Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie

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Today is the birthday of the great American author Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945). We’ve already mentioned him fleetingly on this blog. His brother was the popular Tin Pan Alley songwriter Paul Dresser, who in turn was the sponsor of popular vaudeville and Broadway performer Louise Dresser. Dreiser’s biggest success in his lifetime was of course An American Tragedy (1925), but I wanted to take a moment to recommend his other famous novel Sister Carrie (1900) (he wrote several others but none with anything like the Q factor of these two!)

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Sister Carrie has a certain relevance to the usual themes of this blog; indeed I read it while I was researching No Applause and it was truly helpful to me in understanding many aspects of life at the turn of the last century, including technology, social attitudes and life in the theatre. So I take back everything I said yesterday: Go, socialist naturalism!

Sister Carrie is about a farm girl who turns 18 and moves to the big city, only to learn that her choices are limited and horrible. Working in a factory (as she briefly does) is the pits. Marrying a working class lummox like her sister’s husband Sven is also out. So she uses her assets (brains, beauty and a body) to get ahead, and becomes a mistress, a kept woman, and — worst of all — an actress! This was the major reason the novel was a failure in 1900. It was considered unacceptably vulgar. But its stock is running very high indeed these days. It’s a wonderful novel, and best of all if you are interested in New York theatre during the gaslight days, it takes you up close to that experience. And it also gives an excellent feel for what motivated young ladies like Carrie to go into show business in those days: eagerness to escape the bonds of class, and the will to be independent. It’s not like they could just be a doctor or a lawyer (or most anything else). For some, theatre proved a salvation (if a problematic one). There are about hundreds of women very much like Sister Carrie profiled on this web site! Check ’em out! 

Also check out the 1952 screen version Carrie directed by William Wyler and starring Jennifer Jones and Laurence Olivier, now sadly eclipsed by the eponymous Stephen King novel and its screen versions.

To find out more about  the whole history of show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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