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"MyBrother Paul" and Sister Carrie John P.O'Neill In 1909Theodore Dreiser wrote a tribute to his brother Paul that was eventuallypublished ten years later as one of the sketches in his volume Twelve Men.1 Paul, thirteen years Theodore's senior, and the eldest of the Dreiser children, had died in January 1906.At the turn of the century he was New York'smost successful composer of popular songs, but four years later he was convinced that his life had been a failure. The small fortune he had acquired had by then vanished, spent lavishly or given away to numerous friends or acquaintances down on their luck but canny enough to cross Paul's path on hisfavorite walk up Broadway toward the Metropole Hotel. Paul's type of song, the floridly sentimental ballad then called the "sobber," had slipped fromfavor by the time of his death, replaced by the jaunty, knowing rhythms of ragtime.2 "My Gal Sal" was to win him a burst of posthumous glory and his''On the Banks of the Wabash" would later be enshrined as Indiana's state song; but a full two years before his death Paul had decided that he could no longer write hit songs, while quarrels with his former music publishing partners and a general ineptitude in business had deprived him of profits from earlier successes. Almost as though he had been a character in one of his own songs, Paul Dresser 3 dropped from brilliant celebrity to oblivion inthe nine years before his younger brother composed "My Brother Paul." As Dreiser tells us in his autobiography, Paul's early success as an entertainer-from the 1880she played minstrel shows, vaudeville, farce and Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 16, Number 4, Winter 1985,411-424 412 John P.O'Neill comedies-occasionally brought glamor and badly needed cash to the struggling Dreiser family.4 The young Theodore would point to theatrical posters pasted on fences to prove to the other town boys that the stout young man gorgeously decked out in fur coat and top hat then visiting at the Dreiser house was really Paul Dresser, whose show was to open at the opera house for a limited engagement. Paul would swoop down on the desperate family with stories of Chicago and St. Louis, extravagant, heart-felt affection for his mother and, for his brother, a year's supply of clothing from his outgrown or outmoded wardrobe. And then he would be off again. Such memories were still very strong in Theodore's mind when he started his sketch in 1909. Since those early days Paul had saved him more than once, with aid more substantial, if no more generously given, than that ofa useable winter coat. That the source of such generosity had himself sunk into failure was probably too painful a story for Dreiser to tell before he had achieved some personal security of his own; but by 1907 Sister Carriehad been reissued and the novelist could hope for its reasonable success. Two years later he was enjoying a growing reputation as a young novelist with the courage to take on the Philistines. Magazines accepted his articles. He became the successful editor of The Delineator, one of the Butterick Company's women's magazines, earning ten thousand dollars a year, a sum no member of his family save Paul could ever have dreamt of. He bought land, invested in apple orchards in the state of Washington, secretly acquired control of a second monthly (Elias, pp. 143-46).Shored up against catastrophe, at least for the moment, he was ready to undertake Paul's story. "My Brother Paul" deserves more attention from Dreiser scholars than it has received.5 The novelist exploited his family history throughout his entire career; here he portrays the familymember who exerted the greatest influence on that part of his character where emotional need fused with artistic ambitions. Paul and Theodore both fled the small town, their father's moral rigidity,and the Dreiser family's poverty and social disgrace. To both brothers the best chance of escape and eventual success seemed to lie in the city.Both created substantial bodies of work that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 411-424
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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