An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
An American Tragedy, published in 1925, is Theodore Dreiser’s seventh work of fiction but his first commercially successful. Dreiser was a journalist and novelist of naturalism fiction whose own work often focused on situations and characters that bring to light the true nature of people and society. From 1895 until 1935, while he worked as a newspaperman, Dreiser claimed to have collected news clippings of stories that related to crimes of “murder for money” that often involved a man who has a poorer woman but then finds a richer woman but cannot get rid of the first kind of situation. At the time, Dreiser said he observed many a common crime in America arising from the young’s ambition for money and stature. The specific case of the murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette in 1906 formed the basis for An American Tragedy.
“The germ of the novel was a newspaper story from 1906: A young man, Chester E. Gillette, was convicted of drowning a pregnant girl in upstate New York. Two years later, Gillette was executed in the electric chair. Dreiser clipped newspaper accounts of the case and brooded over it for years. He made false starts on the book while he was working on other fiction, and he tried to write about different real-life murders, but he eventually returned to Gillette.” (excerpt from David Denby’s New Yorker article The Cost of Desire)
An American Tragedy is a 930 page book, a long book indeed. And the more I read about Dreiser the more I realised that there is real debate about how good his writing actually is, as this quote from David Denby’s above mentioned article shows:
The year after “Tragedy” came out, Edmund Wilson wrote, “Dreiser commands our respect; but the truth is he writes so badly that it is almost impossible to read him.”
That said, I think that Richard Lacayo (co-creator of the All TIME 100 list) sums up best both the novel and the author’s abilities:
“Clyde Griffiths is a young man with ambitions. He’s in love with a rich girl, but it’s a poor girl he has gotten pregnant, Roberta Alden, who works with him at his uncle’s factory. One day he takes Roberta canoeing on a lake with the intention of killing her. From there his fate is sealed. But by then Dreiser has made plain that Clyde’s fate was long before sealed by a brutal and cynical society. The usual criticism of Dreiser is that, line for line, he’s the weakest of the great American novelists. And it’s true that he takes a pipe fitter’s approach to writing, joining workmanlike sentences one to the other. But by the end he will have built them into a powerful network, and something vital will be flowing through them.”
Have you read this novel? Tell us what you thought.