Sister Carrie, Dreiser's first novel, was presented to a reading public not yet ready for its stark realism and pessimistic view of life. The manuscript had already been refused by two publishers when Frank Norris, author of the powerful naturalistic novel McTeague, and also an editor for Doubleday, Page and Company, read the manuscript and proclaimed it to be one of the best novels he had ever read. Walter Page, a partner in the firm, joined Norris in his praise of Sister Carrie and signed an agreement with Dreiser to publish it. Then, Frank Doubleday, the senior partner, upon returning from Europe, read the proof sheets and stopped publication.
It was not only Doubleday's dislike of the novel, but also his business acumen which prompted him to halt publication. He knew that any novel full of such vulgarity and moral laxity would not sell. Dreiser insisted that the publisher abide by the contract, and so a thousand copies were run off and bound. The book was displayed in the wholesale showroom and listed in the company's catalog. Through Norris' intervention, over four hundred copies were sent out to reviewers. When orders came in they were promptly filled. There is no foundation to Dreiser's charge that it was "suppressed" or "buried away in a cellar." Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the book, through Doubleday's influence, received the very minimum of publicity.
Favorable reviews were very few. Most reviewers were violently adverse and insulting. Sister Carrie was labeled immoral and vulgar. The book-purchasing public had no quarrel with the reviewers. Dreiser had much faith both in the book and the public. He bought the printing plates of his own novel and had it republished in successively larger editions in 1907, 1908, 1911, and 1932. Dreiser had finally triumphed over the genteel literary tradition.
Judged by the stiff-necked moral and esthetic standards of 1900, Sister Carrie was a shocking book. In McTeague, the most daring novel of the times, lust and vice were punished in the end to furnish the reader with a moral lesson. Carrie, far from being punished, involves herself compromisingly with two men and winds up in luxury, a successful actress, "with glory ringing in her ears" as she collects an enormous salary — a denouement that could be interpreted as advocating an unchaste life.
In addition to this, the novel may have offended public taste for any of the following reasons: It presented uneducated people who spoke ungrammatically and colloquially; it was vulgar. Dreiser compounds his offenses by showing sympathy for such vulgar characters in their sordid entanglements. All of its characters were "adrift on a storm sea," unable to steer any course, able only to grasp whatever comfort was washed their way. This violated the current moral doctrine of progress and free will, which taught that every man could choose his own ways of good or evil. The pessimism of Sister Carrie offended the contemporary taste for sweetness.
Walter Page wrote to Dreiser that, although his workmanship was "excellent," his choice of characters was "unfortunate." He feared that Sister Carrie would corrupt the public.
Sister Carrie was in fact a book so far ahead of its time that it is as alive and valid today as when it was written. Beyond that, it allows the present-day reader to enter into the consciousness of an era that is no more. Dreiser's talent lies in his ability to present life as he saw it, raw and ungrammatical, unpolished and tragic. Dreiser saw his role as a craftsman of detail, not of words or style.
Reminiscing over the novel he once wrote: "It is not intended as a piece of literary craftsmanship, but as a picture of conditions done as simple and effectively as the English language will permit." (See notes on Style.) It is through an overwhelming mass of detail — of clothing, manners, speech, actual news items — that Dreiser creates a mosaic of the experience of its two central characters in a specific time and place. Without such a range of detail, Sister Carrie would be simply another sentimental tale. Details are "things," and in Dreiser's brand of materialism, "things" determine the fortunes of men and women. It is through details that the reader recognizes the ironic rise and fall of Dreiser's characters.
The central theme of Sister Carrie is the effect of the misguided and misdirected American dream of success. The novel traces the separate but nonetheless individual stories of its characters in their efforts to realize the fabulous American dream. Carrie, seeking happiness and rising to stardom, reaches the verge of discovering personal fulfillment is an illusory dream. Money, clothes, and success fail to provide the happiness that they promise, but the darkest part of Carrie's tragedy is that she fails to understand this completely. Hurstwood, once having fallen from the "walled city" of the wealthy and influential, resigns himself too readily to failure and defeat. He also fails to recognize the shortcomings of a society whose values are based upon material things. Neither Carrie nor Hurstwood ever denies the values of the society that makes money its god. Charles Drouet, the "drummer," although he is relegated to the background midway through the novel, represents another important aspect of Dreiser's portrait. Drouet unconsciously assumes all the values of his day without a trace of rebellion. Thus, the figure of Drouet completes the picture by adding the tragedy of ignorance to Hurstwood's tragedy of failure and Carrie's tragedy of success.
In Sister Carrie Dreiser takes his central characters from the three classes of American economic life. He shows how they are harmed and corrupted by the fraudulent claims of the spurious American dream. The blame falls on the society that compels its individuals to become hideous and grotesque parodies of themselves.