Championing a fairer deal for women and the working class in early twentieth century America
Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 published novel, primarily set in Chicago, is a wonderful way to start my sequential reading the twentieth century challenge.
Many of the concerns which are likely to be centre stage in my reading of the century, which film-maker Adam Curtis (I’m sure, amongst others) dubbed ‘The Century of The Self’ are markedly to the fore in Dreiser’s novel. Indeed, I find connections with the non-fiction biggie from that year, which I’m slowly working through – Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams
Dreiser, in this written in the third person, narrator also as philosopher, interpreter, adviser, teacher, which was a common stance in writing at that time, as well as telling his story, also reminds us about the unconsciousness of many of our choices, and shows a lot of understanding of much which was being written about, discussed, debated, in a century which began to look at mind itself. The novelist has absorbed and thought about what is being addressed by the great psychotherapy pioneer and his colleagues and predecessors in this field
Sister Carrie was Dreiser’s first novel, and what a deep novel it is. It follows a clear narrative journey, has completely believable characters, the central ones of whom are particularly complex, nuanced and perfectly credible as recognisable individuals – but we also absolutely see the history and culture of time and place acting on them, moulding them, influencing and shaping them. Choices may be made, which seem individual, but the freedom of expression may be more circumscribed than some characters – or some readers, particularly at that time – may believe.
Carrie is a young rural girl, who comes to Chicago in 1889, to stay with her sister and her brother-in-law. Carrie has ambition, she is a young woman of beauty and some delicacy, wanting to improve her status and opportunities. She aspires to some kind of clerical office job, or perhaps as a sales assistant in one of the burgeoning glossy department stores. Unfortunately, her poverty and lack of experience are against her. It is an employer’s market, and all she can get is dirty, badly paid, unskilled factory work, exploited and working in impossibly harsh conditions.
Dreiser, writing with irony, looks back on the 1889 working conditions and compares them to the more enlightened thinking of ‘now’ (1900):
The place smelled of the oil of the machines and the new leather – a combination which added to by the stale odours of the building, was not pleasant, even in cold weather. The floor, though regularly swept each evening, presented a littered surface. Not the slightest provision had been made for the comfort of the employees, the idea being that something was gained by giving them as little and making the work as hard and unremunerative as possible. What we know of footrests, swivel-back chairs, dining rooms for the girls, clean aprons and curling irons supplied free, and a decent cloak room, were unthought of. The wash rooms and lavatories were disagreeable, crude, if not foul places, and the whole atmosphere of hard contract
Another writer with a socialist, humane ideology, Upton Sinclair, in his famous book The Jungle, set also in Chicago, in the meat processing industry, and published in 1906, rather shows the ‘atmosphere of hard contract’ had not changed in the intervening years, so Dreiser was writing at a time when, practically, those footrests, dining rooms, clean lavatories and the rest, were still unthought of in factories.
Dreiser’s particular focus in this book though, is on women, on the circumscribed choices available to women, and how poverty and want may drive a woman to make a living by selling herself. He explores the different power dynamic between men and women, and also the different morality expected of the sexes.
I discovered with interest that though Sister Carrie found a publisher, the book was considered too hot – or even too offensive – to handle. It was poorly promoted, and in fact published expurgated. And this is not because of any salacious content. Dreiser never describes the bedroom content, we only are told she has been set up by a protector, and it’s perfectly obvious what choices she had to make to get protection.
What 1900 society found so offensive in Dreiser’s writing was his refusal to act the moralist, thundering down abuse on this fallen woman – instead, he reminds the reader how society itself creates the world in which the Carries must make this choice.
There are three major figures in this book, Carrie herself, the travelling salesman Charles Drouet and the sophisticated bar manager G.W. Hurstwood, looked up to by both Carrie and Drouet. Hurstwood is a man beginning to move in circles near the people of greater power, celebrity and wealth. In fact, the adulation of celebrity, and its shallowness, so symptomatic of our age, is also laid out here. The two men, like Carrie herself, aren’t presented as consciously wicked, rather with the normal human failings of weak will, easy desire, not to mention the ability to delude themselves. And the way society, and its political and economic systems are structured, offer false values as aspirations, so encouraging those failings.
I found the authorial voice, and the wide ranging evidence of Dreiser’s sophisticated, nuanced thinking, as fascinating and absorbing as the story of, particularly, Carrie and Hurstwood, the trajectory of their entwined histories. The first section of the book has Carrie, starting from a kind of point of lowliness and desperation, and follows her rise (looked at one way) which might also be considered her fall. When she first meets Hurstwood, his star is in the ascendant, and life is rosy, and showing every possibility of getting rosier. From thence, the fortunes of the two, initially linked, begin to travel in different directions. It is Hurstwood who becomes the major focus, and the drift of his story also offers a glimpse into early twentieth century capitalism in America, and the hard fought struggles of labour to achieve fair wages, fair conditions
Dreiser’s philosophical musings in the book were aspects his publishers wanted removed. They were also more interested in Hurstwood’s story, and wanted the book to start with Hurstwood, and his first encountering Carrie, rather than following her story from her arrival in Chicago.
Hurstwood is a far more complex character, and has a different journey from Carrie’s. We meet him first at the zenith of his being. There is one extraordinary chapter, presenting Hurstwood at a place where the choices he makes will be responsible for the rest of his life. As I read that psychologically fascinating story, the scene suggested itself like the playing of an painfully suspenseful Hitchcock movie, – the audience may be ahead of the character, and wanting to cry out ‘don’t do this’, but the protagonist is under the grip of strong instincts, and no realisation that, maybe, one small step too close to the edge of a precipice, will, for him, offer no way to retreat.
Dreiser must have been quite a complex individual. Whilst having understanding of how women, without the means for independence themselves, fell prey to exploitation by men, he was unable in his personal life, to achieve fidelity and constancy. Towards the end of his life, his social consciousness, and his belief in socialism led him to simultaneously join the Communist Party and the Episcopal Church. An interest in both political and ideological systems, and the workings of individual, personal morality, and how systems have their shaping on what might be called individual soul, run strongly through this book. Dreiser shows commitment to body, to mind, to spirit.
He was a foremost writer of the naturalist school : his subjects were working people, not those born to money, property and prestige. Writers of this school (for example Zola) were not just showing how things were, but also showing that the kinds of lives individuals have, and the choices they make, are ‘nature and nurture’ – with the nurture being societal, cultural, not purely individual family upbringing. Dreiser explores this in Sister Carrie.
I must admit his style is not always the most flowing, and he isn’t a writer of what appears to be so well and beautifully crafted prose that the writing seems effortlessly poised, but what at times may be rough-hewn has honesty, and the ‘stuff’ of his writing is powerful, important and necessary. A working ploughshare, fit for a crucial purpose, rather than a Faberge egg which can only be properly appreciated by other fine workers in delicate, expensive substances
The book was made into a film in 1952, ‘Carrie’ directed by William Wyler, and starring Lawrence Olivier and Jennifer Jones. I couldn’t resist this mainly silent montage from the film which the Youtube uploader spliced in with Leonard Cohen’s Take This Waltz. Not of course the film’s soundtrack. Now, I haven’t seen the film, but I would suspect, given the date of making, that Wyler will have focused rather on the film as a simple love story, with powerful characterisations, and that the blistering clarity of Dreiser’s commitment to socialism, and a condemnation of the exploitation of the working classes by the owners of the means of production, would not pass muster in Hollywood, at that time. HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee had turned its attention to the Communist Party in America, and the Blacklist of ‘Reds’, fellow travellers, and indeed even suspected pale shades of pink were well in force within Hollywood. As mentioned previously Dreiser had joined the CP in 1945, and his commitment, in his writing shows shades of full-blooded red, rather more than baby pink, and would surely have made the socio-political background to Sister Carrie, dangerous in those days of naming and shaming those only slightly to the left of liberal views. HUAC was particularly focused on the influence of the movie industry, so Hollywood with its high profile and perceived influence on values both personal and political had become increasingly nervous and circumspect
I found this an absorbing, humane, compassionate and thought provoking read, and may well return to Dreiser in a later year, with the book which brought him fame, An American Tragedy. It will be interesting to see how he developed as a writer. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930, and died in 1945
However – do be aware that according to Amazon reviewers in the UK some eread digitisation is extremely poor. I bought the old Penguin version, second hand. Looking at versions on Amazon USA it seems some must be heavily edited and expurgated, according to listings of page numbers. I have linked to a version of over 500 pages, which is what it should be! Some editions are 200 pages shorter. Perhaps its a version produced by the remnants of HUAC!