Matt's Reviews > An American Tragedy

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
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Mar 22, 11

Read in August, 2009

** spoiler alert ** This book sat on my shelf for 12 years because I defied my mother's advice: I judged a book by its cover. Literally.

The cover of my copy of Theodore Dreiser's enormous, ambitious, sprawling epic An American Tragedy is singularly bland and uninformative. The back cover has a simple blurb telling me it is the story of the rise and fall of Clyde Griffiths. I sensed that this was another of those typically American, Gatsby-like novels in which the hero follows that great capitalist arc of rags-to-riches-to-ruin.

(Americans love it when people pull themselves up by their bootstraps and love it even more then those same people fall spectacularly on their faces. I suppose this is a consequence of our eternal optimism bounding up against the reality that we will probably never invent a social networking site, make a billion dollars, and be able to buy a Lear Jet piloted by a handsomely-uniformed and well-trained pug).

The front cover is a painting, pastoral and bucolic. In the foreground are trees and bushes; there is a grassy plain sloping down to a placid lake. On the far side of the lake are foothills, caught in the gloaming. Beyond the foothills are humpbacked mountains with their eroded summits. You view this scene as through a spiderweb; there is a shimmering, gauzy veil, limned by the orange-red light of the sun that is setting in the background. Above this painting are the words: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY. Yet there is no hint of tragedy, unless you truly hate trees, lakes, foothills, or staid nature compositions.

Then I read about Dreiser in Newsweek's "True Crime" edition. I am a true crime junkie, of sorts, yet I'd never known, for all the years this doorstop of a book sat on my shelf, that it was about murder most foul. (This is the reason for the spoiler warning; since I was so surprised, maybe you want to be surprised to).

An American Tragedy is based on the real-life murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette. In this story, Chester is Clyde Griffiths, a poor boy, son of itinerant street preachers, who pulls himself off the streets with the help of a wealthy uncle. Then he runs into a Sophie's Choice between the poor girl he got pregnant and the rich girl who gives him entree into the society he has always dreamed of.

It doesn't end well.

This novel has been called "the worst-written great novel of all time."

True, so true.

Dreiser's grammar is, to put it kindly, improvisational. His syntax is tortured. He is indirect and repetitive. He never fails to use three adjectives when one will do. He writes in a passive voice, often in the negative. His sentences are long and dense and in 800 plus pages I didn't find one memorable passage or quotable quote. Some of his sentences go on for days, as though he's getting paid by the word. This in itself is not a bad thing. Hemingway could write long sentences that were still punchy and forceful by the end; Penn Warren had beautiful looping sentences; Faulkner's sentences were long and tangled and difficult to unpack, yet if you spent time with them, they ended up being evocative.

Not Dreiser.

He is not a great writer. His sentences are clunky and ill fitting. They are broken up with as many as a half dozen commas (he is seriously in need of a semicolon; I don't think he used one the entire novel). The multiple clauses cause his long sentences to start and sputter, jerking forward like the backfiring engine of my old 1980 Cutlass Sierra, mercifully destroyed in an accident back in the autumn of '97. He piles words atop words. For instance:

However, as both Roberta and Clyde soon found, after several weeks in which they met here and there, such spots as could be conveniently reached by interurban lines, there were still drawbacks and the principal of these related to the attitude of both Roberta and Clyde in regard to the room, and what, if any, use of it was to be made by them jointly. For in spite of the fact that thus far Clyde had never openly agreed with himself that his intentions in relation to Roberta were in any way different to those normally entertained by any youth toward any girl for whom he had a conventional social regard, still, now that she had moved into this room, there was that ineradicable and possibly censurable, yet very human and almost unescapable, desire for something more - the possibility of greater and greater intimacy...


In other words, they have sex. Or as Dreiser later puts it, Roberta "yielded to [Clyde's:] blandishments." I know, that probably got you a little worked up. If you need to take a break from this review to smoke a cigarette or dribble a melting ice cube down the back of your neck, please feel free. I'll still be here.

(Of course, the book was written in 1925, so Dreiser should probably be commended for his ability to discuss premarital sex, birth control, and abortion, even though you need Job-like patience to interpret what he is trying to say).

Dreiser's cavalier, creative-writing-professor-be-damned style is at times amusing. You will never see more rhetorical questions - pages worth. You will never see more exclamation points. You will even see double-exclamation points, at though Dreiser let his kindergarten-age child write certain portions. There are passages in italics; there are passages set off by parentheticals; there are letters; there are news clippings. Dreiser pulls out every stop in this one.

This is the kind of book you live in. I mean, you live in it. I would say roughly 75% of the book is exposition. There are very few times in which Dreiser will simply say, "a few weeks passed." Instead, he is bound and determine to describe every day, down to its smallest details. When Clyde ties his shoes, Dreiser describes it. When Clyde walks down the street, Dreiser tells you where he turned left, and where he turned right, going to the trouble of relaying each street name. Dreiser takes a God's eye view and writes in the purest form of the third-person omniscient I've ever seen. The story is seen through the thoughts and feelings of EVERY character, no matter how minor. The point of view might shift five times on a single page. Clyde will say something to the haberdasher, and we will know Clyde's thoughts. Then the haberdasher will say something, and we will know his thoughts, as well as a brief biographical sketch. Then Clyde will say something to Roberta, and we will know Roberta's thoughts. Thus, a trip to a haberdasher where Clyde asks about an abortion doctor, a scene that could've been described in one or two sentences, goes on for something like ten pages. I doesn't seem to matter to Dreiser that this scene then leads to a fifty-page digression about a doctor who refuses to perform an abortion (we learn a lot about this doctor, for no real reason).

Nothing is left to the imagination. Dreiser is right on the nose here. He tells you exactly what happens, step by step. He tells you exactly how you are supposed to feel. He shines a light on every corner of every character, so their every motivation is as clear as a mountain stream.

There is also endless repetition. First, Dreiser tells you the story, step by step. Later, Clyde is arrested, and he tells the story again, to the prosecutor, then again, to his defense attorneys, then again, in trial, then again, to a priest. And there are no shortcuts here. No, sir. Because Dreiser has put us in this world, so we have to listen to it over and over and over again. I know Clyde Griffiths story better than I know my late grandparents.

Yet at the end, it all works. At the end, the cumulative effect of this story is profoundly, surprisingly powerful. It was worth the slog.

Dreiser starts the book knowing this is an epic:

DUSK - of a summer night. And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants - such walls as in time may linger as a mere fable.


We begin in Kansas City, where Clyde is chafing under the control of his religious-fanatic mother and weak-willed father, neither of whom seem to care about pulling the family out of their poverty. At once the great theme of this novel is stated - the class system in America. What it's like to be poor; what it's like to be rich; and how hard it is to start as one and end as the other.

Clyde soon starts to rebel. He takes a job as a bell-hop, falls in with some troublemakers (he goes to a whorehouse, as near as I can tell), and eventually has to escape to Chicago after an incident with a stolen car. In Chicago, Clyde chances to meet Samuel Griffiths, his rich uncle, who is a collar maker (shirt collars, that is) in Lycurgus, New York. Clyde goes to work there, and is eventually placed in charge of a department. However, the New York Griffiths do not fully embrace Clyde, and he is still poor.

At page 240, Clyde finally meets Roberta, the poor-but-beautiful girl who will eventually yield to Clyde's blandishments. A hundred pages or so later, Clyde meets the rich-and-beautiful Sondra Finchley. Sondra actually comes to love Clyde (in one of the book's great surprises, she turns out to be a surprisingly deep, multi-dimensional character; up till that time, all of Dreiser's young women are of two types: the first is a rich girl who is trying to figure out how to leverage a man into a better social position; the second is a poor girl trying to figure out how to leverage a man into a better social position).

Clyde finds himself in a position I know too well: dating two beautiful women. (Kidding). Clyde falls deeply in love with Sondra, but not really. Dreiser does not pretend to make him sympathetic. Instead, Clyde comes off as shallow, vacillating, and facile. He is forever rationalizing his decisions. He is self-centered and selfish and is forever following the next shiniest thing he sees. After Sondra shows him the high life of New York State society, Clyde starts to plot a way to leave Roberta. This is hard, though, because if anyone even finds out that Clyde dated Roberta, Clyde will be ruined. Then Roberta gets pregnant, and the situation gets that much worse.

One day, Clyde reads about a drowning in a lake, where the woman's body was discovered but not the man's. Gradually, Clyde begins to plot, rationalizing every step of the way. I'm a little disappointed that Dreiser chickens out when it comes to Clyde's ultimate depravity. Eventually, Clyde is arrested, and at page 600, we meet a dozen new characters: Mason, the broken-nosed prosecutor; Belknap, the William Jennings Bryan-like defense attorney; and Jephson, the cold, shrewd second chair of Clyde's defense.

The trial is quite a let down. As I said before, it's mostly repetition. I also thought the fictional Judge Oberwaltzer completely lost control of his court. First, Mason made several discovery violations that wouldn't have gone unpunished, even in the 1920s (for instance, he claims he has an eyewitness to murder, even though he doesn't; what happened to turning over your witness list?). Second, Mason is continually allowed to badger, argue with, and scream at Clyde during cross-examination. Third, Mason is allowed to "connect up" testimony after adducing testimony; thus, even when he can't "connect up" the testimony to make it relevant, the jury still hears it, and all the motions to strike in the world couldn't save Clyde. (Oberwaltzer should've dismissed the jury and taken an offer of proof).

(As a side note, I was a little surprised when Mason finally objected as to leading questions, about thirty pages after Belknap had Clyde testify in narrative form on direct examination. Good lawyering, Mason, glad you finally woke up).

Eventually, the case goes to the jury, but not before Dreiser gives us the jury instructions. There is a verdict and an appeal and we get to read part of the opinion from the NY Court of Appeals. Then it comes down to the final act of the tragedy. In this section of the book, I was actually moved when Clyde's mother comes to visit and, for a moment, stops being a religious zealot and acts as a mother: "My son - my baby..."

The trick with Dreiser is that by forcing us to live in this world, to know every step and turn and repetition, that in the end we fully know and feel for every character, even the smallest ones. We see them as fully human because none is fully likable. It is an amazing achievement, one that never could have occurred if an editor was involved.

Finally, when the book was finished, I went back and looked at the cover once more.

There, in the lake, I could see, faintly, what appeared to be three brushstrokes (one horizontal, two vertical) resembling two people on a canoe. If you read the book, you will realize that you can judge it by its cover. You just have to look for the details.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Rhonda Waller Matt, you went MFA on this review, didn't you? Thanks. Loved it.


Susan Pratt Could not have put it better!


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