Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy is obviously meant to be a masterpiece. To say this is is not (quite) to offer faint praise. A former professor of mine used to tell us, “If you’re going to write a paper, write one that wins the Nobel Prize in literature.” Despite the patent grandiosity of this advice, I think he really meant it. He was always telling us we should strive to be more than footnotes to Plato.
In the best of American traditions, Dreiser, too, swung for the fences. The high, dry wind of An American Tragedy sweeps from Denver through Kansas City and Chicago, up through America’s coal and steel cities, to the lakes, forests and factories of upstate New York, where the main action takes place. Its 800-page scope is continental, Tolstoyan.
The main character, Clyde Griffiths, is, fittingly, an American archetype—a lone, rough-hewn individual undistinguished by high birth who struggles to slip his parental bonds, chases a vague dream of riches, and tests himself against life’s deepest moral challenges.
Spoiler alert: Clyde fails, in the most abysmal way. And America fails too, which unveils the deeper level of tragedy I think Dreiser had in mind when he wrote the book. Despite its flaws, which I will come to in a moment, An American Tragedy is a novel of great narrative magnitude and introspective power. Any serious student of American literature should read it.
Clyde is born to an uneducated family of evangelical street preachers. He moves too much to attend school steadily. His parents are poor as dirt but buoyed up by the spiritual nobility of their rags and hunger and the prospect of a better life after death. Dreiser’s socialist sympathies show through pretty clearly as he has the 16-year old Clyde slip this trap and start surprisingly lucrative work as a bell hop in a flashy Kansas City hotel.
Clyde’s first taste of economic independence—which Americans get about 10 years earlier than Europeans—brings tragedy and a minor downfall. On a lark with friends who have taught him to booze and whore, Clyde is a passenger in a car that hits and kills and 11-year old girl. He just evades arrest, changes his name and jumps town for Chicago, where he learns to temper his lusts. For five years he labors through a series of low-skilled, hard-knocks jobs. All the while, he continues to love women intensely, and like Saint Paul, seems to regard this is as a problem of potentially tragic depth.
Having mastered himself through hard, steady work, Clyde is seized one day by main chance. His rich uncle from Lycurgus, New York, an upstate manufacturing town on the Mohawk River, happens to attend a convention at the gentlemen’s club where Clyde works. Impressed with the boy’s manners and untapped intelligence, the uncle offers Clyde a job in his shirt-and-collar factory.
As a floor manager, Clyde falls in love with Roberta, a pretty, industrious collar-stamper from a nearby farming town. His love for her breaks two fateful rules. First, he crosses an inviolable class line by consorting with a menial worker (a practice his uncle forbids), and second, he makes Roberta pregnant after trammeling the barricade of her Christian virtue. It is a classic case of young love tested by the barely-known facts of life: Roberta sleeps with Clyde, but only on the vague promise of monogamy that “should” lead to marriage.
Except that won’t happen. Just as Clyde has bedded Roberta, Sondra, the beautiful, galivanting daughter of a local tycoon, takes it on herself, as a lark, to draw Clyde into Lycurgus’s set of young, playful elites, a group to which he belongs by dent of family connections but not by wealth, upbringing or worldliness. Clyde falls hard for Sondra, and eventually she requites. He sees her as the goddess who will transport his plebeian life to the stratosphere of ease and pleasure; she just falls for his unflagging charm (by far the weakest part of an otherwise strong plot).
Long before the story line develops to the point of Clyde’s dreadful dilemma, between commitments made and hopes tempted, Dreiser repeatedly clarifies the book’s moral theme: small moral corruptions are the gateway to larger ones. Clyde left home in Kansas City just to make enough money to buy a cheap but presentable suit of clothes. Six years later he has wandered and struggled, an uncultured Oddysseus, to the unlikely point where finds himself on the cusp of joining an American aristocracy. Roberta, good simple Roberta who has no idea how she fits into this Greek tragedy, will have to go. And so Clyde plots to drown her on a boat trip.
I think most readers will find the denouement of An American Tragedy the most morally absorbing part. Clyde has been convicted of murder by a local jury who make no attempt to hide the haste and zeal with which they wish to send him to hell. They give him the chair. Clyde’s mother, in the meantime removed to a new street “mission” in Denver, hurries to his aid, assuring him Jesus will provide an escape, if he is guiltless in his heart.
The arduous final 100 pages reveal what I believe to be Dreiser’s deeper message, about America’s share in Clyde’s tragedy. Must children fly the family coop in America to test themselves so severely, years before their moral compass is attuned to real life? As Clyde awaits his execution, he is pulled piteously between his desire to accept responsibilty for his crime and his instinct to reframe it as the conscionable act of a stunted persona. Meanwhile the machinery of capital punishment grinds inexorably forward. In the end the state kills a man who has just become capable of taking himself morally seriously. This is Dreiser’s bottom line.
To me, though, the emotional nadir of the novel, which hit me with a shudder, comes before the climactic murder, as Clyde is waiting for the five-month pregnant Roberta to rendezvous with him at a train station en route to their boat trip. To steel his nerves Clyde has been thinking of Sondra in all her finery. Roberta arrrives, done up in her best but in fact looking shabby and threadbare. At this moment it becomes savagely clear why Clyde will murder her: because she is poor, because she is a woman, and because she is in the way. It is the novel’s most horrible moment, but I’m not sure Dreiser meant it as such.
An American Tragedy is a good but not great novel. Dreiser never escapes his journalistic compulsion to tell absolutely everything of narrative importance, rather than letting dialogue, scenery or characterization carry the load by showing crucial developments. This is no mere technicality. Had Dreiser written Huckleberry Finn, for example, he would have constantly harped on how Huck and Jim were exploring a human boundary between freedom and bondage as they traveled down the Mississippi. The text of The Brothers Karamozov would have declaimed at regular intervals that it was an argument about the existence of God. A truly great novel does very little telling and a great deal more showing.
A great novel must also contain only perfect sentences. They need not be the peak of excellence, but they must avoid jarring, as these do not:
“At the same time, the natural coquetry of her nature would not permit her to relinquish him.”
“She must be on her guard in regard to him.”
Period language can be a distraction in any work of literature, but the idiom in An American Tragedy grates very sharply in places. Several times, just as Clyde is working his way up (or down) to a particularly trying question, about work or sex or religion, he exclaims, “Gee whiz!” It is a deflating experience.
The value of An American Tragedy is, of course, in its narrative scope and high themes. It also provides durable commetary on a hundred and one aspects of making it in America. It is a novel you should read just because Dreiser swung for the fences. Try not to let the minors errors bother you.