‘thoughts on An American Tragedy’
I don’t have a Ph.D. and lack the academic qualifications of many literary scholars, yet I have a broad and deep knowledge of literature from a lifetime of reading. I also happen to be a Dreiserian (a devotee of Theodore Dreiser and his works).
When people ask me who my favorite writers are, I will mention a few, usually them same ones: Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Johnson, William Blake, Charles Dickens, George Gissing, Robert Louis Stevenson, Balzac, Tolstoy, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman … and, Theodore Dreiser.
Dreiser is one of the first I mention. I always experience some embarrassment when I do so. He doesn’t seem to belong in such company.
Dreiser’s massive novel An American Tragedy — it is over 900 pages long — was the book which got me deeply into Dreiser; it bowled me over. I have read it at least twice.
I have been rereading portions of the novel recently. I am surprised how well it holds up and that much of its impact seems undiminished.
Yet Dreiser couldn’t write! Here’s what some commentators have said in the past about this:
Dreiser writes bunglingly and poorly. His style is groping, clumsy and crude, and sometimes even outrageous. He has no sense of form, and he constantly piles up irritating and useless detail. (guest contributor, Oakland Tribune, 1934)
His novels are excruciatingly long, clumsily written, with endless stretches of tedium and scarcely a single redeeming touch of lightness or humor. (Charles A. Fecher, Chicago Tribune, 1990)
Smooth prose composition eluded [Dreiser] forever. His style was raw, his sentences often bewildering, and he organized poorly. Dreiser’s major novels are structurally chaotic, causing one to wonder if he outlined his material before commencing a project. (Larry Swindell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 1994)
To read Dreiser is to become aware of a flat declamatory tone apparently unconcerned with niceties of style. He has been described as the kind of writer who triumphs over his own deficiencies of style, and as a writer who rummages through his characters’ thoughts with the impatient thoroughness of a child left alone to explore the contents of an attic. (Geoffrey O’Brien, Bookforum, 2003)
[His] tales of the rise and fall of ordinary people in the Gilded Age retained their power despite slovenly diction, bad grammar, and the author’s penchant for surges of bombastic prose-poetry. (Scott McLemee, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2004)
Theodore Dreiser couldn’t write.
Or could he?
An American Tragedy has stock characters — notably Sondra Finchley, a 1920’s flapper, the love interest of Clyde Griffiths — who are unbelievable. Clyde is infatuated with the vain and emotionally vapid Sondra because of her wealth and social status.
Dreiser’s prose is turgid and leaden.
Dreiser copied whole chunks of the book from press accounts of an actual murder case. (An American Tragedy, Dreiser’s first and only bestseller, was published in 1925.)
Admitted, thricely. The charges against Dreiser qua writer, that is.
The Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case of 1906 (upon which An American Tragedy was based) fixated public attention and still fascinates people today. It remained for Dreiser to make literature out of it — the way, say, Herman Melville (a far greater writer than Dreiser) made literature out of the sinking of the whaleship Essex in Moby-Dick. In so doing, Dreiser created a classic which far outranks his first novel Sister Carrie (which is more widely read).
The power of An American Tragedy is undeniable. It retains that power upon being reread.
Dreiser’s crude, flat prose style is just right for the narrative. I just opened, totally at random, to a page in my 1948 World Publishing Company edition of An American Tragedy. Book Two, Chapter XLV contains the following paragraph about Clyde Griffiths, the central character (Clyde was based a real life model, Chester Gillette):
And Clyde, listening at first with horror and in terror, later with a detached and philosophic calm as one who, entirely apart from what he may think or do, is still entitled to consider even the wildest and most desperate proposals for his release, at last, because of his own mental and material weakness before pleasures and dreams which he could not bring himself to forgo, psychically intrigued to the point where he was beginning to think that it might be possible. Why not? Was it not even as the voice said — a possible and plausible way — all his desires and dreams to be made real by this one evil thing? Yet in his case, because of flaws and weaknesses in his own unstable and highly variable will, the problem was not to be solved by thinking thus — then — nor for the next ten days for that matter.
Is this the prose of a James Joyce? Decidedly not. It is heavy on exposition (granted, this is an expository passage), perhaps too much so. That can be said of the entire book. Yet, there is something about Dreiser’s prose that, in the case of this novel, is extremely effective.
There is a sort of Joycean technique (believe it or not) operating here. The narrator, the author’s, voice is “representing,” standing in for, the thoughts of the character. We thereby enter Clyde’s consciousness.
This is true of the entire book. We are like bystanders of Clyde’s psyche. We are always present, observing him close up without authorial intervention. In fact, Dreiser, by “getting out of the way” — by not distinguishing between what is exposition and what is narration — has merged the two and made the book thereby ten times more powerful in its impact. We almost become Clyde. This makes the book very powerful, very effective.
The narrative flows artlessly yet effortlessly. We are drawn right in. We can’t desist.
To read the book is to identify with Clyde and his predicament. And, we can’t stop reading. It is also very readable because the style — to the extent there is one — aids and abets the story, fits right in with it, doesn’t get in the story’s way; is not pretentious; is entirely unaffected. It’s like some old timer sitting on his front porch and telling you a story he heard about once.
Here, at least, Dreiser gains by being non-literary. He wrote a classic.
An American Tragedy stands by itself. It is not allied with and wasn’t written as a response to or commentary on any literary fashion or trend. It is sui generis, autochthonous.
As was the case with its author, the book has muscled its way into the corpus of great American novels. It belongs there, even if few would care to admit it.
Even though it’s hardly ever taught nowadays in English courses.
— Roger W. Smith
A comment by Professor Emeritus Thomas Kranidas:
Roger — a fine defense. The novel has outlasted many more elegant and “accomplished” books by better writers who can not match the power of the novels that Dreiser has left us. And, “Tragedy” is the best of the bunch. — Tom K