This Day In Literary History
On April 17th, 1981, the original, unexpurgated version of Sister Carrie, the classic, controversial novel by the famous American writer Theodore Dreiser, was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
Dreiser, then 28 years old, wrote the original manuscript of Sister Carrie in eight months, between 1899 and 1900. The first publisher he approached found his writing "[Not] sufficiently delicate to depict without offense to the reader the continued illicit relations of the heroine."
Fearing the novel would never be published in its original version, Dreiser began work on a major rewrite. With help from his wife and his friend and fellow writer Arthur Henry, he cut 40,000 words and made other changes, including an alternate ending.
When Dreiser approached publisher Doubleday, Page and Company with his new manuscript, junior partner Walter Page loved the novel and accepted it for publication, offering the author a verbal contract. Unfortunately, senior partner Frank Doubleday had a different reaction.
Doubleday found Sister Carrie extremely distasteful and unsuitable for publication, but Page's contract with Dreiser was binding, so he couldn't cancel it. So, he decided to sabotage the novel instead. He refused to promote the book in any way.
Not only that, Doubleday gave it a bland, red cover, with only the names of the novel and the author on it. Less than 500 copies were sold. When Doubleday's wife complained that the novel was too sordid, he withdrew it from circulation completely.
Theodore Dreiser earned only $68.40 from the ill-fated first publication of Sister Carrie. The ordeal drove the writer to a nervous breakdown and turned him off writing for ten years. Ironically, it also ended up saving his life.
In 1912, Dreiser had originally planned to book passage home from England on the Titanic. Unable to afford tickets for the ill-fated luxury ocean liner, he sailed home earlier on a less expensive passenger ship.
Sister Carrie was later republished when Frank Norris, a reader for Doubleday, sent a few copies to reviewers who raved about it. All future editions of the novel would come from the edited version of the manuscript.
Still controversial even in its edited version, the novel told the story of 18-year-old Caroline "Carrie" Meeber, a young girl living an unhappy life in rural Wisconsin. So, Carrie takes a train to Chicago, where she has made arrangements to move in with her older sister Minnie and her brother-in-law, Sven.
On the train, Carrie meets a traveling salesman named Charles Drouet. He is attracted to her and they exchange information. Carrie finds life at her sister's apartment not much happier than it was in Wisconsin. To earn her keep, Carrie takes a job at a shoe factory.
She finds her co-workers (both male and female) vulgar and the working conditions squalid, and the job takes a toll on her health. After getting sick, Carrie loses her job. She is reunited with Charles Drouet, who is still attracted to her.
He takes her to dinner, where he asks her to move in with him, lavishing her with money. Tired of living with her sister and brother-in-law, Carrie agrees to be Drouet's kept woman. Later, Drouet introduces Carrie to George Hurstwood, the manager of his favorite bar.
Hurstwood, an unhappily married man, falls in love with Carrie, and they have an affair. But she returns to Drouet because Hurstwood can't provide for her financially. So, Hurstwood embezzles a large sum of money from the bar and persuades Carrie to run away with him to Canada.
In Montreal, Hurstwood is trapped by both his guilty conscience and a private detective and returns most of the stolen money. He agrees to marry Carrie and the couple move to New York City, where they live under the assumed names George and Carrie Wheeler.
Carrie believes she may have finally found happiness, but then she and George grow apart. After George loses his source of income and gambles away the couple's savings, Carrie, who has been trying to build a career in the theater, leaves him.
She becomes a rich and famous actress, but finds that wealth and fame don't bring her happiness and that nothing will. Sister Carrie would be rightfully considered a classic American novel, and its author would finally be recognized as one of America's greatest novelists.
Dreiser would go on to write more classic novels, including his Trilogy of Desire - The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The Stoic (1947) - and his masterpiece, An American Tragedy (1925).
For the rest of his life, Theodore Dreiser was haunted by the ordeal he suffered in getting Sister Carrie published. Like his anti-heroine, Dreiser had prostituted himself to survive. He died in 1945 at the age of 74.
Though he wouldn't live to see it, his original manuscript for Sister Carrie would finally be published - over eighty years after the edited version was released. In 1930, during his Nobel Prize Lecture, Sinclair Lewis said this about the novel and its author:
Dreiser's great first novel, Sister Carrie, which he dared to publish thirty long years ago and which I read twenty-five years ago, 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.
Quote Of The Day
"Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes." - Theodore Dreiser
Today's video features a complete reading of Theodore Dreiser's classic novel Sister Carrie. Enjoy!