Theodore Dreiser had a hardscrabble youth and the years of newspaper work behind him when he began his first novel, Sister Carrie, the story of a beautiful Midwestern girl who makes it big in New York City. Published by Doubleday in 1900, it gained a reputation as a shocker, for Dreiser had dared to give the public a heroine whose "cosmopolitan standard of virtue" brings her from Wisconsin, with four dollars in her purse, to a suite at the Waldorf and glittering fame as an actress. With Sister Carrie, the original manuscript of which is in the New York Public Library collections, Dreiser told a tale not "sufficiently delicate" for many of its first readers and critics, but which is now universally recognized as one of the greatest and most influential American novels.
, Theodore Dreiser's revolutionary first novel, was published in 1900--sort of. The story of Carrie Meeber, an 18-year-old country girl who moves to Chicago and becomes a kept woman, was strong stuff at the turn of the century, and what Dreiser's wary publisher released was a highly expurgated version. Times change, and we now have a restored "author's cut" of Sister Carrie
that shows how truly ahead of his time Dreiser was. First and foremost, he has written an astute, nonmoralizing account of a woman and her limited options in late-19th-century America. That's impressive in and of itself, but Dreiser doesn't stop there. Digging deeply into the psychological underpinnings of his characters, he gives us people who are often strangers to themselves, drifting numbly until fate pushes them on a path they can later neither defend nor even remember choosing.
Dreiser's story unfolds in the measured cadences of an earlier era. This sometimes works brilliantly as we follow the choices, small and large, that lead some characters to doom and others to glory. On the other hand, the middle chapters--of which there are many--do drag somewhat, even when one appreciates Dreiser's intentions. If you can make it through the sagging midsection, however, you'll be rewarded by Sister Carrie's last 150 pages, which depict the harrowing downward spiral of one of the book's central characters. Here Dreiser portrays with brutal power how the wrong decision--or lack of decision--can lay waste to a life. --Rebecca Gleason