- Urban Space and Cultural Imagination: Representation of Working Girls in Theodore Dreiser's Novels by Yuping Wang
In 2014, one of the authors of this review, Jason Wang, visited China and was surprised to discover that Th eodore Dreiser was among the most popular early twentieth-century American writers as evidenced anecdotally in sales numbers and scholarly citations. There are ideological reasons: Dreiser was fascinated with communism, probing into themes of social justice and economic inequality in ways that resonate with current-day China, which is run by the communist party but has adopted many capitalist principles. Unlike other American authors of the era, such as Richard Wright, Claude McKay, or John Dos Passos, whose social agendas were often about rebellion and reforms, Dreiser was a chronicler and observer, whose profession as a storyteller also provided an outlet for many of his social ambivalences. Dreiser's sympathy for his fictional working girls Carrie Meeber, Jennie Gerhardt, and Roberta Alden is off-set by his fascination with financier-womanizer Frank Cowperwood, a ruthless figure of power based on Chicago street car magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes while anticipating the moral ambiguity of America's 45th President Donald Trump. Dreiser's imagination regarding social change is often more about individual economic advancement than radical political reform. There is a poignant connection to be made with today's China, whose egalitarian politics coexist side by side with its tremendous global market growth, and the individualistic successes of its home-made billionaires.
There are similar parallels in the domain of gender and Dreiser's approach to women's issues speaking to Chinese readers on multiple levels. In her analysis of Jennie Gerhardt, Yuping Wang, the author of the book under review, writes that Jennie fulfills traditional women's roles as "a filial daughter, a dutiful wife, and a loving mother," and as a result finds herself caught in efforts of identity construction that "exemplify the conflict between rampant materialism and traditional values [that] pose the moral dilemma for working girls in the city" (74, 75). This kernel fits into a set of traditional Chinese women's moral principles derived from Confucianism, called "Three Obediences and Four Virtues" (Chinese: 三从四德). The Three Obediences for a woman determined her relationships as a daughter [End Page 92] to her father, a wife to her husband, and a mother to her son (when she is a widow). Jennie Gerhardt is a traditional figure, much like Roberta Alden in An American Tragedy, for whom the upward social mobility is tethered to her relationships with men rather than her own efforts in revamping herself. She often sees Clyde Griffiths as her superior, even though the pair share a similar working-class background. Dreiser's depiction of women is never queer or eccentric or truly radical, and the consistent imbrication of female figures in traditional values makes them familiar to Chinese readers facilitating the adoption of Dreiser's work into Chinese culture.
Yuping Wang's book Urban Space and Cultural Imagination: Representation of Working Girls in Theodore Dreiser's Novels is a revised doctoral dissertation, submitted at Nanjing University, China. In this study of working girls in Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900), Jennie Gerhardt (1911), and An American Tragedy (1925), the author pays particular attention to the contradictory images of working girl characters in cities, who are portrayed as "a newly emerged cultural force that threatens to disrupt the established cultural order and paradigm" (27), but who, at the same time, are highly vulnerable to the new challenges brought by mass industrial urbanization during the progressive era due to their gender and socio-economic status. The concept of the working girl works perfectly in Dreiser's effort in helping his readers understand the material reality of the city through female characters. Among the three novels, the female characters are all migrants to the...