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Theodore Dreiser: An American Tragedy (Library of America No.140) Hardcover – March 10, 2003

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Amazon.com Review

Theodore Dreiser set out to create an epic character and, in the form of Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy, he succeeded. Griffiths is just a Midwest kid, the son of a preacher in Kansas City, who tastes a little sophistication and then hits the road seeking pleasure and success. He has his moments, conducting more than one romantic affair, until that ill-advised pursuit ensnares him. Then he reads about an "accident" of a young woman and ponders a dastardly deed ... Dreiser spins these scenes with the eye of a master in control of his form. An American Tragedy stands as an American masterpiece. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Mr. Dreiser is not imitative and belongs to no school. He is at heart a mysticist and a fatalist, though using the realistic method. He is a totally undisciplined, unorganized power--yet, on the evidence of this novel alone, nonetheless a power. -- The New York Times Book Review, Robert L. Duffus --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 960 pages
  • Publisher: Library of America; First Edition edition (March 10, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1931082316
  • ISBN-13: 978-1931082310
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (258 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #889,502 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jeffrey Leach HALL OF FAME on July 5, 2003
Format: Mass Market Paperback
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
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.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
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.
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