Looking for Sister Carrie

November 8: TheodoreDreiser’s Sister Carrie was publishedon this day in 1900, under conditions that became famous and controversial.Dreiser wrote his book in an eight-month stretch in 1899-1900. His wife and hisfriend, fellow journalist Arthur Henry, helped him eliminate or soften some ofthe sexual material that, it was felt, would make the book too risky forprospective publishers. The first one approached, Harper and Brothers, stillfound the writing “neither firm enough nor sufficiently delicate to depictwithout offense to the reader the continued illicit relations of theheroine.” Just twenty-eight and anxious to see his first novel in print,Dreiser then cut an additional 40,000 words and made more plot changes, includinga new ending. When a second publisher, Doubleday, Page and Company wasapproached, junior partner Walter Page offered a verbal contract for thereworked manuscript, a deal that senior partner Frank Doubleday found highlydistasteful but binding. Unable to cancel the deal, Doubleday effectivelysuppressed the book by refusing to advertise it: only 456 copies were sold,earning Dreiser $68.40 and triggering a nervous breakdown that kept him fromnovel writing for a decade. (Though there was perhaps a silver lining: whilereturning from England in 1912, Dreiser was too poor to afford the Titanic, andsailed a few days earlier on a less expensive boat.)

A fully “restored” edition of the novel has beenavailable since the University of Pennsylvania’s 1981 edition. Some scholarsargue that the original Sister Carrieis the valid text, as any book is a compromise of author, editors, economics,and public taste; others maintain that Dreiser, like his heroine, had been avictim of his publishers and his circumstances, and that his novel is anargument for a less rigid approach to public morality. In Chapter 10, as heframes young Carrie’s decision to move in with her traveling salesman, Dreiserponders our “infantile perception of morals” and our ready judgements:”Answer, first, why the heart thrills; explain wherefore some plaintivenote goes wandering about the world, undying; make clear the rose’s subtlealchemy evolving its ruddy lamp in light and rain. In the essence of thesefacts lie the first principles of morals.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.