Sister Carrie | Study Guide

Theodore Dreiser

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Sister Carrie | 10 Things You Didn't Know


It's been called "the greatest of all American urban novels," and the Modern Library ranked it number 33 on their list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. But Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, published in 1900, has not always been so well regarded.

Following a dispute between Dreiser and his publisher, Sister Carrie was published with zero fanfare. It sold few copies and likely would have faded into obscurity were it not reissued several years later. Many readers found the story—about a young woman from the country who moves to the big city and engages in sexual relationships without suffering any consequences—offensive and immoral.

Sister Carrie signaled a departure from the Victorian emphasis on morality in art. Instead, Dreiser presented his characters without judgment, establishing his reputation as one of America's earliest and greatest naturalists.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, author Sinclair Lewis said Sister Carrie "came to housebound and airless America like a great free Western wind, and to our stuffy domesticity gave us the first fresh air since Mark Twain and Whitman."

1. Dreiser was encouraged to write Sister Carrie by his friend Arthur Henry.

Dreiser met journalist Arthur Henry at age 22 when he came to Toledo, Ohio, in search of a job. Dreiser was a newspaper reporter, and he was slowly making his way east to New York City, where he hoped to land a position at one of the daily papers. In Toledo, Dreiser wrote an article for the Toledo Blade, where Henry worked as an editor. The two men hit it off and promised to keep in touch after Dreiser left Toledo.

Five years later, Henry prodded Dreiser into starting a novel. Henry was writing a novel of his own and had the idea they could support one another. Wanting to please his friend, Dreiser grabbed a sheet of paper and wrote the words Sister Carrie at the top.

2. While writing Sister Carrie Dreiser briefly changed the title to The Flesh and the Spirit.

Though Dreiser began with the title Sister Carrie, he toyed with the idea of changing it to The Flesh and the Spirit. It's not clear why he considered this title. After all, as one critic points out, "the spirit" plays no role in the novel, and "sexual passion, however much it precipitates Hurstwood's downfall, never interferes with Carrie's desire for inanimate possessions."

3. Dreiser had difficulty finding a publisher for Sister Carrie.

He first submitted it to Harper & Brothers, where he had an influential friend working as an editor. They rejected it within a few weeks, stating that though it is a "superior piece of reportorial realism," this realism, especially when applied to "the continued illicit relations of the heroine ... weakens and hinders the development of the plot." Their comments prompted a major revision of the novel.

4. Sister Carrie was almost withdrawn from publication after a publisher's wife deemed it too "sordid."

After his rejection from Harper & Brothers and his subsequent revision of the novel, Dreiser submitted Sister Carrie to Doubleday, Page. Novelist Frank Norris reviewed the manuscript and later called it "the best novel I had read in M.S. since I had been reading for the firm." Based on Norris's recommendation, the firm agreed to publish the novel.

A couple months later, Frank Doubleday, a senior partner of the company, read the manuscript and expressed a strong dislike for it. It is rumored, but not confirmed, that his wife also read it and found it too sordid and sexually explicit. Doubleday tried to withdraw the book from publication, but Dreiser stood firm and insisted that their agreement be honored.

5. Dreiser's original manuscript for Sister Carrie was heavily altered before publication.

Dreiser's wife, Sara (nicknamed Jug), and his friend Arthur Henry persuaded him to make many substantial changes to Sister Carrie. Both Jug and Henry thought the novel was too bleak and sexually explicit. In one instance, Jug thought the following description of Carrie was too intimate: "Her dresses draped her becomingly, for she wore excellent corsets and laced herself with care ... She had always been of cleanly instincts and now that opportunity afforded, she kept her body sweet." She changed it to, "Her dresses draped her becomingly ... She had always been of cleanly instincts. Her teeth were white, her nails rosy." They also rewrote the ending to make it less bleak.

In 1981 Dreiser's original manuscript was published for the first time. A reviewer for the New York Review of Books wrote the restored Sister Carrie is "in many ways a different book, fuller, less cruel, more recognizably Dreiser's own work."

6. Dreiser's publisher did nothing to promote Sister Carrie.

When Dreiser insisted that Doubleday, Page publish Sister Carrie despite their misgivings about its supposedly sordid content, the company consulted its lawyers and learned that though they had to publish the book, they were not obligated to promote it. So, the book was unattractively bound with no cover art. The publishing company only printed about 1,000 copies and did not list the book in their catalog or in any advertisements.

7. Sister Carrie's first printing sold only about 456 copies.

Of the initial print run of 1,008 copies, 129 copies of Sister Carrie were sent out for review and about 456 were sold. The remaining copies were turned over to a remainder house (a company that buys unsold books and resells them at heavily discounted prices). Dreiser earned a mere $68.40 in royalties.

8. Sister Carrie was criticized for not mentioning God.

At the time Sister Carrie was published, in 1900, most publishers and reviewers believed the purpose of literature was to promote traditional moral teachings. Sister Carrie, which features a young woman who has "illicit" sexual relationships without being punished for them, was seen as a direct threat to the prevailing norms. Reviewers called it "squalid," "neither a pleasant nor an edifying book," and "not a book to be put into the hands of every reader indiscriminately." One reviewer even complained that "the name of God is not mentioned from cover to cover, a significant omission."

9. Dreiser suffered a nervous breakdown following the commercial failure of Sister Carrie.

Feeling deeply betrayed and disappointed by his saga with Doubleday, Page and Sister Carrie, Dreiser suffered a nervous breakdown that lasted on and off for two years. His mental health crisis stifled his writing career for several years. He finally recovered and became a successful magazine editor by 1907. In 1911 he published his second novel, Jennie Gerhardt, about a destitute young woman who has a child out of wedlock with a senator.

10. Sister Carrie was reissued in 1907 to much greater acclaim.

Dreiser arranged for the book to be reprinted by B.W. Dodge and Co., a company in which he was a major investor. This time it was published with a color frontispiece (an illustration facing the title page of a book) and a new binding. Dreiser publicized the novel himself; 8,500 copies were sold, and the novel was widely reviewed, reviving Dreiser's literary career.

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