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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Sister Carrie

A couple of weeks ago my friend Warren sent me an e-mail telling me he'd just read the Theodore Dreiser novel Sister Carrie and that it had depressed him. I thought that a book that can have that strong an effect can't be all bad, so I put a copy on hold at the library: the 1981 Penguin Classics "unexpurgated" edition.

The "unexpurgated" part is significant, because evidently the original edition, with a publication date of 1900, actually appeared years later. There were delays in getting the book actually printed and distributed due to the fact that the publisher's wife did not approve of the book and didn't want it published. Apparently Dreiser's text was too frank in the way he dealt with contemporary society, especially in his treatment of sex. I was glad I could get the more modern unexpurgated version (based more directly on Dreiser's own final draft), because it is vital, I think, to be able to look in on a society and its people as it really was, and not merely at the "official version" or the public image.

Dreiser does convey the banality and squeaky-cleanness of ordinary exchanges between American people in 1889. In fact, the dialogue strikes me as being especially superficial and banal. Here is a compressed version of the exchange between Carrie, the 18-year-old country girl on her way into Chicago to live with her older sister, and the traveling salesman/ladies' man Drouet:

"That," said a voice in her ear, "is one of the prettiest little resorts in Wisconsin."

"Is it?" she answered nervously.

"Yes, that's 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.

"I didn't say that," she said.

I'm reminded of dialogue from movies of the 1940s, when Hollywood had assumed the task of censoring itself in order to avoid state censorship. It's interesting that this exchange, dated 1889, would, to me anyway, pass muster in a movie of at least 50 years later.

Dreiser makes it clear that what is going on within the character is quite removed from the banalities burbling out as social intercourse. In fact, so far (I'm on page 130), Dreiser seems to be very much in accord with Thoreau's observation that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them." In England it was the Victorian era, a time of puritanical appearances papered over an undercurrent of indulgence, exploitation, and vice. It seems to me that a hallmark of Dreiser's characters is that they do not understand themselves, partly because they're not equipped to, and partly because they don't try.

One thing that is striking (and there are many striking things here, I find) is Dreiser's observation that American society at that date was caught in a leg-hold trap of the most superficial materialism: a craving for wealth and nice things, with a rigorous stratification of society based on how much of these an individual has acquired. I'm reminded of our diabetic, SUV-driving, McMansion-dwelling contemporary society, obsessed with consumption and bereft of higher values. My preconception of the 19th century is of a God-fearing, churchgoing society that earnestly believed in Christianity and its stated values. Such people no doubt existed, but they were probably about as numerous as they are now.

Maybe I'll say more in a future post. I'll just add that I'm really enjoying this book--a real rarity for me, the more so since Dreiser's writing style is so prosaic and awkward: like reading about the closely observed inner lives of characters as written down by a chemical engineer. In some ways it makes the document more fascinating.

Thanks, Warren!



  • "Sister Carrie" used to be assigned reading in English Lit high school classes, but I managed to miss it 'cause Henry James and Dickens were most often assigned in my Lit classes. Your post piques my interest, and I've never read Dreiser. Maybe I'll start with "Sister Carrie." d:)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 04, 2006 4:05 PM  

  • Hi Debra. Yes, I'm still enjoying it, 180 or so pages in. For a fickle, blase reader like me, that's quite an achievement--especially when the prose style is so blah. But Dreiser has what most writers don't, at least anymore: something to say.

    By Blogger paulv, at December 05, 2006 7:42 AM  

  • I feel a bit that way about Henry James, whose books I enjoy, despite his verbose prose--even so, he's worth reading for the same reason--he has something to say.

    Although there was one short--Henry James? Short?--story of his I tried to read and finally my eyes crossed and I fell over. Have no idea of the title and only a vague memory that it was set at a seaside resort. d:)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 07, 2006 12:16 PM  

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