Classics Book Group

The Salon Classics Book Group: Garrison Keillor on the 'scandalous' -- and mediocre -- 'Sister Carrie.'

Published October 13, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

For many reasons, "Sister Carrie" was a big book to us English
majors who studied it in the Modern American Novel course 30
years ago at the University of Minnesota. For one thing, it was
the first M.A.N. in the course ---- Melville was considered 19th
century and he went into a different file drawer --- and so, we
were led to believe, Lewis and Fitzgerald and Hemingway and
Faulkner all leaped to the fore over Dreiser's shoulders and
benefited from his having fought the good fight before them.
Published in 1900, "Sister Carrie" stood at the gateway to our
century, the opening salvo in the struggle of American fiction
writers to portray the life of our time honestly, over the
harassment of prudes and philistines. We English majors were
drawn to "Sister Carrie" as well by the sweet story about its
origins: In 1883, Dreiser's sister Emma had fled to Canada with a
married man who had stolen money from his employer, the clear
basis for the novel, an attempt by the author to redeem his
family from its shame and suffering by creating a great work of
art from the tale. "Sister Carrie," our professor told us, had been
bowdlerized by the author's wife (much as Mark Twain's wife had
taken a blue pencil to "Huckleberry Finn") and then was suppressed
by its own publisher, Doubleday, when it appeared, and sold less
than 500 copies. We were prepared to admire the book for
that reason alone.

The later triumvirate of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner were
admired by us not only for the books they made but also for the
beauty of their prose. They were elegant stylists, and you could
profitably imitate them. Dreiser was another sort of author
altogether. He was, the professor explained, one of those Great
Authors who was, ahem, not that good an author, if you know what I
mean. His prose was, uh, maybe a little clunky. Even embarrassing
in places. But he nevertheless was a true Artist.

This, of course, appealed to us undergraduates enormously,
especially as we weren't too confident of our own prose styles.
The thought that one could attain greatness, despite some
weakness in the basics, made perfect sense to us.

I remember liking "Sister Carrie" very much 30 years ago and
writing a learned term paper on it (which I will not trouble you
with now, thank you very much) and earning a B in The Modern
American Novel, and with all that in mind, I've plunged back into
the novel ---- the new "unexpurgated" version --- with great
interest for this Salon Magazine online discussion. It's
fascinating to revisit a book that was important to me once, and
to see how, over the years, my memory of it has misrepresented
it. I honestly can't see what I thought I saw in it.

I'd be glad to discuss with my fellow Salonites any of the
aspects of "Sister Carrie" that one might write a term paper
about -- its metaphorical structure, its inner voices, its
thematic unity. I seem to recall using "thematic unity" many
times to great effect in my term paper of long ago, but we can
also talk about any of the interesting larger questions that are
raised by this book and its history.

One interesting question to me is that of censorship.

Since Dreiser, writers have fought against censorship, even when
there was practically none of it to be found. Writers long to
have enemies, to be opposed by powerful forces, to rise up and
wield our bright pens against them. The thought of enemies is
a great relief from the drudgery of writing and it quickens our
creative energy to feel ourselves writing for a cause: wonderful
sharp satiric work has been created by people who were blessed
with good enemies.

As we approach the 21st century, however, there seems to be a
sort of moral torpor that renders people immune to imaginative
literature. Books are sold, and presumably they are read, but
nobody cares about them enough to bother to be outraged by them,
surely not to censor them. One has to wonder if it's still possible for
a book to cause the sort of delicious public uproars that
Ginsberg or Nabokov or Henry Miller caused only a few decades
ago. In the late '30s, working in Hollywood, Fitzgerald
worried that the movies would put prose fiction in the shade and
perhaps we are seeing that.

"Sister Carrie," a cause cilhbre in American letters, is not that
great a book, it must be said. Even if you pass over Dreiser's
clunky Darwinian lectures, his schoolmarmish asides about
psychology and morals, you have to conclude that this is no "Anna
Karenina." Nobody would confuse this with Dickens. It isn't even
James T. Farrell. It is a work of historical interest, like
"Winesburg, Ohio," but I'd find it hard to assign these works to
students -- there simply are so few moments when these dreary
figures show flickers of life.

Dreiser was honored for this book,
especially by the great Baltimore iconoclast H.L. Mencken, not
so much for its worth as for Doubleday's suppression of it.
(Today, they wouldn't bother.) The uproar in 1900 over "Sister
Carrie" and its rather decorous depictions of adultery is actually
a testimonial to the power of words at that time to quicken
people's imagination: We haven't progressed at all; we have
declined. We have a surfeit of stories and amusements today, and
we can't remember ones that we saw or read a week ago; none of
them makes enough impression on us to excite either opposition or
anger, only a sort of bovine calm.

Go into your local book emporium and see the banned books of
yesteryear piled on the floor in the Bargain section, remaindered
off for less than it cost to print them, and yet nobody cares
enough to read them at any price. Most of the heroes of
those old battles are faded figures today, like Dreiser. Had
their censors been victorious and wiped their work from the map,
we would not miss them so much today, not nearly so much as we
would miss certain other writers whom nobody ever thought of
suppressing, whose gifts were far more innocent. The humorists,
for example. You could lose Dreiser, the great brooding giant of
unreadable fiction, and we wouldn't be much poorer for it, but if
we hadn't had Thurber, I don't know where we'd be.

I look forward to seeing you online.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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