restricted access Sister Carrie and Industrial Life: Objects and the New American Self
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Sister Carrie and Industrial Life:
Objects and the New American Self

When Critics Explain the Initial commercial failure of Dreiser's Sister Carrie, they generally focus on the disagreements between the author and his publisher, the Doubleday and Page company. The production history of the novel, in brief, begins with Doubleday and Page accepting the manuscript in the spring of 1900. In the summer of that year, Walter Hines Page sent a letter to Dreiser attempting to renege on the contract to publish. Apparently, Dreiser's treatment of Carrie's sexuality made him apprehensive, as the fictional character lives "in sin" throughout a good deal of the narrative. In addition, the author vexed Page by using actual names and places in his fiction. Both of these objections are comprehensible: the former due to fear of public censure, the latter out of deference to those who would have preferred that their names and establishments not appear in such a scandalous work. Dreiser persisted in having the publisher honor its acceptance and left many of the real names and places in the book. It was published in 1900, sold half of its run of 1,000 copies, and went out of print. In 1907 B. W. Dodge and Co. reissued it, and it has remained in print ever since (Pizer 433-470).

In this explanation, the work, although not actually suppressed, is [End Page 605] said to have failed because of the publisher's lack of promotional enthusiasm. This was certainly a factor; however, because the novel did appear and received some critical attention (Salzman 1-55), this tale also suggests that the book-reading public found it less than riveting. Hence, perhaps its commercial failure also resulted from the terms of the text itself and the culture in which Doubleday and Page introduced it.

When Sister Carrie appeared in 1900, it was into a nation in the midst of a fundamental economic and social upheaval, as the complementary processes of industrialization and urbanization were altering the way in which individuals worked, lived, and, ultimately, the way in which they conceived of themselves and the world. This disruption had begun in force just after the Civil War, picked up momentum in the Eighties and Nineties, and continued through at least the first decade of the twentieth century. The impetus for this change came from the burgeoning of industry. As John W. Chambers notes, "By the turn of the century the value of manufacturing goods exceeded that of agricultural commodities. The United States had become an industrial nation" (16).1

The shock of this change resounded through the culture; people increasingly moved to cities, where their physical circumstances were altered significantly; family life also underwent an upheaval, as the extended economic unit of agrarian life gave way to the nuclear social family of the city.2 Indeed, all aspects of social life changed, as the density of urban life and factory work forced people into increased contact with one another. But it was not just these social changes that disrupted American society. As it was an economic decision that brought people to cities, so it was the fact of the industrial workplace that figured centrally in the way people were tending to perceive the world. Whereas in the agrarian past labor was an intrinsic part of an individual's life, something he controlled and used to produce a substance of personal value and utility, now labor became a commodity to sell in the industrial market, controlled by others and used to produce objects of no particular personal meaning. Hence, labor became increasingly objectified. As Marx writes: "The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside of him, independently, as something alien to him" (108).3 Ultimately, the state [End Page 606] of alienation so often found in the industrial world permeated the culture as a whole as the process of objectifying self and all interpersonal relations became the norm. Conversely, as humans tended more and more toward a reduced definition of self and others, objects began to acquire disproportionate meaning, as commodities served as...


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