Literary Daybook, April 17

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
April 17, 2002 12:00PM (UTC)
main article image

Today in fiction

On April 17, 1746, Lord Melton repays his brother John Grey's debt of honor.
-- "Voyager" (1994)
by Diana Gabaldon

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to


- - - - - - - - - - -

Today in Literary History
On this day in 1981, the University of Pennsylvania Press issued its edition of Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie," in which some 40,000 words are restored to the text and various changes to the original manuscript are reversed. Far from settling the issue, the Pennsylvania edition provided yet another chapter to one of the most famous and controversial stories in American book publishing.

Dreiser wrote his book in an eight-month stretch in 1899 and 1900. His wife and his friend, fellow journalist Arthur Henry, helped him eliminate or soften some of the material that, it was felt, would make the book too distasteful for prospective publishers. The first publisher they approached, Harper and Brothers, still found the writing "neither firm enough nor sufficiently delicate to depict without offense to the reader the continued illicit relations of the heroine." Dreiser was 28 and "Sister Carrie" was his first book: He cut 40,000 words and made more changes -- including a new ending. When a second publisher, Doubleday, Page and Co., was approached, junior partner Walter Page offered a verbal contract for the reworked manuscript, a deal that senior partner Frank Doubleday found highly distasteful but binding. Unable to cancel the deal, Doubleday effectively suppressed the book by refusing to advertise it: Only 456 copies were sold, earning Dreiser $68.40 and triggering a nervous breakdown that kept him from novel writing for a decade. (Though there was perhaps a silver lining: While returning from England in 1912, Dreiser was too poor to afford the Titanic, and sailed a few days earlier on a less expensive boat.)


Some scholars argue that the original "Sister Carrie" is the valid text, as any book is a compromise of author, editors, economics and public taste; others agree with the University of Pennsylvania that Dreiser had been coerced to prostitute himself to his publishers as much as his heroine to her times. Beyond reach of the dispute are Dreiser's still-fundamental questions:

"Oh," thought Drouet, "how delicious is my conquest."
"Ah," thought Carrie, with mournful misgivings, "what is it I have lost?"

-- Steve King


To find out more about "Today in Literary History," email Steve King.

the Salon Books Editors

MORE FROM the Salon Books Editors

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Richard Blumenthal