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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.
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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!