Tag Archives: Sister Carrie

The Dudeliness of Dreiser Studies

Theodore Dreiser

Recently on Tiger Beatdown, The Rejectionist wrote a post on “manfiction” that reminded me of the seminar on Postmodernist American Literature I took in my first year of graduate school, a course that probably should have been called “Bonerfest–the Twentieth Century.” Aside from Susan Sontag and Cynthia Ozick (of the fourteen books assigned, women wrote two), this course was pretty much a non-stop parade of dudes talking about their dicks. The status of women in most of these works is pretty much summed up by the cover art for Wille Masters’ Lonesome Wife (NSFW). In case you’re afraid to click the link, the cover features a photograph a headless lady’s nekkid boobs, and the central conceit of the book is that the text…wait for it…is a woman. Let that sit for a minute. In the course of embodying “the text” (i.e. William Gass’s brilliant creation), the unclothed female in the photographs masturbates and has coffee stains imprinted on her body, because dudes sometimes put their coffee mug down on the chick *erm* they are currently doing/reading.  The text is essentially all about the male gaze, in which the text–gendered female–bounces around promiscuously between multiple readers–gendered male.

By the time we had gotten to Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, I had pretty much had it and went on a lengthy public rant about how dudes seriously need to get a new metaphor for their writerly prowess. Because, PENIS. WE GOT IT THE FIRST 50,000 TIMES. IT’S BEEN DONE. And then I held the entire class hostage while I read Gilbert and Gubar to them. Ok, that last part isn’t true, but shoulda woulda and all that.

This is not to say that I dislike literature by men. Many of my favorite writers are men. But the penis as pen thing really is pretty worn out, and I find it increasingly difficult to get geared up for Roth or Updike or Hemingway or Kerouac or McCarthy because of their inability to portray women as actual human beings.

And that’s why, when it came time to write the Dreiser chapter of my dissertation–because he’s a Writer I Have to Account For–I was prepared for it to be a real drag.  I had always thought of Dreiser as a Dude Writer in the Frank Norris/Ernest Hemingway mold because of when he was writing (roughly 1900-1945) and the fact that most of the critics who write about him are Great Dude Critics in the Walter Benn Michaels mold.

But then I read the actual novels and was surprised. I had read Sister Carrie a while back, but I hadn’t really reflected on the significance of the fact that Dreiser’s first two novels featured strong female protagonists with total sexual autonomy and–here’s a shocker–jobs. In fact, all of the barriers to ladies obtaining sex and/or jobs in Dreiser novels prove to be societal and economic rather than biological. Women do not meet with unfortunate circumstances in his novels because they are in possession of female reproductive systems but because the system is rigged against them and they are oppressed by dude-centered morality. An American Tragedy, widely lauded as his greatest novel is essentially a 900 page argument for legalized abortion. In 1925.

Emma Dreiser, the purported inspiration for Sister Carrie

Here, for example, is the plot of Sister Carrie: Carrie Meeber travels from her hometown to the city of Chicago in search of a better life. On the train, she meets a hot guy named Charles Drouet, who suggests that they hook up sometime. She says “maybe” and goes to live with her sister’s family while looking for a job. Carrie finds a job sewing designer shoes, but her sister and brother-in-law start taking most of her wages. At this point, Carrie has begun dating Drouet, who is just a salesman but can afford nicer things than she can, and seeing her loneliness and economic desperation, he suggests they shack up together. By this point, Carrie has lost her job due to illness, and she agrees, and we never hear from the sister or brother-in-law again. I feel that it is important to mention that most Dreiser novels begin this way, no matter what the gender of the protagonist is. Wide-eyed, ambitious young person arrives in the big city, finds a menial job, struggles on the brink of starvation, and starts screwing someone. Much would be made of Carrie’s economic opportunism (gold digger!), but dating above one’s socio-economic station is something that virtually every one of Dreiser’s male protagonists (including Eugene Witla, Frank Cowperwood, and Clyde Griffiths) does. The same goes for screwing someone whom you later lose interest in, as Carrie does about a quarter of the way through the novel. People falling into bed together and then realizing they are poorly suited for one another is a pretty consistent theme in Dreiser’s works.

Enter George Hurstwood. Hurstwood, like Drouet and Carrie, is an ambitious social climber (EVERYONE in Dreiser’s world is a rank materialist) who has made it to the next rung. He is, essentially, the manager of a high-end bar and even more of a metrosexual than Drouet. Drouet, who is kind of an idiot but who is also probably banging another lady anyway, introduces the two of them. Hurstwood and Carrie get the hots for each other. In the meantime, Carrie gets one job as a stage actress and has proves to be quite good at it. As she and Drouet have begun fighting (namely over her clandestine meetings with Hurstwood), she makes plans to move out of their apartment and try to make it on her own.

Meanwhile, Hurstwood’s wife has begun to suspect something, and because said wife actually holds most of the family property in her own name, Hurstwood is in something of a pickle. So–and this is where things get weird–he gets hammered, steals a buttload of money from his place of employment, lures Carrie onto a train (by telling her Drouet is injured), and kidnaps her. They go to Canada, where the police finally catch up with them and make Hurstwood give all the money back and promise to return to Chicago so he can face justice. He gives part of the money back and then forces Carrie to come with him to New York, promising that he will marry her. Since she is now an accomplice to grand larceny in the eyes of the law and has no way to get back to Chicago, she doesn’t have much choice. The two of them shack up in New York under a different name. Hurstwood temporarily invests in another high-end bar but finds that his stock isn’t all that high in this much fancier town, especially when he can’t trade on his own name.

Hurstwood eventually loses his business, and the two of them muddle through in reduced circumstances for a while. Hurstwood spends some time looking for a job, any job, but he is so psychologically defeated by the whole ordeal that he mostly winds up wandering the city and sitting forlornly in the lobbies of expensive hotels, dreaming of the old days. Then he starts gambling. Once he finally reveals to Carrie–the woman he kidnapped, if you recall–that they are destitute, she decides to go looking for a job herself. She gets a bit part as an actress that leads to full time employment in a theater chorus. Meanwhile, Hurstwood spends most of his time reading the newspaper in their apartment. No longer attracted to him, Carrie decides to move out and get a room with a female co-worker. Her career takes off, and she becomes a major Broadway actress and eventually moves into the Waldorf-Astoria. Hurstwood eventually commits suicide in a flop house.

The thesis (theses really) of Sister Carrie is similar to that of all Dreiser novels: compulsory monogamy is problematic for everybody; affordable birth control is super-duper important; the system is rigged in favor of the already wealthy; a lack of a social safety net results in tragedy; American consumerism supports economic exploitation. In other words, while far from perfect, Dreiser was one of the most progressive authors of the early twentieth century of any gender, really. He was interested in women’s experiences, because, as far as he was concerned, they were human experiences. While he did have a creepy fascination with nubile eighteen-year olds, his novels contained plenty of fully realized older female characters. While his male characters have a tendency to hop from woman to woman, even if that means leaving at least one of them in disadvantaged economic circumstances, he championed birth control and legal, affordable abortion as a basic human right and socio-economic necessity. And he portrayed plenty of compelling female characters who wanted sex but had no interest in marriage, like Christina Channing of The “Genius,” who, upon hearing that her former lover is getting married, promptly gets on with her opera career. In fact, if there is one major way in which Dreiser’s gender politics fail it is in his frustration with the fact that all women aren’t like Carrie or Christina Channing, that many women of his time remained deeply invested in traditional morality and compulsory monogamy, without really considering the fact that except for the very privileged, the sexual license he idealizes would typically mean social and economic death for the average woman. (One might say that this critique actually remains in the sub-text of his work).

So why have I thought for so long that Dreiser was a Dude Writer of Manfiction? I guess it’s because of this:

Naturally, Hurstwood drew more sympathy than Carrie. To many reviewers (all male in this case), Carrie was regarded as an irresponsible shopgirl who got lucky, but Hurstwood drew their empathy.

From Jerome Loving, The Last Titan


See, early reviewers and virtually every male academic critic thereafter have sort of looked at Sister Carrie like this: “So there this chick in this book, and it’s named after her, but she’s kind of gross because she sleeps around and [does all the stuff that typical Dreiser heroes do, but does them while female]. That guy who kidnaps her and implicates her in a crime that she didn’t commit is incredibly sympathetic, though.” In other words, the reason why Dreiser exists somewhere in the zeitgeist as a Dude Who Writes About Dudely Things is because Dudes like that have been in charge of his legacy, and those dudes could not manage to identify with female protagonists who do precisely what Dreiser’s male protagonists do and so attached themselves to a male character who does not appear until page 60 and call him the hero while ignoring the character the book is named after. And what’s remarkable is how this perception has persisted even into the present day. Loving’s biography of Dreiser was published in 2005, the most recent to date, but even he summarizes Sister Carrie thus:

Carrie Meeber […] moves from the country to the city, exchanging her virginity for material comfort. Her successive lovers, Charles Drouet and George Hurstwood, see her, reciprocally, as a symbol of the pleasure money and power can purchase. Carrie abandons the unmarried Drouet for the married Hurstwood, who in turn leaves his family and his position as manager of a post Chicago saloon, steals money from his employers, and flees with Carrie to New York. There, as he eventually fails in his new investment, Carrie abandons him as well, and he soon finds himself homeless, sick, and dazed by fate in the winter of 1896.

Yes, poooooooooor Hurstwood. Except, you know, KIDNAPPING, which Loving doesn’t really mention, because by consenting to romantic relations with him she was consenting to abduction, I guess.  Because women exist in a perpetual state of “yes.” I like how Carrie is only ever allowed agency in this paragraph when she is doing something reprehensible: “exchanging her virginity” or “abandoning” one of her men. Otherwise, she is an object to be traded. Loving goes on about this novel for several pages, talking about the confluences between Dreiser’s own economic insecurity and Hurstwood’s rapid decline:

Dreiser worried about money, as we know, most of his life, and this phobia is dramatized in the increasing shabbiness of Hurstwood’s living quarters.

Forget the far more explicit connection between Carrie and Dreiser’s attempts to make it in Chicago, between their early sexual exploits. In fact, there is a marked similarity between the early chapters of Sister Carrie and the early chapters of the semi-autobiographical novel The “Genius” and probably no small amount of wishful thinking in the way that Dreiser depicts Carrie’s rise as an actress, much in the way, perhaps, he imagined his own rise as a novelist. For most Dreiser scholars, there is just no freaking way that the Beloved Male Author could have identified with a female protagonist, yet there is substantial evidence that he did.

If you look at his photo, featured at the beginning of this essay, you can sort of see that there were ways in which Dreiser did not live up to the standards of hegemonic masculinity at just about any time. I mean really, he was kind of a wiener. He wasn’t conventionally attractive or physically able. He suffered from frequent bouts of neurasthenia (what we might call depression or chronic fatigue syndrome). Despite his early interest in sex, he was often unlucky in love and had difficulties consummating the act as a youth. He was a card carrying member of the Communist Party. He was into all kinds of weird spiritual stuff–like going to astrologers and Christian Scientists and reading tea leaves and performing seances–much of which was associated with women at the time.  His Professional Author friends were often sort of like, “You should really shut up about that stuff, because it DOESN’T LOOK GOOD.” Reading his biography, I’ve come to see that while Dreiser needed the assistance of people like H.L. Mencken to help translate his vision into literary success, much of his legacy has been controlled by a public relations team, a team of literary professionals who were frequently a little embarrassed by his failure to conform.

So, why the hell did I just write all of that? Well, I guess it’s because I’m immersed in all of this stuff right now, this being the chapter I’m currently working on and whatnot. But I’m also trying to point out that the project of Backlash Literature in the twentieth century has not only been about erasing emergent female voices and asserting larger-than-life masculine voices but policing the masculinity of the Great Male Authors of the relatively recent past. One of these days, I will write a great post about a female author that I love that didn’t inspire the title of this blog. But if you want a recommendation, I’d say go for Toni Morrison’s Paradise or Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, both excellent books about women’s relationships with women. And for an excellent feminist reading of Dreiser, check out Jennifer Fleissner’s Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism.

Worksheet: Editing for Readability

So, this has definitely been Usage Week here at Shitty First Drafts.  I thought I would put a cap on it by posting one of the handouts I use to teach copy editing for readability in my class.  Despite all of my ranting about Grammar Douchery this week, I do actually think that it’s important to address grammatical concepts in the classroom, but I find it works better if you talk about them in the context of readability and clarity.  The exercise below is pretty self-explanatory.  I gave this out last time I was teaching Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, but you don’t need to know the literary references in order to get the point.

A good way to use this worksheet is to put students in groups and have them revise the examples together.  Then have each group write their revisions on a blackboard so that they can see the range of workable alternative constructions.

And if you’re bored this weekend and want to play along in comments, I support that!

Editing for Readability

Though the rules of grammar may seem arbitrary, complicated, and counter-intuitive, the function of grammar and punctuation is simply to make our writing more readable.  The following sentences demonstrate a variety of problems that impair readability.  As a group, work your way through the examples and see if you can identify the problem and correct the sentence to make it more intelligible.

Possible errors (each sentence may contain more than one of these):

  • Dangling or misplaced modifiers (the modifying word or phrase seems attached to an inappropriate object).
  • Pronouns without a clear antecedent
  • Insufficient/weak punctuation (Run-on sentence, comma splice)
  • Excess or inappropriate punctuation (sentence fragment)
  • Wordiness, redundancy
  • Ambiguity

1)      Shallow.  Naïve.  Materialistic.  Words that describe Dreiser’s character.  Carrie Meeber.

2)      A sprawling city with a variety of pleasures, Carrie Meeber fell in love with the city of Chicago.

3)       Hurstwood is a man who knows what he wants which is fine food the company of wealthy men and celebrities and the love of a beautiful woman like Carrie, for him she is merely another possession worth having.

4)       Carrie doesn’t really want a husband preferring instead the material pleasures his money can provide.

5)      Hurstwood and Drouet went to the theatre, where he realized he wanted to be with Carrie forever.

6)       Another aspect is that Carrie seems more interested in what Drouet wears than other qualities.

7)       It has been said that Carrie is a an example of the New Woman, a type of modern woman who makes a living independently without the support of a husband, oftentimes entering into jobs and occupations that were previously dominated by men or considering unacceptable for women for a variety of reasons having to do with social norms and traditional morals.

8)       While looking for a job; Carrie is turned away by shop owners repeatedly.

9)      Carrie is a beautiful woman with excellent taste in clothing, who proves to be a talented actress, this is why Hurstwood falls in love with her.

10)    Ultimately, it has been observed that readers of Sister Carrie generally sympathize with the hapless Hurstwood more than they do with her, abandoning him to fend for himself at the end of the novel.

Celebrity Professors, George Lucas, and the Myth of Inviolable Genius

I’ve been sort of keeping up with the comments on The Sexist post that mentioned this blog, specifically my take down of first paragraph of God’s Brain. A few people are sort of mad about it. This one, in particular, stuck out at me:

The writing itself is only packaging for the ideas and research, secondary and kind of irrlevant, unless you are looking for a strawman to attack.

The commenter also suggests that Hess and I are criticizing Tiger because we think boys are icky, but I don’t plan to address my fear of cooties on this blog. I’m also resisting the temptation to digress at length here on the definition of “straw man,” but I think I may cover logical fallacies in a separate post. Instead, I want to address the substance of this critique, which is that when the ideas are good, the packaging (i.e. “the writing”) doesn’t really matter. This sounds an awful lot like a classic lazy student defense: MY IDEAS WERE GOOD WHY DOES IT MATTER THAT MY PAPER WAS ONE 6 PAGE PARAGRAPH!!111!!1 But isn’t there also sort of a statement about privilege going on here? Some people are required to make themselves congenial to their audience in order to hold their attention and have their ideas validated but some are not? I think I’ve heard that before.

Truth is, I think all of us need editors, people who can tell us how to best shape our message, how to make ourselves intelligible, how to present our work in the best possible way.  Western culture is deeply invested in this idea of The Author whose genius is special and individual and must break free from the constraints of “Society” or “Other People” in general in order to find his or her most authentic mode of expression.  But this obscures the fact that creative work is an inherently collaborative process, that no matter whose name gets put on the project, there are a legion of other people who helped bring it into the world.

The dissertation chapter I’m working on right now is on Theodore Dreiser, who wrote some of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, novels like Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy.  Dreiser’s relationship to the world of publishing was a fractious one.  Some publishers refused to print his works because of the sexual frankness (frankness that would appear decidedly tame now), and his work was frequently censored.  Recently, we’ve seen a variety of “uncensored” editions of Dreiser’s work come out with the juiciest stuff put back in (again, “juicy” is relative here).  The problem is that the difference between what was actually censored in his work and what was culled in order to make the prose more readable gets confused sometimes.  The additional 80 pages of Sister Carrie are a bit more sexual, but they are also pretty repetitive and  do not add very much to the story itself or the development of the characters.  The truth is that Theodore Dreiser, left to his own devices, is difficult to get through.  Raised by working class parents without much in the way of formal education, he was a terrible speller and barely had a working knowledge of punctuation.  But more problematic than that was his tendency to ramble, to repeat himself, to make his novels perhaps a bit more bulky than they absolutely needed to be.  Dare I say that in spite of his difficult relationships with his editors and people like H.L. Mencken, who helped bring his work in to the spotlight, Dreiser really sort of needed them?  That they maybe contributed to making his work precisely what we know and love today?

Another strong example of why accountability is important is George Lucas and the cinematic atrocities that were the three Star Wars prequels. If you have never seen the YouTube video critiques of these films by RedLetterMedia, you must set aside a day to watch them ASAP (disclaimer: There’s kind of a bizarre slasher film parody running alongside the commentary, which definitely warrants a trigger warning). They are hilarious and presented from the perspective of a true Star Wars fan who was disappointed by the tonal inconsistencies, plot contrivances, and overall sloppiness of the way the films were written and put together. In the the final video on The Phantom Menace, the narrator looks at the DVD special features to try to determine what went so wrong:

TRIGGER WARNING: There is a very weird moment at the end that might be upsetting (see above). I think this video series is kind of a cool lesson in narrative technique, and there actually are some excellent points about gender and race fail in Star Wars, so I sort of scrubbed it from my brain. Stop the video around 8:00 if you want to get the gist without being surprised.

The gist of it is that when Lucas was creating the first three films, he was a young, unknown, and untested filmmaker. He had to constantly make a case for his trilogy to skeptical studio executives and the experienced filmmakers who were more or less “put in charge” of him. Many of his original ideas–including bizarre concepts for the main characters, who were originally supposed to be aliens–were scrapped. When Lucas was creating The Phantom Menace, he had a free hand. As the narrator says, everyone in the room seems scared of him, of questioning his judgment. You can actually see how really, really, awful ideas like Jar Jar Binks and a bloated, six part ending are getting a pass, because no one wants to question George Lucas of the George Lucas Empire. As such, “The Phantom Menace is the biggest case of blue balls in cinematic history.”

I know that alot of people liked Avatar, but I have to say that I found James Cameron’s work to be a hell of alot more compelling when he was doing Aliens and Terminator, before he became the King of the World. And here’s the thing: unlike a lot of people, I do not believe that Lucas or Cameron are hacks. At bottom, I think that they are gifted, creative individuals capable of producing both important and enjoyable work. But, EVERYONE NEEDS AN EDITOR. Theoretically, I like the idea of creative people being given the freedom to just create, but I also know that some of the most important art has been created when the artists had to fight for their vision, when they had to overcome adversity and naysayers and budget constraints. Adversity and accountability don’t always go hand in hand, but sometimes they do. When your colleagues are so terrified of challenging you and so intent on impressing you that they are no longer capable of delivering honest feedback, your work is probably going to suffer.

I think that happens sometimes to famous academics as well. Publishing houses are so excited just to sign them, knowing that they could have gone elsewhere, that they do not challenge them as much as they would a previously unpublished scholar. Given the state of academic publishing right now and the extent to which it may become dependent on its ability to produce material accessible to the general public, that is a real shame. And it’s also sort of perplexing. I realize that Lucasfilm, which has to consist of more people in authority with substantial stakes in the company’s future than just George Lucas, made gobs of money off the prequels. I wonder how much more they might have made if they had been good. Because academic publishing barely clears the costs of printing some books (though to be clear, marketability and the profit-motive shouldn’t be the only concern here), can publishers really afford to print ones that are poorly written?