Nov. 8, 2013


by Anne Sexton

A thousand doors ago,
when I was a lonely kid
in a big house with four
garages and it was summer
as long as I could remember,
I lay on the lawn at night,
clover wrinkling over me,
the wise stars bedding over me,
my mother's window a funnel
of yellow heat running out,
my father's window, half shut,
an eye where sleepers pass,
and the boards of the house
were smooth and white as wax
and probably a million leaves
sailed on their strange stalks
as the crickets ticked together
and I, in my brand new body,
which was not a woman's yet,
told the stars my questions
and thought God could really see
the heat and the painted light,
elbows, knees, dreams, goodnight.

"Young" by Anne Sexton, from The Complete Poems. © Mariner Books, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1731, a group of young men in Philadelphia pooled their money to set up the first library in America. The idea for a library came about when Benjamin Franklin started a club with about 50 friends so they could debate about politics, morality, and the natural sciences. The group was called the Club of Mutual Improvement. When they disagreed about a topic, they liked to consult books. But books were expensive in those days, so they combined their resources to found a subscription library. They called it the Philadelphia Library Company. The rule was that any "civil gentleman" could browse through the volumes, but only subscribers were allowed to borrow them. The library expanded over the years. Later it moved to Carpenter's Hall, the building where the First Continental Congress met in 1774. Franklin said that after the library opened, "reading became fashionable, and our people, having no public amusements to divert their attention from study, became better acquainted with books."

It's the birthday of the woman who said, "In a weak moment, I have written a book." That's Margaret Mitchell (books by this author), born on this day in 1900, and that book is the epic novel Gone With the Wind. (1937). It's one of the best-selling American novels of all time, having sold more than 30 million copies.

It was on this day in 1900 that the novel Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (books by this author) was published. Sister Carrie was Dreiser's first attempt at writing fiction. For eight years, he had been living in New York City and writing articles for 10-cent magazines. His topics included the Chicago drainage canal, stained glass, the American fruit industry, women in music, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Then a friend and fellow magazine writer moved to New York and suggested that he and Dreiser each challenge themselves to write a novel. In October of 1899, Dreiser wrote the words "Sister Carrie" at the top of a stack of yellow papers, and he went to work. By March of 1900, he had finished a draft.

Dreiser was one of 10 children from small-town Indiana. One of his sisters, Emma, became the mistress of a wealthy Chicago businessman and then fled to New York with him after he embezzled money from his employer. Dreiser loosely based Sister Carrie on the story of his own sister. In the novel, Carrie — a small-town girl with artistic ambitions — is caught between two lovers in Chicago and runs off with one of them to New York City. There, her lover sinks into unemployment and poverty and eventually commits suicide, while Carrie works her way up from a chorus girl to a famous and wealthy actress.

Dreiser submitted the manuscript to Harper's, where he had a good friend on the editorial staff. But it was rejected — the rejection letter explained that despite some strengths, the writing was "neither firm enough nor sufficiently delicate to depict without offense to the reader the continued illicit relations of the heroine." The letter continued: "I cannot conceive of the book arousing the interest or inviting the attention [...] of the feminine readers."

So Dreiser sent his novel to Doubleday, Page and Company. The manuscript found its way into the hands of the novelist Frank Norris, who was working on the editorial staff. Norris declared that he had never read a better novel and recommended it for publication. Frank Doubleday was on vacation in Europe, and in his absence, a junior partner agreed to publish Sister Carrie. When Doubleday returned home and read the manuscript, he declared that the novel was immoral and that he wanted to cancel its publication. Apparently, his wife was particularly horrified, and no one knows how much her opinion affected her husband's decision. The main moral concern was that Carrie was not punished for having affairs, but instead achieved fame and fortune. Doubleday looked into his legal rights and learned that the acceptance was legally binding, so the publisher used all his persuasive powers to try and convince Dreiser to withdraw his manuscript, to no avail.

One of the myths around Sister Carrie's publication is that it was published but then immediately recalled from bookstores. Not true — it was published on this day in 1900 and remained in print. However, when Doubleday looked into his rights to see if he could get out of publishing the novel, he did learn that his legal obligations ended at the moment of publication — he had no responsibility to promote the novel in any way. So once Sister Carrie was published, its publisher basically pretended that the novel did not exist, and consequently only 456 copies were sold in the first 16 months after publication. Dreiser received $68.40 in royalties.

When Sister Carrie was reissued by a new publisher in 1907, it gained more readers, and a few years later was picked up by Harper's, the same publisher who had initially rejected it. The earlier attempts to censor the novel now became one of its most attractive selling points.

In Sister Carrie, Dreiser wrote: "How true it is that words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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