At the urging of his journalist friend Arthur Henry, Dreiser began writing his manuscript in 1899. He frequently gave up on it but Henry urged him to continue. From the outset, his title was Sister Carrie, though he changed it to The Flesh and the Spirit while writing it; he restored the original name once complete.
Dreiser had difficulty finding a publisher for Sister Carrie. Doubleday & McClure Company accepted the manuscript for publication but it was withdrawn after the publisher's wife declared it too sordid. Dreiser insisted on publication and 1,008 copies were printed on November 8, 1900. The book was not advertised and only 456 copies sold. However, Frank Norris, who was working as a reader at Doubleday, sent a few copies to literary reviewers.
Between 1900 and 1980, all editions of the novel were of a second altered version. Not until 1981 did Dreiser's unaltered version appear when the University of Pennsylvania Press issued a scholarly edition based upon the original manuscript held by The New York Public Library. It is a reconstruction by a team of leading scholars to represent the novel before it was edited by hands other than Dreiser's.
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".
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Sister Carrie 33rd on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
In 2013, Black Balloon Publishing released Clementine Classics: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, a new version of Sister Carrie annotated by Tumblr literary critic Clementine the Hedgehog.