Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) is one of the giants of American letters. His novel "Sister Carrie," written in 1900, is a cathedral of naturalist literature. Almost as epic as his novels was the constant state of warfare that existed between Dreiser and publishers who consistently refused to publish his books because of the shocking themes the author wrote about. One of his biggest battles involved "An American Tragedy," a sprawling book based on a real murder case that occurred in New York at the beginning of the 20th century. Dreiser used the Chester Gillette/Grace Brown episode as the basis for a story that strongly criticized America's infatuation with materialism and social status. In the Gillette case, a young dandy with an eye for the ladies impregnated a young woman and then drowned her in a lake when her condition threatened to put an end to his social life. During the subsequent trial of Chester Gillette, all of America readily soaked up the sordid details of the case. Gillette, vehemently denying that he had anything to do with Grace Brown's murder despite his conviction on a first-degree murder charge, died in the electric chair at Auburn State Prison on March 30, 1908. Dreiser went to such lengths investigating the case for his book that he even took his wife out on the lake where Gillette committed his crime, apparently worrying his spouse that he might recreate the crime.
In "An American Tragedy," Chester Gillette becomes Clyde Griffiths, the son of itinerant evangelists who roam the country operating missions for the destitute. His parents often take Clyde and his siblings out on the streets of the city in order to sing hymns and hand out religious tracts. While in Kansas City, Clyde reaches the age of sixteen and decides to strike out on his own. Tired of the austere life led by his family, Clyde secures a job as a bellboy at a big hotel downtown. The money he earns and the friends he makes at the hotel quickly lead to Clyde's indoctrination into the fast life of fine clothes, fine food, and fast women. An unfortunate incident with a "borrowed" car leads to his hasty departure from Kansas City to points east.
After a few years of drifting from job to job under an assumed name, Clyde happens to run into a rich uncle at a hotel in Chicago. The uncle, moderately impressed with his nephew's appearance and attitude, offers the young man a job at his collar factory in Lycurgus, New York. Clyde jumps at the opportunity, picturing himself rising quickly at the factory into a world of wealth and privilege. The reality turns out to be quite the opposite. His uncle is indifferent to Clyde's presence, rarely inviting him out to the family estate and starting him at the lowest, dirtiest job in the factory. A cousin named Gilbert also proves troublesome to Clyde's aspirations. Gilbert sees his poor cousin as a real threat to his own position as heir apparent at the factory. Moreover, Gilbert and Clyde are astonishingly similar in appearance. Despite these obstacles, Clyde is optimistic that he will win over his cousin and uncle after a few months time. But he needs to move fast when he meets Sondra Finchley, the daughter of one of the richest families in Lycurgus. If only Clyde could woo this pretty girl and get a good position at the factory! All his dreams would come true!
Clyde's dreams nearly do reach fruition until he finds himself in a spectacularly scandalous position. For when Sondra finally decides to make a move for Clyde, she doesn't know about his involvement with a poor factory girl named Roberta Alden. The inevitable eventually happens: Clyde impregnates Roberta at a time when Sondra professes her love for him. Griffiths is in a real pickle now, for he must drop Roberta so he can position himself with Sondra. Clyde convinces Roberta to seek a way out of the pregnancy but various methods fail to work. All seems disaster until Clyde remembers an article in the paper about a drowning at a local lake, and an unthinkable plan begins to form.
The minute detail of Clyde's rise and eventual fall leaves no stone unturned. The chapters covering the defense and prosecution's questioning of Clyde during his murder trial cover some seventy pages. Sometimes the details are too much, such as a description of a car accident that takes up way too many pages. Dreiser's mania for detail may be the biggest failing of "An American Tragedy" because the reader quickly becomes impatient with the pace of the story as the narrative bogs down under a mass of minutiae. Moreover, the author's convoluted prose style leaves a lot to be desired. His language is often so dense that even H.L. Mencken commented on it in the introduction to the story.
BUT, and this is a big but, Dreiser's story is deeply affecting. It is well worth reading 850 pages to experience the mind blasting intensity of the story. This is truly a tragedy, as Clyde's crime ruins dozens of people's lives. And such a powerful conclusion! Clyde's march to the electric chair brought tears to my eyes, especially when his mother chucks all the religious chatter, grabs her son, and murmurs "my son, my baby." Then note how Dreiser brings the story full circle after the execution. That is what the author does with this story: he makes you feel for nearly every character in the narrative. Ultimately, "An American Tragedy" is a great book with a few niggling problems. You will be glad you read it, though.
on December 31, 2011
I chose this book simply because it was on Modern Library's 100 Greatest books of the 20th century list. I knew nothing about the author and from the title and the summary on the back, knew only that probably something bad would happen. This is the way to read the book.
People have said that it is overly long or wordy. It may seem like this in the beginning, but even at this part the book is not boring or dry. It is the story of a boy growing and maturing at this point, and it is precisely this personal growth (in detail) that makes the book so powerful. You, as the reader, become one with the protagonist because you have witnessed his entire life.
The preface in the version I read said something to the effect that the story builds slowly like a tsunami, finally striking you with all that built-up force. I am a 29 year old male who does not often cry, and I was in tears for the last hour of this book. After finishing I looked at myself in the mirror and I was shaking and my eyes were completely bloodshot. My only thought was what a terrible book that was, and why anyone would write something like this.
I read a lot of the supposed "best books" like the ones on the Modern Library list, and this is the most immediately powerful novel I have ever read.
on January 6, 2004
The film "A Simple Plan" could have easily been called "An American Tragedy," and the book "An American Tragedy" could have just as easily been called "A Simple Plan." The plan at the book's center seems so simple indeed. The novel's protagonist, Clyde Griffiths, impregnates a girl below his social station, and he's so terrified by the idea of being exposed and ruining his chances at a life as part of the social elite (and losing the local well-to-do beauty to whom he's hitched himself) that he actually finds himself driven to kill her as his only escape. But Clyde has a simple mind, and his efforts to claw his way out of a desperate situation that inexorably suffocates him is compelling fiction.
Theodore Dreiser has been called one of the worst great writers in the history of literature, and that claim is justified. He can hardly compose a sentence that doesn't drop like lead from the tongue. He's especially fond of the double negative, which can become pretty tedious in a 900+ page novel. And in retrospect, the amount of plot on display in his novel does not seem to warrant its length, but somehow, I was able to overcome these two factors and find myself engrossed in it anyway. It doesn't for one second become boring or slow. And it offers some especially candid and frank ideas about the nature of guilt and the culpability of those who take lives, whether they're working on the side of crime or the law. Most fascinating for me were the novel's final pages, when Clyde tries to turn to religion for solace when he's at his loneliest, but can't get around the notion that there's really nothing to turn to.
Dreiser pulls off quite a feat by making all of his characters sympathetic. I didn't want Clyde to get away scot-free with what he'd done, but my heart couldn't help but go out to him. Likewise, Roberta, the girl he wrongs, could have come across as shrewish in another author's hands (she does in the film version, "A Place in the Sun," if you're interested in a literature to film comparison) but she doesn't here. Even Sondra, who could have been so unlikeably spoiled, comes across as essentially a warm character.
1925 was the literary year for deconstructing the American Dream. Both "An American Tragedy" and "The Great Gatsby" came out that year, and while I have to admit that "Gatsby" is a better written book, "Tragedy" just has a visceral appeal for me, and it's the one I enjoyed more.
on September 11, 2003
Inspired by the sensational details from a famous 1906 murder case -- in which a young man named Chester Gillette killed his girlfriend Grace Brown for being 'inconveniently' pregnant -- Theodore Dreiser had all the elements to paint a great portrait of American society on its rise as an industrial power at the turn of the 20th century.
The social barriers between the poor and the (new) rich, the tugging materialism, and an underlying puritanism made up the social fabric around which Dreiser recreated Clyde Griffiths as Gillette and Roberta Alden as Brown. Driven by their human impulses and then trapped by social and moral prejudices, the outcome was a monumental tragedy of wasted young lives for both characters.
This novel is long (over 800 pages), and the writing style is torturous. It could probably be more appreciated for its social-historical value than as 'classic literature'. If you haven't read anything by Dreiser previously, you may want to try 'Sister Carrie' before tackling this one.
on December 19, 2010
For one to wade through Theodore Dreiser's 856 pages of stilted prose, he has to truly appreciate a good crime story. Far from merely a fictional account of an unspeakable crime and a classic of American literature, An American Tragedy pioneers the naturalist literary movement of the early 20th century while heralding the arrival of two well-recognized features on today's fine arts landscape - the psychological thriller and the courtroom drama. Simply on the merits of its depth and complexity alone, this novel is a masterpiece.
Liberally bending conventions in both grammar and sentence structure, Dreiser writes as if slowly and methodically peeling back the layers of an onion. Particularly in his development of the story's central character, Clyde Griffiths, the author's detailed and meticulous portraiture leaves little to the reader's imagination. He commits countless words to thoroughly evolving his characters. Further, despite the occasional lengthy and overly elaborate passage, Dreiser adroitly paces his work. His prose only bogs down when he ambitiously plumbs the thoughts of his characters and deconstructs those thoughts as a psychotherapist would those of his patient.
We are treated to the consummate bad actor in Griffiths - an immature, selfish, and morally impoverished cad given to endless rationalizing around what should be his in a life with pathetically humble beginnings. When confronted with the specter of social ruin and life without the beautiful, self-absorbed, and socially ascendant Sondra Finchley, he behaves irrationally and murders his sweet and innocent sprite of a lover, Roberta Alden. His actions are those of a cold-blooded killer. We readers are privy to Griffiths' every thought as he carefully ponders Roberta's murder and how he might avoid suspicion.
By contrast, there is Roberta, the product of a hard-working, God-fearing but luckless farm family. Dreiser portrays this family beautifully, and we realize that it was probably on the backs of families just like the Aldens that much of the Adirondack region of upstate New York was built. A tragic figure to be sure, Roberta dares to dream of a life of marital bliss with Griffiths but her love for him goes unrequited. Pregnant and alone, she is instead manipulated by her one-time lover. Perhaps wishfully believing that he only desires to be temporally free of her but is still disposed to do the honorable through marriage, she underestimates Griffiths' treachery. Sadly, she is guilty only of a poignant naivete, a breathtaking ignorance to the ways of a sometimes harsh and cruel world.
Griffiths' ham-handed bumbling in carrying out premeditated murder is only to be rivaled by his feeble attempt at a cover-up. He is eventually tried, convicted and executed - his life but an asterisk not on the social register to which he aspires, but on the rolls of the criminally culpable. A reptile masquerading as a human being - a caricature, really - Griffiths' character (based on that of Chester Gillette, the real-life perpetrator of this crime) meets a fate that, ironically, he so assiduously endeavors to avoid. Friendless, penniless and irretrievably lost to the forces of Evil, Griffiths tragically implodes, his life ending in ignominy and disgrace.
Its unparalleled depth defines An American Tragedy, listed by Time magazine in its 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 list. A multi-leveled latticework of themes that includes everything from Freudian psychoanalytic theory to the ills of capitalism and its attendant social climbing in early Industrial America, this epic novel reminds me why I love great literature. One really has to consider carefully what Dreiser imparts. The author's style, characterized as much by rich metaphor as it is by lengthy, impossibly creative 'sentences', held my attention from cover to cover. Of Griffiths' inexplicable behavior Dreiser writes,
"There are moments when in connection with the sensitively imaginative or morbidly anachronistic - the mentality assailed and the same not of any great strength and the problem confronting it of sufficient force and complexity - the reason not actually toppling from its throne, still totters or is warped or shaken - the mind befuddled to the extent that for the time being, at least, unreason and disorder and mistaken or erroneous counsel would appear to hold against all else. In such instances the will and courage confronted by some great difficulty which it can neither master nor endure, appears in some to recede in precipitate flight, leaving only panic and temporary unreason in its wake."
Great stuff... and well worth wading through.
Literature at Its American Best!
on October 8, 2004
Theodore Dreiser captures the American spirit in his brilliant portrait of early 20th century commerce and society. His observations are as relevant in the early 21st century as they were one hundred years ago.
Clyde Griffiths is the hero and the anti-hero of the novel. Clyde grows up poor with parents who preach on the streets for a not very good living. He lives the American dream as he rises both economically and socially. He moves from the position of bellhop to factory manager through cunning, avarice, and hard work. He rises from social outcast to man about town using the same skills.
Eventually he is forced to choose between two loves: his pregnant poor mistress and the wealthy small town social whom he dreams of as his wife. How he extricates himself from this situation causes his downfall and eventual ruin.
Through Griffiths rise and fall, and further fall, Dreiser weaves the themes of the importance of money and social class in America. His character has no moral compass, no conscience. Ultimately this leads to his annihilation.
I highly recommend this book to those who love American literature. It is not a book for the fainthearted. You need to dedicate yourself to this book when you read it. But your efforts will be rewarded by the gifts of an American masterpiece.
on February 25, 2006
In the summer of 1906 a young factory worker died of drowning in mid-state New York. Shortly thereafter her boyfriend (and the father of her unborn child) was arrested and placed on trial for murder -- the first of the 20th Century's many trials of the century. This pathetic story was exploited by Theodore Dreiser as the basis of his 1925 novel "An American Tragedy". Vastly popular throughout the decades, it has been made into a play, two movies, and now an opera at the Metropolitan. At 800 pages and without a scintilla of humor, "An American Tragedy" is not exactly an easy read, but it does present a realistic (and disapproving) look at the sadder aspects of American life. Poor but ambitious, Clyde Griffiths leaves his holy-roller family to get ahead in the big cities, but instead he gets into big trouble, fleeing from a big city after being involved in the hit-and-run killing of a child. While working as a bell hop, he meets his father's affluent brother, a clothing manufacturer from Lycurgus, NY. (Lycurgus was Dreiser's fictional version of Cortland, where the real tragedy took place.) Accepting a job in his uncle's factory, Clyde meets a co-worker, the shy farm girl Roberta, and eventually they become lovers. In the meantime Clyde has ingratiated himself with his cousins and their crowd, including the vivacious debutante Sondra, who at first finds Clyde amusing, then increasingly attractive. (Clyde, one of his buddies assures him, has "the goods".) Conflict occurs when Roberta becomes pregnant and, attempts at abortion failing, it is mandatory that Clyde marry her, meaning that all his dreams of Sondra and society are to end. Dreiser's attitude towards Clyde is almost clinical: he doesn't condemn his central character, but he doesn't solicit the reader's sympathy either. As it is, sympathy for Clyde is difficult, if only because he has such a dreary sense of values. His idea of success is living in a "swell" house, and the society he admires is hopelessly shallow. Sondra and her friends play tennis and cards, and that's just about it. Never once do they discuss political or artistic issues. It seems young bears can't utter a sentence without including "Gee"; and flappers, according to Dreiser, were addicted to baby-talk, an affectation that gets tiresome really fast. Dreiser had his own affectations, indulging in a dark detailed style (Funk & Wagnalls calls it "plodding") that indicates a relentlessly pessimistic outlook for his characters. This is partly due to his contempt for their capitalistic ambitions. (Dreiser was a card-carrying Communist, which may explain why he was one of the most popular American authors in the U.S.S.R.) But aside from that, Dreiser indulges in literary gimmicks that can be distracting. E.g., about the time of Roberta's death on the lake, Dreiser begins each sentence with the connective "and". Meant to be ominous, it's actually annoying. But for all its distractions, "An American Tragedy" is a powerful indictment of the great American illusion; and, as such, it's a fascinating piece of fiction.
on May 9, 2001
In An American Tragedy, Dreiser sets out to outline the pathos of an American Dream gone wrong. In Clyde Griffiths, you have Everyman, someone who strives to rise from poverty to riches, from anonymity to wealth. But to reach that goal, he resorts to falsehood,adultery and murder. The early part of this epic focuses on Clyde's childhood, his religious upbringing and his subsequent rebellion against the austere and joyless existence he is destined to live had he stayed in his parent's mission.
Working as a bell-boy in a hotel, Clyde comes under the influence of other wayward youths, which will play a big part in his having to leave Kansas. In Chicago, he meets his wealthy uncle, who offers him a job at his collar factory in Lycurgus, and it is there that Clyde meets and falls in love with Roberta, a worker under his charge. Again, fate deals Clyde a bad hand and he chances upon Sondra, a rich girl who catches his fancy and who, ultimately, leads to his demise. While the last part of this book can be tightened and shortened, Dreiser presents to the reader an excellent example of the power of great narrative. The ominous portents of Cylde's destruction is presented as his initial pursuit of Hortense, a less-wealthy version of Sondra. The irony of his first direct contact with Roberta on a boat on a lake, and her subsequent death in similar circumstances, cannot escape the reader. Clyde's inability to grasp his guilt even up to the end is a true reflection of human nature. Although Dreiser's sentence construction can, at times, be ponderous, the his descriptive and narrative powers more than make up for that. This 800-plus epic is well worth taking the time to read!
Mainly want to make a couple points:
1. Totally agree that this is one of the great novels of all time.
2. The person who claims it is too long totally misses the point. First, you will not end up dragging yourself through this book, the reverse will happen. If you enter in good faith, you will be promptly nailed to this book, not thinking for a minute that any part of it is labored or boring. Secondly, the scope of this novel is very unique. Rather than the typical epic which uses time and history to spread things out and increase drama, this novel uses setting in a wonderful and tragic way, spinning together three frames, the urban, the suburban, and the wild. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the way the author is able to show the character's path, through transgression, without moralizing or being overly allegorical. Without giving it away, this book is one of fate driving to a climax of inaction, but guilt nonetheless.
It's ironic that the summary mentions that Dreiser is unclassifiable, because I've found that most people: a. have never read this book (even very well-read people) and b. have dismissed Dreiser in their mind as a bookish also-ran who played an archaic tune unaware of the newly emerged modern cacophany. While Gatsby still garners respect (hell it's thinner, even intellectuals are lazy), one wonders if it is because it tips its hat, with the eyes of TJ Eckleberg (seen across the Wasteland) and the Jazz references, to the new age. Nevermind all that. This is a truly unique epic that by turns reads like Greek tragedy and seems visionary in its depiction of human beings' falling out with nature, and the base nature of the fundamental criminal betrayal at the heart of it.
Trivia: this was based on a story Dreiser followed in the papers when he was young about an actual case that occurred in Courtland, NY. I saw a documentary about that case that was extremely disturbing; it seemed from the photographs and the handling of the case that the killer was insane, but the state (with no real notion of that in the law at the time ~1905?) electrocuted him nonetheless....
Summary: read this book!
on September 12, 2004
An American Tragedy, by Theodore Drieser, puts a weak man in the way of temptation and then observes the consequences. Drieser creates suspense early and maintains it, so this book, while lengthy, is a fast read. I went to bed early at least a couple nights to read this book.
Clyde Griffiths is a young man "with a temperament that was as fluid and unstable as water." Raised in a poor family with narrow religious views, he quickly falls under the influence of an element with low morals and little education. He is offered an opportunity to redeem himself, but wastes it. At this point, the pace of the plot accelerates as he rushes toward destruction.
What is frightening in this book is what we have in common with the protagonist: Clyde wants power, and he wants to mate with the most desirable women available. Perhaps he is more foolish than most of us would be in pursuing these goals, but few men have not made some of the same mistakes that Clyde makes.
A subordinate theme in the book is the marked difference in opportunities available to the privileged few versus the many in the pre-Depression, pre-New Deal United States. A ruling caste, nourished by oligarchy, dominates the world that Clyde lives in, and those who are born outside of this elite group live circumscribed lives.
Another subordinate theme is the relationship between religion and morality. Drieser harshly portrays the weak who fall back on religion for support, but Clyde's mother, who is intensely religious, is portrayed in more positive terms. While she draws strength from her religion, she also brings her own strength. In the conclusion, we find that she has matured and acquired perspective as a result of the events portrayed in the novel.
(I have a minor complaint about the Signet Classic edition: the inner margins of this book are so narrow that you almost need to break the binding to see the text nearest the spine.)