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Friday, October 21, 2011

Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie: America’s pure product and the gift of a young virgin

Guest blog post by Anne Trubek, critic, blogger, and author of A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses

If you read the critical literature, Theodore Dreiser is one giant American cliché. He is boorish, and dull, and a poor stylist (“rhetorical bungling” is how Sandy Petrey put it); he is self-made, and crude. Dreiser has “the awkwardness, the chaos, the heaviness which we associate with reality,” Lionel Trilling said. Critics who champion him do so because “dullness and stupidity must naturally suggest a virtuous democracy.” (Trilling again). You get to imagining Dreiser as some American golem, made from native mud.

His best novel, Sister Carrie, comes a respectable thirty-third on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best. When Sinclair Lewis accepted his Nobel Prize in 1930, he said that Dreiser, “marching alone, usually unappreciated, often hated, [had] cleared the trail from Victorian and Howellsian timidity and gentility in American fiction to honesty and boldness and passion of life. Without his pioneering, I doubt if any of us could, unless we liked to be sent to jail, seek to express life and beauty and terror.” Even when championed, he is our pure product.

And you have to admit Sister Carrie has it all. It is about the rise of a fallen woman, and Carrie’s upward quest takes us through low-wage factory jobs, life as the mistress of a traveling salesman, accomplice to theft, life in New York as a chorus girl, strikes, strikebreakers, celebrity and suicide. The novel’s troubled publishing history illustrates how provocative it was for its time. Women who lose their virtue were to be punished or killed. For Dreiser’s publisher, Doubleday, Page & Co., and by extension the American reading public, it was all too much, too much America and bad faith.

The first person to read the novel at Doubleday was Frank Norris, another young realist, who had just published his first novel, McTeague. Norris enthusiastically recommended Sister Carrie for publication. After a senior editor read and liked the book as well, Walter Page sent Dreiser an encouraging note—“we are very much pleased with your novel”—and invited him to a meeting. Dreiser left with the understanding that his novel would be published that fall, in 1900, although no contract was signed. A few weeks later, Frank Doubleday, the senior partner, returned from a European trip and shortly thereafter the firm’s interest began to lag. One story has Doubleday shocked by Sister Carrie’s seamy depiction of urban life. Another holds that Doubleday’s wife strongly objected to the book.

Doubleday tried to renege on the agreement but relented after Dreiser agreed to change most of the real names in the book and tone down a few sexually explicit passages. One thousand copies were printed, and only 456 sold. The only copies reviewers received were those sent by Norris himself. Dreiser claimed that Doubleday only published Sister Carrie to avoid a lawsuit. Its plain red cover seemed designed to attract as little attention as possible.

Yet Dreiser knew he had tapped into something powerful, something beyond himself, the “national unconscious,” as it were. He even claimed he had nothing to do with the book. On starting to write it, he said: “My mind was a blank except for the name. I had no idea who or what she was to be. I have often thought there was something mystic about it, as if I were being used, like a medium.” On writing the ending he said that he went to the Palisades in New Jersey and, relaxing on a cliff, spent two hours in “a delicious mental drifting. Then suddenly came the inspiration of its own accord. I reached for my notebook and pencil and wrote. And when I left the Palisades Sister Carrie was completed.” He’s the romantic author recollecting in tranquility, but he’s recollecting national longing, not his own.

Ah, but Dreiser the businessman? He was all about taking control and acting in self-interest. After the Doubleday debacle, he bought the book's plates, negotiated contracts, and became a stockholder in the publisher who finally brought it out in 1907. The initial printing of three thousand copies sold out in ten days. Then in 1914, he offered the original, pencil-written manuscript to H. L. Mencken, his friend and literary advocate. Mencken replied that he would relish the manuscript “more than the gift of a young virgin.” Years later, in 1943, Dreiser and Mencken would correspond about the manuscript’s preservation. Mencken wrote:
In New York the other day I dropped in at the public library to see what had been done with the manuscript of Sister Carrie. I had not seen it since it was mounted. These few lines are simply to say that I was genuinely astounded. Lydenberg and his goons did a really magnificent job. The manuscript is beautifully mounted, covered with Japanese tissue and bound in four volumes with the loveliest leather I have seen for years. Each volume is also in a leather box. It is kept in the manuscript vault under the city level and no one can see it without an order from you or me.
Dreiser responded:
It was nice of you to send me your word picture of the Carrie ms. sleeping so royally and peacefully in the subterranean vault of the New York Public Library. What grandeur after her long and poverty stricken beginning! And how pleasant it would be to track down into that royal sanctuary with you and, hat in hand, gaze humbly—maybe, who knows, even genuflect! One can never trust these literary moods that sweep over one on occasion…Well, darling, please thank Dr. Lydenberg for me for his—what shall I call it? Courtesy? Reverence? Sympathy for that once so bedraggled maid.
Ack! What silly romanticism from our paradigmatic naturalist. And our rough and tumble novel in a Japanese tissue? He is the penitent praying and he is God, looking down upon his immaculately conceived virgin.

Today, Dreiser is known but, I suspect, not often read. I will admit he can be a chore, with those long digressions and weird Spenserian musing. Sure, he crams in too much. But he gets it, doesn't he? How could he not, being us and all? A big gloomy Golem, a fulsome American tragedy.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, Twelve Men


  1. Dear LOA: Although in general my husband and I are huge supporters of LOA and have subscribed off and on over the years, we are curious why you chose to publish the expurgated edition of Sister Carrie, arguably the most lucid portrait of American society and one of the finest American works of fiction, as opposed to the unexpurgated version. The novel as you printed it is disfigured and does not correspond to the scathing indictment of capitalist society that is to be found in the correct ending and overall structure of the novel as Dreiser intended it to be published. Is it because Penguin/ UPenn owns the rights to the unexpurgated version? We feel it would have been better not to publish at all rather than publishing such a weak, sanitized and uncontroversial edition of Dreiser's masterpiece.

    Have you considered seeking to obtain the rights from Penguin/ UPenn press and replacing the current edition with one of which the author might have actually approved? It is very sad that LOA is using its limited funds to preserve this particular version of Sister Carrie. By lending its prestige to the expurgated version, LOA is encouraging future readers to accept it as the true edition, which it is not.


    Tracy Hayes

  2. Thank you for your message and your kind words of support for The Library of America.

    The LOA collection was published in 1987, only six years after the publication of the Pennsylvania edition. Although it’s difficult to re-create the decision-making process that might have gone into an LOA volume published twenty-five years ago, the UPenn edition did in fact prove controversial at the time it was published and there continues to be debate over whether it is an “authoritative” edition or “a synthetic, eclectic text—an imaginative effort” (to quote one of its editors—see below).

    The Note on the Texts in the LOA volume addresses the controversy obliquely, noting that Dreiser himself reprinted the book for nearly forty years yet made only very minor changes:

    “Dreiser bought the plates for Sister Carrie in 1906 and at that time eliminated the dedication to Arthur Henry; he also rewrote a passage that one reviewer had noted was taken from George Ade's ‘The Fable of the Two Mandolin Players and the Willing Performer.’ A new printing from these altered plates was brought out by B. W. Dodge in 1907. Though Dreiser owned the plates and the book was reprinted many times during his lifetime, he never made any further alterations, not even when the Limited Editions Club brought out a new edition in 1939.”

    Compare this textual history with that of The Financier, which Dreiser issued in a revised edition in 1927 because he was not satisfied with the first 1912 edition.

    Among the many scholars who have raised objections to the Pennsylvania edition is Donald Pizer. In an essay on the controversy, he discusses the collaborative process that was standard procedure for all of Dreiser’s works, and he points that most of the major changes in Sister Carrie were not made by the publisher. “Encouraged and aided by his wife, Sallie, and his close friend Arthur Henry, Dreiser cut some thirty-six thousand words from the novel and revised the ending. At a later stage in the prepublication history of the novel, both Dreiser and an editor at Doubleday, Page removed some profanity and changed into fictional names a number of names of real places and persons.”

    Pizer argues, “Dreiser’s motives for accepting the suggestions of Sallie and Henry cannot be untangled. . . . The novel in its first draft is diffuse, overextended, and repetitious. . . . Furthermore, there is no evidence that Dreiser during the remaining forty-five years of his life ever expressed dissatisfaction with the cutting of Sister Carrie or a wish to return it to its original form.” In fact, Pizer points out, Dreiser later stated that the “impulse behind cutting was to shorten an already lengthy novel and that he revised the ending in order to close the work with a passage on Carrie, the central figure of the novel, rather than with one on Hurstwood, as in the original draft.” At the time the LOA edition was published, Andrew Delbanco wrote in an essay in The New York Review of Books that the decision by “The Library of America to reprint the first edition seems justified, since there is no conclusive reason to believe that Dreiser felt his book had been mutilated.”
    {continued in next comment}

  3. {continued}
    Partly in response to the “mixed reception” that greeted the 1981 edition of Sister Carrie, James L. W. West III provides a summary on UPenn’s website:

    “Finally in 1981, a scholarly edition of Sister Carrie from the University of Pennsylvania Press returned to Dreiser's manuscript as copy-text and, relying on the evidence of cutting and bleaching from the Penn typescript, restored most of the deleted passages and the unrevised language. The Pennsylvania edition also ends with Hurstwood's suicide, not with Carrie in her rocker. This edition is a synthetic, eclectic text—an imaginative effort to bring the novel as close as possible to Dreiser's original intentions.

    “The initial reception of the Penn Sister Carrie was mixed; subsequent defenders and attackers have brought into the discussion many important issues about literary texts and authorial intentions, and especially about works of literature which exist in more than one version. Both texts (the Doubleday and the Penn) are today in print, in widely available paperbacks; scholars continue to debate the merits of one over the other. Those who favor the Doubleday text see it as an historical artifact—a negotiated, collaborative product of the culture that produced it. Those who argue for the Penn text see it as more nearly the novel that Dreiser himself meant to publish, a narrative far ahead of its time which could not be issued until eighty years after he wrote it.

    “. . . [The evidence offered by the typescript] is subject to various explanations, all of them influenced by one's views about literary inspiration and intention. For this reason there will never be an established or 'definitive' text of Sister Carrie. The typescript, and the conflicting intentions that it displays, will remain open to many interpretations.”

    In closing, let me say that it’s possible that a future LOA edition might, in some way, note some of the more significant cuts and alterations in the notes or in an appendix, and I will raise the possibility with our editors. But it seems unlikely, given the lack of scholarly consensus for the text assembled by the Pennsylvania editors, that the LOA edition would replace the original 1900 text with the 1981 version.

    David Cloyce Smith


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