Women of the Frontier by Brandon Marie Miller

51aDnzTnIKL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Women of the Frontier: 16 Tales of Trailblazing Homesteaders, Entrepreneurs, and Rabble-Rousers by Brandon Marie Miller.

This collective biography/history was a fascinating book, although I found myself skimming the explanatory material at the beginning of each chapter to go directly to the stories of the women themselves. Some of the women I knew something about: Margret Reed, a survivor of the ill-fated Donner Party; Narcissa Whitman, missionary to Oregon; Carry Nation, prohibition campaigner; and Cynthia Ann Parker, captive of the Comanches and mother to Quanah Parker, famous Comanche chief.

Even about these women I learned new things:
According to the author, Narcissa Whitman grew to nearly despise the Native Americans she traveled to Oregon to minister to and convert.

After years of “smashing” saloons to protest the evils of alcohol, Carry Nation settled in Eureka Springs, Arkansas and opened a home for the (abused) wives of alcoholics. The home was called Hatchet Hall.

Indian captive Cynthia Ann Parker was taken back from the Comanches when her son Quanah was only twelve years old, and she thought he was dead. She did not know that he became a great warrior chief of the Comanche.

Then, there were the many seemingly ordinary, actually extraordinary, women who managed to survive a life of hardship and vicissitudes that would have put me into an early grave. Amelia Stewart Knight traversed the Oregon Trail, “out of one mud hole into another all day.” And she was four months pregnant when she and her husband and their seven children left Iowa to head for Oregon. Luzena Wilson learned that she could make more money by cooking and cleaning for the 49ers in the California gold fields than she or her husband could by mining. Then, she learned by experience with both that a fire or flood could destroy everything she had built and earned, and she learned to start all over again.

Mary Lease fought for government regulation of the railroads, the graduated income tax, the direct election of senators, and suffrage for women. She lived to see all of these things enshrined in law. Sarah Winnemucca and Susette La Flesche, on the other hand, both championed the rights of Native Americans, but lived to see most of the promises of the U.S. government to the Native peoples broken and the Native people themselves mistreated and disrespected.

I was inspired and a bit humbled by the stories of these ladies. Again, I’m not sure how I would have done, given their circumstances and faced with their choices. I’d like to say that I would have persevered and made a life despite the difficulties and adversities they faced, but I don’t really know.

Said one Kansas woman:

“It might seem a cheerless life, but there were many compensations: the thrill of conquering a new country; the wonderful atmosphere; the attraction of the prairie, which simply gets into your bloom and makes you dissatisfied away from it; the low-lying hills and the unobstructed view of the horizon; and the fleecy clouds driven by the never failing winds.”

Maybe those things, and more, were enough.

Chinese History in Fiction and Nonfiction

I read two books back to back that shed some light on the vicissitudes of Chinese life and history: Fortunate Sons by Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller and Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin.

Fortunate Sons is the nonfiction title, subtitled The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization. It’s about an educational experiment that took place starting in 1872 in which groups of boys from China were sent to New England to be educated in the ways of Western thinking and inventions and technology. The goal was to train leaders for China who would bring the Chinese out of their technological deficit and their impotence in the face of Western weaponry and warfare.

In spite of the fact that the boys were called home early, before most of them were able to complete their university education, many of the young men who returned to China after receiving an American education were able to serve their native country effectively and with great loyalty. Sometimes their gifts were under-appreciated and under-utilized given the chaotic state of Chinese politics in the early twentieth century. However, some of the CHinese Educational Mission graduates were given great responsibility in bringing China into the modern age in the areas of railroads, diplomacy, and warfare in particular.

Unfortunately, I had trouble remembering which boy was which as I read the book. What with American nicknames like “Jimmy” and “By-Jinks Johnnie” as well as Chinese names, such as Yung Wing and Yung Liang and Chen Duyong and Liang Dunyan, that all started to sound alike to my untrained American ears, I was confused most of the time about who was whom. A list of the boys with their Chinese names, American nicknames, and one distinguishing fact about each would have been quite helpful. Nevertheless, I do recommend the book for those who are interested in modern Chinese history.

As usual, I learned more from the fiction book that I read set in 1937-1940 China called Nanjing Requiem than I did from the nonfiction book. This novel is another one of those memoir-ish fictional treatments, based on the life and experiences of a real person, specifically the life of Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary and the dean of Jinling Women’s College in Nanjing, China. If you’ve read anything about China and World War II, you’ve heard of the Rape of Nanjing. This story brings the Japanese occupation and pillage of Nanjing to life, but in an understated, almost documentary sort of writing style. The violence and the horror are there, and the author’s style, using a fictional Chinese narrator to tell the story of Ms. Vautrin’s courage and her eventual mental collapse, makes the barbarity of the events in the novel even more vivid because Ha Jin leaves much to the imagination. Then, there are the moral dilemmas of war and dealing with the enemy on behalf of the helpless and sometimes thankless Chinese refugees who become Ms. Vautrin’s responsibility. No one, including Minnie Vautrin, especially Ms. Vautrin, escapes the horrible repercussions of decisions made under the pressure of sometimes choosing between evil and more evil.

For those who are interested in the true story of Minnie Vautrin and the Rape of Nanjing, this video is a dramatization of material from the diaries of Minnie Vautrin, presented as a mock trial for war crimes committed during the Nanjing occupation. This video is a fictional presentation, not a real trial. The real Minnie Vautrin died in 1941.

I noticed as I read Nanjing Requiem how the characters in the novel spoke and thought about revenge on the Japanese for the atrocities they committed and how they wondered why God did not act to bring justice and vengeance down upon the Japanese army and upon the Japanese people for allowing such wickedness to proceed unchecked. I couldn’t help thinking about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few years after the Rape of Nanking. Although I don’t believe that God sanctioned the bombing of those Japanese cites in retribution for the Rape of Nanjing and other Japanese war crimes, I do believe that evil begets evil. And sometimes the innocent pay for the sins of their fathers and others.

Setting: Turn of the Century, 1900-1909

Historical fiction is a great way to learn about history. In fact, I learned a lot of my history facts from novels. I’m often moved by a fiction book to go look up the story behind the story, to see if the author got her facts right. Here are a few adult fiction titles set in or around the turn of the century—nineteenth to twentieth, that is. No, I haven’t read all of these, but I have tried to give you a link to a review written by someone who has for each book listed. If you have reviewed any of these, leave a link in the comments, and I’ll add your review to the list. Or if you have read another book set in the early 1900’s that you liked, please share.

The Tale of Hilltop Farm by Susan Wittig Albert. Author Beatrix Potter solves mysteries in this book and the ones the follow in the series when she moves to Hill Top Farm after the death of her fiance. Reviewed by Allison at On My Bookshelf.

City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell. Highly recommended. A young Mennonite missionary in China meets and marries a fellow missionary and lives through the turmoil of civil war. Semicolon review here.

Anna’s Book by Barbara Vine. Mystery and suspense in early twentieth century London. Reviewed by Superfast Reader.

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attempts to exonerate a falsely imprisoned man named George.

Beautiful Dreamer by Joan Naper. Chicago, 1900. Reviewed by Sarah Johnson at Reading the Past.

The Birth House by Ami McKay. A midwife in a Nova Scotia fishing village. Reviewed at Maw Books Blog..

Empire by Gore Vidal. Caroline Sanford runs a newspaper dynasty during the years 1898-1907–with insights into the Spanish-American War, the Hearst newspaper conglomerate, and the presidencies of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, among other historical events and persons.

A Flickering Light by Jane Kirkpatrick. In 1907, a fifteen year old girl dreams of a career in photography, a dangerous job reserved for men. Reviewd by Tracy at Relz Reviewz.

Jack London: Sailor on Horseback by Irving Stone. Biographical novel about the eponymous author.

Lake of Fire by Linda Jacobs. Romance blossoms in Yellowstone National Park, June, 1900. Reviewed by Sarah Johnson at Reading the Past.

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns. Highly recommended. Will’s grandfather elopes with a woman half his age three weeks after his wife dies in 1906, causing a scandal in their small Georgia town. Cold Sassy Tree is on my list of the 100 Best Novels of All Time.

City of Light by Lauren Belfer. 1901 in Buffalo, New York as Niagara Falls is being harnessed for electricity.

The Outlander by Gil Adamson. Idaho and Montana, 1903. A nineteen year old woman murders her abusive husband and then runs away from his brothers who are thirsty for revenge.

The Quickening by Michelle Hoover. American Midwest in the early 1900’s. Reviewed by Caribousmom.

Painted Ladies by Siobhan Parkinson. A community of artists in Skagen, a fishing village in the north of Denmark, live a Bohemian lifestyle while producing great works of art. Reviewed by Sarah Johnson at Reading the Past.

For more historical novels of the twentieth century, look at HistoricalNovels.info.

Movies Set In the First Decade of the Twentieth Century: 1900-1909

Lagaan (2001). Bollywood movie actually set in 1893, but it shows the cultural mileau of India under British rule. Warning: it’s long, with subtitles, but well worth the time.

Finding Neverland stars Johnny Depp as playwright James Barrie. I wrote about my initial impressions of the movie here. I would like to see the move again, and I think it might make a better impression the second time around.

Miss Potter (2006). Fictionalized biography of authoress Beatrix Potter.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Musical set in St. Louis, Missouri during the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971). Another classic musical set in Tsarist Russia in 1905.

How Green Was My Valley. Based on a 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn, this film features a Welsh family and the mining community in which they live around the turn of the century. the movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1941.

Yankee Doodle Dandy. Biopic about American songwriter and composer George M. Cohan, starring James Cagney as Cohan. The song “Yankee Doodle Boy” was Cohan’s signature piece as a composer and as a song-and-dance man himself who performed his own work. The film came out in 1942, and production began on it just a few days before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. So the movie was purposefully patriotic to the max in order to lift the spirits of an American audience headed into war.

The Winslow Boy. We just watched this movie, set in Britain and based on a true story, yesterday. Well, I watched, and the urchins fell asleep. It’s not an exciting or fast-moving plot-driven picture. However, the script and the setting are intriguing. The story is about an upper middle class family who sacrifice everything—their savings, the daughter’s upcoming marriage, the older son’s career—to defend the honor of the younger son who is accused of stealing a five shilling postal order and is expelled from military school. The boy, Ronnie, says he didn’t do it, and the family honor is at stake. Such a different world, different values. You can read more about the movie, the play by Terrence Rattigan, and the historical incident that Rattigan mined for his play at Wikipedia.

My twentieth century history students are supposed to choose one of these movies set in the first decade of the century to watch and then write a reflection paper (kind of like a blog post, at least like my blog posts) about the movie. Which one would you suggest to them if they asked your advice? Do you have any other suggestions for movies set in this time period?

1900: Music and Art

In Helsinki, Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia premiered and in Rome, Giacomo Puccini’s opera Tosca premiered.

Published in 1900:
“The Flight Of The Bumble Bee” by N. Rimsky-Korsakov.

“Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing” lyrics by James Weldon Johnson, music by John Rosamond Johnson (1905). James Weldon Johnson’s poem was set to music by his brother, John. The song became known as The Negro National Anthem.

In art, the impressionists–Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Mary Cassatt, and others–were the dominant influence in the art world of the late nineteenth century. As the new century began, new voices were soon to be heard. Some of the new avante-garde artists were called post-impressionists because they were still influenced by impressionism, but other schools of art developed as many artists tried different techniques to become “modernists.”

Two Dancers on Stage by impressionist artist Edgar Degas

Two Dancers on Stage

1900: Events and Inventions

All year. 1900: The British fight the Boers (Dutch farmers and settlers) and their allies in South Africa. The war finally ended in 1902 with all of South Africa becoming a part of the British Empire.

May-August, 1900: The Boxer Rebellion in China. A patriotic society of Chinese, discontented with the Chinese emperor, the Dowager Empress, and with government policies, wish to drive all foreigners out of China. British, French, German, Japanese, Austrian, Russian, Italian and some American troops fight to put down the rebellion. Many missionaries and Chinese Christians are killed. The Europeans and others win the war and retain influence, particularly over China’s ports.

June, 1900: The Americans are also fighting rebels in the Philippines. The Filipinos originally rebelled against Spanish rule, and then after the Spanish American war ended in 1898, the Philippines became a territory of the United States. Filipino rebels have been offered amnesty if they will swear allegiance to the United States.

July 2, 1900: Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s hydrogen-filled airship powered by two engines made its first flight over Lake Constance in Switzerland. The flight lasted approximately one hour.

Zeppelin above Lake Constance

July 30, 1900: King Humbert I of Italy is assassinated by an anarchist, Angelo Bresci. His son, Victor Emmanuel, succeeds him to the throne.

September 8, 1900: A deadly hurricane destroys much of the property on Galveston Island, Texas and kills between 6000 and 12000 people. The Galveston hurricane of 1900 is the deadliest natural disaster ever to strike the United States.

November 6, 1900: William McKinley is elected president of the United States, and Theodore Roosevelt becomes vice-president. McKinley defeats William Jennngs Bryan, a populist Democrat.

Kodak introduces $1 Brownie cameras. The Brownie camera was the first hand-held camera that was cheap enough and simple enough for everyone to use.

March, 1900: UK archeologist Arthur Evans begins to excavate the ancient city of Knossos, Crete.

A cookbook from 1900, The Enterprising Housekeeper by Helen Louise Johnson.

1900: Books and Literature

Fiction Bestsellers:
1. Mary Johnston, To Have and To Hold. Available in reprint edition from Vision Forum.
2. Mary Cholmondeley, Red Pottage Virago reprint available.
3. Robert Grant, Unleavened Bread. Semicolon review and thoughts here.
4. James Lane Allen, The Reign of Law, a Tale of the Kentucky Hemp Fields.
5. Irving Bacheller, Eben Holden, a Tale of the North Country.
6. Paul Leicester Ford, Janice Meredith, a Story of the American Revolution. Semicolon review here.
7. Charles Frederic Goss, The Redemption of David Corson. Available online.
8. Winston Churchill, Richard Carvel
9. Charles Major, When Knighthood Was in Flower, the love story of Charles Brandon and Mary Tudor, the king’s sister, and happening in the reign of … Henry VIII..
10. Maurice Thompson, Alice of Old Vincennes.
All ten of these books are available to download and read as ebooks at Project Gutenberg.

Critically Acclaimed and Historically Significant:
Josiah Royce, The World and the Individual
Clarence Stedman, An American Anthology
Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie Semicolon review here.
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams
L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published by the George M. Hill Co. in Chicago on May 17, 1900. Download the ebook at Project Gutenberg. An unabridged dramatic audio performance of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz directed and narrated by Karen M. Chan with the Wired for Books Players and featuring Nicoletta Mazzocca as Dorothy.
Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim
John Dewey, The School and Society

It’s interesting that all of the bestsellers, as far as I can tell, were historical fiction. Genres go in and out of style, don’t they? Nowadays the fiction bestseller list would be mostly thrillers and mysteries, I would guess.

Picture Books Set Around 1900, the turn of the century I’ve read a few of these picture books:
The Edwardian wordless books by John Goodall are fun to explore.
Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot by Alice and Martin Provenson won a Caldecott Award. It’s the story of one of the pioneers of flight, Frenchman Louis Bleriot who flew his plane across the English Channel in 1909.
My Great-Aunt Arizona by Gloria Houston is a lovely depiction of a school teacher in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Children’s and YA Fiction Set in 1900:
Brooklyn Rose by Ann Rinaldi.
Galveston’s Summer of the Storm by Julie Lake.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. (1899) Semicolon review here.

In this post, Edwardian, Turn of the Century and the Great War I comment on a few books and TV series that depict the late nineteenth century/early twentieth century ambiance and culture, especially in England.

Edwardian, Turn of the Century and The Great War

I’ve been spending a lot of my time in the years 1890-1920 for the past week or two, via fiction, nonfiction, a couple of British period TV series, and my history class. It’s a fascinating time period. I’ll tell you what I’ve been watching and reading, and then I’ll try to share some of what it all made me ponder and put together in my mind.

Fiction:
She Walks in Beauty by Siri Mitchell. I’m not sure exactly when this novel is set, about 1890 or the turn of the century. I read this one because it won the INSPY award for historical fiction this last year. It’s about New York City debutante, Clara Carter, who becomes the leading belle of the season with a little help from her overbearing aunt and her rich, social climber father. Unfortunately, Clara wasn’t really the “spunky, defiant heroine” that we all love and tend to expect in these sorts of historical romances. She’s a seventeen year old girl who’s been indoctrinated to believe that her only worth lies in her ability to attract a rich husband and restore her family’s honor. As Clara makes her way through the balls, dinner parties, and social visits of her coming out season, she changes very little and allows cultural expectations to mold her and pressure her to become what she actually hates. Only a family tragedy forces her to come to her senses and begin to make decisions that will give her a chance to live a real, authentic life. (The Kindle edition of this one is showing as free right now. Definitely worth your time if you like historical romance.)
After the Dancing Days by Margaret Rostkowski. We read this YA novel for my English/History class at homeschool co-op. Annie is a thirteen year old girl living in a small town in Kansas at the end of World War I. As she begins to visit the returning soldiers at the veterans’ hospital where her father works as a doctor, Annie is at first repulsed and frightened by the severely injured men. However, she comes to be friends with them, one in particular, even though her mother is opposed to Annie’s hospital visits and wants her to forget about the war and its consequences.

Nonfiction:
Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America by Linda Lawrence Hunt. Semicolon review here. In this true story of a mother and daughter in 1896 who accepted a wager that saw them walk across the entire continent of North America, I found a couple of women who not afraid to strike out and do something unexpected and unacceptable to many of those in their community. Unfortunately for the two women, the book also tells how they paid a steep price in betrayal and social ostracism for their daring.
The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson. This book of social history covers the years 1918-1920 and tells lots of little stories, vignettes really, about people in Britain both great and small and their experiences in the aftermath of World War I. The book featured lots of fascinating people that I wish I had time to find out more about:
plastic surgeon Harold GIllies who repaired and reconstructed the faces of thousands of wounded WW I soldiers,
Joseph Enniver, inventor of Pelmanism, a secular program for strengthening of the mind and character,
nurse Edith Cavell, who helped two hundred allied soldiers escape to freedom in Belgium during the war before she was captured and executed by the Germans,
Coco Chanel, the greatest couturier of all time,
Nancy Astor, the American lady who became England’s first woman Member of Parliament, and many more. Look for a post of quotable stories from this book in the near future.

Television:
Lark Rise to Candleford. This series from the BBC is set in rural England just before the turn of the century, c.1895. The story is taken from a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels by author Flora Thimpson. In the novels Ms. Thompson tells about her experience as a young girl getting a job in a post office and seeing the changes that were coming to England as a result of industrialization and the new modes of transportation and communication that were coming into use during the time period. Laura Timmins, the character through whose eyes we see the stories of village life and cultural transformation, is a village girl and as such, much more adaptable than some of the upper class young women in these stories. She’s able to become independent and see the world as one in which she can rise above her circumstances and become an intelligent voice while retaining her femininity and her place in the community.

Downton Abbey. While I was waiting for the DVD’s of the several episodes of Lark RIse to Candleford to get here in the mail, I began watching Downton Abbey, another period piece set in the years just before WW I, from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 to the announcement that England was at war with Germany (1914). Downton Abbey is amazing in its deft characterization of both the upper classes and the their servants, and even the burgeoning middle class gets a nod in the appearance of Lord Grantham’s new heir, Matthew Crawley, a distant cousin who becomes the new heir after the death of a couple of closer relatives in the Titanic tragedy. Lord Grantham has only daughters, three of them, who are of marriageable age, but with very little inheritance to hook a husband since almost all the money in the family is tied up in the estate. The servants in this grand old English family are all intimately involved in family matters as well as in the working out of their own lives and relationships. Downton Abbey is something of a soap opera, but it just manages to transcend that genre because the problems and the issues that make up the plot are very real and identifiable and intriguing, leading to both reflection and a feeling of connection. The characters are appealing, sometimes frustrating, and the dialog is spot on and funny. I loved this series, and I was only sorry to see it end.

I’ll have to leave the pondering and putting together for another post. However, I would recommend any or all of the above for your viewing or reading pleasure.

Unleavened Bread by Robert Grant

According to this list of bestselling books of the first decade of the twentieth century, Unleavened Bread by Robert Grant was one of the bestselling books of 1900. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, also published in 1900, was not a best seller. Still, the books have much in common. Unleavened Bread is “the story of a woman who abandons her moral standards in her search for prestige and dominance.” Sister Carrie is the story of a girl who abandons her moral standards in her search for money and a life of ease. I suppose Sister Carrie is the darker of the two novels, but both stories dealt with the pressures of getting and maintaining one’s societal status, and both stories implied that money, ease, and acceptance into high society were common, if unworthy, goals for many young women coming of age around the turn of the century.

I don’t think the “getting into society” goal is quite so common or tempting nowadays. But wealth and power and luxury are all still quite alluring. The ending of Unleavened Bread was quite unsatisfactory. Our heroine, or anti-heroine, Selma, connives her way from poverty and obscurity to power and fame, and at the end she enjoys the beatific vision of her husband as he makes his acceptance speech after being elected to the U.S. senate.

Selma heard the words of this peroration with a sense of ecstasy. She felt that he was speaking for them both, and that he was expressing the yearning intention of her soul to attempt and perform great things. She stood gazing straight before her with her far away, seraph look, as though she were penetrating the future even into Paradise.

The End. Oh, by the way, the senator sold his vote and cheated, with his wife’s encouragement, to get the office. But, all’s well that ends well–or not.

A couple of other quotes from the novel:

“A seven mile drive is apt to promote or kill the germs of intimacy.” That’s a drive in a horse drawn carriage or wagon. I would say the same of a five day road trip through West Texas.

“He had chosen as a philosophy of life the smart paradox, which he enjoyed uttering, that he spent what he needed first and supplied the means later; and the the same time he let it be understood that the system worked wonderfully.”
I doubt that system would work for long for anyone who wasn’t already supplied with at least some of the “means.”

Unleavened Bread reminded me of Sister Carrie, of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and of Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. It’s about the thirst for power and popularity, about the Midwest rubes meeting the Eastern establishment, and about the slow but steady dissolution of a woman’s ethical standards in her quest to become rich and fashionable.

You can read Unleavened Bread online at Project Gutenberg.

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

I decided to go ahead and join the Books of the Century Challenge since I read three books from the first year of the century, 1900, while I was reading during Lent. Sister Carrie was published in 1900, but it wasn’t a best seller. In fact it almost didn’t get published at all. The novel was “excoriated by censors” who complained that the the title character, Carrie, was a sinner who seemed to benefit as a result of her fall from moral purity. “Why do the wicked prosper?” And, at least in fiction, according to the mores of the time, they shouldn’t.

At the beginning of the novel Carrie is “eighteen years of age, bright, timid, and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth.” She’s also poor, having only a few clothes and four dollars to her name.

“When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse.”

By the end of the novel, Carrie is rich, celebrated, famous, and unhappy—but neverthless filled with dreams and longing for beauty and delight.

In between, she stumbles from bad decision to another and wreaks havoc wherever she goes. In particular, Carrie is the ruin of one man who seduces her, and I suppose that the critics complained that for once the man is ruined by an illicit relationship rather than the woman. But Carrie isn’t really a scheming, designing gold digger. She’s a lamb, sort of, pushed into an illicit relationship by poverty, laziness, pride, and vanity. This essential weakness doesn’t justify her actions, but it does explain them.

Some of the situations in the novel were so well described: the slow descent into destitution of an unemployed man, the dissolution by degrees of a loveless marriage, the seduction of a young, vain girl, the enticement of life in the fast lane, and the emptiness of such a life. I thought this aspect of Dreiser’s novel, the realistic depiction of human weakness, was was quite well written. The jacket notes in my book say that critics disagree about the merits of Dreiser’s work. Some think him “the most important realist since Zola.” Others find him unskilled as a writer and his fatalistic view of man, depressing.

Sister Carrie reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates’ them (Semicolon review here), partly because of the Chicago setting, but also because of the cheap, degraded lives of both Oates’s and Dreiser’s characters. However, I found Carrie and her suitors and lovers much more believable and interesting than Oates’s “them”. Carrie may be a drifter and irredeemable by the end of the novel, but Dreiser nails the whole progression of sin and ruination, while Oates’s novel just felt like a rich/middle class girl going slumming. On the other hand, sin does make you stupid, but no one stays quite as innocently obtuse as Carrie does in this book. Maybe we just don’t get to read about the part where Carrie actually wakes up in the pigpen.