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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Sister Carrie (1900) by Theodore Dreiser

Book Review
Sister Carrie (1900)
by Theodore Dreiser

 Sister Carrie ushered in a new era in American fiction, call it realism, or naturalism, roughly akin to the French writers of the nineteenth century like Balzac and Hugo. This movement was the true coming of age of American fiction writers as a global force, culminating in Sinclair Lewis winning the first American Nobel Prize in Literature 30 years, or essentially, one generation, after Sister Carrie was published.

  The story of Caroline Meeber- an internal migrant who leaves life in small town Wisconsin to make her way, first in Chicago, then in New York represents a kind of birth of modern America- in that she exists in a world where she is freed from moral judgment, and allowed by Dreiser to pursue a course of conduct that would traditionally lead a 19th century author to condemn her by the end of the story.  At the same time, Dreiser isn't exactly what you would call a feminist, a point made very clear when you listen to the 16 hour audio book version, which is how I revisited Sister Carrie, having read the book a decade ago.

  The shock of Sister Carrie is that Caroline Meeber ends up a success, and it is only her ex-lover, the despicable George W. Hurstwood, who pays the ultimate price for immorality.  When it was initially published Sister Carrie was controversial simply because Caroline Meeber cohabited with more then one man without the benefit of marriage, there is nothing difficult in the sense of modernist fiction.  Indeed, the omniscient third party narrator is clunky today, and it means that Sister Carrie is more relevant as a work of history vs. being a compelling work of fiction.

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