Poor Mothers? Women's Agency, Adoption and Class in Theodore Dreiser's Delineator (1907-10) and Jennie Gerhardt  (1911)

Davies, J. (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk


Towards the end of Dreiser’s 1911 novel Jennie Gerhardt, the title character adopts two young children. The first, “a chestnut-haired girl” whom Jennie names Rose Perpetua, is “taken from the Western Home for the Friendless.” The second, Harry, is adopted in part as Jennie’s response to her failure to gain a post in “some charitable organization” because “she did not understand the new theory of charity which was then coming into general acceptance and practice—namely, only to help others to help themselves.” By contrasting Jennie’s adoptions with first a Victorian asylum and then the investigative, family-centered programs introduced by Progressive reformers, the novel does more than simply foreground Jennie’s virtues; it positions her at the center of contemporary debates about gender, class, and the role of the state.
Dreiser had involved himself in these debates when late in 1907, in his role as editor of the Delineator, he had launched the “Child-Rescue” campaign, aimed at taking children out of institutions and having them adopted (after suitable checks) by readers of the magazine. This paper argues that Child-Rescue was both more ideologically complex, and more relevant to Dreiser’s literary career, than social historians and biographers have yet acknowledged. It first demonstrates how Child-Rescue served competing political agendas, reflecting wider pressures on the Progressive movement. As both a personal appeal to individual women’s maternal feelings, and a public campaign for policy reform, Child-Rescue exemplifies the Delineator’s function as a storehouse for models of agency that enabled women to negotiate between the domestic and public spheres of American modernity. At the same time, the campaign incorporated elements of ethnic nativism and middle-class particularism characteristic of the (Theodore) Rooseveltian brand of Progressivism. In that sense the Delineator helped articulate a sensibility that was fundamentally middle-class, yet under Dreiser this perspective was widened by the presentation of individual case studies of “abandoned” children, and through the sympathetic portrayal of working-class mothers. In these micro-narratives, I will show, Dreiser defended working-class mothers against not only Victorian moralizing but also their construction as the objects of middle-class knowledge, and he did so in terms that echo his earlier fiction and magazine work, and should shape our understanding of Jennie Gerhardt.
Period25 May 2018
Held atAmerican Literature Association, United States
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Theodore Dreiser
  • gender
  • American literature
  • adoption
  • literature
  • magazines