Sister Carrie, written by Theodore Dreiser from 1899 to 1900, was published by Doubleday, Page in 1900. The novel created a stir from the moment of its publication, caused in part by a supposed attempt by the publisher to suppress the novel. The truth behind the “suppression” of Sister Carrie is difficult to uncover. Regardless, the novel met with mixed reviews from contemporary readers, who found the book unpleasant and gloomy. Some critics suggest that these initial negative reviews were because Sister Carrie was a novel ahead of its time. The novel has grown in stature over the years until it has come to be considered one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century.
Sister Carrie is the story of young Carrie Meeber, who comes to Chicago in 1889 to make her fortune. Chicago is not as she envisions it, however. In her desire for material possessions and success, she begins and leaves two different illicit affairs. By the close of the book, she is in New York, having embarked on a highly successful stage career. Even this success does not bring her happiness; the novel closes with Carrie rocking in her chair, considering her sense that there is more to life than she has experienced.
While the book received many negative reviews upon publication, it nonetheless attracted the attention of the literary establishment, igniting a controversy that still has fire. Stuart P. Sherman, in the famous and much-anthologized essay “The Barbaric Naturalism of Mr. Dreiser,” takes Dreiser to task for his naturalism. He distinguishes between realism and naturalism, finding realism an acceptable form of literature and naturalism unacceptable. He writes,
A realistic novel is a representation based upon a theory of human conduct. If the theory of human conduct is adequate, the representation constitutes an addition to literature and to social history. A naturalistic novel is a representation based upon a theory of animal behavior. Since a theory of animal behavior can never be an adequate basis for a representation of the life of man in contemporary society, such a representation is a blunder.
H. L. Mencken, one of Dreiser’s earliest supporters, wrote at length in response to Sherman and about Sister Carrie and its contribution to American literature. He writes of Sherman’s criticism in “The Dreiser Bugaboo,” “Only a glance is needed to show the vacuity of all this irate flubdub,” before going on to connect Dreiser’s realism with the classical Greek writers. He argues, “In the midst of democratic cocksureness and Christian sentimentalism, of doctrinaire shallowness and professorial smugness, he stands for a point of view which at least has something honest and courageous about it; here, at all events, he is a realist.”
It is important to understand what these writers mean when they use the term “naturalism.” The Harper Handbook to Literature states that naturalism, a literary movement of the late nineteenth century, grew out of realism, but preferred to focus on “the fringes of society, the criminal, the fallen, the down-and-out, earning as one definition … the phrase sordid realism.” Further, naturalism grew as an interest in science and Darwinism grew. “Darwinism was especially important, as the naturalists perceived a person’s fate as the product of blind external or biological forces, chiefly heredity and environment, but in the typical naturalistic novel chance played a large part as well.” Dreiser’s novels are nearly always critiqued through the naturalistic lens. Critics point to Carrie’s upward rise and Hurstwood’s downward spiral as the result of forces beyond their control. The chance event, such as the open safe at Hurstwood’s saloon, lead him to take actions resulting in negative consequences....
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In Sister Carrie Theodore Dreiser went beyond the Hoosier romanticism of Meredith Nicholson’s “Alice of Old Vincennes” (1900) and the genteel realism of Booth Tarkington’s The Gentleman from Indiana (1899). Growing up poor in Indiana, the daydreamy Dreiser envied the escape to the metropolis of his older brothers and sisters. Later, he drifted from one newspaper to another—Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh. Charged with Balzac’s Comedie humaine, Herbert Spencer’s First Principles, and his own vivid memories, Dreiser began Sister Carrie in New York in 1899. The author based his first novel partly on his sister, Emma, who in 1886 had fled from the law with a saloon clerk. Because of the novel’s sexual frankness, Dreiser’s own publisher (Doubleday Page) did not promote it; but the senior reader, the writer Frank Norris, zealously sent out review copies. When B.W. Dodge (in 1907) and Grosset and Dunlap (in 1908) reissued the controversial book, Sister Carrie reached a larger public.
The novel has an hourglass structure. Carrie Meeber—pretty, eighteen, penniless, full of illusions— leaves her dull Wisconsin home in 1889 for Chicago. On the train Charles Drouet, a jaunty traveling salesman, impresses her with his worldliness and affluence. In Chicago, Carrie lives in a cramped flat with her sister and brother-in-law. Her job at a shoe factory is physically and spiritually crushing. After a period of unemployment, she allows Drouet to “keep” her. During his absences, however, she falls under the influence of Drouet’s friend, a suave, middle-aged bar manager. George Hurstwood deserts his family, robs his employers, and elopes with Carrie, first to Montreal and then, after returning most of the money, to New York, where they live together for several years. As Hurstwood declines, Carrie develops. To earn money, she goes on stage, rising from chorus girl to minor acting parts. When Hurstwood, failing to find decent work, becomes too great a burden, Carrie deserts him. In time, she becomes a star of musical comedies. Meanwhile, Hurstwood sinks into beggary and suicide. In spite of her...
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