At the beginning of 2022, Paper Angel Press revived the monthly blog post theme, where authors who are interested all blog on the same theme. I’m a little late to the table, but the February 2022 theme is “What book(s) influenced you the most when you were a young adult (12-18)?” This topic intrigued me, and after a lot of thought I came up with one.
I was lucky to have an amazing English teacher in high school, a man named Mr. Shivers. He was truly a lover of the written word and was able, somehow, to bring American literature to life, with joy and sparkle. His lectures were illuminating and insightful. This is from a perspective of many years past, so I may be forgetting things (lots of things!), but I do remember sending him a thank you letter as an adult, so I know I learned a lot from him about writing.
I specifically remember reading Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser in Mr. Shivers’ class. Sister Carrie was written in 1900, and in brief, tells the story of Caroline Meeber, Carrie, who leaves her small Midwestern hometown at age 18 to find a new life in the big city of Chicago. Carrie is young, innocent, and naïve, but has a longing, a sense that there is more in the world than what she’s experienced so far. What sticks with me all these years later is the detail, the marriage of internal and external, and Dreiser’s ability, within the first paragraph, to show the reader where Carrie came from and, by foreshadowing, where she hoped to go. In that paragraph, he deftly articulated the setting and the main character without sentimentality or judgement.
When I think of this book now, so many years later, I’m inspired by Dreiser’s fearlessness. In a time of Victorian morals, he took a bold leap, writing about unmarried people living together, about Carrie’s affair with a married man, about despair, and about hope. Such a change from The Scarlet Letter published in 1850, the classic tale of the “fallen woman”. Dreiser wrote about things you weren’t supposed to write about. In fact, after the book was accepted for publication by Doubleday, it was shelved, as a wife of one of the publishers found it too sordid. Dreiser insisted that Doubleday honor the contract, and in 1900, it was published with a run of about 1,000 books. But due to lack of publicity, less than half the books were sold.
In spite of that, the book went on to become an American classic: Sister Carrie has been called “the first masterpiece of American naturalism…” (from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sister-Carrie). In his Nobel Prize Lecture of 1930, Sinclair Lewis said that “Dreiser’s great first novel, Sister Carrie, which he dared to publish thirty long years ago and which I read twenty-five years ago, came to housebound and airless America like a great free Western wind, and to our stuffy domesticity gave us the first fresh air since Mark Twain and Whitman…” (from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sister_Carrie).
Even so, Dreiser has been tagged as a writer who couldn’t write: “Dreiser’s reputation has always been vexed, and the long debate over his stature has been accompanied by a secondary debate—a malignant shadow of the first—devoted to the question of whether he could write at all.” (The Cost of Desire by David Denby, The New Yorker, 2003). But Denby does wonder where we would be without Theodore Dreiser and Sister Carrie.
When I surf around on the web, I don’t see any indication that Sister Carrie is still taught in high school. I know the themes are outdated and the writing likely tedious and plodding at times. I’m sure that high school teachers would have a hard time making the book relevant and relatable. But I did discover Reading Sex and the City, edited by Kim Akass and Janet McCabe. Published in 2004, it’s an academic critique of the TV show and the life and times of Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha. In fact, Chapter 5, titled, “Sister Carrie Meets Carrie Bradshaw: Exploring Progress, Politics and the Single Woman in Sex and the City and Beyond” appears to be a compare and contrast of the two Carries. Hmm….
Well that’s enough from me, an interesting detour down memory lane. To see how other Paper Angel Press authors met this challenge, check out Thoughts on Themes on their website.
Until next time,