The much-quoted, perhaps less-read British novelist L.P. Hartley began one of his novels with a line so killer it reliably appears in at least one news lede per week, whether, like one’s bath, it is needed or not: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Add me to the ranks of those powerless to resist the pithiness of this line, which, conveyed to me by a history professor who spoke highly of its utility, indeed proved instrumental in guiding me through Theodore Dreiser’s great American novel.
The past is a foreign country, and Sister Carrie is our travelogue, with all that document’s power to illuminate and obfuscate. We get a map of the country’s major cities — Chicago and New York — a glimpse at its public transit systems, a review of its restaurants with a sampling of their menus, a glimpse inside its bars and lodgings from the swanky to the squalid. We see the sights and customs: the Elks theatrical, the Broadway promenade, the line of homeless men waiting for twelve-cent beds. The natives eat steak fried in butter obtained on credit from the Gansevoort Market (where the prices are better). We even accustom ourselves to the currency, so that when young Carrie — a small-town girl who makes it big in New York City — signs a theater contract for 150 dollars a week, we remember her four-fifty per week at the Chicago shoe factory, her 28-dollar-a month apartment on Thirteenth Street, and know her velocity.
For one Chicago-residing female reading of another a hundred years prior, there is much to beguile. There is also much to bewilder. In a state of temporal foreignness, it is not always easy to read the signs of the previous century.
I am not so inured to the libertinism of the day that I can’t see it wasn’t quite the thing for young Carrie to wantonly do it with a feller she met on the train — the first of two fellers with whom she so cavalierly trades her feminine goods for a square meal, a place to stay, and some new clothes. It’s not really the thing now, actually. And I can see how Hurstwood, the second of her squires — the one who steals the money from his employers’ cashbox and carries her off to New York under false pretenses — is a Bad Sort. Between this light woman and foolish man, between the shirt-waists and the occasional lumpy old-fashioned quality of Dreiser’s prose, between all this and my misapprehension that to be old is to be God-fearing, I was prepared for the inevitable smiting.
But rather than this profane couple being crushed by the clock tower falling off a church or some such, it is only Hurstwood who comes to a bad end after an excruciating slide to perdition: a self-administered smiting. With an obvious symmetry that is nonetheless quite elegantly carried off, Carrie winds up a successful actress at a fabulous address.
Being a youngish lady myself, and feeling both the lure of nice things and the anxieties of achieving financial security in an uncertain world (the headline of Hurstwood’s newspaper reported 80,000 unemployed New Yorkers), it doesn’t seem so very dire to me when famous Carrie sits in a rocking-chair in her sumptuous apartment and dreams “of such happiness as [she] may never feel.” Maybe I should think of her as an early Marilyn Monroe, destined for despair, but as the novel closes I feel like Carrie did pretty well. Even Dreiser paints her finally as a seeker of the Good and the Beautiful: “Not evil, but longing for that which is better, more often directs the steps of the erring.” It’s not much of a smiting, at any rate.
Since we cannot be dual citizens of the past and present, I have no idea if my relatively sanguine view of Carrie’s circumstances at the end of the novel is the result of my morally bankrupt 21st-century status, or because Dreiser was a master of writing the perfect ordinariness of sinful behavior. I think both; Dreiser tells the story in such a way that you can’t hear a mattress creak or smell a hint of brimstone, and I’m a modern miss who finds it normal and unprovoking that things should be so.
Evidently the critics of the early twentieth century, disciples all of what Dreiser called the “genteel tradition,” were provoked. It is instructive to read Dreiser’s foreword to the 1927 Modern Library edition, which describes how the novel was published only at the urging of Frank Norris, another great American writer and shit-disturber, who worked as a reader at Doubleday. According to Dreiser’s foreword, the ink was barely dry on the contract before Mrs. Doubleday herself, a “a social worker and active in moral reform,” insisted that the book be withdrawn. However, Dreiser may have been doing his own myth-making with an apocryphal do-gooding harpy; an article by Jack Salzman for the Journal of American Studies somewhat vindicates Mrs. Doubleday. We know at least that Doubleday in fact sold several hundred copies of the book and that Dreiser was paid accordingly.
Regardless of the veracity of the avenging missus, it’s easily ascertained that American critics found the novel distinctly unedifying. One New York Times reviewer tutted that it was “a frankly realistic story…a photograph of conditions in the crude larger cities of America and of the people who make these conditions and are made by them. There is no attempt to complicate the facts as they are with notions of things as they should be morally…It is a book one can very well get along without reading.”
(The past is a foreign country. Last month I read Dennis Cooper’s The Marbled Swarm, a novel in which myriad youngsters are graphically raped to death in baroque prose, and of which it is said in The New Yorker in a truly masterful bit of economy and understatement: “Cooper’s interest in exploring the darkest corners of the human experience — here including incest, rape, and cannibalism — has not dimmed with age.”)
Sinclair Lewis said of his friend Dreiser in his own Nobel lecture, “in [his] world, men and women are often sinful and tragic and despairing, instead of being forever sunny and full of song and virtue, as befits authentic Americans.” This was a problem. From what I gather, a novel of Dreiser’s day should either be moral (presumably with smitings), or it should be peppy, and Sister Carrie is neither of these things. Even so, the critical position was not without pushback — there are two letters subsequent to the Times review of June 1907, from readers who scolded the reviewer for missing the point. There are probably many points that I likewise miss about this novel, and it was comforting to read Donald Pizer’s essay on the long, twisted road of Sister Carrie’s critical reception, wherein we learn that the scholars took decades to agree about what this novel even is.
I wonder what it would feel like to read Sister Carrie as a citizen of the country it describes. We foreigners are lucky to have this novel as window onto the exotic past. I really like Sister Carrie, for its well-drawn sets, its vibrant cities, its views of the territory. I like the charming accent of its old-fashioned prose.
If anything shocks me about this novel now, it is not that Dreiser put two men inside of Carrie’s pants, but that he put himself inside her slow-moving brain. The idea that a novelist cheerfully set out to map the interior of the lower classes and perceived lesser intellects — that is what is shocking today, when social realism is largely restricted to the the author’s own immediate territory, and many novels seem like an elaboration of what authors might share with their therapists.
Today, I contemplate the sheer balls of writing:
Sister Carrie…was possessed of a mind rudimentary in its power of observation and analysis. Self-interest with her was high, but not strong. It was, nevertheless, her guiding characteristic. Warm with the fancies of youth, pretty with the insipid prettiness of the formative period, possessed of a figure promising eventual shapeliness and an eye alight with certain native intelligence, she was a fair example of the middle American class…A half-equipped little knight she was, venturing to reconnoitre the mysterious city and dreaming wild dreams of some vague, far-off supremacy…
With these same balls, Dreiser clearly writes himself into the story as the young, superior Ames:
She felt as if she would like to be agreeable to this young man, and also there came with it, or perhaps preceded it, the slightest shade of a feeling that he was better educated than she was — that his mind was better. He seemed to look it, and the saving grace in Carrie was that she could understand that people could be wiser.
I don’t think we write books like this anymore. There is something frank, transgressive, awful, and attractive about this liberated language. For what it’s worth, that’s the really scandalous thing about this book, the custom that simply doesn’t do in our own country.