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.