When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister's address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money. It was in August, 1889. She was eighteen years of age, bright, timid, and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth. Whatever touch of regret at parting characterised her thoughts, it was certainly not for advantages now being given up. A gush of tears at her mother's farewell kiss, a touch in her throat when the cars clacked by the flour mill where her father worked by the day, a pathetic sigh as the familiar green environs of the village passed in review, and the threads which bound her so lightly to girlhood and home were irretrievably broken. To be sure there was always the next station, where one might descend and return. There was the great city, bound more closely by these very trains which came up daily. Columbia City was not so very far away, even once she was in Chicago. What, pray, is a few hours-a few hundred miles? She looked at the little slip bearing her sister's address and wondered. She gazed at the green landscape, now passing in swift review, until her swifter thoughts replaced its impression with vague conjectures of what Chicago might be. When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility. The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye. Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman. A blare of sound, a roar of life, a vast array of human hives, appeal to the astonished senses in equivocal terms. Without a counsellor at hand to whisper cautious interpretations, what falsehoods may not these things breathe into the unguarded ear! Unrecognised for what they are, their beauty, like music, too often relaxes, then weakens, then perverts the simpler human perceptions.
Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) was an American novelist and journalist. Born in Indiana, Dreiser was the son of John Paul Dreiser, a German immigrant, and Sarah Maria Schanab, a Mennonite from Ohio who converted to Catholicism and was banished by her community. Raised in a family of thirteen children, of which he was the twelfth, Dreiser attended Indiana University for a year before taking a job as a journalist for the Chicago Globe. While working for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Dreiser wrote articles on Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Dean Howells, as well as interviewed such figures as Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison. In 1900, he published his debut novel Sister Carrie, a naturalist portrait of a young midwestern woman who travels to Chicago to become an actress. Despite poor reviews, he continued writing fiction, but failed to find real success until An American Tragedy (1925), a novel based on the 1906 murder of Grace Brown. Considered a masterpiece of American fiction, the novel grew his reputation immensely, leading to his nomination for the 1930 Nobel Prize in Literature, which ultimately went to fellow American Sinclair Lewis. Committed to socialism and atheism throughout his life, Dreiser was a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America and a lifelong champion of the working class.