November 8, 2010

Dreiser: Not the best kind of book

Convinced by a journalist friend that he could write fiction in addition to the nonfiction he had been writing, Theodore Dreiser published a short story in Ainslee's Magazine in 1899. It earned him an impressive $75 — and the conviction to keep writing. He had little confidence that he could write a novel, however, and he gave up on his first attempt at least twice. In the manuscript phase, he titled it The Flesh and the Spirit. When complete after four months of concentrated writing, however, he renamed it Sister Carrie.

The novel was inspired in part by Dreiser's sister Emma, who had eloped years earlier. In his fictional counterpart, however, Dreiser showed a tolerance for amoral behavior. Worse, however, Dreiser's attempt at strict realism left an excessively verbose manuscript. An editor at Harper's, for example, noted it was "a superior piece" but the writing quality was lacking. Frank Norris, then an editor at Doubleday, accepted it and called it "the best novel I had read in M.S." since he started that job. The book was soon prepared for publication.

However, when Frank Doubleday and his wife got a copy of the galleys, they immediately were shocked and denounced it as an immoral book. Dreiser received a letter telling him:

To be frank, we prefer not to publish the book... If you were to ask my advice, I should without hesitation say that Sister Carrie is not the best kind of book for a young author make his first book.

Dreiser pushed back and insisted Doubleday follow through on their agreement. A second letter, however, told him that they knew it would make them no profit and that no library would carry it. The publishers also claimed to be concerned about Dreiser's reputation. Dreiser continued pushing and threatened a lawsuit. Doubleday decided to print the book — a mere 1,008 copies were published on November 8, 1900. It was not advertised or publicized and only 456 copies sold. This first edition of Dreiser's now-iconic first book earned him about $68.

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