‘Sister Carrie’ by Theodore Dreiser (1900)
‘Sister Carrie’ is about an eighteen year old young woman who leaves her family and small town in Wisconsin to go to the booming city of Chicago in the 1890s. Her family is so poor that they can’t give her any money beyond the train ticket, but she does have a married sister who lives in Chicago with whom she moves in. Her married sister and husband are also extremely poor, so Carrie must get a job. She gets a job with one of the magnificent new department stores in Chicago at the time, but they pay her so little she can’t buy anything in the store. All Carrie’s experience at the luxurious department store does is make Carrie want more out of her poverty-stricken life. Her sister’s husband expects Carrie to give most of her meager income to him and his wife. She escapes from her sister’s family by moving in with a pleasant young man she had met on the train to Chicago named Drouet. Later she meets a married man named Hurstwood who has a devastating impact on her life.
Theodore Dreiser wrote ‘Sister Carrie’ in 1900, but it was withheld from publication until 1912 because of its ‘sordid’ subject matter. It wasn’t published in its original form the way Dreiser actually wrote it until 1981. Here is our heroine, Carrie, living with a man without the benefit of marriage. I had read ‘Sister Carrie’ a long time ago before I discovered what a compelling writer Theodore Dreiser is. Since then I’ve come to treasure Theodore Dreiser’s novels and short stories. Thus when I had a chance to listen to the audiodisk of ‘Sister Carrie’, I went for it. This novel turned out to be perfect for listening on audiodisk, because Dreiser tells his story in direct straightforward prose, and there was no chance of getting lost between listenings. It held my attention throughout.
Theodore Dreiser’s background was as a journalist, and one facet of ‘Sister Carrie’ I liked was the attention to details about both the rich side of life with its department stores, horse races, and theatrical performances and the poor side of life with its hunger, grinding poverty, and violent labor strife. Theodore Dreiser started the school of naturalism in United States fiction, which can be described as telling things the way they really are rather than the way they could be or should be.
I can’t imagine two writers more different from each other than Theodore Dreiser and Henry James. Henry James is exquisite, and Theodore Dreiser is a barbarian. So far, I’m still very much in the Dreiser camp rather than the Henry James camp when it comes to early 1900s writers. Of course, both Willa Cather and Edith Wharton may be better writers than these two gentlemen. Opinions on Dreiser range from “among the American giants, one of the very few American giants we have had” (Irving Howe) to “If he’s the great American novelist, give me the Marx Brothers every time” (Rupert Hart-Davis).
If you want an easy way to appreciate Theodore Dreiser, watch the 1951 film, ‘A Place in the Sun’, starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters. This movie is based on another excellent Dreiser novel, ‘An American Tragedy’. This movie is one of my favorite movies of all time.