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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Title    Author    Year    Contributors
Sister-Carrie

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What Others are Saying

Sister Carrie

Author: Theodore Dreiser

Year Published: 1900

What Others are Saying:

  • Perhaps the first American novel that addressed the American dream, modernity and work in the lives of American women.
  • "Sister Carrie" brilliantly illuminates the "social Darwinism" of capitalism. Some achieve success through good fortune as well as hard work. Others fail despite talent and a strong work ethic because of the same ups and downs of fortune. He who is successful today and looks down on life's "losers" may find himself in their situation tomorrow. The book exposes the harsh reality of a society entirely without a "safety net" for those who are down on their luck.
  • Carrie's progression from the country and farming, to a city's piecemeal work system is a seminal work for women. It outlines for them the worries and fears faced by families as their daughter's move from an agrarian system to a manufacturing world. Carrie uses her family contacts to get ahead, but continually finds that her worth, unmarried, is below a living wage. She must have a man to support her. She becomes jaded but better able to negotiate her worth in a large free-flowing system of exchange.
  • I'm surprised this book isn't already on your list. It contains an unforgettable description of Carrie Meeber's search for a job, and a day spent working in a factory. To me it's the best part of the book. Her job-search still rings true today: "Once across the river and into the wholesale district, she glanced about her for some likely door at which to apply. As she contemplated the wide windows and imposing signs, she became conscious of being gazed upon and understood for what she was--a wage-seeker. She had never done this thing before, and lacked courage. To avoid a certain indefinable shame she felt at being caught spying about for a position, she quickened her steps and assumed an air of indifference supposedly common to one upon an errand. In this way she passed many manufacturing and wholesale houses without once glancing in . . . Over the way stood a great six-story structure, labelled Storm and King, which she viewed with rising hope. It was a wholesale dry goods concern and employed women. She could see them moving about now and then upon the upper floors. This place she decided to enter, no matter what. She crossed over and walked directly toward the entrance. As she did so, two men came out and paused in the door. A telegraph messenger in blue dashed past her and up the few steps that led to the entrance and disappeared. Several pedestrians out of the hurrying throng which filled the sidewalks passed about her as she paused, hesitating. She looked helplessly around, and then, seeing herself observed, retreated. It was too difficult a task. She could not go past them . . . "
  • Sister Carrie--in fact, every book by Dreiser--deals with work, with how what we do and what we do not do shapes our personalities and our lives. Sister Carrie is particularly appealing in this regard: it examines the working lives of both men and women at the turn of the 20th century and it examines what success and failure in American looks like. It is also rich in details about the period it covers as it shows us Chicago and New York becoming the great cities they are today. And it is a good read.


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