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The Composition and Publication of Sister Carrie

The Composition and Publication of Sister Carrie
James L. W. West III

Copyright © James L. W. West III, 2000

The making of Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie is one of the best-known--and most apocryphal--stories in American literary history. Fortunately a great many materials survive to help us reconstruct the story and dispel the myths. The holograph manuscript of the novel is preserved at The New York Public Library, together with some notes and other materials that Dreiser saved. The setting-copy typescript (the crucial document) is part of the Theodore Dreiser Papers in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania. Also at Penn is a useful collection of correspondence between and among the principal players in the drama. These materials do not answer all questions about the composition of Sister Carrie, but they cast light on most of them.

The story of Sister Carrie began in March 1894 when young Theodore Dreiser, an itinerant newspaperman with vague literary ambitions, came to Toledo, Ohio, in search of a job. He had been working his way east from Chicago since 1892, writing for various newspapers and hoping eventually to land in New York City, where he wanted to secure a position at one of the large metropolitan daily papers. In Toledo, Dreiser met Arthur Henry, an editor at the Toledo Blade, and wrote an account of a streetcar strike for the paper. Dreiser and Henry hit it off well, and though Henry could not offer Dreiser a permanent position, the two men vowed to keep in touch. Dreiser moved on to Cleveland, then to Buffalo, and finally to Pittsburgh, working in each city as a reporter and features writer, gaining experience and hoping, as always, to end up in Manhattan.

Dreiser did move to New York in November 1894, but he found it difficult to break into journalism there. After a period of frustration and near-poverty, he was rescued by his brother, Paul Dresser, a songwriter and vaudeville performer who had an interest in a magazine called Ev'ry Month. The magazine was little more than a vehicle for popularizing Paul's songs (each issue contained the sheet music for a tune), but in Dreiser's hands Ev'ry Month became a lively journal, a place for him to publish his own writings--and some of Arthur Henry's work as well, for the two men had indeed kept up with one another. During the summer of 1897, Henry came east to live and to look into some writing possibilities for himself in New York. Shortly after that, Dreiser left Ev'ry Month and moved into free-lance magazine work, where he had good success. By December 1898 he was financially secure enough to marry Sara Osborne White, a Missouri schoolteacher whom he had met several years before. These two--Arthur Henry and Sara White--were now living in New York; they would play crucial roles in the composition of Sister Carrie.

The initial impetus to compose the novel came from Henry. By the fall of 1899 he had prodded Dreiser into beginning a manuscript; part of the argument was that Henry would be writing his own novel, to be called A Princess of Arcady, at the same time. The two young writers would help one another, offering advice and encouragement as they pursued what they both wanted--literary fame. Dreiser remembered later that he began his novel as much to please Henry as to answer any need of his own. He took a half-sheet of coarse copy paper and at the top wrote a title, "Sister Carrie." Then he began to set down the story of Caroline Meeber.

Dreiser moved along steadily, drawing on his knowledge of Chicago, where the narrative began, and on his experiences in the streets, saloons, and theaters of that city. He drew material from the misadventures of one of his sisters, Emma Dreiser, who had become involved with a married man named L. A. Hopkins and had fled with him to Canada, then to New York, after Hopkins had stolen money from the bar at which he worked. Dreiser managed to write nine chapters before running into trouble. He had brought Carrie Meeber and Charlie Drouet together and had introduced George Hurstwood into the narrative, but he had no idea where the story should go from there. Dreiser put down the manuscript in mid-October 1899, probably not intending to take it up again, but Henry kept goading him and eventually persuaded him to resume work on the manuscript in December.

This time Dreiser advanced the novel to the point at which Hurstwood was to steal money from his employers, but Dreiser was puzzled by Hurstwood's motivations and could not capture them on paper. He abandoned the novel--permanently this time, he thought--but again Arthur Henry insisted that he continue. Dreiser wrote the scene in which Hurstwood takes the cash from the safe (one of the best sequences in Sister Carrie); thus encouraged, he moved ahead briskly with the chapters that remained.

Dreiser was confident enough now to have the completed chapters put into typescript for later submission to a publisher. These finished holograph drafts had by this time been read, edited, and revised by both Sara and Henry--she functioning mainly as a grammarian, he mostly as a stylistic advisor. Henry had become involved with a woman named Anna Mallon, who operated a typewriting agency, and Dreiser took his chapters there for copying. Anna's typists worked on the finished chapters as Dreiser forged ahead with the rest of the novel, writing quickly now and with confidence. On the 29th of March 1900 he finished the narrative, for the first time, with Hurstwood's suicide in a Bowery flophouse. The typists had caught up with him, so by early April he had a complete typescript of Sister Carrie in hand.

Dreiser had written what he must have known to be an unpublishable novel. Its title character was a young woman who came to the city, formed two out-of-wedlock relationships, made her way onto the stage, and rose to fame and financial security. According to the conventions of the day she should have been punished for her moral lapses, but instead she was rewarded. Dreiser's typescript was also permeated with bleak, naturalistic thinking--antithetical to the pieties of the literary world. He probably knew that he would have to compromise his narrative if he were to see it into print, and toward this end he enlisted the help of Sara and Henry. Both of them went over the typescript, toning down some of the blunt treatment of sex, smoothing over the style, but not (as it turned out) making the novel palatable enough for it to be accepted by the first house to which Dreiser would show it.

Dreiser also changed the ending of Sister Carrie. The notes that survive with the manuscript suggest that he was influenced to do so by Sara, and possibly by Henry as well, though one can only speculate about their roles. Whatever the case, Dreiser altered his conclusion, ending not with the death of Hurstwood but with Carrie in her rocking chair, still melancholy and desirous, unsatisfied by her fame and possessions. Dreiser also altered the end of the penultimate chapter of the book, Chapter XLIX, so that Robert Ames, the young inventor from the Midwest, would not appear to be a romantic possibility for Carrie.

Dreiser now began his search for a publisher. He turned first to the prestigious house of Harper and Brothers, where he had an influential friend named Henry Mills Alden on the editorial staff. Dreiser submitted the typescript to Alden in early April 1900; about three weeks later it was turned down. The rejection letter, saved by Dreiser, contained some praise: "This is a superior piece of reportorial realism--of highclass newspaper work," the Harpers adviser said. "It is graphic, the local color is excellent, the portrayal of a certain below-the-surface life in the Chicago of twenty years ago faithful to fact." But Sister Carrie was still not publishable, at least by Harpers: Dreiser's touch was "neither firm enough nor sufficiently delicate to depict without offense to the reader the continued illicit relations of the heroine.... Their very realism weakens and hinders the development of the plot." Sister Carrie would surely offend "the feminine readers who control the destinies of so many novels." The decision: Harper and Brothers would pass on Dreiser's novel.

Dreiser was likely stung by these criticisms. Probably he saw that he would have to revise and cut his novel further, but whether he did so at this juncture is not clear from the surviving typescript. What is apparent is that Dreiser, Sara, and Henry--at this point or later--performed a major revision on the narrative. Some 40,000 words were removed, partly to quicken the pace, partly to do away with references to sex, partly to blunt the force of the naturalistic thinking. Much of the remaining prose was revised, trimmed, and buffed. What emerged was a different novel, less sexually frank and philosophically bleak.

The typescript was now submitted to another house, a new firm called Doubleday, Page & Co. Dreiser approached Doubleday because it published the writings of Frank Norris, a promising young naturalistic writer whose novel McTeague had recently caused a stir. Norris, in fact, worked as an advisor for Doubleday, and it was he who read the Sister Carrie typescript in May 1900 and pronounced judgment on it. Norris was much taken by the narrative, later calling it "the best novel I had read in M.S. since I had been reading for the firm." Acting on Norris's enthusiasm, the junior partner, Walter Hines Page, promised Dreiser that Sister Carrie would appear under the Doubleday imprint. No contract was signed, but a gentlemen's understanding was reached.

At this point the familiar details of "l'affaire Doubleday" began to unfold. Frank Doubleday, the senior partner, returned in July 1900 from a vacation and read Sister Carrie in typescript. Perhaps his wife read the novel as well, though this has never been firmly established. For whatever reason, Doubleday expressed a strong dislike for the narrative, calling it "immoral" and urging that his firm not publish it. Working through Page, he attempted to persuade Dreiser to withdraw the book, but Dreiser (probably with counsel from Arthur Henry) stood firm and demanded publication. Doubleday sought legal advice and found that indeed he was committed to putting Sister Carrie into print, but that he was under no obligation to market it strongly.

After a round of blue-pencilling meant to remove the last objectionable features from the text, Sister Carrie was published on 8 November 1900. Norris sent out some 127 review copies; the notices were mixed. Some reviewers complained about the unpleasantness of the story, calling it depressing and pessimistic, but others praised the skillful realism and noted the power of the themes and characters. Without support from its publisher, however, Sister Carrie was a flop. Only 456 copies were sold, netting Dreiser a paltry $68.40 in royalties.

A British edition appeared in 1901 from the firm of Heinemann; this text was abbreviated by Arthur Henry in order to make the book conform to the length restrictions of Heinemann's "Dollar Library of American Fiction." Reviews in the British press were generally favorable, though not as positive as Dreiser would later claim. In 1907 Dreiser himself arranged for a reprint of Sister Carrie by the firm of B. W. Dodge and Co., a remainder house in which he had a financial stake. This republication brought the novel to the attention of new readers and reviewers and prepared the way for a second reprint, this one by Harper and Brothers in 1912--an irony, since Harpers had rejected the novel originally in 1900. In the years after 1912, as Dreiser published more fiction and rose to a prominent position in American letters, Sister Carrie became a famous novel. The story of its suppression by Doubleday was a rallying point for forward-looking intellectuals and a paradigm for the suppression of artistic freedom by the forces of puritanism and Comstockery.

The text of Sister Carrie, however, remained in the compromised form--cut and bowdlerized--in which it had originally been published in 1900. A new British typesetting appeared from Constable in 1927, and a fresh American typesetting was issued by Heritage Press in 1939, but neither edition restored the cut and censored material. Finally in 1981, a scholarly edition of Sister Carrie from the University of Pennsylvania Press returned to Dreiser's manuscript as copy-text and, relying on the evidence of cutting and bleaching from the Penn typescript, restored most of the deleted passages and the unrevised language. The Pennsylvania edition also ends with Hurstwood's suicide, not with Carrie in her rocker. This edition is a synthetic, eclectic text--an imaginative effort to bring the novel as close as possible to Dreiser's original intentions.

The initial reception of the Penn Sister Carrie was mixed; subsequent defenders and attackers have brought into the discussion many important issues about literary texts and authorial intentions, and especially about works of literature which exist in more than one version. Both texts (the Doubleday and the Penn) are today in print, in widely available paperbacks; scholars continue to debate the merits of one over the other. Those who favor the Doubleday text see it as an historical artifact--a negotiated, collaborative product of the culture that produced it. Those who argue for the Penn text see it as more nearly the novel that Dreiser himself meant to publish, a narrative far ahead of its time which could not be issued until eighty years after he wrote it.

The importance of the surviving typescript, reproduced on this website, is that it preserves the work of all of the participants in the Sister Carrie story--Dreiser, Henry, Sara, and the Doubleday editors. One can see on its leaves the evidence of consideration and reconsideration, cutting and softening and revising, that produced the text published in 1900. This evidence is subject to various explanations, all of them influenced by one's views about literary inspiration and intention. For this reason there will never be an established or "definitive" text of Sister Carrie. The typescript, and the conflicting intentions that it displays, will remain open to many interpretations.

Note on Handwriting

In the Penn typescript one finds the hands of Dreiser, Henry, and Sara, together with some marginal blue-pencilling by an editor at Doubleday--though this editor wrote no words on any leaf. Dreiser's hand is most readily identifiable: he writes a backhanded script, not easy to read, with no loop in his p's and with the crosses for his t's inscribed to the right of the downstroke. Good examples of Henry's rather sprawly hand appear on pages 63 and 369 of the typescript; note the characteristic turning-down of the terminal stroke on the letter d. An example of Sara's handwriting is on page 151 of the typescript; her right-slanting letters are formed conventionally, and her script is smaller and tighter than Henry's.

Further Reading

Brennan, Stephen C. "The Making of Sister Carrie." Ph.D. Thesis, Tulane University, 1979.

Dowell, Richard W. "`There Was Something Mystic about it': The Composition of Sister Carrie by Dreiser et al." In Biographies of Books: The Compositional Histories of Notable American Writings, edited by James Barbour and Tom Quirk, pp. 131-59. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.

Pizer, Donald. "Sister Carrie." In The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study, pp. 31-95. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976.

Riggio, Thomas P. "Notes on the Origins of `Sister Carrie,'" Library Chronicle 44 (1979): 7-26.

_____. "Carrie's Blues." In New Essays on Sister Carrie, edited by Donald Pizer, pp. 23-41. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

West, James L. W. III. A Sister Carrie Portfolio. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985.

_____, et al. "Sister Carrie: Manuscript to Print." In Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie, pp. 503-41. The Pennsylvania Edition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

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