Dreiser is considered a major American novelist, and like many writers, he spent a good portion of his career working for newspapers and magazines. The thirty-eight sketches here originally appeared in various New York newspapers and Dreiser's own magazine, The Bohemian. Around 3-10 pages each, they are vivid portraits of New York City between 1900-15, but not of the high life. Rather, the pieces "are the very antithesis.. of all that glitter and glister that made the social life of that day so superior. Its shadow, if you will, its reverse face." This was a time when, as he writes in his foreword, "...the city, as I see it, was more varied and arresting and, after its fashion, poetic and even idealistic then than it is now" and there were "greater social and financial contrasts."
The pieces can be roughly divided into those about people, those about places, and a few more abstract pieces about the mood of a place or time. All are drawn from his years of wandering the streets with an observant and curious eye, and those about people tend to be the strongest and of most interest to the contemporary reader. As Dreiser wrote, "I was never weary of spying out how the other fellow lived and how he made his way." Anyone interested in the social history of New York will find such pieces as "Bums", "The Toilers of the Tenements", "The Track Walker", "The Pushcart Man", "The Bread-Line", "Our Red Slayer" (about a butcher in an abattoir), "The Man on the Bench", "The Men in the Dark", "The Men in the Storm", "The Sandwich Men" and others well worth reading. his writing on place tends to be very good too, especially in "The Waterfront", "The Car Yard", "A Vanished Seaside Resort", "A Wayplace of the Fallen", "The Bowery Mission", and "Christmas in the Tenements." Less interesting are his more clunky poetical musings, such as "The Flight of Pigeons", "On Being Poor", "The Realization of an Ideal", "The Beauty of Life" and "The Freshness of the Universe." The prose throughout is a little clunky and old-fashioned, but the subject matter is what's important, and as Dreiser writes "they bear, I think, the stamp of their hour."