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An American Tragedy (1925)

by Theodore Dreiser

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,486432,699 (3.92)194
An American Masterpiece Clyde Griffiths finds his social-climbing aspirations and love for a rich and beautiful debutante threatened when his lower-class pregnant girlfriend gives him an ultimatum.

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I'M FINISHED! It's a very interesting psychological glimpse into a criminal's mind, but I underestimated how much it would take out of me. ( )
  DrFuriosa | Dec 4, 2020 |
Great story! I was fascinated because it was based on a true murder. The story is one that resonates today.. Clyde is a character that is obsessed with shaking off his humble past and joining the upper echelons of society. He feels entitled to this because his uncle (he believes) unjustly made the fortune his father should have, but chose a life of a humble street minister. He attempts to gain the life among the idle rich, at any cost. ( )
  Chrissylou62 | Aug 1, 2020 |
Dreiser can be a frustrating writer, what with the profusion of perfect tense verbs and parataxis, but some of those frustrating bits paradoxically account for the almost breathless and riveting movement of the narrative. This novel is also frustrating because of its tripartite structure: late Victorian bildungsroman, psychological thriller, and social commentary, in that order. To the middle section, and due almost entirely to Dreiser's ability to so finely render psychological nuances, I give four stars. ( )
  BeauxArts79 | Jun 2, 2020 |
As nearly everyone has said, even those giving it 5 stars:
- Could do with an editor
- Ponderous and slow
- No likable characters: which means, no characters to identify with

But wait, there's more.. and more ... and more
- it's 900 pages long
- it's boring, it's dull
- nothing interesting happens
- its dated
- no, it's not well written. I can't believe what some 5-star-ers have said about this book.

In summary: why was I reading that book?

( )
  GirlMeetsTractor | Mar 22, 2020 |
Theodore Dreiser

An American Tragedy

Signet Classics, Paperback [2010].

12mo. xvii+870 pp. Introduction by Richard Lingeman [ix-xvii]. Afterword by Margaret E. Mitchell [859-66].

First published, 17 December 1925.
First Signet Classics printing, September 1964.
Reprinted with a new Introduction, 2000.
Reprinted with a new Afterword, August 2010.



Book One
Book Two
Book Three

Selected Bibliography


The movies brought me here. I mean A Place in the Sun (1951) of course, not the eponymous picture from 1931.

To begin in the beginning, the Introduction by Richard Lingeman is surprisingly engaging. I say “surprisingly” because I have wasted a good deal of time with pretentious academic nonsense in such introductions. But Mr Lingeman is not an academic. He is a journalist, an editor and, more to the point, the author of a two-volume biography of Dreiser (1986 and 1990; one-volume abridged edition appeared in 1993) that may be unjustly obscure.

Mr Lingeman has plenty of interesting things to say, and he says them with trenchant brevity. Dreiser began writing what many regard as his masterpiece in 1920 while living obscurely in Hollywood with Helen Richardson, his cousin and mistress (and wife in the very end of his life). He was on “scholarship” from Horace Liveright, yet to become “one of the most influential and gaudiest bookmen of the 1920s”. He was also 49 years old and at a low point of his career. Magazine editors rejected his stories as too sexuality explicit. Publishers censored his “immoral” novels, a tradition that went back to his very first one, Sister Carrie (1900). Liveright was willing to take the risk of publishing Dreiser’s new novel, but neither he nor the author knew, in 1920, that the book would take five years to finish.

Mr Lingeman is most fascinating on how the small-town background, including poor living conditions and religious fanatic for a father, and Dreiser’s own “strong erotic nature” (apparently he was a man of affairs on Byronic scale) might have shaped his novel. Besides that, Dreiser was interested in the psychopathology of the criminal at least since 1907 and based his plot on a notorious 1906 trial in which one Chester Gillette got the chair for the murder of his girlfriend. Last but not least, perhaps even first if the title is anything to go by, Dreiser wanted to weave into all this the passion for money-making and social climbing that has since become known as the “American Dream”. I don’t really know why. It is quite universal.

It is a fine introduction, namely one that makes you eager to read the book, which Mr Lingeman nicely describes as “a tragedy of desire, as well as a tragedy of ambition”. It does contain some mild spoilers, but you’ll already know them if you come from the movies. And even if you don’t, it’s no big deal. Spoilers cannot ruin a book that depends entirely on style and personality.

One point I disagree about with Mr Lingeman is that the first part of the novel “would benefit from cutting”. What for? It is less than 150 pages long – more than twice shorter than either of the other two parts. It contains the background and adolescence of Clyde Griffiths, including his initiation into the mysteries of money, drink and sex, which are vital to understand his character. When you know he was “as vain and proud as he was poor” back in his teens, not to mention ambitious for better things than the religious hokum of his parents, that goes a long way to explain the rest of his short life. The second part covers Clyde’s career as a lover and a murderer. The third deals with his trial and execution. These two parts would indeed benefit from some abridgment.

Mr Lingeman is unfortunately accurate about Dreiser’s prose: “slow, ponderous, almost archaic at times, sprinkled with solecisms.” Dreiser follows the sacred rules of literary greatness. There are two of them: 1) never say in one word what you can say in four; and 2) never use a simple two-syllable word when you can use some four-syllable monster. Some of his words must have been dated back in 1925 (“chemism”, “distrait”), others are ridiculously formal or obscure (“tergiversation”, “fulgurous”); some phrases are unintentionally hilarious (“uninterpretable mental panic”, “climacteric errand”, “round orblike solemnity”), others make no sense at all (“a nerve plasm palpitation”). Worse than the choice and the number of words, the way they are put together is one of the most stilted in my reading experience. I have to struggle in order to extract the sense. Here is one especially convoluted example (Book One, Chapter 7):

At the same time the admiration, to say nothing of the private overtures of a certain type of woman or girl, who inhibited perhaps by the social milieu in which she found herself, but having means, could invade such a region as this, and by wiles and smiles and the money she possessed, ingratiate herself into the favour of some of the most attractive of these young men here, was much commented upon.

Hardly the style you’d like to read for 850 pages printed in smallish font, is it? Certainly, it is not to my taste. Indeed, Dreiser’s penchant for piling up adjectives (“short, gray, frizzled, inadequate”) or adverbs (“curiously, intently, unbelievingly”) strongly reminds me of Joseph Conrad, a writer I cannot stand.

But Dreiser is no Conrad. For all of his florid verbosity, he keeps the story moving, slowly yet surely. It is quite a story indeed, a coming-of-age odyssey coupled with the ultimate crime and unfolded against the vast expanse of burgeoning America. More importantly, Dreiser’s characters come to life, slowly yet vividly. At least the (anti?)hero is a creature that will stay with you long after the last page. Last but not least, and again unlike Conrad’s pretentious emptiness, Dreiser actually confronts big questions like love and lust, marriage and religion, money and class, crime and punishment, guilt and justice, life and death. So, if you can somehow attune to the style, there is ample reward.

First of all, what kind of a tragedy is it? That it’s not an American one is clear enough. If it were, it would not be worth reading a century later, not even by Americans I guess. In any case, tragedy by definition goes deeper than entirely superficial concepts like nationality. But is it a personal or a social tragedy? Perhaps this needs some explanation. Tragedy is, of course, always personal. Social tragedy, if such animal exists, can never be truly moving. This is because human nature is not democratic. It is autocratic; some might say individualist or even elitist. By “personal” tragedy I mean one following chiefly from a tragic flaw in the person. By “social” tragedy I mean one following chiefly from the social conditions. Either way, you first need a tragic character.

Clyde Griffiths does have the makings of a tragic character. He is certainly self-absorbed enough. Dreiser takes care to stress that from the beginning. Back in his teens Clyde is “one of those interesting individuals who looked upon himself as a thing apart”. Later we are given as fine a description of the essence of the tragic character as Dreiser’s verbose acrobatics would allow:

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.

Clyde’s ambitions in the beginning – money, cars, clothes and girls – are entirely trivial. But then, so are the ambitions of the vast majority of the human race. Clyde does not develop much in the few years and eight hundred pages at his disposal. Then again, neither do most people after adolescence. Clyde expands his ambitions to include a place in the glamorous world of the rich, hardly less trivial than his teenage fantasies, but otherwise he remains the same. Truth to tell, he is vain, selfish, ignorant, snobbish, callous and deceitful.

And yet, for all of his faults, Clyde shines like a gem among the dross of other characters (a bit of Dreiserian rhetoric can’t hurt). He is vain and selfish and hypocritical, certainly, but nowhere near as much as Hortense Briggs, his fist love interest in Kansas City. What a massive campaign this chick is ready to conduct for a fur coat! Clyde is certainly snobbish and socially ambitious, looking down on factory workers and up to the factory owners, but he is nothing like Walter Dillard, a minor character but a fearful snob and social climber. As for the triviality of Clyde’s aspirations, his rich relatives from Lycurgus, New York, are vacuous beyond belief: all social glitter, no personal substance. Dancing parties and profitable marriage are the only goals for the women. Successful business is the ultimate achievement for the men.

The two contrasting romances with Roberta Alden and Sondra Finchley form the backbone of the book and the most rigorous test for the tragic side of Clyde’s character. Both are doomed and extremely melodramatic. Both are based on pure sexual desire but not devoid of other desires, including companionship and even romantic delusions. So much for the similarities. The differences are more significant. Roberta, a poor working girl, represents everything Clyde wants to run away from. Sondra, a spoiled rich girl, symbolises the world Clyde so much wants to belong to.

Roberta is a much more substantial and sympathetic character. If she becomes a nag towards the end, it is because she is very shabbily treated, to say the least. I doubt many women would do better under the circumstances. Even today. They won’t demand marriage of course, but they’ll certainly demand money – and will rightly get it. They won’t be socially stigmatised, but plenty of people will be found to denounce them privately as “no good”, “sluts” or “stupid” – which is definitely not right, but there it is.

Sondra Finchley is rather a shadowy figure, existing mostly as a reflection of Clyde’s dreams. She begins their romance as a “lark” to irritate his cousin – such are the most sophisticated sports among the rich – and cares nothing about Clyde, at least in the beginning. Later the whole thing develops, much to her surprise, into something not unlike the torrid romance between Elizabeth Taylor and Monty Clift on the screen.

Whether Clyde Griffiths, caught in a murderous embrace between these two damsels, does become a tragic character must ultimately depend on his power to move the reader. For my part, he never really got there. But he was consistently fascinating and I greatly enjoyed the few weeks I was in his company. If not tragic depth, there is something heroic in him. Clyde, like Achilles himself, wants what all people want – maximum pleasure with minimum punishment; he just wants it more. Different pleasures suit different people. For Achilles, it is glory through the ages. For Clyde, it’s the rich and idle world of American plutocracy. Not much to choose between them, is there? Come to think of it, Clyde’s ambition may be the more admirable one.

It might be significant that Dreiser didn’t give his novel a title like Brother Clyde, or just Clyde, or even The Great Clyde (he’s certainly a far greater character than that jerk Gatsby, or than Nick Carraway for that matter). My guess is that Dreiser wanted to emphasise the social dimensions of the novel. I suppose that’s what people mean by the convenient label “social novel”. To me this sounds like an oxymoron. I prefer “social dimensions”, and by this I mean certain non-human characters.

What does An American Tragedy have in common with The Merchant of Venice? Let me tell you. They share one major non-human character. Money. Ducats or dollars, but money all the same. Clyde is obsessed with it, much like Shylock. Dreiser makes this, too, clear from the beginning (and so does Shakespeare; you may remember that Shylock’s first words are “three thousand ducats; well”). Back in his teens, Clyde is rightly surprised that he earns as much as a bellboy in a day as he did as a soda jerk for a week.

But even more than by the luxury of the hotel or these youths, whom swiftly yet surely he was beginning to decipher, Clyde was impressed by the downpour of small change that was tumbling in upon him and making a small lump in his right-hand pants pocket – dimes, nickels, quarters and half-dollars even, which increased and increased even on the first day until by nine o’clock he already had over four dollars in his pocket, and by twelve, at which hour he went off duty, he had over six and a half – as much as previously he had earned in a week.

There is obviously something wrong with a society in which wealth is that much unequally, not to mention carelessly, distributed. Clyde is a smart and imaginative kid, and he is bothered by such simple, but shattering, contradictions. Same with religion. “God will provide”, his mother is fond of saying – before the family is yet again evicted for unpaid rents. A God who provides like that is clearly not a God worth making much of. It is yet another mirage. (“Mirage”, Mr Lingeman tells us, was one of the novel’s working titles.)

References to money are countless in this novel. Roberta blurts out without thinking: “where you have money and position, everything’s right”. If she only knew how right she was – and is! “He hasn’t any money”, says Gilbert Griffiths, Clyde’s godlike cousin. Translated, he is a lost cause. “People like money even more than they do looks”, says Gertrude Trumbull, a very minor character. Even more than social position, she might have added. Because money buys. Pretty much everything. Including a place in the local plutocracy that Clyde desperately craves. “It was so hard to be poor, not to have money and position and to be able to do in life exactly as you wished.” Indeed. And when do you think Clyde truly becomes convinced in Sondra’s love? Why, when she stuffs a bunch of bills into his pocket!

Money breeds many things, not least itself, but the one thing it breeds most is class consciousness. This is where the novel feels most modern. And most depressing. It may be that separating people into classes, like judging them, is inevitable. If so, I’d say we need a lot better criteria than the ability to make a fortune. For this is a very poor judge of human merit. Making money is not that difficult; if it were, there wouldn’t so many millionaires around. Using money in a way that makes the world a better place – now that is difficult!

By the way, it is not true that this obsession with money is a modern American invention. On the contrary, it is as old as the world. The Old World itself, in the old times, was presumably ruled by aristocratic houses. But their power was based on nothing else but wealth. This could be acquired by many different ways such as accident of birth or death, conquest or trade. But it had to be there in the first place, or the power faded. And it usually was of gargantuan proportions. There are still a few backward nations foolishly fond of their royal families, but even they would not tolerate the extravagance that kings and queens enjoyed from the Middle Ages all the way to the nineteenth century.

Many parts of the novel, it cannot be denied, are ludicrously dated. The world was a different place then. People took seriously things we can now only laugh at. Imagine your cousin or nephew working as a bellboy? What a horror! And what about dancing? Isn’t that the sin to end all sins! No, actually it’s not. Sex without marriage is, and so are children out of wedlock. “The stigma of unsanctioned concupiscence! The shame of illegitimacy for a child!” Oh, dear! Eternal damnation for sure! And so on, and so forth.

All this sounds patently absurd today. But I actually think Dreiser intended it to sound patently absurd back in 1925. That’s a serious point in his favour. Though his satire is rather heavy-handed, it is not entirely ineffective. Sometimes it is surprisingly amusing. Clyde’s wonder at the “splendiferous” principal hotel in Kansas City or his “being transported to paradise” at his first posh party in Lycurgus brought a lasting smile on my face.

(I should like to believe that such fantastic notions, born of ignorance that almost passes belief, are extinct today. But are they? I’m not so sure. These particular examples may be. But there are others not noticeably less absurd.)

No other scene, perhaps, illustrates better the different universe of 1925 than the one with Roberta and the doctor (Book Two, Chapter 37). It is the only scene, incidentally, faithfully copied in the movie. The doctor refuses point-blank Roberta’s oblique yet frantic request for abortion. But look at his reasons. It is against the law (which he approves of), it is dangerous from a medical point of view (lame excuse), and it goes against God’s will and nature (perfect nonsense). This last is a very strange logic indeed. You might as well say that curing diseases is against God’s will, too. It is not in the nature of things, either. So why not let the disease run its course? If you survive, good for you. If you die, even better: you go to Heaven. Children are a blessing, sententiously observes the good doctor. Never for a moment does it pass his conventional mind that children are a blessing only when they are wanted. Bringing unwanted children into this world is a crime, all the more heinous in a society in which they will be ostracized by default. One of the many cruel ironies in the novel.

Considering this background, Clyde and Roberta are sinned against rather than sinners. Theirs is a social tragedy. All personal elements in it stem from the social climate. Clyde’s trivial ambitions and repressed desires certainly do. Ironically, even Roberta is for a time “seized with the very virus of ambition and unrest that afflicted him”. She is a victim of the same preposterous background as Clyde, after all. The great difference is that she, very much unlike him, can sacrifice this dream when she is forced to. Clyde can’t. This is his undoing and, if you are sufficiently moved, his tragedy. Incidentally, Roberta’s parents offer Dreiser an opportunity for one of his most inspired pieces of social criticism:

As for the parents of Roberta, they were excellent examples of that native type of Americanism which resists facts and reveres illusion. 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. Like his two brothers, both older and almost as nebulous, Titus was a farmer solely because his father had been a farmer. And he was here on this farm because it had been willed to him and because it was easier to stay here and try to work this than it was to go elsewhere. He was a Republican because his father before him was a Republican and because this county was Republican. It never occurred to him to be otherwise. And, as in the case of his politics and his religion, he had borrowed all his notions of what was right and wrong from those about him. A single, serious, intelligent or rightly informing book had never been read by any member of this family – not one. But they were nevertheless excellent, as conventions, morals and religions go – honest, upright, God-fearing and respectable.

There certainly remains a personal element in the tragedy. Clyde is entirely to blame there. It is he who seduced Roberta in the first place. Much as she wanted to be seduced, she resisted as much as possible. She probably would have resisted until marriage with a less insistent suitor. But Clyde puts Casanova and Don Juan in the shade. He is a man troubled by the “repressed and protesting libido of his nature”, suffering from a “disposition easily and often intensely inflamed by the chemistry of sex and the formula of beauty”, incapable of living in an “Eveless paradise”.

No wonder desire gets the better of Clyde. So does his ambition coupled with cowardice and lack of elementary foresight: “a disposition which did not tend to load itself with more than the most immediate cares”. Clyde has plenty of time to break with Roberta before the things with Sondra get really serious. But he doesn’t. On the contrary, he continues those “sporadic and decidedly unwise physical relations with her” even when he no longer really cares about her. And then it’s too late.

Dreiser must be congratulated on his preparation of Clyde’s final downfall. The last half a dozen chapters of the second part, starting with the moment when Clyde reads that faithful article in the newspaper, are as close to page-turner as the style would allow, especially if you know the BS (Big Spoiler, that is). Murder is a pretty serious thing to do, so it needs strong motivation. Dreiser does it masterfully. The contrast between the worlds of Roberta and Sondra is heightened, Clyde’s relationships with both go in the opposite directions more than ever before, and there are some vivid descriptions of Clyde’s tormented mind. In short, Dreiser well knew, long before Hercule Poirot formulated it, the First Law of Murder. It is very simple and very disturbing. Given the proper temptation, every man is a potential murderer (every woman too, but that’s another story).

This is where Dreiser might have ended the novel, perhaps crowned with a short epilogue about Clyde’s fate. Boldly, he ended it with a whole new book that details not only Clyde’s trial and time on death row, but also his capture after an epic chase in upstate New York and the complex investigation preceding the battle in court. We are the beneficiaries. There is a good deal of great stuff in that third part. It is a most impressive conclusion of a great novel.

Possibly my personal favourite is the new major character, Orville Mason, one of the toughest DAs in fiction. The scene in which he emotionally blackmails Clyde into a sort of confession (Chapter 9) is a fine piece of manipulation. Even better is the scene in which the DA informs Titus Alden that his daughter is dead (Chapter 4). The old man is crushed by the news, but the moment foul play is suggested his grief begins to give way to anger and curiosity:

The moment the suggested element of violence and wrong against his daughter had been injected into this bitter loss, there was sufficient animal instinct, as well as curiosity, resentment and love of the chase inherent in Titus to cause him to recover his balance sufficiently to give silent and solemn ear to what the district attorney was saying. His daughter not only drowned, but murdered, and that by some youth who according to this letter she was intending to marry! And he, her father, not even aware of his existence! Strange that his wife should know and he not. And that Roberta should not want him to know.

Now, this is a brilliant insight into the human condition. It will come as no surprise that the old Mr Alden is later seized with thoughts of revenge and urges the DA to find and punish the scoundrel who had seduced and murdered his little girl. Dreiser doesn’t miss that moment, either. Or Sondra’s flattered vanity that anybody could do something so horrible as murder just to be with her. Or so many other touches like these that make his characters less conventionally likable but much more compelling as studies of human nature.

Clyde’s continuing journey on the road of his (tragic?) downfall is another highlight of the early chapters of the third part. He is genuinely tortured by his deed. Be it noted, however, that this is no remorse. Clyde suffers because he is scared of being caught or because he thinks his conscience will never let him rest, certainly not because he is conscious of having done anything wrong. This, too, is an unpleasant but psychologically accurate detail. Dreiser deserves some credit for making it perfectly clear in powerful passages like this one:

At once he felt sick, weak. He had never imagined that it was going to be like this; that he was going to suffer so. He had imagined that it was all going to be different. And yet here he was, blanching at every accidental and unintended word! Why, if he were put to any real test – an officer descending on him unexpectedly and asking him where he had been yesterday and what he knew of Roberta’s death – why, he would mumble, shiver, not be able to talk, maybe – and so give his whole case away wouldn’t he! He must brace up, try to look natural, happy – mustn’t he – for this first day at least.

Clyde’s continual refuse to acknowledge his guilt, even when he is caught and a massive amount of evidence is brought against him, is another perceptive touch that only a keen student of human nature would think of – and only a bold writer would make use of. Dreiser can be accused of many things, but certainly not of shying away from the dark sides of his characters.

Not the least fascinating thing about the last part is that Clyde all but disappears for many pages on end. He becomes a mere pawn in the legal battle between the Defence and the Prosecution. Dreiser demolishes both. Completely. Even Mason, with all the evidence on his side, is not above considering the political dimensions of the case. Election’s in the air. Murder is murder, certainly, buy why not gain as much political influence from it as possible? Why not, indeed! Belknap and Jephson, the counsel for the defence, are far worse. A whole chapter (16) is dedicated to their spinning a most fantastic tale – wholly fictional, of course! – that’s supposed to fit the evidence and prove the innocence of their client (who is to be “coached” and “drilled”). Lawyers are incurable romantics (if not indeed Romantics). When they prepare for a case, they are in the throes of creation like any great artist, especially a novelist.

I have seldom read a more devastating satire of the legal system. It’s not about evidence or truth, innocence or guilt. Hang those trifles! It’s all about what you can sell to the jury and the public. And it’s quite astonishing what they can buy if you strike the right chords and pull the right strings. Indeed, the man-made nature of justice, so pitifully inept and so easily swayed by emotion, is one of the strongest impressions I’ve got from that novel. Shakespeare’s right. All the world’s a stage. And the court of law is where farce is most often staged (the Bard knew that, too; witness the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice).

The third part drags at some places and feels awfully repetitious at others. I could not suppress a groan when the most damning pieces of evidence against Clyde were mentioned for 27th time. The trial also feels, for the most part, like repetition of things we already know or elaboration on what doesn’t matter that much. Even so, it is much shorter and more readable, and more thought-provoking, than the trial in The Karamazov Brothers (1880).

I have greatly enjoyed Orville Mason’s theatrical eloquence and tremendous rhetorical excess: “The secret and intended and immoral and illegal and socially unwarranted and condemned use of her body outside the regenerative and ennobling pale of matrimony!” He is not above twisting every piece of evidence, playing to the gallery with histrionic abandon that no theatre audience would believe, and even lying (he claims in the beginning that he has an eyewitness, but of course never produces one). And what the DA can do, Alvin Belknap and Reuben Jephson can do better. Ironically enough, all this effort is wasted on the jury of twelve: “with but one exception, all religious, if not moral, and all convinced of Clyde’s guilt before ever they sat down, but still because of their almost unanimous conception of themselves as fair and open-minded men, and because they were so interested to sit as jurors in this exciting case, convinced that they could pass fairly and impartially on the facts presented to them.”

(That exceptional juror is one Samuel Upham, a druggist. He is against the majority not because he has doubts about Clyde’s guilt, but because “he is politically opposed to Mason and taken with the personality of Jephson.” When he voices his hypocritical opinion, he is threatened with public exposure by the other 11 jurors. Mr Upham wisely decides that his “satisfactory drug business” is quite worth pocketing his opposition. So much for the jury!)

The case is complicated. Not the easiest thing to prove either way. There is a significant difference – not always appreciated in a court of law – between contemplating murder, plotting it, and actually doing it. Clyde does plot a murder. But he doesn’t really commit it. Or doesn’t he?

For my part, Clyde’s guilt is beyond reasonable doubt. He is guilty of murder. No accident. No manslaughter. The capsizing of the boat is an accident. Clyde never mustered the courage to do it. But his leaving Roberta to drown is from every point of view, legal and moral, a deliberate and cold-blooded, if not premeditated, murder. This kind of behaviour may be judged “not guilty” only in cases of real danger. Granted this is subjective and may be hard to decide (what isn’t!), no legal or moral system should be allowed to violate the instinct for self-preservation by demanding self-sacrifice. But this is not the case here anyway. Clyde is an excellent swimmer. He could have saved Roberta’s life without any danger whatsoever for his own. Had she been a total stranger, he would have been guilty, too. But then, of course, he would have got away with a much lighter sentence.

It is no wonder that the DA, in what is for me the climax of the novel (Book Three, Chapter 25), spends some time on that moment. But much of his cross-examination deals with Clyde’s seduction and duplicity, moral crimes – but not legal ones – really quite irrelevant to the murder. This is only sensible because, strangely enough, the judge (with the lovely name Oberwaltzer) bluntly demands of the jury that, if Clyde’s only crime is making no attempt to rescue Roberta in the water, the jury must find him not guilty. Justice, a man-made fiction like God, has its own inscrutable ways.

The scenes with the Reverend McMillan in the final chapters are as full of religious cant as you could imagine. But they are important because they give Clyde the opportunity to come to grips with his guilt. Finally, he does, and without the help of the farrago of nonsense invented by his lawyers. Significantly, for me at least, he reflects a good deal on the “live and let drown” moment, frankly admitting that the reasons he has given for his inaction (i.e. he was stunned when the boat capsized, the frantic Roberta would have drowned him) are simply not true and indeed don’t even sound credible. But does he deserve the chair for that? A life sentence, perhaps. Twenty years, certainly. But a death sentence is “to compound crime with crime”. This is the only point on which the Reverend and I agree.

In those final chapters, trying to express those “strange shadings” more elusive than any language and struggling to reconcile himself to a racking guilt, Clyde almost becomes one of the great tragic characters in literature. Despite the oppressive claptrap of his mother and the Reverend, Clyde’s religious conversion never really goes deeper than the very surface of his tortured mind. This makes the novel much less dated that it would have been otherwise. Religious conversions induced by executions are conventional melodrama that can never be convincing in a secular society. Clyde wants to understand his passions, motives and actions only to satisfy his own curiosity, or to calm his own conscience if you like, but certainly not to please his mother, the Reverend or the Great Moron in the Sky. And he remains moving almost a century later. Only a curiously inhuman person would fail to be moved by passages like these:

But how strange it was, that to his own mother, and even now in these closing hours, when above all things he craved sympathy – but more than sympathy, true and deep understanding – even now – and as much as she loved and sympathized with, and was seeking to aid him with all her strength in her stern and self-sacrificing way, – still he could not turn to her now and tell her, his own mother, just how it all happened. It was as though there was an unsurmountable wall or impenetrable barrier between them, built by the lack of understanding – for it was just that. She would never understand his craving for ease and luxury, for beauty, for love – his particular kind of love that went with show, pleasure, wealth, position, his eager and immutable aspirations and desires. She could not understand these things. She would look on all of it as sin – evil, selfishness. And in connection with all the fatal steps involving Roberta and Sondra, as adultery – unchastity – murder, even. And she would and did expect him to be terribly sorry and wholly repentant, when, even now, and for all he had said to the Reverend McMillan and to her, he could not feel so – not wholly so – although great was his desire now to take refuge in God, but better yet, if it were only possible, in her own understanding and sympathetic heart. If it were only possible.

And yet – and yet – (and this despite Sondra and the Reverend McMillan and all the world for that matter, Mason, the jury at Bridgeburg, the Court of Appeals at Albany, if it should decide to confirm the jury at Bridgeburg), he had a feeling in his heart that he was not as guilty as they all seemed to think. After all they had not been tortured as he had by Roberta with her determination that he marry her and thus ruin his whole life. They had not burned with that unquenchable passion for the Sondra of his beautiful dream as he had. They had not been harassed, tortured, mocked by the ill-fate of his early life and training, forced to sing and pray on the streets as he had in such a degrading way, when his whole heart and soul cried out for better things. How could they judge him, these people, all or any one of them, even his own mother, when they did not know what his own mental, physical and spiritual suffering had been? And as he lived through it again in his thoughts at this moment the sting and mental poison of it was as real to him as ever. Even in the face of all the facts and as much as every one felt him to be guilty, there was something so deep within him that seemed to cry out against it that, even now, at times, it startled him.

In the final analysis, Clyde’s tragic flaws, such as they are, would hardly exist in a less pathological community. The murder itself is only the last and least important part of the whole. A relatively sane society would never force two people to marry just because they had sex – and then effectively prevent them from doing so because of social differences. Such society would prevent, however, the coming into this world of unwanted children, either by education or, if worse comes to the worst, by abortion. Above all, in a world that at least approaches sanity, wealth would be more sensibly distributed and less murderous outlets would be open to ambitious youths. Clyde was doomed from early childhood. He never really had a chance.

When all is said and done, An American Tragedy was a tough but worthy read. I don’t see myself re-reading it and I don’t know if I’ll ever muster the courage to read Sister Carrie. But this novel was an experience I would have been sorry to miss. Certainly, it provided much more stimulating entertainment than the entirely superficial movie, and a much more striking depiction of the rich and poor during the Roaring Twenties than one even more superficial novel by Francis Scott – whatever his last name was. ( )
4 vote Waldstein | Jul 1, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 41 (next | show all)
...a thrillingly detailed social panorama onto which a vivid, sobering tale of ambition and murder and their consequences is painstakingly grafted. The tragedy is an “American” one because of its central action: the drowning of pregnant Roberta Alden by her lover Clyde Griffiths (based on a real 1905 murder case), ensuing from the latter’s seduction by “the American dream” of rising from humble origins to wealth and social success.
added by Lemeritus | editKirkus Review (Apr 2, 2993)
My suspicion is that Dreiser’s books (with the exception of “Sister Carrie”) are now considered too long for high-school students, too earnest for college literature classes, and too odd for many common readers. Dreiser’s reputation has always been vexed, and the long debate over his stature has been accompanied by a secondary debate—a malignant shadow of the first—devoted to the question of whether he could write at all.... The greatness of “An American Tragedy” is that Dreiser took this crime sensation and dissolved the violent but meaningless frame of the story into its innumerable constituent episodes: the social condition of murderer and victim and friends; the moments of obsession, doubt, and rage; the slowly forming moral hardness; the evasions, the hundred hesitations and velleities; the acts rejected as well as those committed. No such story is truly banal, Dreiser seems to be saying; there is only inadequate representation of what happened....“An American Tragedy” is clumsy and heavy-spirited, and dated in its sexual arrangements, yet it has an extraordinary dignity and power that carry one through the taffied, redundant sentences. A Samson who cut off his own hair, Dreiser struggled mightily with language without enjoying the resources of language. But he was a hero nonetheless.
added by Lemeritus | editThe New Yorker, David Denby (Apr 13, 2003)

» Add other authors (26 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Theodore Dreiserprimary authorall editionscalculated
Kazin, AlfredIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Werumeus Buning, J.W.F.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Галь, НораTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Dusk - of a summer night.
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An American Masterpiece Clyde Griffiths finds his social-climbing aspirations and love for a rich and beautiful debutante threatened when his lower-class pregnant girlfriend gives him an ultimatum.

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