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A Famous Novelist Comes to Bloomington

Blog by Rod Spaw

Author Theodore Dreiser had not seen Bloomington in 25 years when he arrived on Aug. 26, 1915. It was his 44th birthday, and the writer of “Sister Carrie” and other novels was on a two-week tour of his native Indiana by automobile.

His means of conveyance was a brand new, 60-horsepower Pathfinder touring car owned by the illustrator Franklin Booth, Dreiser’s friend and fellow Hoosier traveling companion. At the wheel was a young man they called “Speed,” who served as driver, mechanic and navigator.

The three men were on the final leg of a 2,000-mile trek, which had begun on the streets of Manhattan. They already had visited the many places Dreiser’s family had lived in Indiana – Warsaw, Terre Haute, Sullivan, Evansville – and they would include a stop in Bloomington where he had spent the 1889-90 academic year as a college freshman.

There was no fanfare for Dreiser as he entered town that day. No one recognized the author as he wandered about for part of the afternoon. The next year, the whole country would learn of his trip with the publication of “A Hoosier Holiday,” which is considered one of the first so-called “road books” in American literature.

Before continuing to Booth’s family home in Carmel, Dreiser and his companions would have lunch, visit places the author had lived while at college and walk the campus.

The author found Bloomington much changed from the town he first had experienced as an 18-year-old fleeing the drudgery of menial labor in Chicago.

“The former small and by no means cleanly post office, with its dingy paper and knife-marked writing shelf on one side, had been replaced by a handsome government building suitable for a town of thirty or forty thousand,” he wrote in “Hoosier Holiday.” “A new city hall, a thing unthought of in my day, was being erected in a street just south of the square. New bank buildings, dry goods stores, drug store, restaurants, all were in evidence. In my time, there had been but two restaurants, both small and one almost impossible. Now there were four or five quite respectable ones, and one of considerable pretentions.”

It was quite a contrast to his initial impression of Bloomington. “Then, it was so poor and very simple,” he wrote. “I saw more tumble-down wagons, rheumatic and broken-down old men, old, brown, most-covered coats and thin, bony, spavined horses in the Bloomington of 1889 than I ever saw anywhere before or since.”

As for the student population of 1889, Dreiser’s description sounds not unlike what might be said of every generation of college student: “Here I met my first true radicals – young men who disagreed vigorously and at ever point with the social scheme and dogmas as they found it. Here I found the smug conventionalists and grinds seeking only to carve out the details of a profession and subsequently make a living. Here I found the flirt, the college widow and the youth with purely socializing tendencies, who found in college life a means of gratifying an intense and almost chronic desire for dancing, dressing, spooning, living in a world of social airs and dreams.”

Dreiser left IU after one year, convinced he had failed to acquire such skills as would allow him to escape the crushing poverty of his youth. Twenty-five years later, he remembered it as one of the most “vitalizing” periods of his life.

During his time in Bloomington, Dreiser recalled in “Hoosier Holiday,” he “dreamed much, idled, rested; and if at the end of the year I was mentally disgruntled and unhappy, physically I was very much improved. There can be no question of that. And my outlook and ambitions were better.”


Sources: “Hoosier Holiday” and notes of the author held by the Dreiser Collection at the University of Pennsylvania.