Paul Bryant's Reviews > An American Tragedy

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
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's review
Nov 17, 2007

it was amazing
bookshelves: really-big-timeconsumers, novels

I remember reading this one, years ago, in a really bad flat in Mapperley Park. It was so horribly dusty all the time. That was because I never dusted. And when I looked out of my window I saw a wall. And when I looked out of my other window, I saw a different wall.

Much like the hero of this brilliant novel - metaphorically speaking. And then, one day, in the wall, he notices a door. And he wants to open it and pass through to somewhere better. The very thing that other reviewers didn't like about this whopping novel was what made it another of my great reading experiences (which I remember like the memory of passing through something tremendous as if it was the Grand Canyon and not a novel at all) : they didn't like, but I did, the painful awful awe-full inevitability of the events, the doom of the characters, the dance of death we get drawn into for the last 200 pages - it's a quadrille, very formal, the partners are the characters, the plot, the author and ourselves, us, the readers. It's like a nightmare you can't wake up from. We know that, the characters know that, they're screaming, we're screaming, Dreiser has us caught in his fist of words and won't let us go until we know how it is that ordinary people can do terrible things which they never wanted to, they would have sold their souls not to, but they did.
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02/14/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-46 of 46) (46 new)

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Rhonda Waller Love your review.

Paul Bryant thanks!

message 3: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Excellent.

I don't think I've read it.

While wondering about the film versions, I discovered this on Wiki:

* Dreiser strongly disapproved of a 1931 film version directed by Josef von Sternberg and released by Paramount.

* In the 1932 Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers, Groucho Marx, riding in a boat with a woman, remarks, "You know, this is the first time I've been in a canoe since I saw the American Tragedy."

* The 1951 Paramount Pictures film "A Place in the Sun", directed by George Stevens and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, is strongly based on the novel, and is considered one of the finest dramatic films made in the 1950s.

Paul Bryant I was catching up with some must-see movies from the 50s and A Place in the Sun was one of them. It's nearly great. And it has the drop dead Elizabeth Taylor in it who, as the phrase goes, was never lovelier. Worth catching for that alone.

message 5: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Have you made a list of must-see movies from the 50s?

Paul Bryant yes of course - from Ace in the Hole to The Westerner. But I'm not an expert by a long chalk. There's lots I haven't got to yet. I remember The Man with the Golden Arm and Days of Wine & Roses being particularly great - even though the latter is early 60s!

message 7: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye The Days of Wine & Roses was later to be co-opted as the title of the first album of one of my favourite bands.

It was the sound of 1982 for me.

message 8: by Searock (new)

Searock Damn, you give good review :)

message 9: by Donna (new) - added it

Donna Then I will stick with it.

message 10: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Below Um, your review gave me goosebumps. Thank you.

message 11: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant It was my pleasure.

message 12: by Scott (new)

Scott Hey I have a question. Is this book explicit? Moreover, sexually explicit?

message 13: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant No, not at all.

Rhonda Waller PAUL! You are still getting positive comments on your review of this book a year later! Is your head big yet?

message 15: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant this is nothing, check out the love on my reviews of Let the Right One In and The Wind Up Bird Chronicle.... ! Yes, I am an intolerably swollen headed reviewer...

Lynda Excellent review! I've just finished the book and had to look up what others thought. I insanely hoped for a happy ending. After getting close to all the characters, it's hard to let even one go, despite their obvious misdeeds. Alas, we have to keep in mind that the book is indeed, a tragedy, and that one should never hope for a blissful ending. Bravo on your take on this wonderful book!

message 17: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant Thanks Lynda - I wonder what his other stuff is like. Couldn't be as good as this one.

Lynda I have read Sister Carrie and you're right. An American Tragedy is far better.

message 19: by Roz (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roz Paul, I am sorry, I hit the unlike button by mistake, need new glasses. I did not mean it, really!

message 20: by Paul (last edited Oct 31, 2013 02:29PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant no prob, I think you re-liked it - FYI no one gets informed of unlikes, as far as I know.

message 21: by Roz (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roz Yes, I did re-like it. Good enough.

message 22: by Roz (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roz Paul wrote: "this is nothing, check out the love on my reviews of Let the Right One In and The Wind Up Bird Chronicle.... ! Yes, I am an intolerably swollen headed reviewer..." Hello Paul,
I would like to read your review of "Let the Right One In" but I don't know where to find it, after searching for the book title I found it in multiples by different authors. Of which one do you speak? Roz

message 24: by Roz (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roz So, let me get this straight, you liked the book and movie but hate Sweden...Your review was "biting", your intelligence level is way above mine, fact, not a plea for compliments. I just wish I could write the way you do. Thanks, Paul, for the link. Roz

ps. I like books by Swedish writers, loved the Dragon Tatoo series, love the Scaarsgards (sp) and Lars Von Trier films.

message 25: by Roz (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roz I never read An American Tragedy but the film A Place in the Sun is one of my all time favorites. I think I would like to read that book.

message 26: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant Aw, I don't hate Sweden, it just gets on my nerves a lot!

Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun is just stunning.

message 27: by Roz (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roz Tell Mama, tell Mama all.

message 28: by Web (new) - rated it 4 stars

Web Webster Yes and yes. I first read this as a paperback I purchased on a Boy Scout trip to the Adirondacks back when I was about 16. And the story was so grand and inevitable and sad that how could it not appeal to the desperate romantic longings of a teenager.

Too, once you get past Dreiser's admittedly dated style, you can't help but get caught up in the horrific finality of Clyde's inner dialogue. He's dead from the beginning. He's just the last one to realize it. Dreiser drags us along with Clyde's thinking and we find ourselves, at countless places in the book, wincing, thinking "no, Clyde, don't."

And in that lies the power of the tragedy as a piece of instructive literature. As we read through Clyde's decisions and downfall, we're given a safe space to reflect on our own values. We're brought into the story and asked "what would you do? Could you really say that things would turn out differently if it was you?" Inevitably, if you're honest, the answer ends up falling somewhere between an ambiguous "no way" and a definitive "I don't know."

message 29: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant thanks, Web - that's it exactly.

message 30: by Roz (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roz I know, I know, I wanted to strangle that mewling, pathetic woman played by Shelly Winters from the first and I am honest enough to say I am glad she fell out of the boat and drowned. I am from the "I don't care what the reason is" school, get rid of her and let that beautiful love, those two beautiful people, have what they want. I guess I wanted a happy ending because I never had one to date. Not a review, just a thought! ps: I still have not read the book.

message 31: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant you've reminded me that Shelley Winters gets to die a significant death in film versions of two literary masterpieces, this one and Lolita. Way to go twice, Shelley!

message 32: by Roz (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roz Yes, and I think she also died in the Poseidon adventure, not murdered but who wants to quibble about that. Not a literary masterpiece, this film!

message 33: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant And now that I think about it, she got strangled by Ronald Colman in A Double Life.... I wonder if she made it through any of her movies in one piece.

message 34: by Roz (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roz OMG, just thought of another one "The Night of the Hunter", in this one she was stabbed and once again wound up in the lake. Robert Mitchum (sp) did the dirty deed this time. LOL.

Howard Brilliant review!

Tragedy is in the title. It was inevitable from the very beginning.

P.S. ~ I felt sorry for Shelley -- even if she was a whiner. Monty did her wrong.

message 36: by Roz (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roz Sun is in the title of the movie. I am afraid I got off the track here, it's supposed to be about the book. Sorry about it. I was just having a little fun with it all.

Howard Roz wrote: "Sun is in the title of the movie. I am afraid I got off the track here, it's supposed to be about the book. Sorry about it. I was just having a little fun with it all."

Oh, I wasn't being critical. I was just saying that anyone who read a book with that title would have to expect that things were not going to turn out well.

But you are right about the movie. The title does fit, but it doesn't predict the kind of dire results that the title of the book does.

message 38: by Roz (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roz You are right and I don't think you were being critical, you were just pointing the arrow at the discussion thread at the right angle. Thanks for your response.

message 39: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Spadaro Have you read Sister Carrie? Its one of my favorite novels.

message 40: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant it's on my real-life to be read shelf...

message 41: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Spadaro Just finished the book and loved it! It took quite a bit of patience to get through the first 1/3 or 1/2 because as much as I appreciate Dreiser's attention to detail I feel that a bit of editing might not have hurt. I also found myself wishing I hadn't seen A Place in the Sun because of course I knew the outcome. And yet the book has so much more in it and the characters are portrayed so differently that it was fun to notice the differences. I especially noticed how much more sympathetic Roberta was in the book compared to the Shelly Winters character and how much less sympathetic Clyde was in the book than in the film. And of course the relationship between Clyde and Sondra was idealized in the movie. The book's message is so devastating because even when faced with death and after finally accepting his guilt (or at least 90% of his guilt) he still can't turn to God completely and all because of his childhood growing up in the traveling ministry. That reality has ruined the idea of God for him.
I think his biggest failure is his inability to truly sympathize with Roberta more so than his inability to give himself over to God in the end so you can never completely sympathize with him. And yet even so you feel the full force of his tragic end - the way Dreiser builds to it the final blow, the end of Clyde's life -- with him still unable even at the bitter end to make a decision, to decide if he's innocent or guilty-- and then the denouement of the scene of his missionary family continuing to trudge on ignorantly -- what an indictment!
So throughout the novel I kept thinking of Clyde as a Hamlet character without a strong moral compass, inherently weak. But ultimately Dreiser seems to be blaming Clyde's childhood. If he had had a more normal childhood he would have had more experience with his peers and more confidence and would have been able to make more sound and moral decisions. He was never allowed to be selfish so he became selfish. But even without that particular background he might have still suffered the same desire for wealth and social status simply because he didn't have those things and was then exposed to them later. But would he have killed for it?

message 42: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant great comment, which I think you could copy & paste for your own review! I saw the movie second, and the glaring differences (plus Liz!) just re-emphasized my theory that you can make great movies out of average books but not out of great books (see Lolita for instance). As a person who is not a believer, I did not appreciate the possible centrality of the failure of religion for Clyde. But this is one of those formative literature reads which I shudder to think of repeating. A one time thing.

message 43: by M (new)

M Sounds like my life

message 44: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant I better not ask why!

Tiffany I'm currently reading this book and you've perfectly described what I am feeling. I'm an avid and generally fast reader and this book is taking me ages to finish. I can't take in too much of it at once and it seems as if nothing is happening and everything at once. Thanks for the great review.

message 46: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant you're very welcome.... I wish I could reread this but it's just tooooooooo long

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