“The critics have not really understood what I was trying to do”
Theodore Dreiser, an American author, was born in Terre Haute, Indiana on 27th August, 1871. One of his most famous works, Sister Carrie, was met with a lukewarm reception on its release, selling less than five hundred copies. As the above quote from the author suggests, it was a book which grated with its early twentieth century audience.
Dreiser was the twelfth of thirteen children in a working class German family. With the exception of one of his brothers, who became a successful songwriter, most of Dreiser’s siblings struggled to move beyond their impoverished roots. Dreiser himself worked menial jobs to support his education in his teens, before gaining employment as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune.
This upbringing, and the fate of his siblings, influenced Dreiser’s interpretation of the American Dream which underpins Sister Carrie. Families from Europe had immigrated to the USA in the hope of taking advantage of the ‘land of opportunity’. By the late nineteenth century, as the waves of immigration continued and more immigrant families found themselves living in poverty, the idea that through sheer hard work anyone could make their fortune increasingly came under scrutiny.
The protagonist of Sister Carrie, Caroline Meeber, leaves the countryside for the glamour of the city, with dreams of making a new life for herself. Confronted with the harsh, banal reality of city life, Meeber is forced into machine work to make ends meet. Her only escape comes through a chance meeting with a travelling salesman, who in making her his mistress liberates her from working class drudgery.
Throughout the rest of the novel, Meeber’s pursuit of happiness leads her into a series of unfulfilling relationships, including a brief marriage to George Hurstwood. Her obsession with fame takes her to Brooklyn, where she ultimately becomes a Broadway star. Crucially, this is success which is achieved through chance, connections and raw ambition rather than virtue. Meeber’s ascent to celebrity status is driven purely by her desire for material gain.
Hurstwood is the other key character, although the trajectory of his life is almost the complete antithesis of Meeber’s. At the start of the novel he is a wealthy figure in society and manager of a saloon. He falls in love and starts an affair with Meeber despite being married, and steals from his employers before he and Carrie flee to Montreal.
Soon after Hurstwood is caught by a private investigator, Meeber leaves him. Hurstwood descends into a life of poverty and despair, eventually becoming a homeless beggar. He commits suicide, at around the same time Meeber achieves her greatest success on Broadway. Again, his actions throughout the book lack any kind of morality, yet his fate is purely a result of chance.
Hurstwood and Meeber reflect two opposing stories, rags to riches and riches to rags. The key issue is that in terms of morality they are both equally void. Unlike the Victorian influenced literature of his contemporaries, which focused on morality, and in particular characters being rewarded for virtue, Dreiser’s characters’ fortunes are decided by fortune. The book was controversial for the clarity with which it exposed the grimy side of the glamour in American society, but also for the way in which success could be achieved by taking advantage of this system.
Similarly, the American Dream is reduced from its traditional narrative of success always being achievable through hard work. Something much more hollow is instead dissected and displayed to the reader, something which was probably becoming increasingly familiar to much of Dreiser’s audience.
The wife of one of the publishers who had agreed to release Sister Carrie read the manuscript and was outraged at what she interpreted as the books immorality. After a long dispute, the book was released in a smaller edition than originally intended, with little promotion. Years later, the realism with which it portrayed the turn of the century USA has seen it heralded as a landmark work in American literature.
by Theodore Dreiser