March 17, 2018

Looking For Sister Carrie

On this day in 1981 the University of Pennsylvania Press issued their edition of Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, in which some 40,000 words are restored to the text and various changes to the original manuscript are reversed. Far from settling the issue, the Pennsylvania edition provided yet another chapter to one of the most famous and controversial stories in American book publishing.

Dreiser wrote his book in an eight-month stretch in 1899-1900. His wife and his friend, fellow journalist Arthur Henry, helped him eliminate or soften some of the material that, it was felt, would make the book too distasteful for prospective publishers. The first one approached, Harper and Brothers, still found the writing "neither firm enough nor sufficiently delicate to depict without offense to the reader the continued illicit relations of the heroine." Dreiser was twenty-eight and Sister Carrie was his first book: he cut 40,000 words and made more changes -- including a new ending. When a second publisher, Doubleday, Page and Company was approached, junior partner Walter Page offered a verbal contract for the reworked manuscript, a deal that senior partner Frank Doubleday found highly distasteful but binding. Unable to cancel the deal, Doubleday effectively suppressed the book by refusing to advertise it: only 456 copies were sold, earning Dreiser $68.40 and triggering a nervous breakdown that kept him from novel writing for a decade. (Though there was perhaps a silver lining: while returning from England in 1912, Dreiser was too poor to afford the Titanic, and sailed a few days earlier on a less expensive boat.)

Some scholars argue that the original Sister Carrie is the valid text, as any book is a compromise of author, editors, economics and public taste; others agree with the University of Pennsylvania that Dreiser had been coerced to prostitute himself to his publishers as much as his heroine to her times. This is the beginning of Chapter 10, the moment at which Dreiser presents his eighteen-year-old's decision to move in with traveling salesman Drouet:
    In the light of the world's attitude toward woman and her duties, the nature of Carrie's mental state deserves consideration. Actions such as hers are measured by an arbitrary scale. Society possesses a conventional standard whereby it judges all things. All men should be good, all women virtuous. Wherefore, villain, hast thou failed?

    For all the liberal analysis of Spencer and our modern naturalistic philosophers, we have but an infantile perception of morals. There is more in the subject than mere conformity to a law of evolution. It is yet deeper than conformity to things of earth alone. It is more involved than we, as yet, perceive. Answer, first, why the heart thrills; explain wherefore some plaintive note goes wandering about the world, undying; make clear the rose's subtle alchemy evolving its ruddy lamp in light and rain. In the essence of these facts lie the first principles of morals.

    "Oh," thought Drouet, "how delicious is my conquest."
    "Ah," thought Carrie, with mournful misgivings, "what is it I have lost?"

    Before this world-old proposition we stand, serious, interested, confused; endeavouring to evolve the true theory of morals--the true answer to what is right. . . .

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