October 19, 2009

The CCLaP 100: "Sister Carrie," by Theodore Dreiser

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser

Sister Carrie (1900)
By Theodore Dreiser
Book #31 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
One of the last Victorian-style morality tales to make a big splash, Theodore Dreiser's 1900 Sister Carrie tells the story of late teen and rural Wisconsinite Caroline Meeber, who at the beginning of the novel moves to bustling post-Fire Chicago to start making a name for herself, staying at first with her sister Minnie and her dour Swedish husband over in the city's blue-collar west side. But alas, life in the pre-workers-rights Windy City is not exactly the bed of roses she thought it would be, with Carrie finding herself slaving away in dangerous sweatshops for almost no pay on the rare occasions she can find any work at all, becoming more afraid each day of turning into the hard, humorless housewife her older sister has become; so when she starts receiving gifts and attention from local middle-class playboy Charles Drouet, Carrie jumps at the chance, eventually even agreeing to live with him and accept an allowance even though Drouet is in not much of a mood to marry (one of the many "shocking" details that got this book banned when it first came out).

Eventually, though, Carrie's charms become too tempting for Drouet's acquaintance George Hurstwood, a married retail manager living a comfortable existence up in Lincoln Park, who especially after watching Carrie's unexpectedly successful performance in a community play starts falling in love with her, eventually convincing her to leave Drouet on the promise that he will instead do the right thing and marry her (conveniently of course omitting the fact that he is already married and with children). Through a series of implausible plot developments, then (easy money stolen on a whim one night while drunk, flight from the law, a return of the money but subsequent social disgrace), the couple find themselves in 1890s New York, trying to resume a comfortable domestic life but with this becoming more and more difficult, due to the current recession and Hurstwood's lack of business contacts in this cold east-coast city. It's at this point that the plot essentially splits into two, as we watch Hurstwood's rather spectacular fall into destitution (the spending of his reserves, his stint as a train-conductor scab during a violent union strike, his eventual descent into homeless vagrancy), even as Carrie's fortunes improve just as dramatically, eventually leaving Hurstwood for a rising career on Broadway, the book ending with her rich and famous but still unhappy, and still unsure of what she wants out of life in the first place.

The argument for it being a classic:
The main reason this book should be considered a classic, argue its fans, is for the groundwork it laid for the literature that came right after it; because even though it was published right on the tail end of the Victorian Age, it in fact contains many of the seeds that would become the trademarks of Modernism a mere two decades later, things like an embrace of moral relativism and more prurient subject matter, not to mention a much more naturalistic writing style. In fact, it's no coincidence that Dreiser is considered one of the founders of the Naturalist school of literary thought (best typified anymore by European author Emile Zola, a writer Dreiser is often compared to), a movement similar to the Realism of Henry James and Edith Wharton of the same time period, in that both attempted to strip fiction of the flowery, overwritten purple prose so indicative of the Victorian Era. If not for the bold stylistic experiments of people like Dreiser, his fans argue, we would've never had the more perfected stylings of people like Henry Miller or William Faulkner just one generation later; and if not for his embrace of more modern subject matter (because let's never forget, this was one of the very first American novels to become known precisely for its sordid content and subsequent censorship), it would've never been possible for F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway to write their truly transgressive books a mere twenty years later.

The argument against:
Ironically, critics of this book argue nearly the exact opposite of its fans: that despite it being written a mere two decades before the explosive birth of Modernism, it remains a badly dated relic of Victorianism, not a harbinger of things to come but a perfect example of the kind of tripe the Modernists were precisely railing against. And indeed, no matter what you think of Dreiser's appropriate place in history, it's hard to deny that his actual prose is awfully heavy-handed; despite his embrace of such modern concepts as unmarried couples "living in sin" and that some women might actually be better off as entertainment-industry floozies, the actual writing found in Sister Carrie is riddled with the exact kind of ponderous, directly-talking-to-the-audience nonsense that makes up the worst of Victorian literature, the kind of Bible-quoting finger wagging that we now cite when making fun of the genre. There's a very good reason that Dreiser was such a polarizing figure during his own lifetime, with conservative professors extolling his work and young rabble-rousers thumbing their noses at it; and that's because, critics argue, Dreiser was the last gasp of a form of the arts violently killed off during the first half of the 20th century, making him merely a minor footnote in history whether one is discussing Romanticism or Modernism.

My verdict:
So before anything else, let me make it clear what a delight this book was from a purely historical standpoint, and especially as a fellow Chicagoan; his description of how chaotic and exciting the Loop is on a Monday morning, for example, is so spot-on perfect that it could've literally been written yesterday, while his description of a lonely Garfield Park existing out in the middle of the wilderness, nothing around it except for a series of dirt roads and an occasional farmhouse, will be enough to make most locals' hearts flutter in nostalgic wonder. But that said, Sister Carrie may be the best example yet of one of the surprising conclusions I've discovered while writing this "CCLaP 100" essay series -- of just how relative and transitory our entire definition of "literary classic" actually is, given that the term is supposed to denote books that have a timeless quality. Because the fact of the matter is that throughout the entire first half of the 20th century, Dresier was breathlessly revered by the academic community in the same way they currently fawn over, say, John Updike, and in fact it's rare to find someone over the age of 60 these days who wasn't forced to read one of Dreiser's books back in high school or college themselves (usually An American Tragedy, his most famous).

The reason, then, that in the early 2000s he is only known anymore by the most hardcore book-lovers out there is because what his critics claim is sadly but undeniably true: that although to Modernist eyes in the '50s and '60s Dreiser seemed merely stuffy and dated, to our own Postmodernist eyes his work is nearly unreadable, the exact kind of 19th-century fussy finery that 20th-century literature stamped out once and for all. It's nearly impossible in fact to read Sister Carrie anymore strictly for pleasure, with for example this book's listing at Goodreads littered with nightmarish accounts of people trying dozens of times to get through it, just to have the book disintegrate into pieces from the number of times they frustratingly threw it against the wall; like I said, although it was fascinating from a bibliophilic standpoint, and indeed did pave the way for the Modernist stories that came after it, it is in absolutely no way able to hold its own anymore as a simple tale to be enjoyed in a simple way. It's a perfect example of an argument I've been making more and more in this essay series, that the determination of whether or not a book is a "classic" is a much slippier notion than most of us realize; and that's why, although I myself personally enjoyed it, I have absolutely no hesitation in coming down on the "no" side of the classic question today.

Is it a classic? No

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
The Trial, by Franz Kafka

Read even more about Sister Carrie: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:38 PM, October 19, 2009. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |