It is no mystery why Frank Norris praised to high heaven Theodore Dreiser's 1900 novel "Sister Carrie." Norris, one of America's great naturalist writers, saw in Dreiser's tale about a young woman on the make a reflection of the same bleak vistas he wrote about in "Vandover and the Brute," "The Octopus," and "McTeague." When Dreiser submitted his book for publication, it was Norris who read the book and made a glowing recommendation to the publisher. There were immense problems with "Sister Carrie" from that point forward: the wife of the publisher hated the story and worked hard behind the scenes to prevent its release. With a contract already signed, Dreiser's book did become a reality but the publishing house refused to support it with any marketing. The story languished for years in a paper limbo before finally emerging to great success and acclaim. Thank goodness it did because this may be one of the most powerful books ever written about social climbing and the perils of bad morals. Dreiser went on to publish more novels (American Tragedy, The Financier) before dropping out of the literary scene and converting to communism before his death in 1945.
"Sister Carrie" doesn't promise much at the beginning. In fact, this is yet another story about a rural person arriving in the big city seeking fame and fortune. In this case, it is Carrie Meeber, a young woman moving to Chicago to live with her sister and her husband while she tries to find work. Carrie quickly discovers big city life is tough; her sister's home life bores her to death, the work she finds in a shoe factory is pure drudgery, and she doesn't have enough money to buy decent clothes because she has to pay her sister four dollars a week for rent. Carrie hates her base co-workers and spends most of her free time watching people pass on the street outside of her sister's apartment.