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 of her “girls” as a favor to Dreiser; these typists also found things to correct in the always “correctable” Dreiser.
When Dreiser, as if in a trance, began his novel by writing “Sister Carrie” on that half-sheet of yellow copy paper, he was of course thinking of his sister Emma. Emma had run off to New York with a married man, L.A. Hopkins, cashier in Chapin and Gore’s tavern in Chicago, who had panicked when his wife learned of his affair with Emma and absconded with $3500. In the novel Carrie, who has been living with the flashy Drouet, a drummer who picked her up on her fateful train trip to Chicago, leaves Drouet for Hurstwood, a married man who has become infatuated with her. Hurstwood, manager of Fitzgerald and Moy’s saloon, takes $10,000 from his employers’ safe, quite without meaning to. In this extraordinary scene, duplicated in Dreiser’s work only by the boating “accident” in An American Tragedy that results in Roberta Alden’s death, we see Dreiser’s already deepest belief, masterfully handled: we do what a “voice” in us tells us to do, and that voice is the criminal thief and murderer in us that everything in our conscious minds and our civilization tries to suppress. The true source and inspiration of our actions are always illegitimate. Civilization is an ordeal. Inwardly, we are always in flight.
So Hurstwood, unable to put the money back into the locked safe, and excited by the fact that he cannot put it back, persuades Carrie to run off with him, first to Montreal, where they “marry” (Carrie learns that Hurstwood is married), then to New York. In New York Hurstwood soon goes through what money he has left after returning most of the stolen funds, and after failing in business just falls apart. Carrie leaves him and becomes a successful actress. Hurstwood gasses himself in a flophouse.
The most famous feature of the novel is Hurstwood’s collapse in New York; he changes rapidly and shockingly from a smoothly self-assured saloon manager into a pitiful, totally ignominious derelict. When Heinemann published Carrie in England, he thought the novel so much Hurstwood’s story that he had the opening two hundred pages, before Hurstwood’s emergence, cut to eighty-four. But Dreiser was right to keep the original title when Frank Doubleday, reluctantly publishing the novel in 1900, wanted to call it The Spirit and the Flesh. Dreiser saw Carrie not only as a catalyst of Hurstwood’s startling collapse but as the deepest force in people’s lives, the role he naturally assigned to women. She represents the necessity of transformation, sex as revolution, to the always alienated and radical Dreiser. At the same time he identified with Carrie as a wondering, brooding center of perception.
Dreiser had some difficulty deciding on the year in which Carrie leaves for Chicago. He finally settled on 1889—the year he, too, was eighteen. Chicago to the eighteen-year-old boy from a large, impoverished, deeply troubled family must have been just as stupefying and fundamental a fact of commercial American existence as it becomes to Carrie. Carrie’s shyness, economic helplessness, and inarticulateness were Dreiser’s own—and so were her impossible relatives in Chicago, her sense of her own insignificance, her necessary submission to these savage new forces in life. Few writers with Dreiser’s power began their careers with so little self-confidence, so little formal education, such crude verbal habits, such rudimentary and even atavistic instincts about life. A writer brought up to the “proper” English of a middle-class family in the Middle West, as Dreiser’s wife was (this must have been part of her appeal for Dreiser), would not have described Carrie as possessing “our dollars in money.” We learn near the opening of the book that “she could scarcely toss her head gracefully,” just as we are told later that Hurstwood’s place of employment was “a truly swell saloon.”
On the other hand, Dreiser’s irreversible sense of social fact led him to say of the shoe factory where Carrie finally gets a job, at $4.50 a week: “The whole atmosphere was one of hard contract.” Earlier, seeking a place at Speigelheim and Company, she sees that “aside from making her uncomfortable by sidelong glances, no one paid her the least attention.” Despite Dreiser’s clumsy equipment, no other “repertorial realist”1 could have led his heroine so swiftly and unerringly into the dramatic situation that is Carrie’s own before Hurstwood appears. Her numbness, shyness, and outward acceptingness are powerfully contrasted with the compulsions of the market system and the first ravages of a Chicago winter.
Unable to understand, much less to resist, the “forces” that surround this “waif,” and virtually forced out of her sister’s dreary flat in Chicago when she loses her first job, she will allow herself to be bought by the flashy drummer whom she met on the train. We shall soon see how right Dreiser was to warn us, at the opening of Carrie’s journey to the big city, that “self-interest with her was high, but not strong. It was, nevertheless, her guiding characteristic.” In these chapters describing Carrie’s fall from virtue, we see that while there is nothing heroic about her, her submission is also natural to the highly limited person she is. It will not take her long to see how shallow Drouet is, but her own automatism is not clear to her.
Carrie—this is one of Dreiser’s “modern” insights—is a construction of society. Her assets are a certain prettiness and a “dawning” sensibility rather than an intelligence educated and trained—a sensibility in which Dreiser portrayed his self-conscious makeup. Her own success (not Hurstwood’s collapse) makes her increasingly “ponder” her life and near the end of the book “dream such happiness as you may never feel….” She will never lose her essential passivity, her “wondering,” the unconscious cruelty of being able to captivate Drouet, to infatuate and ruin Hurstwood, without herself yielding to any realization about them. In some cardinal meaning of the word, Carrie is innocent in the sense that she is lacking. Naïvely wrapped up in her own life, she is unable to imagine another’s. This may be the fate of “modern” people whose personalities are constructed for them by “cant” and fulfilled by “society.” There are more and more people who have nothing of their own but a desire for “happiness.” This, as much as the predatory selfishness enshrined by the market system, Dreiser may have had in mind when he mentioned the atmosphere of “hard contract” at Carrie’s first factory. Near the end of the novel Carrie sits in her famous rocking chair, broods and broods over the mystery of it all, without essentially seeing anything more clearly than she did the day she first took off for Chicago.
But how did a character so passive and composed of so inert “wondering” come to form such a consistently powerful novel around her? Carrie is hardly a designing femme fatale, and The Spirit and the Flesh would have been an irrelevant as well as meretricious title for a book that turns more on Carrie’s character than on Hurstwood’s. Carrie remains the essence of the novel that bears her name because she represents the force of sex, the challenge to the established mores, that can make even a wistful and ignorant young girl so irresistible to men wrapped up in the daily pursuit of profit. Her original helplessness when confronted with Chicago, her sliding into a life with Drouet and Hurstwood she hardly anticipated, the stage success she never planned or even understood, convey Dreiser’s view of the modern soul merging into a situation from which the mind and affections remain detached. Classical tragedy was based on human insufficiency; modern tragedy is unreflectiveness, apartness in our hearts from the life we actually live and drive others to live. The first chapter title in Sister Carrie reads “The Magnet Attracting: A Waif Amid Forces.” This “waif” will never really know what has been happening to her. Her sexuality is as incomprehensible to Carrie, as fatal to Hurstwood, as “Nature” was to primitive man. But this sexuality accomplishes a revolution in people’s lives, and in 1900 it was recognized as a threat to the established order.
Dreiser did not altogether see this himself. Like Whitman, he was a barbarian who had walked into American literature from the lower classes; in 1900 he did not yet understand the challenge and uproar he represented to convention. What he did understand was that Carrie and Hurstwood both are caught up in a situation beyond their power of reflection. From this it followed that what a writer had to do was not only to narrate the sequence of forces, to develop the pattern, the logic, the inevitability of the plot, but—as the Greek chorus did in the face of the destiny inflicted on human beings—to cry out in fragmented and sometimes helpless speech.
Here above all is the significance of the original, uncut version of Sister Carrie now being published for the first time2—a version some thirty-six thousand words longer than the one first published in 1900 after Dreiser’s manuscript was cut by Arthur Henry, Dreiser’s wife “Jug,” and Dreiser himself at their instigation.
I cannot claim that the “restored” Sister Carrie makes this a “better” novel than the masterpiece we already know. But it is in many ways a different book, fuller, less cruel, more recognizably Dreiser’s own work. With respect to the sexual illegitimacy (as of 1900) that is so important to the book, it is more explicit. Carrie now has more struggles with herself about moving in with Drouet, about leaving Drouet for Hurstwood (to whom she is deeply attracted). At the same time it is made clear that Drouet went on philandering even after he had coaxed Carrie into his bed; that Hurstwood frequented prostitutes after he had lured Carrie to New York. The whole atmosphere is steamier, more truthful to birds of passage like Drouet and Hurstwood. In the restored version Carrie and Hurstwood make love in their Montreal hotel room before they go through the bigamous wedding ceremony. We are more aware than before of Hurstwood’s desperate character. This was a man who virtually hated his wife but stayed with her so long as “she loved him vigorously.”
Arthur Henry thought that Dreiser’s philosophizing over the tropisms of his characters slowed up the book and would impede its chances of getting published. Henry represented professionalism to the Dreiser who had not thought of writing fiction until Henry pressed him to do so; now that he had written his book, Dreiser was submissive to every suggestion that might assure publication. Henry seems to have been responsible for bleaching out of the book details relating the infidelity to Carrie of both Drouet and Hurstwood. He wanted to see Sister Carrie published by Doubleday, Page and Company the same year as his own novel, A Princess of Arcady.3 But as the editors of the restored edition note, Henry was plainly unaware that he was taking all these editorial liberties with a masterpiece.
Dreiser was so often told that he was not a “refined” or even correct writer of English that he willingly yielded to his wife’s emendations. After all, Jug had been a schoolteacher and had a firmer hold of grammar than he did. (Dreiser’s first language may have been the German of his immigrant father; his native-born Mennonite mother spoke German to her husband.) The editors of the restored version point out that the manuscript exhibits, in nearly every chapter, markings by both Jug and Henry, but that Jug was the more attentive reader of the two and generally limited herself to “adding prepositions, articles, and pronouns where Dreiser, in the heat of composition, had forgotten to include them.”4
Jug also did a bit of wifely cleaning up after some of her husband’s descriptions of women. In Chapter XVI Dreiser wrote of Carrie’s increasing physical charms: “Her dresses draped her becomingly, for she wore excellent corsets and laced herself with care. Her hair had grown out even more luxuriantly than before, and she knew considerable concerning dressing it. She had always been of cleanly instincts and now that opportunity afforded, she kept her body sweet. Her teeth were white, her nails rosy, her hair always done up clear of her forehead.” Jug turned this into: “Her dresses draped her becomingly. Her hair, always luxuriant, she now dressed prettily, rolling it back from her wide, clear brow. She had always been of cleanly instincts. Her teeth were white, her nails rosy.” Three pages later in the manuscript, the editors point out, Jug came upon this quintessentially Dreiserian sentence: “On her feet were yellow shoes and in her hands her gloves.” Jug’s version is smoother but not sensitive to Dreiser’s style: “Her brown shoes peeped occasionally from beneath her skirt. She carried her gloves in her hand.”
Arthur Henry was far bossier. Although he “seems to have been reading quickly, at some point only dipping and skipping,” he cut out not just sentences but whole paragraphs. In Chapter X, particularly important because the restored version shows Carrie still struggling with her conscience after accepting Drouet’s money, Dreiser—for whom cold and winter symbolized all the unfriendly forces in life—wrote that “always the December days threatened…. She was fearful of the whistling wind.” Henry eliminated, among others, Dreiser’s reflection that “we do not make sufficient allowance for the natural elements in our philosophy. Our logic is bare of the voice of the wind.” He removed entirely a page and a half of Carrie’s internal argument with “a voice in her” urging her to brave poverty.
Chapter XI, which opens on a further consideration of Carrie’s “mental state,” was stripped of several pages detailing just what Carrie’s arguments with herself were. In Chapter XII Dreiser tried to contrast Drouet’s lightmindedness with Hurstwood’s more demanding nature, but a section detailing this was eliminated. One must grant Henry an understandable objection to “general” passages where Dreiser became abstract and heavy. There is so much of this remaining in the 1900 version that one can see what mountains of Dreiserian prose loomed up before Henry as he dug into the manuscript. But Henry was reading in a hurry, and he did not always understand what Dreiser was after. In eliminating Dreiser’s pointed judgment of Hurstwood—“He saw a trifle more clearly the necessities of our social organization, but he was more unscrupulous in the matter of sinning against it”—he eliminated, along with one of Dreiser’s vague sentences, our own need to anticipate Hurstwood’s actual subtlety. Although nothing in the restored version still prepares us for Hurstwood’s precipitous decline, we do need to know more about the complexity of this strange man. His real secret is his essential despair of life, and this we do get an inkling of in the restored version. The fact that the book now ends with Hurstwood’s suicide confirms our premonition of his desperate nature.
This last scene is more in keeping with the essential tragedy of Sister Carrie than the famous but soupy description of Carrie’s musings from her rocking chair on “Oh, the tangle of human life.” Dreiser had originally ended the novel with Hurstwood’s death, but had become dissatisfied with its place in the novel. He wandered off to the Palisades one day (the book was largely written on the Upper West Side of New York) and there he finished off the novel with the generalized meditation that ends, “Oh, Carrie! Carrie! Oh, blind strivings of the human heart!” He had begun the book by writing the words “Sister Carrie” as if in a trance; he felt he had to return to Carrie in the end. She duplicated the young Dreiser, full of “feeling” and inarticulateness, who remembered himself first coming to Chicago, and was now, in the person of Carrie, not beyond pitying himself. He had to bring Carrie to this rhetorical, mawkish finale in order to deliver her of the subversiveness, the illegitimacy, the unmistakable defiance of the middle-class world that she would never know she represented to her “brother” Theodore Dreiser. That defiance was what he cared about most. It was the secret message of his novel.
The message was understood well enough by Frank Doubleday. He came back from a European trip to find that the novel had been recommended for publication by his reader, Frank Norris, and tacitly accepted by his partners Walter Hines Page and Henry Lanier. Doubleday was affronted by the book and called it “immoral.” It is. Dreiser had submitted the book to Doubleday’s firm because he admired Norris’s McTeague and guessed correctly that Norris would like a novel as “realistic” as his own. Norris went overboard for it; he wrote Dreiser that Sister Carrie was one of the best novels he had ever read. Page and Lanier were far more cautious, but saw no objection to publication. Doubleday tried to get out of the firm’s informal agreement to publish, was advised by counsel that he had to get it printed but was under no obligation to promote it, and then gave Dreiser a written contract which noted the title as The Spirit and the Flesh and stipulated that the many actual names in the book of actors, restaurants, theaters, bars, shops, etc., be changed.
Doubleday did everything to kill the book he published. We know now that copies were sent to reviewers only because Frank Norris personally saw to this. So all the efforts of Arthur Henry, Jug, and Dreiser himself to make the book acceptable to 1900 were, for the time being, in vain. Dreiser made $68.40 in royalties. He was so hard hit by the failure of the book that he went through a nervous crisis. In one of the most bizarre experiences of his life, he actually went to pieces very much as Hurstwood did; he even made an attempt at suicide. But he pulled himself together. With the same marginal man’s contempt for the conventions and values of American society that were to lead him in old age to join the Communist Party,5 he became a magazine editor favoring stories about successful men; he soon began his trilogy about an American magnate, Frank Cowperwood, with The Financier. And before long, Sister Carrie began to get recognized as the “flawed” but always powerful masterpiece that it is—a book by a strange, inconstant man “who lacked everything except genius.”
February 19, 1981
“Repertorial realist” was the phrase used by the reader for Harper’s when he turned down Sister Carrie. “I cannot conceive of the book arousing the interest or inviting the attention, after the opening chapters, of the feminine readers who control the destinies of so many novels.” ↩
The “Pennsylvania Edition,” edited by John C. Berkey, Alice N. Winters, James L.W. West III, Neda M. Westlake, is a scholar’s edition, complete with textual apparatus, founded on both the manuscript and the typescript of Sister Carrie. It is published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. The Penguin American Library edition, for which this essay was prepared, has the same text as the Pennsylvania Edition, with a shortened bibliography and textual notes intended for the general reader. ↩
It was. Dreiser is supposed to have written the last chapter of A Princess of Arcady. ↩
Dreiser eventually gave the manuscript to Mencken, who gave it to the New York Public Library. In looking it over, I was touched to see a little blue card inserted between the first two chapters in which someone with a very regular, schoolteachery hand, presumably Jug, asked Dreiser to check some of the historical facts about Chicago used in the first chapter. “When did the word ‘drummer’ come into use?” “Was Waukesha a Chicago resort in 1884?” “When did the ‘flat’ come into use?” “Was Chicago’s population 500,000 in 1884?” “When and where were the first department stores established?” Dreiser at first had Carrie taking off for Chicago in 1884. ↩
At the same time that he joined the Episcopal Church. ↩