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An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

An American Tragedy (1925)

by Theodore Dreiser

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Tremendously detailed story of the entire life, quest and failure of a young American man in the early part of the 20th century. Vivid, detailed descriptions of his working life as a bellhop in a Kansas City hotel, and then in his uncle's upstate New York collar (!) factory are fascinating and informative. His search for a foothold in what he perceives as the glittering social life of the industrial elite, partying in the lakes and towns around Albany and Saratoga, is utterly convincing and pathetic. His motivations throughout the book are twisted, but at the same time quite understandable. The murder of his working class lover, his confusion and bungled attempts to escape afterwards, the twists and turns of his trial and his religious confusion before his execution are all convincingly laid out in thorough detail. Although Dreiser is no stylist, I found this book compelling, moving and a fine examination of the struggle of one man determined to grasp the American Dream at any cost. ( )
  kishields | Oct 24, 2015 |
Based on the real life criminal Chester Gillette, who was convicted of murdering Grace Brown in 1906, Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths is a complex picture of the American dream gone wrong. There is perhaps no greater American novel that paints the portrait of one young man striving towards the wealth and glamour of the social class above him except The Great Gatsby.

Published in the 1920s, the main character Clyde did remind me a bit of Nick Caraway from The Great Gatsby. He's a complete outsider to the world of wealth, but unlike Nick he's completely enrapture by the opulence. He was raised by mild-mannered religious parents who eschewed any sort of fancy clothes or drinking. He is quickly seduced by a life of partying when he begins working as a bellhop in Kansas City.

Things spiral out of control for Clyde as he starts to value the high society life of his cousin above all else. He realizes that he'll do anything to get what they have no matter what the consequences are. That’s a gross simplification of a novel that is almost 1,000 pages long, but there’s so much more to the plot.

“The beauty of that world in which they moved. The luxury and charm as opposed to this of which he was a part. Dillard! Rita! Tush! They were really dead to him. He aspired to this other or nothing.”

The book is split into three almost equal parts. The first introduces Clyde to the world of luxury and excess and all of its temptations. The second involves his rise in the social world and his relationship with both Roberta and Sondra. The third deals with the murder trial and his conviction. For a short time I thought maybe the first section wasn’t necessary, but it sets the stage for the rest of his life. It shows us why he values money and status. It builds a foundation for doing wrong and believing you can get away with it.

The way he sees women is shaped by his trip to the brothel and by his sister’s experience with becoming pregnant and being jilted. The car accident that ends in a little girl’s death teaches him that man slaughter might be ok as long as you can escape without consequences. The section with Roberta is where much of this unfolds, but the seeds were planted in the first section. As it unfolds you value the structure of the novel more and more.

As Clyde progresses down that path of selfishness it becomes harder and harder to sympathize with him. He takes no responsibility for his actions and seems completely surprised when he finds himself in one difficult situation after another. He never acknowledges the fact that his own actions and decisions lead to the situations. He falls in love with someone, seduces her, gets her pregnant and he then thinks that the universe trying to keep him from achieving greatness. He was strangely delusional at times and had an overwhelming sense of entitlement.

“For to say the truth, Clyde had a soul that was not destined to grow up. He lacked decidedly that mental clarity and inner directing application that in so many permits them to sort out from the facts and avenues of life the particular thing or things that make for their direct advancement.”

Honestly I wasn't sure that he ever loved Sondra. I think he loved what Sondra embodied; the lifestyle and wealth, but he never loved her. Instead of dealing with the situations he creates, all he wanted to do was escape. He wanted a perfect life with wealth and power and status, but he didn't want to have to work for any it.

American Tragedy at its core is the story of the dangers of pursuing the American dream with no moral code. We put such an emphasis on success and wealth in our country, that the “ends justify the means” mentality is so prevalent. But is it really worth it if you lose your soul in the process?

This story seems to be a common one in American literature. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gatsby’s ambition, the awful outcome in “A Lesson Before Dying,” and of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and his disastrous end. We seem to repeat this pattern of longing for something else and making horrible decisions attempting to reach our goal.

BOTTOM LINE: Although the moral message can be a bit heavy handed at times, this epic novel was unforgettable. The attention to detail, the large scope, the rise and fall of Clyde’s social standing, all of these elements meddled together to create a tragic picture of ambition and selfishness.

“There are moments when in connection with the sensitively imaginative or morbidly anachronistic . . . the mind [is] befuddled to the extent that for the time being, at least, unreason or disorder and mistaken or erroneous counsel would appear to hold against all else. In such instances the will and the 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.”

“Titus Alden was one of that vast company of individuals who are born, pass through and die out of the world without ever quite getting any one thing straight. They appear, blunder, and end in a fog.” ( )
1 vote bookworm12 | Nov 26, 2014 |
3 stars for the book & 4 stars for the audiobook. Dan John Miller did a fantastic job with the narration - one of the best I have ever listened to!

As for the book, I was planning on giving it 4 stars until about 2/3 through (about when the trial started). My interest started flagging and the last third of the book dragged for me. Unfortunately a third of this book is about 280 pages (as long as some full novels!). Perhaps when a little time has passed, I may revise my rating as the ending becomes more in proportion to the entire book. ( )
  leslie.98 | Mar 3, 2014 |
I'm sort of in two minds about this book myself. While it is a tragedy in the traditional sense, it does not really stand up to the great tragedies of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and the Greeks. The story is about the downfall of the main character, who is a tragic hero in all senses of the word, but it does not have the intricate and complicated plot that the tragedies of Hamlet and King Lear have, nor is the character of Clyde torn and haunted in the same way as Macbeth and Dr Faustus. Further, while in a sense we do see Clyde being driven by forces to an extent beyond his control, he downfall is not marked out by fate in the same way as King Oedipus.
The story involve the child of a missionary couple in 1920s America. While America of that era can be reflected in America of other eras, the 1920s do stand out much more than say the other periods of prosperity such as the 50s or even then 90s and early 2000s. In a way the 20s was seen as a time when America was still on the rise, and the opportunities were still open to almost everyone. The ethic of getting a job on the ground floor and then rising through the ranks was seen as being available to anybody. While this was also true in the 50s and the 90s, the fifties seem to reflect a time when America was at its peak, and opportunities were open to all, while by the 90s many of these doors had decisively slammed shut.
Another aspect of the 20s, which is reflected in this novel, is the aspect of how people are driven by their desire to succeed, but behind this drive there is still a strong sense of morality. This was still there in the 50s, but had decisively vanished by the 90s. What we have in An American Tragedy is young Clyde getting his first job as a bellhop, but while working at the hotel, he falls in with the other bellhops, and the desire to succeed is balanced out by the desire to have fun, and through this he falls into alcohol and prostitution (both of which were illegal in the United States at this time). Unfortunately tragedy strikes (and though he is not the instigator of this tragedy, he is complicit in it in that he is a passenger in the stolen vehicle, and flees shortly afterwards) and thus his desire to rise to the top is cut short by this misdemeanor.
Clyde, however, gets a second chance. This is another theme that is supposed to reflect the difference between the United States and the old world of Europe, and that is the possibility for a second chance. Once again, this has vanished by the 90s, with not so much the rise in the crime rate, but rather once one becomes such a statistic (at least at street level) ones opportunity to participate in society is brought to an end. As people suggest, soon the population of the United States is either going to be in prison, or working for the prison system. With the rise of computers and information systems, it is much easier to keep track of people, and their records, than it was back in the 20s, or even in the 50s. It should not be surprising that the rise in the crime rate is not only reflective of population growth, but also of systems of collecting and storing information.
However, I should come to the main part of the story, and that is the events in Lycurgus. Clyde arrives at this small, upstate New York town where a distant uncle owns and operates a factory. Clyde is given a job in the factory, and even raised to a senior position, however once again we see him torn between his desire to live the high life and his inner lusts. Inevitably he gives into his lust and forms a relationship with one of his employees, something that is forbidden in the factory. This becomes even more complicated when it turns out that the woman that he is sleeping with becomes pregnant. Now, ironically, most of the upper echelons of society would easily be able to get out of this situation, but Clyde is not there yet (even though he is associating with his Uncle's friends) and decides to take the easy way out: kill her. Unfortunately, the easy way out is not necessarily the best way out and he is caught and executed.
Simply put, Clyde is the harbinger of his fate. His lusts get the better of him and when he finds himself in the mess he takes the easy way out. Despite all this, looking over the characters of this book, and the events, it does not draw me in as the great tragedies do. It is one of those painful and annoying books where you see where the main character is heading, but unlike a true tragic hero, you do not sympathise with him. In the same way that we see Macbeth, we see Clyde as being somebody fully responsible for his actions and deserving of the consequences. However, because we have been drawn into Clydes' life, we do not want to see anything bad happen to him, we want to see him succeed, however this is not going to happen. Is it a warning? Possibly, but in another sense many of us read as a form of escapism, to for a time be something that we are not, but one thing we do not want to be is a failure, which in the end is what Clyde becomes. I guess the other irritating thing is that many of the upper echelon behave like Clyde, but get away with it. It is only because Clyde doesn't have the connections, and can easily be cut lose, that he meets the fate that he does. At least, in the end, acknowledges his sin and seeks forgiveness. ( )
  David.Alfred.Sarkies | Feb 14, 2014 |
Open this book to the very first page and get swallowed up in the drama of Clyde Girffiths. You’ll immediately meet Clyde as a young boy being forcibly dragged through the streets of Kansas City with his drifting homeless parents who are committed to a lifetime of pedaling religion and spreading the word of God. A random bystander observes, “the boy don’t want to be here. He feels outa place. I can see that. It ain’t right to make a kid like that come out unless he wants to.” (Pg. 7)

Even at age, 12 Clyde knew he was destined for better things. Not that he didn’t believe in God. He just didn’t appreciate the lofty spiritual “nonsense”. He wanted a better life of earthly things: beautiful surroundings, physical comfort, love, money, prestige, respect... and to be somewhere far away from his destitute parents.

Thus begins the journey of Clyde Griffins, and you - the reader - are along for the ride... transported back to the 1920‘s amidst the awakening desire for upward mobility and the onset of materialism. Yet there were few opportunities to break the social and economical barriers in a stringent cultural environment where “good name” and “old money” were the primary criteria for success. And you can guess from the title that it will be a tragic journey. This 934 page tome was originally published in 1925 in 2 volumes. It could easily have been a trilogy.

Part One: an immature boy’s struggle to escape his poor humble upbringing. He leaves home drifting across the Untied States in search of a good job - ashamed and repelled by his parents lifestyle.

Part Two: Through some clever and imaginative insight, hard work, and a little luck, he finally secures a good job at his wealthy uncle’s collar factory in New York where - despite company regulation - he gets involved with an attractive factory worker and ultimately ends up being accused of her murder.

Part Three: the trial and verdict.

"An American Tragedy" lives up to it’s standing as Number 16 on the list of Modern Library’s greatest novels on many levels. Despite Dreiser’s minimal education and the excessive complaints over the past 89 years of the books boring habit of rehashing the facts over, and over, and over - he cleverly created a masterpiece. In fact, the repetitive detailing and rumination enhance Clyde’s persona and his approaching doom.

Based on a true story - the scandalous murder trial of Chester Ellsworth Gillette - Dreiser tells this fictional tale from the unique perspective of having intimate knowledge of the accused’s life, his actions, his thoughts and his prayers. Imbued with realism, nothing is withheld.

Like watching a train wreck getting ready to happen, you can’t stop the developing plot. All you can do is hold your breath and wait for the fatal crash. Clyde, with his uneducated, miserly beginnings and his gradual, naive rise to a happy, prosperous, glamorous “too good to be true” future, paralleled by a slow diabolical descent to sordid ruin.

The character development is genius. Dreiser cleverly paints Clyde as a sympathetic character. He is innocent and child-like, sensitive, ambitious, humble, polite, charming, romantic, handsome, and easygoing.

And the women in his life?

Clyde’s mother - the religious do-gooder who can be praised for her Jesus-like compassion and tolerance - cannot be admired for her neglect in parenting. And really, doesn’t charity begin at home?

Sondra is the spoiled rich debutante who lures Clyde into the upper stratus of society as a practical joke, and Roberta, the factory worker who is deliberately kept from the reader at a veiled distance to be revealed ultimately as a desperate demanding nag.

You can’t help but empathize with Clyde. There-in lies the genius of "An American Tragedy", because at the end you can’t decide if Clyde is immoral or amoral... making the story an American tragedy, indeed.

Note: I don’t think Dreiser achieved his goal of demonstrating his generalized communist dogma that it is money and ambition that corrupt the morals of society, so it is better to do without... a philosophy that most Americans, I believe, would likely find absurd. ( )
  LadyLo | Jan 13, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Theodore Dreiserprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kazin, AlfredIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Werumeus Buning, J.W.F.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0451527704, Mass Market Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:55 -0400)

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The author's classic vision of the dark side of American life looks at the failings of the American dream, in the story of the rise and fall of Clyde Griffiths, who sacrifices everything in his desperate quest for success.

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