fill the gaily lit streets of what was then the theater district, a "peculiar individual did in those days invariably take his stand at the corner of 26th Street and Broadway" (465).
Dreiser provides a few biographical facts about the Captain. He is "no less than an ex-soldier turned religionist, who, having suffered the whips and privations of our peculiar social system, had concluded that his duty to the God which he conceived lay in aiding his fellow-man. The form of aid which he chose to administer was entirely original with himself. It consisted of securing a bed for all such homeless way-farers as should apply to him at this particular spot, though he had scarcely the wherewithal to provide a comfortable habitation for himself" (465–66). A "stocky figure cloaked in a great cape overcoat, his head protected by a broad slouch hat" (466), he encounters a passing policeman who "saluted him as 'Captain' in a friendly way" (466). We never learn the nature of his privations or [End Page 23] whether he was a Civil War (or perhaps even Spanish American War) veteran or simply a member of a standing army.
As do his appearance and personal history, the Captain's actions amplify the spectacle of the scene. The ritual, it is suggested, is the same each time he comes to this spot (which Dreiser tells us in a subsequent essay is the Worth Monument2). He begins by appearing at the monument on 25th Street and Broadway—Dreiser miswrote 26th Street—just in front of Madison Square. His arrival is awaited by down-and-out vagrants and the homeless, who slowly start to gather near him. He then begins to appeal to the passing crowd for money to bed the unfortunates in a lodging-house, at twelve-cents a man. His charges are placed in a select line in the order of their arrival and receive nightly shelter only to the extent that the onlookers contribute money. He exhorts the passers-by: "Now then, gentlemen, these men are without beds. They have got to have some place to sleep tonight. They can't lie out in the streets." Finally he has collected enough for all ($137) and he marches them forth with a military command, "Forward," to a lodging house on Third Avenue and 8th Street. He waits until the last man enters the shelter: "then he gathered his cloak about him and strolled out into the night" (472).
Dreiser's fascination with this "peculiar individual" was not limited to his appearance in Sister Carrie. The Captain is the subject of two pieces of journalism, one published before, one after the novel: "Curious Shifts of the Poor" in Demorest's 36 (November 1899); "A Touch of Human Brotherhood" in Success 5 (March 1902). This essay will focus on the evolving nature of Dreiser's fixation on the Captain, a development that tells us as much about Dreiser's state of mind between 1898 and 1902 as it does about the Captain. I also will describe the real-life source for the character and the ways Dreiser transformed him in his writing.
In Sister Carrie the Captain appears solely in one chapter...