Digging Up the Past

Today I’m contemplating the possibility of writing a novel set in Chicago in the 1880s. Or rather, rewriting a novel with that setting that I wrote a couple of years ago. It’s a pretty good story, but it needs more work.

I love historical research, and I’m kind of a maniac about it. I want to get everything exactly right. Fortunately, there’s a lot of extant material packed with details about that time and place. The trick is finding the bits of information you need, and then organizing ten thousand assorted facts, any of which may or may not end up being useful. I have, for example, an official history of the Chicago Police Department, published in 1885. It’s hardly objective about the police, but even so, it’s packed with wonderful glimpses of how life was in those days.

Recently written historical novels are not necessarily reliable as research sources. Fortunately, we have novels that were written at the time. Right now I’m reading Theodore Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie, which opens in 1889 as Carrie, 18 years old, arrives in Chicago on a train from her home town of Columbia City, Wisconsin. It’s her first trip to the big city.

As it turns out, this novel exists in two versions. The standard version, which was published in 1900, was the result of a rather heavy editing job, which tightened up the manuscript by omitting a lot of more or less superfluous verbiage. However, in recent years editors went back to Dreiser’s manuscript and produced an edition that contains, in full, what he originally wrote.

It has to be said, the shorter version is better in a literary sense. Dreiser was a rather heavy-handed pedantic fellow, possibly owing to his German ancestry, and Sister Carrie was his first book. One sometimes has the impression he put in every detail he could think of. But for purposes of historical research, the long version, which is free to download from Project Gutenberg, is a rare find indeed.

Here’s a nice example. At the end of Chapter 2, small-town girl Carrie is venturing on foot across Chicago, a bustling city of half a million people. Dreiser originally wrote this: “She could have understood the meaning of a little stone-cutter’s yard at Columbia City, whittling little pieces of marble for individual use, but when the yards of some huge stone corporation came into view, filled with spur tracks and flat cars, transpierced by docks from the river and traversed by immense trundling cranes of wood and steel overhead, it lost all significance and applicability to her little world.”

That sentence ended up being cut — and that stone-cutter’s yard is exactly the kind of detail I need to have at my fingertips, even though I might not ever use it.

I love this stuff. Just had to share it.

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