Dreiser Publishes

Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie, published despite misgivings concerning its frank treatment of sexuality, became a beacon to later American writers intent on breaking literary taboos. It is considered by many one of the best modern novels.

Summary of Event

By 1899, Theodore Dreiser was a young veteran of print journalism, with experience on daily newspapers in Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, and St. Louis, Missouri. In September of that year in New York (or possibly a few months earlier at a friend’s house in Maumee, Ohio), Dreiser began writing the story of a girl from a small Wisconsin town who becomes a kept woman in Chicago and, eventually, a Broadway starlet. The novel, which Dreiser finished in March of 1900, would entangle him in one of the most famous disputes in American publishing history. Dreiser, Theodore
[p]Dreiser, Theodore;Sister Carrie
Sister Carrie (Dreiser)
Norris, Frank
[kw]Dreiser Publishes Sister Carrie (Nov. 8, 1900)
[kw]Publishes Sister Carrie, Dreiser (Nov. 8, 1900)
[kw]Sister Carrie, Dreiser Publishes (Nov. 8, 1900)
[kw]Carrie, Dreiser Publishes Sister (Nov. 8, 1900)
Dreiser, Theodore
[p]Dreiser, Theodore;Sister Carrie
Sister Carrie (Dreiser)
Norris, Frank
[g]United States;Nov. 8, 1900: Dreiser Publishes Sister Carrie[6540]
[c]Literature;Nov. 8, 1900: Dreiser Publishes Sister Carrie[6540]
Page, Walter Hines
Doubleday, Frank Nelson

Dreiser sent the completed manuscript to a publishing house in May, but it was rejected, although an editor suggested that Doubleday, Page & Company might be interested in the work. In doubt was the suitability of the novel’s frank portrayal of sexuality in an era of Victorian literary proscriptions. The heroine, Carrie Meeber, a character based in part on one of Dreiser’s own sisters, lives with two men without benefit of matrimony. Perhaps most dubious of all, according to the standards of the day, Carrie’s transgressions are not punished beyond her consignment to a vague nonfulfillment at novel’s end.

Despite this cause for caution, Doubleday, Page accepted the manuscript for publication, reasoning that the work received unbridled enthusiasm by the publisher’s first reader, the California naturalistic novelist Frank Norris Norris, Frank . In 1899, the firm (then called Doubleday, McClure) had brought out Norris’s violent tale of a brutish San Francisco dentist, McTeague. Norris, whose popularity with his publishers gained him substantial influence, pronounced Sister Carrie “a wonder” and one of the most pleasing novels he had read “in any form, published or otherwise.”

Impressed by Norris’s response, Walter Hines Page Page, Walter Hines wrote to Dreiser and accepted the novel in the absence of his partner, Frank N. Doubleday Doubleday, Frank Nelson , who was traveling in Europe. When the signed agreement arrived from Page, Dreiser had every reason to believe that his career as a fiction writer had been launched. Soon, however, Doubleday and his wife Neltje returned from Europe, where they had been trying to acquire the publishing rights to French writer Émile Zola’s Zola, Émile novels. Doubleday, a somewhat moralistic Episcopalian in spite of his relatively liberal attitude toward McTeague and Zola’s novels, read Dreiser’s manuscript and objected to the publishing agreement on the grounds that the work was immoral and because, in any event, it was unlikely to sell. Neltje Doubleday also read the book and concurred in her husband’s judgment.

On July 19, at Frank Doubleday’s Doubleday, Frank Nelson insistence, Page Page, Walter Hines wrote to Dreiser explaining the growing misgivings at the publishing house about the manuscript and asking for release from the agreement. Dreiser decided to fight for his legal rights. A series of conflicts ensued, and Dreiser, who first tried courteous insistence, finally threatened legal action. Doubleday, Page representatives responded with offers to find him a different publisher and other attempts to mollify. Eventually, Doubleday agreed in exasperation to honor the agreement but to commit to only one edition. In a concession bespeaking surprising goodwill under the circumstances, Doubleday put Norris in charge of publicity, and the latter sent out 127 review copies appended with promotional material and his own personal letters.

By the actual day of publication, November 8, 1900, Norris and Dreiser were certain the novel would be a huge, immediate success. They were mistaken. Few reviewers were favorable, and those that were favorable found much to criticize. The overwhelming majority of reviewers found the novel’s subject matter unacceptably crude according to prevailing tastes and judged the style totally graceless. The response of the public was equally disheartening. Only 456 copies had sold by February of 1902, netting Dreiser royalties of $68.40.

Dreiser’s disappointment was profound and sustained. In the short run, his perceived failure in this first attempt at long fiction, added to his family and marital troubles, sent his already brooding psyche into a deep depression, and he was on the verge of suicide for several months. He was helped by his brother, the celebrated songwriter Paul Dresser Dresser, Paul (Johann Paul Dreiser, Jr.), who arranged for his treatment in a sanitarium. After recovering his equilibrium, Dreiser achieved notable financial success while pursuing a career as an editor of women’s magazines. He might have stayed with this work permanently had he not been made to resign because of an affair of the heart involving an assistant’s daughter. Forced to try writing literature again as a way of making a living, he went on to become one of the nation’s leading novelists and the author of one of its most important twentieth century works of fiction, An American Tragedy (1925).

Dreiser, though, was never able to forgot his troubles with Doubleday, Page over the manuscript of Sister Carrie, even though the novel’s subsequent publication in England spurred the slow but steady growth of its reputation in America. Throughout his later life, he returned again and again to the story of the conflict with his first publisher, often embellishing it with half-truths and outright falsehoods. Almost always, these elaborated stories made Neltje Doubleday the blue-nosed villain of the piece, a bit of misinformation he apparently picked up from Norris. For many years, the legends Dreiser circulated about the circumstances surrounding the Doubleday affair were taken at face value, but later scholarship served to set the record straight.


Because Sister Carrie was effectively neutralized at the time of its appearance by the combination of its less-than-enthusiastic publisher, mostly negative reviews, and negligible sales, it had no appreciable immediate impact. Not until the modest success of his second novel, Jennie Gerhardt (1911), did Dreiser attract the concentrated attention of important critics and writers, who then discovered and reconsidered the ultimately more respected earlier novel.

Undoubtedly, the most important of the first literary critics impressed by Dreiser was the acerbic Henry Louis Mencken. Dreiser had published some of Mencken’s early essays while working as a magazine editor. The two became fast friends, a circumstance that positioned Mencken to mount his famous defense of Dreiser when Dreiser’s 1915 novel The “Genius” was attacked for its “lewd” and “obscene” material by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

The notoriety of the temporary suppression of The “Genius,” coupled with the growing legend of his earlier troubles with Doubleday over Sister Carrie, helped establish Dreiser as an antiestablishment icon for the next generation of writers, which included F. Scott Fitzgerald Fitzgerald, F. Scott , James T. Farrell, Richard Wright, and many others. By the time An American Tragedy, Dreiser’s epic novel fictionalizing a famous murder case, became a best seller following its publication in 1925, Sister Carrie had come to be regarded as a national classic.

What subsequent writers discovered in Sister Carrie, however, was not simply a novel of historic importance in the battle against Victorian literary squeamishness. Equally important were other trendsetting aspects of the work as well as its attempt to come to intellectual grips with the modern world, in which the failure of faith necessitated a search for a substitute, secular salvation. First, the novel’s heroine, Carrie Meeber, is a lower-middle-class midwesterner who speaks ungrammatically. These qualities sharply differentiate her not only from the protagonists of romantic novels but also even from the protagonists of earlier American realists such as Henry James James, Henry and William Dean Howells, whose “slice of life” fiction carefully avoided such less-than-genteel types. Moreover, Chicago Chicago;in fiction[Fiction] and New York New York City;in fiction[Fiction] , the settings for Sister Carrie, are rendered so palpably that the novel is justly regarded as a pioneering picture of the newly urbanized America teeming with seeking immigrants. As such, it provided a precedent for later city novelists such as John Dos Passos, Nelson Algren, and Hubert Selby, Jr.

Perhaps the most widespread and long-lasting influence Sister Carrie has had on later writers, however, stems from the book’s attempt to construe the meaning of modern American life. In the novel, Dreiser weds the growing spiritual skepticism of the age to a national context. He was prepared for this mission by his reading and experiences in the years preceding the novel’s publication. His reading had made him, at least nominally, a philosophic naturalist who believed that God was dead, that life was meaningless, that humans are helpless victims of their heredity and environment, and that blind chance shapes events.

Dreiser’s experiences led him to brood about the disillusionment that almost inevitably resulted from the attainment of his desires and about his continued longing for fulfillment in spite of the evidence of his emotions. Dreiser incorporated his reading of naturalistic philosophy into Sister Carrie through the voice of an omniscient narrator who comments on and assesses the heroine’s development. He made use of his experience by giving Carrie the same wants and urges that had prodded his own progress through life. In the novel, Carrie achieves material, sexual, artistic, and social success as well as fame, but her ultimate dissatisfaction leads her to contemplate an alternative agenda, the subsuming of the self in devotion to the less fortunate.

The American writers who came after Dreiser were forced to face a world that Sister Carrie had helped to define. Whether they accepted or rejected the bleak twentieth century determinism of the novel, they had to acknowledge that the philosophy contributed mightily to the skeptical attitude dominant among American intellectuals. Succeeding writers who sought thereafter to signal the significance of contemporary American life often walked the same road taken by Dreiser.

A notable example of the influence of Sister Carrie on a later work is Fitzgerald’s Fitzgerald, F. Scott
The Great Gatsby (1925), often singled out as the finest novel about the American Dream. Its mythic hero, Jay Gatsby, tragically pursues most of the same ends that had mesmerized Carrie; moreover, Fitzgerald ends his novel with a poetic evocation of the very desire and disillusionment over which Dreiser had brooded at the close of his story. Sister Carrie can be seen as well as the ancestor of the many other novels that excoriate American materialism, works as diverse yet typical as Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922) and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays (1970).

In 1981, Sister Carrie enjoyed a second debut somewhat more auspicious than its first. The University of Pennsylvania’s Dreiser Project, a scholarly endeavor aimed at providing definitive editions of the novelist’s works, published a version based on the Sister Carrie holograph. This version restores some thirty-six thousand words deleted in the process that led to the Doubleday, Page edition in 1900. Even this later version, though, met with the seemingly inevitable controversy that plagued most of Dreiser’s book launchings. The Pennsylvania edition eliminates the final scene, in which Carrie muses on her experience while rocking in her chair—a deletion justified on the grounds that Dreiser had added it a few weeks after he had ostensibly finished the manuscript.

Further Reading

  • Dreiser, Theodore. Letters of Theodore Dreiser. Edited by Robert H. Elias. 3 vols. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959. Contains scattered references to Sister Carrie written to correspondents over Dreiser’s entire life. Many references add to the legend surrounding the suppression of the novel by Doubleday, Page in 1900.
  • _______. Sister Carrie. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981. Part of a scholarly project aimed at re-creating the definitive texts of Dreiser’s novels as he would have authorized them. Restores passages eliminated in the process of creating and publishing the novel in 1899 and 1900. Amplifies especially the characters of Carrie and Hurstwood.
  • _______. Theodore Dreiser’s Uncollected Magazine Articles, 1897-1902, edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003. Brings into one volume Dreiser’s journalistic works. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • Dudley, Dorothy. Forgotten Frontiers: Dreiser and the Land of the Free. New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1932. Biography that attempts to place Dreiser in a national context. Written in a somewhat florid style uncharacteristic of biographies. Dudley’s advantage over more recent biographers was her interviews with Dreiser. Contains no scholarly apparatus or photographs.
  • Elias, Robert H. Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948. An early critical biography completed as a doctoral dissertation. Elias’s advantage over other biographers was his training in literary criticism and the availability of resource persons just a few years after Dreiser’s death in 1945. Contains an index and a few photographs.
  • Lingeman, Richard. Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871-1907. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1986. The first volume of the definitive biography. A much more sympathetic approach to Dreiser’s life than the work of W. A. Swanberg and more sensitive in its approach to the novels. Contains photographs, index, and bibliography. The second volume, published in 1990, is entitled Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey, 1908-1945.
  • Newlin, Keith, ed. A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003. A comprehensive collection of all things Dreiser, in a format that makes it easy to locate select information on the writer. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976. Sets out to establish sources and elucidate the composition process for each of the novels. Separate chapter on each novel. Discussion of Sister Carrie composition especially helpful. Contains index and endnotes.
  • Rush, Frederic E., and Donald Pizer, eds. Theodore Dreiser: Interviews. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004. A collection of interviews with the novelist Dreiser, edited by scholars of his work. Includes a bibliography and index.
  • Salzman, Jack, ed. Theodore Dreiser: The Critical Reception. New York: David Lewis, 1972. A collection of contemporary reviews of Dreiser’s books. Includes several of the original responses to the 1900 Doubleday, Page edition of Sister Carrie and an introductory essay by Salzman that puts Dreiser’s literary reception and subsequent reputation in historical context.
  • Swanberg, W. A. Dreiser. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965. The first serious and comprehensive biography. Swanberg’s jaundiced view of Dreiser’s private life did not sit well with the surviving members of the novelist’s family. Reliable on factual details but deficient in literary judgment. Contains photographs and index. Superseded by Lingeman’s two-volume biography cited above.

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[p]Dreiser, Theodore;Sister Carrie
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Norris, Frank