Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie was not widely accepted after it was published, although it was not completely withdrawn by its publishers, as some sources say it was. Neither was it received with the harshness that Dreiser reported. For example, the Toledo Blade reported that the book “is a faithful portraiture of the conditions it represents, showing how the tangle of human life is knotted thread by thread” but that it was “too realistic, too somber to be altogether pleasing”. There is also the receipt of sale which Doubleday sent to Dreiser showing that Sister Carrie was not withdrawn from of the shelves, reporting that 456 copies of the 1,008 copies printed were sold.
Sister Carrie evoked different responses from the critics, and although the book did not sell well among the general public, it often received positive reviews. Some of the reason for lack of sales came from a conflict between Dreiser and his publishers, who did little to promote the book. Despite this, critics did praise the book, and a large number of them seemed most affected by the character of Hurstwood, such as the critic writing for the New Haven Journal Courier, who proclaimed, “One of the most affecting passages is where Hurstwood falls, ruined, disgraced”. Edna Kenton in the Chicago Daily News said in 1900 that Sister Carrie is “well worth reading simply for this account of Hurstwood”.
Reviews mentioned the novel’s realistic depiction of the human condition. A 1901 review in The Academy said that Sister Carrie was “absolutely free from the slightest trace of sentimentality or pettiness, and dominated everywhere by a serious and strenuous desire for truth”. The London Express claimed that realism made the book appealing: “It is a cruel, merciless story, intensely clever in its realism, and one that will remain impressed in the memory of the reader for many a long day”. The novel has also been praised for its accurate depiction of the protests in New York and the city life in Chicago.
Negative response to the novel came largely from the book’s sexual content, which made Sister Carrie, in the words of the Omaha Daily Bee in 1900, “not a book to be put into the hands of every reader indiscriminately”. Another review in Life criticized Carrie’s success, and warned “Such girls, however, as imagine that they can follow in her footsteps will probably end their days on the Island or in the gutter”. The book was also criticized for never mentioning the name of God .
Several critics complained the title made the book sound as if the main character is a nun. The title of the book was considered by The Newark Sunday News to be the “weakest thing about the book” because it “does not bear the faintest relation to the story” Similarly, Frederic Taber Cooper in The Bookman declared it to be a “colourless and misleading title”. Other common complaints were about the length of the book and that it is so depressing that it is unpleasant to read.
While some viewed his work as grammatically and syntactically inaccurate, others found his detailed storytelling intriguing. An avid supporter and friend, H.L. Mencken referred to Dreiser as “a man of large originality, of profound feeling, and of unshakable courage”. Mencken believed that Dreiser’s raw, honest portrayal of Carrie’s life should be seen as a courageous attempt to give the reader a realistic view of the life of women in the nineteenth century.
In opposition, one critic, Karl F. Zender, argued that Dreiser’s stress on circumstance over character was “adequate neither to the artistic power nor to the culture implications of Sister Carrie”. Many found Dreiser’s work attractive due to his lenient “moralistic judgments” and the “spacious compassion” in which he viewed his character’s actions. This toleration of immorality was an entirely new idea for the readers of Dreiser’s era. In fact, the novel and its modern ideas of morality helped to produce a movement in which the literary generation of its time was found “detaching itself from its predecessor”. Yet there still remained some who disapproved of Dreiser’s immoral, atypical story line. David E. E. Sloan argued that Dreiser’s novel undermined the general consensus that hard work and virtue bring success in life.
Though Dreiser has been criticized for his writing style and lack of formal education, Sister Carrie remains an influential example of naturalism and realism. While it initially did not sell well (fewer than 500 copies) and encountered censorship, it is now considered one of the great American urban novels, which explores the gritty details of human nature, as well as how the process of industrialization affected the American people.