Damn it all, it is fun to see that poor old language, that vehicle for conveying moderated thoughts, having the guts kicked out of it, like a deflated football, over all the fields of the boundless Middle West.
—Ford Madox Ford on Dreiser: Portraits From Life
One day in August 1889 eighteen-year-old Caroline Meeber from Columbia City, Wisconsin—”Sister Carrie as she was half affectionately termed by her family”—boarded a train for Chicago that was to take her (and the surprisingly but never dependably gifted newspaper reporter from Terre Haute who had just put her into his first novel) into world literature.
It is almost a century since the twenty-eight-year-old Theodore Dreiser suddenly began that first novel in the Fall of 1899 by writing on a half-sheet of yellow copy paper the words “Sister Carrie.” He had never thought of writing fiction until pressed to do so by Arthur Henry, his sometime employer on the Toledo Blade and now his most intimate friend. Henry was himself a fluent, not in the least interesting writer of fiction, but he had great sophistication, was an “emancipated” husband and assertive thinker in the rebellious style favored by end-of-the-century newspapermen. Like Dreiser’s future friend and supporter Mencken, Henry provided an instant figure of authority to Dreiser, who was to show awesome force as a social novelist but little personal self-confidence.
Dreiser was to be permanently scarred by the poverty and shiftlessness of his large family, the rigidity of his German Catholic father, and his own lack of formal education. Henry, who would not be remembered now but for his influence on the composition, editing, and publishing of Sister Carrie in 1900, was to exercise that influence in many ways. He prodded Dreiser to write his first short stories when Dreiser wanted to write plays; he cut a good many sentences and paragraphs out of the manuscript of Sister Carrie, largely on the grounds that Dreiser’s philosophizing over the fate of his characters was not necessary to the remorseless tread of the novel; he pushed Dreiser to hold Doubleday, Page and Company to its agreement when Frank Doubleday tried to get out of publishing the novel.
Henry may also have been a model to the Dreiser who could never remain interested very long in any one woman—and who never ceased to torment himself about this failing. Dreiser’s first wife, Sara Osborne White (also known as “Jug”), was a pretty redheaded schoolteacher from Missouri whom Dreiser had fallen in love with in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair. The firmness of her principles, once so much in contrast with his “dissolute” sisters (they were models for Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt), was to prove too much for the moody Dreiser. Henry had with great aplomb left his wife for one Anna T. Mallon, who was also to have an effect on the published version of Sister Carrie. She ran a typing agency, and had the manuscript typed up by a succession …