Looking for Sister Carrie

November 8: Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie was published on 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 his friend, fellow journalist Arthur Henry, helped him eliminate or soften some of the sexual material that, it was felt, would make the book too risky for prospective publishers. The first one approached, Harper and Brothers, still found the writing "neither firm enough nor sufficiently delicate to depict without offense to the reader the continued illicit relations of the heroine." 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, including a new ending. When a second publisher, Doubleday, Page and Company was approached, junior partner Walter Page offered a verbal contract for the reworked manuscript, a deal that senior partner Frank Doubleday found highly distasteful but binding. Unable to cancel the deal, Doubleday effectively suppressed the book by refusing to advertise it: only 456 copies were sold, earning Dreiser $68.40 and triggering a nervous breakdown that kept him from novel writing for a decade. (Though there was perhaps a silver lining: while returning from England in 1912, Dreiser was too poor to afford the Titanic, and sailed a few days earlier on a less expensive boat.)

 

A fully "restored" edition of the novel has been available since the University of Pennsylvania's 1981 edition. Some scholars argue that the original Sister Carrie is 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 a victim of his publishers and his circumstances, and that his novel is an argument for a less rigid approach to public morality. In Chapter 10, as he frames young Carrie's decision to move in with her traveling salesman, Dreiser ponders our "infantile perception of morals" and our ready judgements: "Answer, first, why the heart thrills; explain wherefore some plaintive note goes wandering about the world, undying; make clear the rose's subtle alchemy evolving its ruddy lamp in light and rain. In the essence of these facts 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.

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