Read an Excerpt
From Herbert Leibowitz’s Introduction to Sister Carrie
Since its publication in 1900, Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser’s first novel, has incited two kinds of controversy: moral and artistic. When Dreiser submitted his book to the respectable publishing firm of Doubleday, Page and Co., it was initially met with enthusiasm. Serving as a reader, the novelist Frank Norris strongly recommended that the book be acquired. Walter Page also admired the novel. But when Mrs. Doubleday read the manuscript, she argued vehemently that it was an immoral work and urged her husband Frank not to publish it. Why? Because the author did not punish Carrie, a kept woman, with death or disgrace, as the wages of sin deserved, but rewarded her with success in the theater and material comfort. Mrs. Doubleday would not have been swayed by the blunt judgment of an interviewer for the New York Herald in 1907: Sister Carrie “reverses the canting code of the cheap novelist—the woman transgresses, but the man pays.” A disinterested judge might construe Carrie’s failed pursuit of happiness as a harsh fate, but to the custodians of conventional morality that argument countenanced exposing vulnerable young women like Carrie to a life of vice. Even in the wake of the Gilded Age’s sensational scandals—the Beecher-Tilton trial, in which influential Brooklyn preacher Henry Ward Beecher was accused of adultery with one of his parishioners, and the murder of the distinguished architect Stanford White by Harry Thaw, a jealous husband—sex was a taboo subject for novelists, to be treated, if at all, obliquely. To his credit, Dreiser stubbornly refused to bow to the publisher’s pressure either to withdraw the novel or tamper with its moral vision. When the company’s legal department advised that Doubleday, Page was contractually bound to publish Sister Carrie, it did so—albeit in a stingy edition of 1,000 plus copies. Norris, however, managed to send the novel to reviewers across the country, so it was read, mainly by writers. In 1901 the British publisher William Heinemann published Sister Carrie to widespread acclaim, and by 1907, after B. W. Dodge and Company reprinted the novel in a substantial edition, Dreiser’s American readership had also grown.
In affluent periods like the 1950s, the book’s reputation dropped because critics savagely attacked Dreiser’s artistry, often measuring his flaws against the subtle art of Henry James. Where James was a cynosure of formal innovation and complex presentation of consciousness, Dreiser played the omniscient author in a ponderous didactic style, they grumbled, seldom allowing his characters’ traits and choices to unfold organically from the dramatic action. They considered it a blunder to announce in the early chapters of Sister Carrie that his protagonist would never find happiness. Moreover, where James’s prose was intricate and radiant as spun gold, Dreiser’s was pedestrian and maudlin. Dreiser was the inferior novelist.
Such charges would not have fazed the author. Sister Carrie, he remarked in a 1907 New York Times interview, was “intended not as a piece of literary craftsmanship, but as a picture of conditions done as simply and effectively as the English language will permit.” Indeed, during times of depression, when the country was wracked with social and economic conflict, bringing hardship and ruin in its wake, Dreiser’s novels moved readers because they brilliantly demonstrated the human costs of an unregulated system that enabled “the high and the mighty” to flourish while a huge segment of the population struggled merely to subsist. Dreiser understood that the dirty secret of American society was class—not only its injustices and injuries, but the dreams of power and money, status and fame that it inspired. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to ignore his detractors’ misgivings or to dispute Dreiser’s occasional clumsiness: his tedious repetitions of words and motifs, his fondness for pontificating about women’s emotional makeup, and the banality of some of his images—for example, he describes Carrie several times as a wisp in a vast sea.
But Dreiser’s faults, though noticeable and annoying, count for little when weighed against his strengths: among them his psychological acumen (he grasps the elemental force of self-interest and illusion—he calls it “Elfland”—that drives people’s lives), and the sturdy structure he devises for Sister Carrie (Carrie rises from poor, unformed waif to theatrical celebrity, while her lover, Hurstwood, falls from prosperous tavern manager to beggar and suicide). Despite chapter headings that spell out explicitly, as in a popular melodrama, the war between desire and conscience, flesh and spirit, Dreiser refuses to accept William Dean Howells’s bromide that American novelists should focus on “the smiling aspects of life.”
Beautiful factory girls from down-at-heels families do not in Dreiser’s novels defend their virtue and then at the curtain marry the handsome scion of a rich industrialist and live happily ever after. Morality, in Sister Carrie, consists of shades of gray. Dreiser is a sober, uncompromising realist.
Above all, Dreiser excels at anatomizing the pathologies and inequities of American life—in particular, the profound gulf between rich and poor. Like his contemporary, the pioneering social worker Jane Addams, he deplored the fact that a small number of people accumulated enormous wealth, while the vast majority of citizens lived in abject poverty, working long hours at dangerous, soul-killing jobs for meager pay. When Carrie is hired by a shoe factory, at a salary of $4.50 a week, to stamp holes in uppers, she recoils from being a cog in the machine, one of several nondescript “clattering automatons.” The prospect of a future shackled to dull routine demoralizes her. It does not take her long to notice and envy the conspicuous consumerism on a grand scale that surrounds her in Chicago (and later in New York): “the magnificent residences, the splendid equipages, the gilded shops, restaurants, resorts of all kinds; . . . the flowers, the silks the wines.” For Carrie, Chicago’s Vanity Fair, with its array of showy goods, promises unimaginable satisfactions. For Dreiser—and this is the solemn major theme of Sister Carrie—money confers neither freedom nor spiritual contentment. Sister Carrie is the fictional complement to Thorstein Veblen’s sociological classic The Theory of the Leisure Class and the American cousin of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.