Sister Carrie

Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)

As an English Major who has continued to read fiction, it is embarrassing indeed that I never savored Theodore Dreiser (Dry-zer) (an author best known to the masses for his An American Tragedy (which was made into a classic 1950’s film starring Liz Taylor and Montgomery Cliff) or his literary masterpiece, Sister Carrie (to which I was steered, one day at lunch, by Dan Brown, the author of the NY Times’ leading best seller of that year, The Davinci Code, an educational thriller.  I was well into Sister Carrie when I recognized it as the subject of a play and a 1950’s movie, the latter starring the belated luminary of stage and cinema, Sir Lawrence Olivier, whose rendition of it (with the sublime, heart-wrenching Jennifer Jones as Carrie) had once troubled me so that it haunted my thoughts for years.  (That film is a MUST; order it on Amazon.)  The book, I found, stirred me even more; it gripped and drained me, never releasing my thoughts for days until its final words, “The End”, after I which I lay in semi-spellbound trance, as goose bumps tingled my frame until I forcibly shook myself free of it.

Why? Whatever can make a book so overwhelmingly moving?  It wasn’t artifice, legerdemain or a unique literary style.  It was its simplicity, the truth of its characters, their cold realities, the kindly objectivity, and a story line so universal and real as to engender empathy in all, however devoid of “action”, sex, violence or macabre descriptions that so consume modern “art” in visual or written forms.  Unlike most contemporary fiction, dialogue is conspicuous more by its absence than by what it reveals about the characters.  It is the well developed thoughts of the believably flawed but sympathetic characters, their actions, the revealing descriptive passages, all salted with profound observations, which cement our attention to the prose.

Beginning in 1889, and spanning only a decade or so in the life of the young heroin (“Sister Carrie”, a family nickname having nothing to do with The Catholic Church) departs her relatively impoverished blue collar family and her diminutive Midwestern town for Chicago, a land brimming with opportunity, danger and excitement.  Her early urban privations and travails muster all of the reader’s commiserations and depict the oppressive conditions of the then labor class – a latter-day view of the social malaise that afflicted the earlier Dickensian world (the gray world in which Dreiser -- the youngest of nine with six sisters and two brothers -- had been suckled, humbled and abused).

A beauty with above average intelligence and sensibilities, grace and native taste uncommon to her roots (a family in which all the women and their mother were maids), Carrie’s loving nature and naiveté endear her to us. (Dreiser admires kindness above all else, which his sisters likely taught him by example, drawing us to him uncontrollably like moths to light.)  Like many, Carrie is driven more by instinct than reason; she longs for the loveliness and gaiety of the great city (Chicago), so graphically depicted by well-described fine raiments and elegant surroundings which seem to content others more fortunate than she.  She doesn’t long so much for the trappings as the contentment which they seem to represent.  “Time proved the representation to be false.”  She attracts men, of course, and has two lovers of note, both men who possess good looks, engaging ways and the appearance of success  -- all be they lower rung-upper class at best, they are monetarily far above her peasant-means.  Her breaks with them are painful to read, and the Shakespearian course of one of them is among the saddest tales in all of literature, portraying a dismal decline into abject poverty amid a sea of lost souls in unforgettable agony, as unveiled in painfully touching, unforgettable prose that sometimes rings tears from the most jaded reader’s eyes.

In the end, by dint of hard work, natural artistic talents for the stage, and her perseverance over all manner of rejection and obstacles, she succeeds – in obtaining material success and fame, but she remains alone.  She no longer envies those who have more than she, as they seem unlikely to possess more peace or beauty (life’s beauty) than she.  The tangles of human life, we see, permit only dim views of that which really matters to Dreiser: a loving soul.  Life, she demonstrates, is forever to be a pursuit of that radiance of delight which hints the distant hilltops of the world, illusions of peace, that beckon to most of us and which seem to elude mankind forevermore.  Dreiser’s test for securing happiness is challenging: Can we love in all ways (our loved ones, all humanity and creatures), and how deeply, how unconditionally, and without keeping score?

Dreiser’s prose is another cut of literary cloth.  Countless phrases, metaphors and thoughts  (many often borrowed by others) must reverberate in our ears evermore: e.g., “Gossamer threads of thoughts”; “lamps glowing with a mellow radiance of watery translucence”; “the liquid luster of her soft eyes”; “the sky pouring liquid blue into her soul”; “a borderless sea of speculation”; “a study in what good clothing can do for age”; or “Beauty, even cold, is fascinating”; Or he is profound: “Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean.”  “When the distractions of the tongue are removed, the heart listens.”  “The intellectual…the mind that reasons [is that] of men of action…[whereas] the mind that feels…[is that] of poets, dreamers, artists all…voicing all the ebb and flow of the ideal…”  “Music charms us…makes us feel as if we wanted something…it stirs the inexplicable longings within us…ever heartening to the sound of beauty, straining for the flash of its distant wings…”  He might have added that music fulfills us, at least for a moment in time.  It is unfortunate, however, that “his worst subjects in school were math and grammar” and also that he resisted paragraphing, which could have afforded the reader more chances to prepare for a fresh subject, to breathe more, relax and better savor his spellbinding characters, his loving themes and storyline even more fully.

To read Sister Carrie is to fathom why author Dan Brown views it and Dreiser as the greatest fiction that he has read, and, when you finish, you, too, may be numb with emotions that defy explanation.  (Interestingly, Dreiser’s favorite author was Poe, and he chastised the divine Dickens but only for his unrealistically happy endings.)  In all events, Sister Carrie is a must for adventurous readers, especially for those who admire the classics.

Who was the man, Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)?  The youngest of nine children, the son of a factory worker, lived in poverty, and was often hungry and skeletally thin most of his life.  (At 6’2”, he weighed 137 pounds!)  His mother died when he was 19: “Our youth and our home were over…now I was I, and alone…Her strength and living sustaining love had gone from me.”  (This helped me understand how my mother must have felt when, at age 12, she lost her mother, then 32.  Medicine has come a long way.)  Dreiser’s mother and sisters were housemaids (like Jenny Gerhardt, the subject of his second brilliant novel of that name, another Must Read); his brothers, except Paul, were laborers.  Dreiser began as a dishwasher and truck driver.  His insecurities evidenced themselves in stuttering (a malaise that afflicted this reader in his twenties).  (How well some write, who yet labor to speak.)  His brother-Paul, some 15 years his senior, became a famous writer of hit songs and a music publisher who was “large” on Broadway (“Tin Pan Alley”); Paul helped Dreiser financially and emotionally until he (Paul) died when Dreiser was 35 or so.  Dreiser wrote an unforgettable and loving short story about Paul (“My Brother, Paul”) in his Twelve Men.  That masterpiece, My Brother Paul, demands to be read.  Dreiser read at nights, abandoned hard labor, and worked as a journalist on several daily’s, then as a magazine editor, short story writer, playwright and novelist.  He struggled financially, much of his life, until he reached his 50’s, by which time he was finally famous, had many paramours (despite his uncomely appearance) and lived comfortably – in the very society that his heroines (and family) only admired from a distance.

His novels were often rejected by publishers and later panned by critics, and most became popular years after their first publications. Sister Carrie, for example, was published in 1900 but became popular 20 years later and wasn’t released as a film until 1950.  He had to fight censorship of his writings as well, even in court, as the mores then still favored Puritanism. Rising as he did from abject poverty, he, like Charlie Chaplin and other artistic luminaries, favored socialism and joined the Communist Party shortly before his death.  Like most artists, he never foresaw or fathomed the economics or brutality of Communism and saw it as a possible aid to the impoverished with whose pathetic circumstances he was so agonizingly familiar. (Had he read Boris Pasternak’s immortal historical fiction-classic, Dr. Zhivago, he would have seen Communism for people-crusher that it is.  As Pasternak lamented, “When everything belongs to everyone; no one takes care of anything…Revolutions are good only on their first day.”)  Dreiser’s literary achievements did not save him from debilitating depression and many physical ailments most of his life, but his writings provide timeless accounts of America as it existed from 1871-1930 and some of the most introspectively translucent and finest prose ever penned in the English language.