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Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time
"Theodore Dreiser is a man who, with the passage of time, is bound to loom larger and larger in the awakening aesthetic consciousness of America. Among all of our prose writers he is one of the few men of whom it may be said that he has . . . never been a trickster. If there is a modern movement in American prose writing, a movement toward greater courage and fidelity to life in writing, Theodore Dreiser is the pioneer and the hero of the movement."--Sherwood Anderson
Long before she was seduced by the cautious and ordinary man whose life she would unravel with no malice and only intermittent interest, the young Carrie Meeber was seduced by the promise of the city--its vitality and reckless possibility, the thrill of material luxury, and the spectacle of power and industry. Banned on publication for its questionable morals, Sister Carrie is the great American novel of seduction, a masterpiece of insight into appetite and innocence.
"Such a novel as Sister Carrie stands quite outside the brief traffic of the customary stage. It leaves behind an inescapable impression of bigness, of epic sweep and dignity. It is not a mere story, not a novel in the customary American meaning of the word; it is at once a psalm of life and a criticism of life. . . . [Dreiser's] aim is not merely to tell a tale; his aim is to show the vast ebb and flow of forces which sway and condition human destiny. The thing he seeks to do is to stir, to awaken, to move. One does not arise from such a book as Sister Carrie with a smirk of satisfaction; one leaves it infinitely touched."--H. L. Mencken
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Sister Carrie
When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister's address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money. It was in August, 1889. She was eighteen years of age, bright, timid, and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth. Whatever touch of regret at parting characterised her thoughts, it was certainly not for advantages now being given up. A gush of tears at her mother's farewell kiss, a touch in her throat when the cars clacked by the flour mill where her father worked by the day, a pathetic sigh as the familiar green environs of the village passed in review, and the threads which bound her so lightly to girlhood and home were irretrievably broken.
To be sure there was always the next station, where one might descend and return. There was the great city, bound more closely by these very trains which came up daily. Columbia City was not so very far away, even once she was in Chicago. What, pray, is a few hours—a few hundred miles? She looked at the little slip bearing her sister's address and wondered. She gazed at the green landscape, now passing in swift review, until her swifter thoughts replaced its impression with vague conjectures of what Chicago might be.
When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility. The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye. Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman. A blare of sound, a roar of life, a vast array of human hives, appeal to the astonished senses in equivocal terms. Without a counsellor at hand to whisper cautious interpretations, what falsehoods may not these things breathe into the unguarded ear! Unrecognised for what they are, their beauty, like music, too often relaxes, then weakens, then perverts the simpler human perceptions.
Caroline, or Sister Carrie, as she had been half affectionately termed by the family, was possessed of a mind rudimentary in its power of observation and analysis. Self-interest with her was high, but not strong. It was, nevertheless, her guiding characteristic. Warm with the fancies of youth, pretty with the insipid prettiness of the formative period, possessed of a figure promising eventual shapeliness and an eye alight with certain native intelligence, she was a fair example of the middle American class—two generations removed from the emigrant. Books were beyond her interest—knowledge a sealed book. In the intuitive graces she was still crude. She could scarcely toss her head gracefully. Her hands were almost ineffectual. The feet, though small, were set flatly. And yet she was interested in her charms, quick to understand the keener pleasures of life, ambitious to gain in material things. A half-equipped little knight she was, venturing to reconnoitre the mysterious city and dreaming wild dreams of some vague, far-off supremacy, which should make it prey and subject—the proper penitent, grovelling at a woman's slipper.
"That," said a voice in her ear, "is one of the prettiest little resorts in Wisconsin."
"Is it?" she answered nervously.
The train was just pulling out of Waukesha. For some time she had been conscious of a man behind. She felt him observing her mass of hair. He had been fidgetting, and with natural intuition she felt a certain interest growing in that quarter. Her maidenly reserve, and a certain sense of what was conventional under the circumstances, called her to forestall and deny this familiarity, but the daring and magnetism of the individual, born of past experiences and triumphs, prevailed. She answered.
He leaned forward to put his elbows upon the back of her seat and proceeded to make himself volubly agreeable.
"Yes, that is a great resort for Chicago people. The hotels are swell. You are not familiar with this part of the country, are you?"
"Oh, yes, I am," answered Carrie. "That is, I live at Columbia City. I have never been through here, though."
"And so this is your first visit to Chicago," he observed.
All the time she was conscious of certain features out of the side of her eye. Flush, colourful cheeks, a light moustache, a grey fedora hat. She now turned and looked upon him in full, the instincts of self-protection and coquetry mingling confusedly in her brain.
"I didn't say that," she said.
"Oh," he answered, in a very pleasing way and with an assumed air of mistake, "I thought you did."
Here was a type of the travelling canvasser for a manufacturing house—a class which at that time was first being dubbed by the slang of the day "drummers." He came within the meaning of a still newer term, which had sprung into general use among Americans in 1880, and which concisely expressed the thought of one whose dress or manners are calculated to elicit the admiration of susceptible young women—a "masher." His suit was of a striped and crossed pattern of brown wool, new at that time, but since become familiar as a business suit. The low crotch of the vest revealed a stiff shirt bosom of white and pink stripes. From his coat sleeves protruded a pair of linen cuffs of the same pattern, fastened with large, gold plate buttons, set with the common yellow agates known as "cat's-eyes." His fingers bore several rings—one, the ever-enduring heavy seal—and from his vest dangled a neat gold watch chain, from which was suspended the secret insignia of the Order of Elks. The whole suit was rather tight-fitting, and was finished off with heavy-soled tan shoes, highly polished, and the grey fedora hat. He was, for the order of intellect represented, attractive, and whatever he had to recommend him, you may be sure was not lost upon Carrie, in this, her first glance.
Lest this order of individual should permanently pass, let me put down some of the most striking characteristics of his most successful manner and method. Good clothes, of course, were the first essential, the things without which he was nothing. A strong physical nature, actuated by a keen desire for the feminine, was the next A mind free of any consideration of the problems or forces of the world and actuated not by greed, but an insatiable love of variable pleasure. His method was always simple. Its principal element was daring, backed, of course, by an intense desire and admiration for the sex. Let him meet with a young woman once and he would approach her with an air of kindly familiarity, not unmixed with pleading, which would result in most cases in a tolerant acceptance. If she showed any tendency to coquetry he would be apt to straighten her tie, or if she "took up" with him at all, to call her by her first name. If he visited a department store it was to lounge familiarly over the counter and ask some leading questions. In more exclusive circles, on the train or in waiting stations, he went slower. If some seemingly vulnerable object appeared he was all attention—to pass the compliments of the day, to lead the way to the parlor car, carrying her grip, or, failing that, to take a seat next her with the hope of being able to court her to her destination. Pillows, books, a footstool, the shade lowered; all these figured in the things which he could do. If, when she reached her destination he did not alight and attend her baggage for her, it was because, in his own estimation, he had signally failed.
A woman should some day write the complete philosophy of clothes. No matter how young, it is one of the things she wholly comprehends. There is an indescribably faint line in the matter of man's apparel which somehow divides for her those who are worth glancing at and those who are not. Once an individual has passed this faint line on the way downward he will get no glance from her. There is another line at which the dress of a man will cause her to study her own. This line the individual at her elbow now marked for Carrie. She became conscious of an inequality. Her own plain blue dress, with its black cotton tape trimmings, now seemed to her shabby. She felt the worn state of her shoes.
"Let's see," he went on, "I know quite a number of people in your town. Morgenroth the clothier and Gibson the dry goods man."
"Oh, do you?" she interrupted, aroused by memories of longings their show windows had cost her.
At last he had a clew to her interest, and followed it deftly. In a few minutes he had come about into her seat. He talked of sales of clothing, his travels, Chicago, and the amusements of that city.
"If you are going there, you will enjoy it immensely. Have you relatives?"
"I am going to visit my sister," she explained.
"You want to see Lincoln Park," he said, "and Michigan Boulevard. They are putting up great buildings there. It's a second New York—great. So much to see—theatres, crowds, fine houses—oh, you'll like that."
There was a little ache in her fancy of all he described. Her insignificance in the presence of so much magnificence faintly affected her. She realised that hers was not to be a round of pleasure, and yet there was something promising in all the material prospect he set forth. There was something satisfactory in the attention of this individual with his good clothes. She could not help smiling as he told her of some popular actress of whom she reminded him. She was not silly, and yet attention of this sort had its weight.
Theodre Dreiser was born into a large and impoverished German American family in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1871. He began his writing career as a reporter, working for newspapers in Chicago. Pittsburg, and St. Louis, until an editor friend, Arthur Henry, suggested he write a novel. The result was Sister Carrie, based on the life of Dreiser’s own sister Emma, who had run off to New York with a married man. Rejected by several publishers as “immoral”, the book was finally accepted by Doubleday and Company, and published–over Frank Doubleday’s strong objections–in 1900.
Numerous cuts and changes had been made in the lengthy original manuscript by various hands, including those of Arthur Henry, Dreiser himself. Later, when given to mythologizing his career, Dreiser was to suggest that the publishing history of Sister Carrie had been one of bowdlerization and suppression only; but the publication of his unedited manuscript by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1981 shows that Dreiser approved and even welcomed Henry’s and Jug’s alterations. (Whether the book was ultimately improved or compromised by their liberal editing is a fascinating and as yet unresolved issue among Dreiser scholars.) Sister Carrie sold poorly, but writers like Frank Norris and William Dean Howells saw it as a breakthrough in American realism, and Dreiser’s career as a novelist was launched. The Financer (1912) and The Titan (1914) began his trilogy about the rise of a tycoon, but it was An American Tragedy (1925), based on newspaper accounts of a sensational murder case, which brought him fame. The novel was dramatized on Broadway and sold to Hollywood. Newly influential and affluent, Dreiser visited Russia and was unimpressed, describing his observations in the skeptical Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928). In later years, however, he became an ardent (through unorthodox) Communist, writing political Treatises such as America Is Worth Saving (1941) His artistic powers on the wane, Dreiser moved to Hollywood in 1939 and supported himself largely by the sale of film rights of his earlier works. He dies there, in 1945, at the age of seventy-four.