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An American Tragedy
by Theodore Dreiser
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.

From: Ann Davey Date: Sunday, May 02, 2004 09:44 AM The Classics Corner book for May is An American Tragedy. I read this book too many years ago to comment on it intelligently. Who is currently reading this book and what is your reaction? Does this book still speak to readers? Ann
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Monday, May 03, 2004 12:48 PM I just cannot resist this: yes, the book spoke to me. It kept saying, "Put me down and go get something else to read!" Sorry, but I found this a real slog. The Amazon blurb on the reading list says: Theodore Dreiser set out to create an epic character and, in the form of Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy, he succeeded. I beg to disagree. I think of an "epic character" as someone larger than life. But poor Clyde (and who can feel as sorry for Clyde as he felt for himself?) seemed smaller than life to me. Possessed of no remarkable talent, self-centered, dominated by a sense of entitlement denied (not to mention lust!), Clyde seemed to stumble through life, whining all the way. What most intrigued me about the book was Dreiser seeing this tale as a particularly "American" tragedy. The story seemed old as time to me, but I wondered whether I don't see its American-ness because I am American myself, with little experience of other cultures. Of course, things might have gone differently in a society where a poor uneducated boy like Clyde could never aspire to a higher social station. But I could imagine this (kind of tawdry) tale taking place in other countries. I'm hoping someone who appreciates this book can educate me as to what makes it a (if not "the") great American novel. I suspect it may have been ground-breaking in its time, and seems unremarkable to me now because a number of writers have followed in the path Drieser marked out. (And there was a passage I really liked, which I will post tomorrow; left my copy of the book at home.) Mary Ellen
From: R Bavetta Date: Monday, May 03, 2004 01:28 PM I've decided not to do a reread, but I suspect, from the comments here, that this is one of those books that just didn't age well. R
From: Sherry Keller Date: Tuesday, May 04, 2004 07:24 AM When I read it years ago in New Jersey, I had the same reaction as you did. I was put off by his whining. When we had the discussion, the leader did a lot of research on "literary naturalism" which is Dreiser's philosophy. It explained the book a bit more, but it didn't make it more enjoyable. I found the following here: "Dreiser's novels are prime examples of literary naturalism, with characters driven by selfish motives and influenced by the privileges and limitations of social class. He was often criticized for telling amoral tales that could outrage readers or convince them that bad decisions would be rewarded. Among his most significant influences are Herbert Spencer and Honore de Balzac. Dreiser was a finalist for the Nobel Prize in 1930; when Sinclair Lewis won, he acknowledged Dreiser in his speech." Sherry
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Wednesday, May 05, 2004 06:29 PM Just to show I am not thoroughly anti-Dreiser, let me quote the passage that I enjoyed. It is in Book II, Chap. 13: "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 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." Americans resisting facts and revering illusion? Le plus ca change.... Mary Ellen
From: Sherry Keller Date: Thursday, May 06, 2004 07:16 AM Thanks, Mary Ellen. How true, how true. Sherry
From: Ernest Belden Date: Friday, May 07, 2004 02:24 AM I am back on the board after a couple weeks of absence. This book interests me for a specific reason. I read it in my teens while still living in Austria where I was born and where Dreiser had an impact on the reading public and I remember more of it than of most of the other books I read in those days. The fact that it was "American" may be one of the reasons that it got stuck in my memory. Little did I realize that I would become familiar with the places and streets that he mentioned. So I will be reading this book once more within the near future. Ernie
From: Candy Minx Date: Friday, May 07, 2004 10:43 AM I'll be reading it once I find the darn thing...
From: Tonya Presley Date: Sunday, May 09, 2004 11:59 AM I am still reading it, very slowly. And I am still enjoying it. Could be that this is not going to bother me as it did Mary Ellen. I would tend to defend its American-ness. And even the tragic-ness. Certainly there are stories more tragic and maybe more American, but it doesn't claim to be the ultimate American tragedy, just An American Tragedy. I can buy that. I think "pulling yourself up by the bootstraps" is a particularly American thing. As to Clyde's epic-ness, I just don't know yet. Whether or not I finish the book, I expect him to at least be a character that sticks with me over time. Dreiser based this on a 1906 murder in upstate New York ( ). Apparently it was a big story. With or without that, I do think that the background I've read thus far is a good set up for the ending I know is coming. Tonya
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Monday, May 10, 2004 12:44 PM Tanya, I was surprised by the extent to which Dreiser followed the lines of the real-life case. (As for Clyde, it seemed to me he was actually trying to pull himself up by his uncle's bootstraps...) I look forward to reading your thoughts on this, especially if you enjoy it! I'm hoping to see what I missed. Mary Ellen
From: Tonya Presley Date: Saturday, June 05, 2004 01:18 PM Well I finished it a week ago, and have returned the book to the library. What I think mostly is: What a shame everybody didn't decide to read this, and get it finished at the right time! It has everything for discussion; religious fundamentalism, poverty and wealth (especially as in relation to access to abortion), father and son relationships and mother and son relationships, scandal and crime, politics, the whole investigation and trial, everything. Surely as a portrait of early 20th century class structure alone it should have kept us going for ages. I enjoyed the heck out of it, even in spite of the fact that I still maintain that a 1000 page book is indefensible. The story and characters will surely stick with me forever, and would even if not for an Elizabeth Taylor movie. Tonya
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Thursday, June 10, 2004 01:36 PM Tonya, it did strike me that Dreiser was trying to do a Middlemarch-like thing: show life on many social levels and get on his soapbox about some issues. But I really loved Dorothea, and I couldn't stand Clyde, and there you have it. As you point out, the length is just indefensible. Funny, but I didn't look at Clyde's parents as necessarily fundamentalist, perhaps because the media (and some fundamentalists themselves!) have painted such a portrait of fundamentalism as judgmental and intolerant. Certainly the Griffiths took the promises of their faith literally. I was surprised that they gave no thought to educating their children, but on the other hand I don't think they had much education themselves. "Getting ahead" for them meant going through the narrow door to heaven... I'd love to hear any other thoughts you had, especially about the characters. I did think it a cruel irony that the district attorney lit upon Clyde's case as his ticket to success, portraying Clyde as a careless rich society boy. Mary Ellen
From: Tonya Presley Date: Friday, June 11, 2004 12:26 PM Mary Ellen, I didn't read Middlemarch, although it is here in the shelves. I really think I have a more negative reaction to long books than most people; usually I don't even consider reading and joining those discussions. In spite of all the times I wanted to slap or shake Clyde, I did like him. And taken step by step, I understood his actions and decisions, too. The character I really didn't like was his cousin at the factory. He really embodied the worst aspects of wealth and privilege. No doubt the socialite crowd that embraced Clyde would have had a similar reaction if they had known his true situation. I think you have rightly pointed out that "fundamentalist" is the wrong word for Clyde's parents these days. (I think that their literal reading of the Bible and 24/7 practice of its teachings used to be called fundamentalism. Now that a modern fundamentalist is something different, I am not sure what to call them.) One detail of the story that still baffles me is the deputy assistant (or whatever- I have returned the book) who tampered with the evidence; he put the hair on the camera. The attention given this scene led me to think it would play an important role as the trial progressed, and yet not another word was said about it. So maybe it was just included as an indication of Dreiser's judgement of criminal procedure? I don't know. It certainly didn't seem necessary for the indictment or conviction. I wonder if there was a question of evidence tampering in the real case that he based his book on. Overall the detail that is most shocking (don't know if that is the right word!) is that Clyde exhausted all his death row appeals options in TWO years! Amazing! Are we supposed to wonder over whether or not Clyde accepted the true faith of his mother and made it to heaven? I think we are, and to Dreiser's credit he never showed his hand. Even after some dawning with the preacher, Clyde continued to question and doubt. Another big question, of course, is whether or not society was best served by his execution. Since I am firmly in the anti-death penalty camp, that answer is easy for me. Finally then, his conviction: was he guilty, and should he have gone to prison? That one is really tricky. Tonya Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing its idiot.
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Friday, June 11, 2004 01:13 PM Tonya-- I'm with you 100% on the death penalty. Whether Clyde should get some prison time for what he did is another question. Your aversion to long books probably steered you away from "Daniel Deronda," but Roberta's death in AT reminded me of the death of Grandcourt in DD; both have a certain moral ambiguity. Of course, Clyde brought Roberta out in the boat so he could drown her. And his refusal to assist her when they were in the water, when she was pleading for his help, would certainly make him morally culpable in my book. But legally culpable, I'm not so sure. Her movements tipped the boat over and I don't think one can be held legally responsible for actions not taken (except, if memory of crim law class serves me, when one has a specific duty, as a parent does to feed a child). But, once Clyde lied about so many details, who would believe his story of what happened in the boat? His attempts at being clever really sank him. (Bad, bad pun. Sorry.) I agree that the tampered evidence story line is puzzling. Reminds me of the Chekov axiom about a gun in the 1st act. Finally, I really agree with you about Clyde's cousin. What an insecure twit! He hated Clyde because Clyde looked like him and because Daddy was going to do Clyde a small, small favor. He was a loathsome character. The society girl who wanted to use Clyde to get at his cousin, and then seemed to fall for him, was a bit more interesting, but she kind of dropped out of the picture. Other than the Creepy Cousin, Dreiser did not paint too many characters black & white. Certainly the book has no real hero; Sherry earlier posted about "literary realism." Dreiser followed its tenet about the basic selfishness of all human beings to the letter. I guess that's another thing that turned me off. People are sometimes stunning self-absorbed, but some people are often kind, generous, even self-sacrificing. But none of the people in Dreiser's world are. Mary Ellen
From: Tonya Presley Date: Monday, June 14, 2004 02:31 PM I never read Daniel Deronda, but it must have been for some other reason; I didn't even realize it was a long book. I am right with you: I have no doubt of his moral culpability. But in spite of his lies and the amount of damning evidence that was sure to convict him, it is hard to decide if justice was served. As to Clyde's cousin, and the entire family, that could very well be what did him in (indirectly, of course). I suppose that is part of what I meant by saying everything he did was completely understandable. Of course he would move for the promise of a job. Of course he would do his best to follow the rules of the factory. Of course any young man would finally seek companionship, being frozen out by the family he naturally expected to socialize with to at least some degree. One could easily wonder just how bad, really, his uncle felt about his father's disinheritance. That bit of story was just sickening to me. And to Clyde's credit, I guess, he was consistent with regard to women in trouble. He didn't seem to me to hold the man who deserted his sister responsible to any greater extent than he felt she was responsible. Contrasting the two pregnancies it is interesting to note that his sister and her baby did all right by returning home, all other options having been removed. Roberta thought she still had another option. I couldn't help but wonder if Drieser was pro-choice, since he did bother to point out that the doctor would have performed an abortion for a society girl. I think that sort of took me by surprise. Tonya Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing its idiot.
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Tuesday, June 15, 2004 12:48 PM Tonya, I agree that justice was not served here. I guess I have a more jaundiced view of Clyde's relationship with Roberta, though. He clearly disregarded a big, huge rule of the factory by getting involved with her. Hard for me to believe that there was no other way he could meet young women. And as to his consistency, you're right: he was utterly selfish in his treatment of both his sister (and mother, who was desperate to help his sister) and Roberta. In fact, just about every thought he had and action he took concerning women was just despicable. I think you may be right that Dreiser was, not just pro-"choice", but something of a feminist, in the way he sends up the attitudes of chauvinists like Clyde. (2 examples: when he's still in K.C., the thought of going out with a girl who is not beautiful "sickens" him; and, immediately after having sex with Roberta for the first time, he is excited at the prospect of multiple future conquests...) I think Clyde's uncle and cousins treated him shabbily, but I don't think you can blame them for Clyde's actions. Sure, it is normal for a young man to want female companionship. It is not inevitable, however, that every young man will kill off female companions once their demands prove embarrassing or inconvenient. I suppose this all could have been avoided if, when Clyde arrived upon the scene, the uncle settled a fortune on him so the girls of the social set would see him as a possible mate, but short of that, I think Clyde would have had the same conflicts. And I don't think we could fairly expect the uncle to be that generous (though he certainly ought to have been kinder than he was!). Mary Ellen

Theodore Dreiser
Theodore Dreiser

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