An American Tragedy

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An American Tragedy

Introduction
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Characters
Themes
Style
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Criticism
Sources
Further Reading

Theodore Dreiser
1925

Introduction

Theodore Dreiser's massive novel An American Tragedy was published in December 1925 in two volumes. Coming in the middle of Dreiser's long career, it was the first novel to earn him fame and wealth, though not the first to be controversial.

An American Tragedy is a detailed portrayal of the dark side of the American Dream—the story of what can happen when an ordinary man's desire for wealth and status overwhelms his moral sense. Dreiser built the novel around a real-life crime after spending years researching incidents in which men murdered women with whom they had been romantically involved but who had become inconvenient for one reason or another (often because of an unwanted pregnancy, as in the novel). Dreiser chose as his starting point the case of Chester Gillette, who drowned his pregnant girlfriend in a New York lake in 1906. Like the novel's Clyde Griffiths, Chester Gillette was electrocuted for his crime.

An American Tragedy is widely considered Dreiser's best novel and an important work of American naturalism. Naturalism, which began in Europe and flowered in America, is a literary style that explores the premise that individuals' fates are determined by a combination of hereditary and environmental constraints that leave no room for free will or true individual choice. Some scholars and critics consider An American Tragedy one of the greatest American novels of any style or period.


Author Biography

Theodore Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on August 27, 1871. He was the twelfth of thirteen children of John, a German immigrant, and Sarah Dreiser. The family was poor, quarrelsome, and prone to scandal. John suffered permanent injury in an accident, which made it difficult for him to provide for his family. The children, however, were never told about his health problems and thought their father was simply a failure. In Dictionary of Literary Biography, Philip L. Gerber writes that Dreiser's niece, Vera Dreiser, described the household in which her uncle grew up as being characterized by "superstition, fanaticism, ignorance, poverty, constant humiliation." In addition, the family was constantly on the move, and Dreiser's formal education was spotty. The echoes of this chaos and humiliation are clearly heard in Dreiser's fiction.

Dreiser left home and moved to Chicago when he was fifteen. He filled in the gaps in his education by reading, especially classic literature, and survived by working at low-paying jobs in stores and restaurants. In 1889 and 1890, he attended Indiana University, but this was his last attempt at formal education. He returned to Chicago and was able to get a job as a reporter. Over the next few years, Dreiser wrote for newspapers in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and New York. He married Sara Osborne White in 1898; the marriage ended in divorce in 1910.

As a journalist, Dreiser observed two disparate elements of American society: the few who were becoming fabulously wealthy, and the many who spent their lives laboring in poverty. Just as American ideas of equality and opportunity began to ring false for Dreiser, he discovered European writers and philosophers who gave voice to his disillusionment. Among these were novelists Emile Zola, Honoré de Balzac, Thomas Hardy, and Leo Tolstoy and philosopher Herbert Spencer.

Reading the works of these novelists showed Dreiser a new form in which he, too, could express his views on society. His first novel, Sister Carrie, published in 1900, drew on his family experiences, including that of his sister, Emma, who, like the novel's main character, ran away with a married man. Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, published in 1925, are Dreiser's most lasting and important works. Many critics and scholars consider Dreiser the foremost author of American naturalism, a literary movement that adopted ideas popular in science at the time, especially the idea that each human being's fate is wholly determined by heredity and environment, leaving no room for individual will. An American Tragedy is widely considered the signature novel of American naturalism.

In 1930, Dreiser was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature, but the award went to Sinclair Lewis, who praised Dreiser in his acceptance speech. Dreiser married Helen Patges Richardson on June 13, 1944. In 1945, the American Academy of Arts and Letters presented him with its Award of Merit. Dreiser died of a heart attack on December 28 of that year in Los Angeles.

Plot Summary

Book 1

An American Tragedy opens on a summer evening in Kansas City, Missouri, in the early years of the twentieth century. Dreiser introduces twelve-year-old Clyde Griffiths along with his family: his father, Asa, and mother, Elvira, poor evangelists who run a mission in a shabby part of the city; and his two sisters and one brother. From the beginning, Clyde is antagonistic toward his parents' beliefs and activities. He is entranced by the material world that his parents shun. As a teenager, Clyde gets a series of jobs in increasingly glamorous settings—from streetcorner (as a newsboy) to department store basement to drugstore to upscale hotel—that take him farther and farther from his parents' dingy life. All the while, Clyde daydreams about his rich Uncle Samuel who owns a factory in Lycurgus, New York.

In his bellhop job at the Hotel Green-Davidson, Clyde makes friends with other young men whose desires match his own. Together they indulge in alcohol, prostitutes, and other illicit pleasures. Clyde lies to his parents about his activities.

Clyde has a relationship with Hortense Briggs, a coarse girl who uses her sexuality to manipulate Clyde. The two go on a car trip with friends. A young man named Willard Sparser has stolen the car and, driving recklessly, he hits and kills a pedestrian, flees the accident scene, and finally crashes into a pile of lumber. Clyde runs away from the crashed car to avoid sharing responsibility for these crimes.

Book 2

Book 2 opens three years later. Clyde is now living in Lycurgus. He fled to Chicago after the car accident and, at his job at the Union League Club, encountered his wealthy uncle, who was on a business trip. Samuel Griffiths gave his nephew a job in his shirt factory.

Clyde's cousin Gilbert resents him. Being the nephew of the factory owner makes Clyde the social superior of the workers, but most of his relatives see him as an inferior. Clyde is briefly attracted to a lascivious factory worker named Rita Dickerman. When his uncle promotes him, though, he shifts his sights higher. He meets and is infatuated with the wealthy and beautiful Sondra Finchley; but she is out of his reach. Clyde then begins an affair with Roberta Alden, a poor but pretty and sensitive factory worker.

Clyde soon loses interest in Roberta. Meanwhile, Sondra pretends that she is attracted to Clyde, using him to punish Gilbert for acting cool toward her. Clyde hopes to marry Sondra, and she develops some degree of real interest in him. Roberta soon finds that she is pregnant and presses Clyde to marry her.

Desperate at the thought of losing his opportunity for wealth and status, Clyde agrees to marry Roberta but instead plans to kill her. He takes her out in a boat intending to capsize it and make Roberta's drowning look like an accident. Things do not happen as Clyde has planned. He changes his mind about killing Roberta, and when the boat overturns and hits Roberta on the head, it really is an accident. Roberta comes to the surface and cries out for help, but Clyde does not help her.

Book 3

Clyde flees the scene of Roberta's death, but circumstantial evidence, including letters to Clyde from both Roberta and Sondra, leads to his arrest for first-degree murder. Sondra leaves town, and her identity is never publicly revealed. Samuel Griffiths hires attorneys for Clyde, and they devise a complex defense strategy for a client whom they view as extremely inept. Clyde lies to everyone, including his attorneys, about his intentions and actions.

Media Adaptations

  • An American Tragedy was first adapted to film in a 1931 production with the same title directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Phillips Holmes as Clyde. The 1951 film A Place in the Sun is also an adaptation of Dreiser's novel, although the characters' names have been changed. The film stars Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor and also features appearances by Shelley Winters and Raymond Burr.
  • The novel also has been adapted in play form as An American Tragedy, by Patrick Kearney, in 1927, and as An American Tragedy: The Trial of Clyde Griffiths, by Erwin Piscator, in the 1920s.

After a long trial, a jury finds Clyde guilty. His mother's efforts to have his death sentence over-turned or commuted fail. Clyde tells the truth about his plan to murder Roberta to only one person, the Reverend Duncan McMillan. When McMillan shares this confession with the governor, Clyde's last hope is extinguished. Clyde is executed. He goes to the electric chair bewildered as to why McMillan was not willing to lie for him. Clyde also dies unsure of the extent of his own guilt and of the line between truth and untruth, reality and fantasy.

Characters

Roberta Alden

Roberta is a poor, shy, somewhat naive girl who works in the factory where Clyde is a supervisor. She is prettier and more sensitive than most of the "factory girls," but these qualities do not help her prospects in life; her poverty and her position as a factory worker consign her to a low position in society.

Although Roberta hopes to improve her lot in life by getting an education and by marrying as well as she can, she repeatedly breaks the rules of social conduct. She talks with the foreign workers at the factory, which is considered taboo. She enters into a romantic relationship with Clyde, her supervisor, which is also taboo. Then, she has a sexual relationship with Clyde, breaking not only society's moral code but her own.

When Roberta becomes pregnant, she first tries to get an abortion and then considers killing herself. Finally, she coerces Clyde into agreeing to marry her. Clyde, however, decides to murder her instead and lures her to an outing on a lake, where she drowns.

Titus Alden

Roberta's father, Titus Alden is a poor farmer. He wants revenge for Roberta's death.

Alvin Belknap

Belknap is Clyde's defense attorney. It is Clyde's wealthy uncle, Samuel Griffiths, who hires Belknap.

Hortense Briggs

Hortense is an attractive but coarse Kansas City girl who manipulates Clyde's emotions to get him to buy things for her.

Burton Burleigh

The assistant district attorney in Lycurgus, Burleigh tampers with evidence in Clyde's case to ensure that he is convicted of first-degree murder.

Rita Dickerman

Rita is a promiscuous girl who pursues Clyde in Lycurgus.

Sondra Finchley

A wealthy and beautiful young woman who lives in Lycurgus, Sondra personifies all the things Clyde values and desires: money and luxuries, social status, and a life of carefree pleasure. Clyde so desperately wants Sondra and all that she possesses that he plots to murder Roberta when Sondra shows an interest in him.

When Clyde arrives in Lycurgus, Sondra quickly and correctly sizes him up as a poor relation of the local Griffiths, and she has no interest in him. However, when she becomes upset with Clyde's cousin Gilbert, she decides to feign interest in Clyde to irritate Gilbert. For reasons that are a mystery to her, Sondra develops some degree of real attraction to Clyde. Though she is young, she is sophisticated and careful enough to be suspect of these feelings for an unlikely suitor. In spite of the attraction she feels, she always maintains a certain teasing distance between herself and Clyde, and she never really treats him as an equal. Clyde, on the contrary, responds to Sondra's interest by being willing to sacrifice everything in order to gain her.

When Roberta drowns and Clyde is arrested, Sondra leaves town. Because of her father's wealth and position, her name is never made public during the trial. She writes Clyde one last letter, expressing some sympathy for him, but she types the letter and does not sign it, maintaining her social and emotional distance from him.

Asa Griffiths

Asa is Clyde's father, a poor evangelist who, with his wife, runs a mission and preaches on the streets of Kansas City. Asa is dull and ineffectual; he does not understand human nature or society, and he does not know how to respond to the tragedies that befall his children.

Bella Griffiths

Bella is the daughter of Samuel and Elizabeth Griffiths, Clyde's uncle and aunt. She is gregarious and willing to help Clyde enter her social circle.

Clyde Griffiths

The novel's main character, Clyde is driven all his life in pursuit of his idea of the American dream. He is materialistic and pleasure-seeking, and he lacks any strong moral center. He is willing to lie and to indulge in unethical and illegal behavior in pursuit of his goals, and he repeatedly runs from difficulties, especially those he creates for himself. For Clyde, there is no clear line between reality and fantasy, right and wrong. To escape his sordid life, he daydreams of wealth and luxury. To live with his acts of cowardice, he rationalizes them.

The son of poor, shabby evangelists, Clyde, even as a child, is much more attracted to the material than to the spiritual. As a teenager, he gets a series of jobs, from drugstore clerk to hotel bellhop, designed to take him out of his parents' world and into a society that revolves around money and pleasure. A dreamer, Clyde has vague hopes of being catapulted to wealth and status by some happy accident or beneficent relationship. It never occurs to him that he might gain all he wants through some combination of hard work and ingenuity. Clyde is too weak-willed to be the master of his own fate, so he dreams that circumstances will somehow transport him to a better life.

When Clyde runs into his rich uncle, Samuel, in Chicago, it seems that his dreams have begun to come true. Samuel Griffiths gives Clyde a job in his factory in upstate New York. Clyde's entry into upper-class society is not as automatic as he expects, but eventually he does gain the favor of the wealthy and beautiful Sondra Finchley. Clyde sees Sondra as his ticket to the life he has always wanted. So desperate is he to gain money and status through her that he plans to murder Roberta, his pregnant girlfriend, so that he can avoid scandal (the scandal of abandoning the woman he has impregnated and of having an illegitimate child) and be with Sondra.

Although Clyde has planned Roberta's death, when it comes it is as much a product of chance and circumstance as it is of Clyde's will. Clyde is actually trying to apologize to Roberta for striking her when he inadvertently overturns the boat and it hits Roberta's head. True to character, Clyde at this moment chooses to run away; although Roberta cries out to him for help, he swims away and lets her drown.

Clyde is captured, convicted of first-degree murder, and electrocuted, although he testifies that Roberta's drowning was an accident. He rationalizes that it is true to say it was an accident because Roberta's death did not happen exactly has he had envisioned it. Even in the last moments of his life, the line between truth and untruth—between reality and fantasy—is blurred in Clyde's mind.

Elizabeth Griffiths

Elizabeth is Clyde's aunt (Samuel's wife). She invites him to dinner out of a sense of obligation.

Elvira Griffiths

Elvira is Clyde's mother. She runs a Christian mission along with her husband. She stands by Clyde and tries to get his sentence commuted even though she doubts his innocence. Once Clyde's fate is sealed, his mother's desire is to see to the salvation of his soul, and she sends a minister to see him. In spite of her son's death, her faith in a kind and merciful God is unshaken.

Esta Griffiths

Esta is Clyde's older sister. She runs away with a touring actor, who makes her pregnant and then deserts her.

Gilbert Griffiths

Gilbert is Clyde's cousin, the son of Samuel and Elizabeth. He is not as good-looking as Clyde, and he resents Clyde's intrusion into the life of his family and into their business.

Russell Griffiths

Russell is the son of Clyde's sister Esta and the actor who deserts her. He looks much like Clyde, and Clyde's parents adopt him.

Samuel Griffiths

Samuel Griffiths is Asa's brother and Clyde's uncle. He is a successful businessman in Lycurgus, New York. When he meets Clyde in Chicago, he feels a familial obligation to his nephew and gives him a job in his factory in New York.

Oscar Hegglund

Oscar is one of Clyde's fellow bellhops at the Green-Davidson Hotel. He provides Clyde with opportunities to experience worldly pleasures that are new to him.

Fred Heit

The county coroner, Heit is the first person to suggest that Roberta may have been murdered.

Reuben Jephson

Jephson is Belknap's law partner. It is Jephson who comes up with the strategy the attorneys will use to defend Clyde. This complex and ultimately unsuccessful strategy is based on the premise that Clyde is too cowardly and inept to plan and carry out a murder. Jephson assures Clyde that he will be found innocent.

Orville W. Mason

Mason is the politically minded, self-serving district attorney who succeeds in getting a first-degree murder conviction in Clyde's case.

Reverend Duncan McMillan

McMillan is a good man who wants to save Clyde's soul but also contributes to his death. Clyde confides in McMillan that he intended to murder Roberta. McMillan later tells this to the governor, who, based on the information, refuses to commute Clyde's sentence. Clyde does not understand why McMillan did not lie for him, and McMillan feels some guilt over his role in Clyde's death.

Thomas Ratterer

Thomas is a bellhop at the Green-Davidson Hotel, along with Clyde. He eventually helps Clyde get a job at the Union League Club in Chicago, where Clyde runs into his wealthy uncle, Samuel.

Willard Sparser

Willard is a friend of Oscar Hegglund. He steals a car and, driving recklessly, hits and kills a girl. Clyde is a passenger in the car and runs from the scene along with the others to avoid taking responsibility for the death.

Themes

The American Dream as Illusion

The idea of the American Dream is that all Americans have the opportunity to improve themselves economically and socially. In America, it is said, a person's circumstances at birth place no limit on his or her potential; people can make of themselves whatever they choose and rise as high as they are willing to climb.

If Dreiser's message in An American Tragedy can be summed up in a sentence, it is: the American Dream is a lie. Dreiser creates a microcosm of America by introducing characters that represent every stratum of society and every point on the spectrum of humanity. Then, he shows that their lives reflect the opposite of the American Dream. Clyde Griffiths, the Everyman at the center of the novel, cannot make of himself anything other than what he was when he was born: poor and not particularly perceptive or resourceful. When he sees the glittering material things and the pleasures that comprise success, he desires them but lacks the attributes that would allow him to attain them legitimately. In addition, the deck is stacked against him; the "haves" are devoted to keeping the "have nots" in their place. Because of this, most of his wealthy relatives do not accept him as their equal.

Topics for Further Study

  • At one point during the writing of An American Tragedy, Dreiser thought of entitling it Mirage. Why do you think he considered this title? Which of the two titles do you think better suits the book, and why?
  • Do you agree with the jury that convicted Clyde of first-degree murder? Why or why not? If you disagree, what crime, if any, was Clyde guilty of, and what punishment did he deserve?
  • Do some research to learn about the crime on which Dreiser based his book. Discuss similarities and differences between the true story and the fictional one, and speculate about why Dreiser made the changes he did.
  • Do some research to learn about life in the United States in the early 1900s. Compare what you learn to Dreiser's portrayal. Does the author provide an accurate, balanced portrayal of this period of history?
  • Learn about the writer Horatio Alger and read one or more of his stories. Write an essay explaining how Alger's view of American life differs from Dreiser's. Tell which author's view is more like your own, and explain why you share this view.

Clyde becomes so obsessed with having what his own shortcomings and other people's prejudices prevent him from attaining that he is willing to commit murder for the sake of obtaining his dreams. Dreiser's point is not at all that Clyde comes to a bad end because he is a bad person. To the contrary, Dreiser conveys that Clyde comes to a bad end because he is an average person who believed in the American Dream and tried to make it come true.

While An American Tragedy is Clyde's story, Dreiser drives home his point in the lives of all his other major players. Roberta, whose dreams of improving her lot are much more modest than Clyde's, hopes to marry a man who is her social superior and, as a result, ends up dead. The "haves," Gilbert and Sondra, are born not only rich but also possessing a cleverness about manipulating their environment that is lacking in Clyde and Roberta. The "haves" easily retain the wealth and privilege to which they were born.

In Dreiser's America, the American Dream is an illusion. Each person's fate is decided before he or she is born. Attempts to move beyond one's circumstances at birth lead to disaster.

Moral Ambiguity

Morality is far from black-and-white in An American Tragedy. The most glaring example of moral ambiguity is in the novel's central event—Roberta's death. Although the jury's verdict is clear, the degree of Clyde's guilt is ambiguous, both in readers' minds and in Clyde's. While he coldly planned Roberta's murder, Clyde did not carry out his plan. The chain of events that led to Roberta's death really was an accident. Clyde's only purposeful act was to swim away after she cried for help. While it is clear that he should have tried to help her, it is not at all clear that he could have. He is guilty, but just how guilty is clear to no one.

Dreiser also telegraphs moral ambiguity through his religious characters, working from the premise that religion purports to set the highest moral standards. Clyde's parents are evangelists who shun worldly goods and attitudes for "higher" values. However, their lives are pathetic and ineffectual. They are unable to protect their daughter from betrayal and abandonment or their son from the electric chair. Perhaps even more telling, their lives of sacrifice and self-denial have not inspired even their own children to follow their example. Dreiser seems to say that renouncing the material world has no better results than embracing it.

Reverend McMillan provides a particularly poignant example of moral ambiguity. He is a well-meaning man who visits Clyde in prison hoping to save his soul. Trusting McMillan's intentions, Clyde admits to him what he has told no one else: that he did plan to murder Roberta. McMillan at first feels happy that he has helped Clyde "come clean." But, later, McMillan directly contributes to Clyde's death. The governor who could commute Clyde's sentence asks McMillan if Clyde is truly guilty, and McMillan tells him of Clyde's confession. McMillan's revelation leads to the execution of a man, who, while certainly guilty, may not be guilty of first-degree murder. McMillan's adherence to a high moral standard does not necessarily bring about a just result. In addition to ending Clyde's life, it also causes Clyde to go to his death regretting that he ever trusted anyone. Even McMillan is aware of this and later questions his action.

Style

Naturalism

Many scholars consider An American Tragedy the defining work of American naturalism, and the novel does incorporate all the hallmarks of the naturalist movement.

Naturalism emerged in France in the 1870s and 1880s in response to new philosophical and scientific ideas, especially Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Émile Zola defined the movement in France. It flowered in the United States from the final years of the nineteenth century through World War I and into the 1920s. The standard-bearers of American naturalism, in addition to Dreiser, are Stephen Crane, Jack London, Frank Norris, O. Henry, and poet Edgar Lee Masters.

At the core of naturalism is determinism, the idea that an individual's course in life is wholly determined by some combination of animal instinct, heredity, and environment. The individual will is said to be incapable of operating outside the influence of these powerful forces. As in Darwin's theory, only those who are genetically suited to their environment will survive and prosper—a principle most often expressed as "the survival of the fittest."

Naturalist writers portray these principles by creating ordinary characters, placing them in extraordinary or challenging circumstances, and narrating their reactions in a dispassionate, reportorial style. Thus, Dreiser draws Clyde as an Everyman who is motivated by animal instincts (the drive for sex and for a desirable mate, for example). His challenge is that he is born poor in a society that values only money and the pleasures it can buy. The child of weak, ineffectual parents, Clyde is not equipped by heredity to succeed in this environment, where people compete for power, position, and wealth. He is not "fit," and his destiny is failure. The same is true of his female counterpart, Roberta. The children of the wealthy and powerful, however, inherit not only wealth but also the attributes they need to master their environment. Therefore, they succeed, usually with very little effort.

Doubling

Dreiser liberally uses the technique of doubling throughout An American Tragedy, creating doubles for both characters and events.

To highlight the contrasts between the lives of the poor and those of the rich, Dreiser creates his significant characters in pairs: Clyde's upper-class counterpart is his cousin Gilbert, and Roberta's is Sondra; Clyde's parents have doubles in his aunt and uncle; and so on.

Adding to the novel's complexity, Dreiser also pairs each significant character in the first part of the book (in Kansas City) with a double who appears later (in Lycurgus). Very early in the story, Clyde's sister Esta is seduced, impregnated, and abandoned by a traveling actor. Much later, Roberta appears as her double, seduced, impregnated, and abandoned in the most terrible and final way by Clyde, who is also an itinerant (neither from nor permanently settled in Lycurgus) and also an "actor" (a deeply and consistently dishonest man who lies about everything from his family background to his murderous intentions). In Kansas City, Clyde has a relationship with a woman of loose morals named Hortense Briggs; her counterpart in Lycurgus is Rita Dickerman.

Dreiser provides events in pairs as well. One striking example is that, in Kansas City, Clyde runs away from the wreckage of a car in which he has been a passenger and which has hit and killed a pedestrian. The double for this event is Clyde's swimming away from the capsized boat and Roberta as she cries for his help.

The doubling of events serves several purposes. First, the earlier event in each pair is a fore-shadowing of the later one. Second, the doubling creates a predictable pattern and symmetrical structure for the novel. The perceptive reader comes to expect the second beat—a sensation similar to waiting for the other foot to fall. Third, the doubling of characters and events conveys Dreiser's message that Clyde cannot escape his predetermined fate. People and events are the same in Lycurgus and in Kansas City. Clyde may flee from one city and state to another, but he cannot bring about any meaningful change in his life. He is hemmed in by fate, and the many doubled events and characters of the novel seem to wall Clyde in, leaving him no room for escape.

Historical Context

The Roaring Twenties

The 1920s are variously known as the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, and the Dance Age. They were a time of both success and excess. More Americans were rich than ever before, thanks to a booming stock market, rising land values, new inventions, and new ways of producing goods that made things affordable to more Americans. Even average-income Americans began to acquire conveniences that had been either unavailable or unaffordable just a few years before: cars, radios, indoor plumbing, electric refrigerators and washing machines, and more.

With so much money around and so many things to buy, many Americans focused on getting rich and having fun. Young women called flappers flouted traditional restrictions. They wore short skirts and short hair, and they spent their time dancing, going to movies, and drinking liquor. The use of illicit drugs and alcohol, illegal during Prohibition (1920–1933), surged along with the stock market.

The America of the 1920s produced countless young men like Clyde Griffiths, who found themselves excited by and obsessed with a world that glittered with a thousand new pleasures. Some of these young men—even some who, like Clyde, were born poor—did get rich, through some combination of intelligence, ambition, resourcefulness, hard work, and luck. Many others did not. Some who did not become fabulously wealthy nevertheless did well. The arts and sports thrived along with industry; writers (including Dreiser, of course), musicians, movie stars, and baseball players earned fame with their talents.

Not everyone got rich or famous, or even lived better than they had before. Farmers (like Roberta's father in the novel) struggled, as the prices they could get for their crops dropped. This was partly because the end of World War I meant less demand for food. The military downsized drastically and needed less food for troops, and European nations were able to begin growing their own food again. New mechanized production processes also threw many people out of work and into poverty.

The 1920s was a time in which American society rearranged itself. Some people made great gains, others suffered loss and deprivation, and few ended up where they had started.

Critical Overview

At every moment from the publication of An American Tragedy to the present, the novel has had both staunch supporters and vocal detractors. Consistently, supporters have noted the importance of the novel's themes and the power of the story, while detractors have criticized the philosophy that underlies the story and the author's prose style.

When An American Tragedy debuted in 1925, it was a bestseller and a critical success. Even some critics who had panned Dreiser's previous novels praised this one. Stuart Sherman was a critic of the New Humanism school, which held that society brings out the best in people and helps them curb animal instincts. This philosophy was contrary to that of Dreiser and the naturalists. In spite of this philosophical opposition and his harsh criticism of Dreiser's earlier work, Sherman lauded An American Tragedy for its effective presentation of a worthy theme. Most of Dreiser's fellow writers, who were faithful in defending him from critics throughout his career, also praised An American Tragedy. H. G. Wells dubbed it "one of the very greatest novels of this century," according to the article Theodore Dreiser, by Philip L. Gerber, in the Twayne's United States Authors series. Similar accolades came from H. L. Mencken, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and other contemporaries.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1920s: Pregnancy outside of marriage carries a heavy social stigma for the woman, the child, and, to a lesser extent, the man involved. The woman is often labeled a "tramp" for life and discriminated against socially and economically. The child is tagged a "bastard" and subjected to similar discrimination and humiliation.
    Today: In most elements of American society, pregnancy outside of marriage carries no social stigma. In fact, a few women, including some high-profile celebrities, choose to have and rear children on their own, without the involvement of a partner.
  • 1920s: Most states have strict anti-abortion laws that make it extremely difficult for a woman to obtain an abortion from a qualified physician. As a result, some women entrust themselves to abortionists who do not have medical training, or some even attempt to end their own pregnancies, as Roberta does in the novel.
    Today: Abortion has been legal in the United States since the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. While abortion is still politically controversial, and while many states have passed restrictions on the circumstances under which abortion may be performed legally, abortions performed by qualified physicians are still available.
  • 1920s: The United States is experiencing an economic boom in which industrialists and the capitalists who back them are amassing great wealth. The boom ends abruptly with the stock market crash of 1929.
    Today: The United States has just experienced an economic boom in which high-tech entrepreneurs and those who invested in their ventures became wealthy very quickly. The year 2000 marks the beginning of the end, as stock markets retreat significantly for consecutive years, wiping out the wealth of some, and adversely affecting most companies and investors.

New York Times reviewer Robert L. Duffus wrote that, while "the story is far too long," still,


"Mr. Dreiser gives us as fine and haunting a study of crime and punishment as he or any other novelist has written in America." The novel, he concluded, "demands attention."

Dreiser and An American Tragedy remained in favor until the 1930s, when some critics turned against the author's work because of the author's endorsement of communism (which, it must be acknowledged, is reflected in this and other novels). This politically based criticism continued throughout the rest of Dreiser's life. In addition, academics of the New Criticism school, which emphasized the importance of correct and elegant use of language, denounced Dreiser's prose style. Atlantic magazine writer Michael Lydon, in a 1993 piece that praises Dreiser highly, acknowledges the long history of complaints about his prose. Lydon quotes Arnold Bennett as having said in 1930 that "Dreiser simply does not know how to write, never did know, never wanted to know." Even Dreiser's supporters acknowledge certain weaknesses in his prose but minimize their importance. Alfred Kazin, in his introduction to The Stature of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Survey of the Man and His Work, quotes Saul Bellow's defense of Dreiser: "I think … that the insistence on neatness and correctness is one of the signs of a modern nervousness and irritability. When has clumsiness in composition been felt as so annoying, so enraging?" Kazin agrees with Bellow, concluding that "what counts most with a writer is that his reach should be felt as well as his grasp, that words should be his means, not his ends." Kazin notes his concurrence with Malcolm Cowley's statement, "There are moments when Dreiser's awkwardness in handling words contributes to the force of his novels, since he seems to be groping in them for something on a deeper level than language."

Dreiser's politics have become less an issue over time, and while there is still some disagreement about the quality of his writing, his reputation is strong and secure. Lydon writes in his Atlantic article, "Justice to Theodore Dreiser":

As the centenary of Dreiser's emergence approaches, it is time to drop the barbs and acknowledge, without reservation, that Theodore Dreiser is an immortal, a giant who stands with Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and James among Americans…. Except for O'Neill and Faulkner, Dreiser's contemporaries stand in his shade.

Criticism

Candyce Norvell

Norvell is an independent writer who specializes in literature. In this essay, Norvell argues that Dreiser's own life is perhaps the strongest argument against his worldview as expressed in his novel.

The worldview that Dreiser sets forth in An American Tragedy is the deterministic view that a person's fate is sealed from birth, determined by his or her particular heredity and environment in tandem with the animal instincts that affect all humans. This philosophical and literary view is based on the observation of Charles Darwin and other scientists that only those animals that are born with attributes that make them well-suited to their environment are able to survive and thrive. This idea is often referred to as "the survival of the fittest."

Hence, Clyde Griffiths and Roberta Alden are destined to fail in their attempts to better themselves economically and socially. Born poor and powerless, they will die that way, and they can do nothing to change this. In fact, it is their efforts to improve their circumstances that bring about their deaths. It is as if nature punishes them for trying to subvert that natural order.

This worldview was not one that Dreiser merely explored in the novel; it pervades his work, and it was the driving force in his personal philosophy and political views.

Because the world is vast and highly diverse, it is not surprising that people hold wildly divergent ideas about it. Arguments can be made for and against any number of conflicting worldviews because examples can be found to support virtually any generalization one cares to make. One can offer convincing arguments against the worldview expressed in An American Tragedy. Nor does this completely invalidate the deterministic view. What is surprising, though, is that one rather powerful argument against the novel's worldview is the life of its author. Dreiser's own life is a clear contradiction of the explanation of human life and society offered in the book.

Like Dreiser's other novels, An American Tragedy contains many autobiographical elements. Dreiser, like Clyde, grew up poor. If anything, his circumstances were even more dire than those of his fictional counterpart. His family was not only poverty-stricken, it was combative and unstable. The household splintered, regrouped, careened from one place to another. Although religion played a role, as it does in Clyde's family, in Dreiser's family that role was no more predictable or dependable than anything else in the child's world. There was no emotional or moral center.

Dreiser modeled Clyde's parents partly on his own. His father was disabled and inept; his mother played the martyr. The episode in which Clyde's sister Esta is seduced, impregnated, and abandoned by an actor mirrors a similar event in the life of one of Dreiser's sisters. Like Clyde's family, Dreiser's family spawned multiple scandals.

Clearly, Dreiser's heredity—one of the three legs on which his theory of determinism stands—did not mark him for success in the competitive, fast-changing, industrialized society into which he was born. He did not even get a solid education, partly because of his family's instability and partly because of his own unwillingness or inability to profit from formal education. So far, Dreiser looks very much like Clyde Griffiths, the character he invented to show the futility of efforts at economic and social self-improvement.

The similarities do not end in family background or childhood. Like Clyde, Dreiser had a strong sex drive and lacked an equally strong moral orientation that might have controlled it. Dreiser was unfaithful not only to his wife but to his mistresses. In a dozen different ways, Dreiser flouted social convention and generally accepted ethics. He plagiarized the work of fellow writers (poetry and journalism, not fiction). He aligned himself with communism, a political system that the vast majority of Americans condemned. By behavior as well as by birth, then, Dreiser seemed destined for failure. Indeed, for lesser offenses than his own, he punishes his characters in An American Tragedy because that is what his worldview predicts: Those who break the law of the jungle, whether the jungle is a jungle or a small town in New York or American society at large, pay the price. Clyde's relationship with Roberta makes them both lawbreakers, as he is her superior at the factory. Clyde is even more drastically out of line in his relationship with Sondra, by far his social and economic better. These missteps lead to bigger missteps with increasingly greater consequences. Clyde and Roberta are out of their depth (the latter in a literal as well as figurative sense). They lack the inborn wit and self-control to manipulate events to their benefit, and the results are disastrous.

Not so in real life. While Dreiser's worldview predicts that the author should come to as bad an end as does the character with whom he shares so much, that is not at all what happened. In spite of Dreiser's lack of formal education or credentials, he was able to build a successful career as a journalist. Rather than being denied opportunity because he was poor and uneducated, rather than being punished severely for his moral misdeeds, Dreiser found editors who were willing to hire him based solely on his ability to write articles that readers liked. Neither nature nor human prejudice leapt up to foil him. When he decided to write fiction, publishers were willing to read and publish his work. Eventually, Dreiser became wealthy by doing what he liked to do and by writing what he wanted to write. An American Tragedy was turned into a successful Broadway play, and Dreiser got what was at the time a fortune for the film rights to the book. His fellow writers, many of them higher born and better educated, not only welcomed him into their midst but praised his work effusively.

Where, in this real-life story, is the hopelessness and futility, the inexorable working out of cruel forces of determinism, found in the fictional one? Dreiser's life is an embarrassment to his worldview.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Murder in the Adirondacks (1986), by Craig Brandon, is a nonfiction account of the murder around which Dreiser built his novel. Brandon includes more than one hundred photographs in his detailed account.
  • Although Dreiser is best known as a novelist, he also wrote short fiction. Editor Howard Fast collected some of Dreiser's best short works in The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser (1989).
  • Dreiser also wrote two volumes of autobiography, A Book about Myself (1922, published in 1931 as Newspaper Days) and Dawn (1931). These books detail the early experiences that shaped Dreiser's fiction and his view of life.
  • Dreiser's niece, psychologist Vera Dreiser, wrote My Uncle Theodore (1976) with Brett Howard. For her biography, Vera Dreiser had access to family sources.
  • Jack London is another American naturalist writer, and his short novel The Call of the Wild (1903) is widely acclaimed as an important text of the movement. Its wilderness setting makes it a stark contrast to An American Tragedy, demonstrating how the same ideas of determinism and survival of the fittest play out in a very different environment.
  • The Red Badge of Courage (1895), by Stephen Crane, is still another important example of American naturalism. It relates the battlefield experiences of a young Civil War soldier.

The next question, then, is why did Dreiser hold, and promote in his writing, a worldview that so baldly contradicted his own experience of the world? Many scholars have answered that all the success and money that eventually came to Dreiser failed to erase his bitter memories of childhood poverty, instability, and humiliation. Perhaps he repeatedly recreated them in his fiction as a way of making the world acknowledge his own earlier suffering. Perhaps he was more altruistic than self-centered and wrote this way to call attention to the similar suffering of others. In any case, by his very success, he did not help his cause of convincing others that human beings are pawns to nature and the merciless law of the jungle. In the long run, life and the American society that he indicts in An American Tragedy were both kind to Dreiser. He rose from beginnings that were shabby both materially and intellectually to become one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation. He lived well, and when he died, in Hollywood, the epitome of all that glitters, he was buried among other celebrities in Forest Lawn cemetery. He could hardly have been more successful.

There was one thing—one fact in Dreiser's life that casts a slight shadow over his gleaming achievements. He was denied first the Pulitzer Prize and later the Nobel, in spite of the fact that many of his influential contemporaries thought he deserved one or both. Interestingly, the man who in his fiction portrayed the futility of trying to change fate campaigned for the prizes, especially the Nobel. His personal correspondence provides a record of his unsuccessful attempts to gain the Nobel Prize, and these efforts provide, in a limited sense, a parallel to Clyde's desperate efforts to win the similarly unattainable Sondra Finchley.

Dreiser did not get everything he wanted, and quite possibly he did not get everything he deserved. To acknowledge that he was denied one success in a life studded with successes is hardly to capitulate to his view that fate is merciless and immutable. In the world as it really is, against all odds and his own mindset, Theodore Dreiser got money, fame, and the respect of his peers. In the fictional world Dreiser created, Clyde Griffiths got the electric chair. Given that the real man and the fictional man started so similarly but ended so differently, nature and society have cause to complain that they have been slandered in An American Tragedy. Surely, things are not all that bad.

In a 1993 Atlantic article, Michael Lydon describes Dreiser as "the great gawk of American literature … the poor-born, ill-educated German-American Hoosier from Terre Haute, an oaf with mud on his shoes who invaded the drawing rooms of the genteel … " According to Dreiser's world-view, he should never have gotten in.

Source: Candyce Norvell, Critical Essay on An American Tragedy, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Sources

Duffus, Robert L., "Too Big to Write Smaller," in New York Times, January 10, 1926, p. 24.

Gerber, Philip L., "Chapter Six: 'Society Should Ask Forgiveness': An American Tragedy," in Theodore Dreiser, Twayne's United States Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.

——, "Theodore Dreiser," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9: American Novelists, 1910—1945, edited by James J. Martine, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 236–57.

Kazin, Alfred, Introduction, in The Stature of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Survey of the Man and His Work, edited by Alfred Kazin and Charles Shapiro, Indiana University Press, 1955, pp. 3–12.

Lydon, Michael, "Justice to Theodore Dreiser," in the Atlantic, Vol. 272, No. 2, August 1993, pp. 98–101.

Further Reading

Elias, Robert H., Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature, 1948, amended edition, Cornell University Press, 1970.

Elias's biography, though written more than fifty years ago, is still considered perhaps the best scholarly treatment of the author and his work.

Gogol, Miriam, ed., Theodore Dreiser: Beyond Naturalism, New York University Press, 1995.

The ten writers in Gogol's collection each take a different approach to Dreiser's work, analyzing elements from his female characters to film versions of his novels. This collection is rare in that it offers modern views on Dreiser's work.

Kazin, Alfred, and Charles Shapiro, eds., The Stature of Theodore Dreiser, Indiana University Press, 1955.

Kazin and Shapiro collected criticism of Dreiser's work published from 1900 to 1955.

Pizer, Donald, ed., The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

This volume provides analyses of important texts in American realism and naturalism along with historical context and critical approaches.

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