“Old Rogaum and His Theresa” portrays the failure of authorities to instill traditional values in the younger generation and the power of dreams to make the tawdry seem beautiful. Set in Greenwich Village in New York City, the story offers a realistic portrait of city life in America, chronicling the dangers that lurk on city streets for a young girl who seeks “life” and dares to challenge the rules of her father, Old Rogaum the butcher.
“Old Rogaum and His Theresa” describes without judgment the power of sexuality. Eighteen-year-old Theresa is not immoral or calculating, only mildy flirtatious and slightly defiant. As do many of Theodore Dreiser’s characters, she seeks something better without really knowing what she wants. Vulnerable because she dreams, Theresa is seduced by a careless youth, and her imagination turns the streets of her working-class neighborhood into an alluring, magical place of splendor and freedom.
The tragic consequences of such dreams are the subject of many of Dreiser’s best stories and novels. Carrie Meeber, in the novel Sister Carrie (1900), is successful but lonely after her climb to stardom, and Clyde Griffiths, in An American Tragedy (1925), stumbles into murder in his desperate pursuit of a better life. Theresa’s tragedy is smaller: She only wanders the streets for a few hours in the company of an irresponsible young man, but the prostitute whom Rogaum finds on his doorstep suggests that a more disturbing fate might befall girls who succumb to the allure of city streets and attractive young men.
Dreiser’s story is a revision of a genre popular at the turn of the century. Sentimental stories abounded of girls who resisted the seductive appeal of city life. In these stories morality was rewarded and waywardness punished. “Old Rogaum and His Theresa” does not moralize. Theresa may fare better if she listens to her father, but he and the police who rescue her are ineffective authorities who have no real control. They can impose rules on Theresa, but they cannot instill in her their traditional mores: Old Rogaum locks his daughter out of the house, but once she returns, Theresa displays little if any concern for her experience. Dreiser experienced fi rsthand the tyranny of fathers in his own father’s iron rule, and he depicts such authoritarianism bitterly in his second novel, Jennie Gerhardt (1911).
“Old Rogaum and His Theresa” was published by Reedy’s Mirror, a small radical magazine that made a point of breaking with genteel literary conventions. Later Dreiser included it in the collection Free and Other Stories (1918), changing the name and making minor revisions.
Pizer, Donal. “A Summer at Maumee: Theodore Dreiser Writes Four Stories.” In Essays Mostly on Periodical Publishing in America, edited by James Woodress. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1973.