Librarian Neda Westlake Exhumes a Sexier 'sister Carrie' from Dreiser's Uncensored Papers
Theodore Dreiser's 1900 novel Sister Carrie—the story of a small-town girl's transformation into a worldly stage actress—came to be regarded as a watershed in American fiction. It did so, however, only after it was purged of such innocuous passages as the one above by editors who feared Dreiser's writing was too verbose, depressing or sexually explicit. Now, after eight years of literary sleuthing, Dr. Neda Westlake, 66, curator of the University of Pennsylvania Library's rare book collection, has, with three colleagues, republished Sister Carrie (University of Pennsylvania Press, $29.95), restoring some 40,000 words from Dreiser's original manuscript.
"The main shocker in 1900 was that Carrie knew her lovers, Drouet and Hurstwood, were sleeping with other women," says Westlake. That sensation, plus Carrie's generally broad-minded approach to romance, was expunged by literary ombudsmen including Dreiser's first wife, Sara. In describing Carrie, for instance, Dreiser had written: "Her dresses draped her becomingly, for she wore excellent corsets...She had always been of cleanly instincts and now that opportunity afforded, she kept her body sweet." Sara struck the references to "corsets" and "body," allowing only that Carrie's "teeth were white, her nails rosy."
Even after such bowdlerizing, Doubleday, Page & Co., Sister Carrie's first publisher, didn't promote the book. Dreiser's first-edition royalties, from sales of 456 copies, were $68.40. The novel has since been published in 15 languages and has been credited, even in censored form, with blazing trails of candor in American letters. Dreiser went on to enjoy commercial success with novels like An American Tragedy (1925). In 1942, three years before his death at age 74, he donated most of his papers to Penn, where he had been treated for a nervous breakdown after Sister Carrie flopped. His handwritten Carrie manuscript, however, was placed in the New York Public Library in 1937 by Dreiser's close friend H.L. Mencken. Intrigued by rumors that Carrie had been heavily censored, John Berkey, associate professor of English at Rutgers, and free-lance writer Alice Winters retrieved that yellowed holograph in 1973 and began reconstructing the novel with the aid of James L.W. West III, associate professor of English at Virginia Tech.
They could not have unraveled the changes, however, without Westlake, who has spent 30 years cataloguing Dreiser's papers. Born Neda McFadden in Steamboat Springs, Colo., she married Thayer Westlake in 1936, after their freshman year at Wheaton (Ill.) College, where she majored in English and he in theology. Settling in Philadelphia, Thayer became a minister and Neda got a doctorate in American civilization from Penn, where she has worked in the library since 1949. Now widowed, she lives in nearby Chestnut Hill with her miniature schnauzer. "I think I would have liked Dreiser because he had a general appeal to women," she muses. "He was more interested in women—their lives and reactions—than in men."
Though scrupulous in editing the new Sister Carrie, Westlake and her colleagues admit someone took liberties issuing a memo, over Dreiser's authentic signature, that circulated at a recent publication party. "Doubleday, Page were imbeciles in 1900," it read. "I told them that someday a publisher with vision, integrity, grit and professional competence would restore my book to its original intention. My only regret is that I didn't bring the book to you in the first place."