An American Tragedy is the story of Clyde Griffiths, who spends his life in the desperate pursuit of success. On a deeper, more profound level, it is the masterful portrayal of the society whose values both shape Clyde's ambitions and seal his fate; it is an unsurpassed depiction of the harsh realities of American life and of the dark side of the American dream. Extraordinary in scope and power, vivid in its sense of wholesale human waste, unceasing in its rich compassion, An American Tragedy stands as Theodore Dreiser's supreme achievement.
First published in 1925 and based on an actual criminal case, An American Tragedy was the inspiration for the 1951 film A Place in the Sun, which won six Academy Awards and starred Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.
©1925 Theodore Dreiser (P)2011 Tantor
Many "great" writers seem to need to write the one epic that comprises the life of a man from child to death. In the style of Dickens' "David Copperfield," Maugham's "Of Human Bondage," Dreiser attempts to write the story of Clyde Griffiths, the poor relation of a wealthy industrialist. Clyde has or makes for himself several opportunities to gain position and money, but he has a weakness for women, and every time he gets close to accomplishing something,his desire for women drives him from the path.
Now look. This is such a heavy handed morality tale, that whatever literary value it offers is diluted by Dreiser's apparent guilt for the weakness of the flesh. The beginning of the book strongly directs the reader to realize Clyde's deep immersion in religious code. However, his parents and family are like paper cutouts. They don't ring like real people (to me.).
Interesting, early in the story, Clyde's sister, Esta, gets involved with a man, gets pregnant and gets abandoned. The shame and costs of Esta's bad behavior is hard on her mother but the mother accepts the daughter and her child and eventually Esta and her boyfriend are married.
Later, in Clyde's life, his girlfriend becomes pregnant, and Clyde spends about a hundred pages trying to get her an abortion and to lose the girl from his new socially upscale life.
A murder is committed and Clyde is the accused. During his ruminations about his guilt and innocence, he is appalled to think he might have committed a murder. Yet there is NEVER a discussion that in his efforts to have his child aborted, he was engaging in a different murder. Doctors refused him their services based on fear of getting caught and yet nobody made the connection between abortion (ending a life) and murder (ending a life). (This is not a moral discussion on abortion. I am simply trying to show how limited a view Dreiser had for his own text.)
I believe that the book received mixed criticisms, that it was not at first found to be a "good" book, but was later considered a "classic."
It is an age old story, badly told. There is nothing new here, not in the actions or thoughts or the outcome of the protagonist or the ancillary characters which support this story.
Saul Bellow in "The Adventures of Augie March" attempted another one of these bilungsroman (coming of age stories), and it too was a monumental task to read. It is obvious when these stories come from prolific writers that they are infusing the plots with scenes from their own lives, but in both An American Tragedy and in Augie March, the authors were too delighted with their own lives and their own choices during their predicaments to make for objective writing.
I would say that Dreiser trumps Bellow in this particular type of book, but Dickens is the best of the bunch (which I have read). The Picture of Dorian Gray and Citizen Kane are well done portrayals of a "boy's life" and I know there are many more. But Dreiser's Clyde Griffiths is a poor addition to the style.
Why this is supposedly a classic is beyond me. The writing is poor stylistically and the novel is a bore. It takes Dreiser 800 pages to do what should have been done in 300. I cannot recommend this and don't know if I can force myself to go on to Sister Carrie if it's going to be more of the same. There is a naivety of style and theme, couple with a simpleness of style and language and an overall inelegance of style. When compared to other works of similar time frame it has little to offer. (Gatsby, Sun Also Rises etc.) Irving Howe trying to defend the novel says, "...crushing the English language beneath a leaden embrace...As a philosopher Dreiser can often be tiresome...the prose in these early novels is often as wretched as unsympathetic critics have said...the prose, while quite as clotted and ungainly as in the past.." I whole heartedly agree, and this was the assessment of a critic trying to convince you to read the novel. And the narrator is so slow I put playback on 2x and then it sounded like he was reading at a normal pace and I missed nothing. Got through it in a week at 2x and was glad it was over.
Only it they had plenty of time on their hands.
The young man kept making the same mistakes, over and over.
Only it it were abridged.
This was originally published as three volumes. The first one would have been adequate.
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