Friday, July 10, 2020

An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser

Library of America, 2003
originally published 1925
969 pp


We are finally settling back into what's normal around here after a very long delay, and I am really far behind in writing about what I've finished recently.  No time for backtracking -- just moving on. The latest book for me is Dreiser's An American Tragedy, a novel I had read eons ago but which for some reason I felt I wanted to read again.  Coming back to it again was an experience.

The dustjacket blurb for this novel notes that American Tragedy is a "monumental study in character, and a stunning jeremiad against the delusions and inequities of American society." 

Clyde Griffiths begins life in poverty with a "hard up" family, "deprived of many comforts and pleasures which seemed common enough to others."  His parents were street-corner preachers who brought their children along with them, and as he got older, he starts to realize that their "calling" was "the shabby thing that it appeared to be in the eyes of others," and that others "looked down upon him and his brothers and sisters for being the children of such parents."   Clyde also begins to think about all of the things he doesn't have, and after a series of odd jobs where he was making a small amount of money, he believed that with his own money he had a right to his freedom.  At the age of sixteen, he becomes a bellboy at a hotel, making his time and money his own for the most part,  but eventually he becomes involved in an incident that causes him to leave town  and start over.  After a chance meeting with his wealthy uncle in a hotel where again he is working as a bellboy, he moves to Lycurgus, New York where the uncle owns a shirt and collar factory and indeed he gets a job there. After some time (and the uncle's insistence that Clyde is a Griffiths and can't be seen to be involved in menial labor for any length of time), he  is moved up position-wise to become the head of a department.  It is there that he meets and seduces Roberta, ignoring the company prohibition against fraternizing with female  employees.  Except for a dinner or two with his uncle's family, they completely ignore him, but it is at one of these gatherings that he meets the social set to which he aspires.  He revels in the attention given to him by a particular young woman in that group (unknown to him, for her own somewhat selfish reasons at least at first), and as he becomes more accepted in this circle, he hopes, as David Denby says in a 2003 New Yorker article, to be a part of what he sees as their "endless exercise of freedom," since "wealth is the only transcendence he can imagine."  Clyde believes he is finally on his way,  but there's just one problem: Roberta.  Obviously there's much, much more to this story, and I could talk about it all day but time is moving on.

I admit I that I was completely glued here -- reading An American Tragedy this time around was like watching the proverbial train wreck you know is about to happen but feeling unable to look away.  I can usually find some sort of sympathy for characters I don't particularly care for, but it was difficult here, especially with Clyde.  His feelings of entitlement lead him to make some pretty bad choices, while he spends too much time  blaming his own situation on his childhood, his parents and society in general for its class conciousness in which poverty is a mark of weakness.  Responsibility is not part of his working vocabulary.  His hopes for advancement keep him on the lookout for  a "very remarkable" man who "might take a fancy to him and offer him a connection," one who just "might lift him into a world such as he had never known."   His problem, as we're told,  is "a lack of mental clarity and inner directing application" which in other people
"permits them to sort out from the facts and avenues of life the particular thing or things that make for direct advancement."
On the other hand,  Dreiser makes a very good case for pointing the finger at the societal values and forces that helped to shape Clyde's vanity, ambition and ultimately his destiny, as he offers some pretty stinging criticism of American culture in general.  As the dustjacket reveals, the novel is
"an extraordinarily detailed portrait of early twentieth-century America, its religious and sexual hypocrisies, its economic pressures, its political corruption and journalistic exploitation."
 Detailed indeed, and even though I am a patient reader, Dreiser's prose style here is often cringeworthy, so for me it was all about story, and it's a page turner.

*** potential spoiler ahead**** 

  I'm pretty sure anyone who has read this book knows that the idea for this novel was taken right out of real life,  with the death of Grace Brown in 1906 at the hands of her boyfriend Chester Gillette.   According to Harold Schechter in a piece included in Yale Reviewlong before writing this novel, as a reporter Dreiser had begun collecting newspaper articles on crimes "symptomatic of America's obsession with what he called 'money success'," meaning murders done by a "young man whose lethal act is sparked by an explosive mix of sexual hunger and social ambition."   While it didn't exactly work out for him in his first attempt (with a novel he'd "tentatively" named The Rake), the Adirondack murder case was just what he was looking for.   Dreiser's Chester became Clyde Griffiths,  and  if ever a character could be described as being "an explosive mix of sexual hunger and social ambition," it's definitely Clyde.  An American Tragedy  won't be for everyone, but sheesh -- I couldn't put it down.

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