November 8, 1900
Theodore Dreiser's powerful novel becomes the cornerstone of Chicago's tough-minded approach to literature.
Harriet Monroe, who founded Poetry magazine in 1912, gave crucial early exposure to such poets as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Edgar Lee Masters. Carl Sandburg's "Chicago" appeared in the magazine for the first time in 1914. (Tribune archive photo)
Published on this date, Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie" was among the most auspicious debuts in literary history, but only in retrospect.The initial response to Dreiser's first novel, one of the definitive Chicago works of fiction, was largely antagonistic. It was "brought into the world," as Dreiser's biographer, W.A. Swanberg, noted, "by a publisher who detested both the book and the author."
Dreiser's fatalistic outlook and his blunt fictional technique, both shaped by his experiences as a Chicago newspaperman, led to the novel's being condemned for its "immorality" and "philosophy of despair"--as though the author had thrown open the doors to outhouses as well as saloons and tenements.
In an age of lofty literary moralism, Dreiser's unrefined prose, his grubby characters and his squalid subject matter offended many. But the novelist's chief advocate, critic H.L. Mencken, hailed the novel for capturing "the gross, glittering, excessively dynamic, infinitely grotesque, incredibly stupendous drama of American life."
Mencken saw Chicago, the "abattoir by Lake Michigan," as the source of inspiration to the nation's most important new writers at the beginning of the 20th Century. The city's literary flowering, called the Chicago Renaissance, included authors Edgar Lee Masters, Floyd Dell, Vachel Lindsay, Sherwood Anderson and Carl Sandburg, as well as vital literary journals, from Margaret Anderson's Little Review to Harriet Monroe's Poetry to Ben Hecht's Chicago Literary Times.
Dreiser shared their opposition to the genteel tradition, and his pivotal novel established an enduring Chicago tradition: fiction in the raw, tawdry but compassionate.
Dreiser's novel tells the story of Carrie Meeber, an 18-year-old who arrives in Chicago from Indiana "ambitious to gain in material things" and becomes the mistress of a salesman and manager of a saloon.
Rather than punish her for her sins, Dreiser saw to it that she was rewarded. Among the readers aggrieved by "Sister Carrie" was Dreiser's publisher, Frank Doubleday. The book had been accepted by Doubleday's partner, but Doubleday was appalled by what he considered an immoral, crudely written and potentially uncommercial book and tried to break his contract with Dreiser.
The publisher printed only one thousand copies, of which 456 were sold, bringing the author royalties of $68.40. Seven years later, "Sister Carrie" was reissued to high praise and, with such later Dreiser works as "Jennie Gerhardt" and "An American Tragedy," had a profound influence on the fiction of Upton Sinclair, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis and others.
But Chicago writers were Dreiser's chief beneficiaries--notably James T. Farrell, Richard Wright and Nelson Algren.
Although his cultured prose seems the antithesis of the Dreiserian style, Saul Bellow considers himself a descendant.
"When I was young, I read Dreiser very closely and was very much under his spell."