|Genre|| Crime fiction |
|Publisher||Boni & Liveright|
|December 17, 1925|
An American Tragedy is a 1925 novel by American writer Theodore Dreiser. He began the manuscript in the summer of 1920, but a year later abandoned most of that text. It was based on the notorious murder of Grace Brown in 1906 and the trial of her lover. In 1923 Dreiser returned to the project, and with the help of his wife Helen and two editor-secretaries, Louise Campbell and Sally Kusell, he completed the massive novel in 1925.
Ambitious, handsome, but ill-educated, naïve, and immature, Clyde Griffiths is raised by poor and devoutly religious parents to help in their street missionary work. As a young adult, Clyde must, to help support his family, take menial jobs as a soda jerk, then a bellhop at a prestigious Kansas City hotel. There, his more sophisticated colleagues introduce him to bouts of social drinking and sex with prostitutes.
Enjoying his new lifestyle, Clyde becomes infatuated with manipulative Hortense Briggs, who persuades him to buy her expensive gifts. When Clyde learns Hortense goes out with other men, he becomes jealous. Still Clyde would rather spend money on Hortense than to help his sister, who had eloped, only to end up pregnant and abandoned by her lover.
Clyde's life changes dramatically when his friend Sparser, driving Clyde, Hortense, and other friends back from a secluded rendezvous in the country in his boss's car, used without permission, hits a little girl and kills her. Fleeing from the police at high speed, Sparser crashes the car. Everyone but Sparser and his partner flee the scene of the crime. Clyde leaves Kansas City, fearing prosecution as an accessory to Sparser's crimes. This pattern of personal irresponsibility and panicked decision-making in Clyde's life recurs in the story, culminating in the central tragedy of the novel.
While working as a bellboy at an exclusive club in Chicago, he meets his wealthy uncle Samuel Griffiths, the owner of a shirt-collar factory in the fictional city of Lycurgus, New York. Samuel, feeling guilt for neglecting his poor relations, offers Clyde a menial job at the factory. After that, he promotes Clyde to a minor supervisory role.
Samuel Griffiths's son Gilbert, Clyde's immediate supervisor, warns Clyde that as a manager, he should not consort with women working under his supervision. At the same time the Griffiths pay Clyde little attention socially. As Clyde has no close friends in Lycurgus, he becomes lonely. Emotionally vulnerable, Clyde is drawn to Roberta Alden, a poor and innocent farm girl working in his shop, who falls in love with him. Clyde secretly courts Roberta, ultimately persuading her to have sex with him rather than lose him, and makes her pregnant.
At the same time, elegant young socialite Sondra Finchley, daughter of another Lycurgus factory owner, takes an interest in Clyde, despite his cousin Gilbert's efforts to keep them apart. Clyde's engaging manner makes him popular among the young smart set of Lycurgus; he and Sondra become close, and he courts her while neglecting Roberta. Roberta expects Clyde to marry her to avert the shame of an unwed pregnancy, but Clyde now dreams instead of marrying Sondra.
Having failed to procure an abortion for Roberta, Clyde gives her no more than desultory help with living expenses, while his relationship with Sondra matures. When Roberta threatens to reveal her relationship with Clyde, unless he marries her, he plans to murder her by drowning while they go boating. He had read a local newspaper report of a boating accident.
Clyde takes Roberta out in a canoe on the fictional Big Bittern Lake (modeled on Big Moose Lake, New York) in the Adirondacks, and rows to a secluded bay. He freezes. Sensing something wrong, Roberta moves toward him, and he unintentionally strikes her in the face with a camera, stunning her and accidentally capsizing the boat. Roberta, unable to swim, drowns, while Clyde, unwilling to save her, swims to shore. The narrative implies that the blow was accidental, but the trail of circumstantial evidence left by the panicky and guilt-ridden Clyde points to murder.
The local authorities are eager to convict Clyde, to the point of manufacturing additional evidence against him, although he repeatedly incriminates himself with his confused and contradictory testimony. Clyde has a sensational trial before an unsympathetic and prejudiced jury of mostly religiously conservative farmers. Despite a vigorous (and untruthful) defense by two lawyers hired by his uncle, Clyde is convicted, sentenced to death, and, after an appeal is denied, executed by electric chair. The jailhouse scenes and correspondence between Clyde and his mother are exemplars of pathos in modern literature.
Dreiser based the book on a notorious criminal case. On July 11, 1906, resort owners found an overturned boat and the body of Grace Brown at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. Chester Gillette was put on trial, and convicted of killing Brown, though he claimed that her death was a suicide. Gillette was executed by electric chair on March 30, 1908.The murder trial drew international attention when Brown's love letters to Gillette were read in court. Dreiser saved newspaper clippings about the case for several years before writing his novel, during which he studied the case closely. He based Clyde Griffiths on Chester Gillette, deliberately giving him the same initials.
The historical location of most of the central events was Cortland, New York, a city situated in Cortland County in a region replete with place names resonant of Greco-Roman history. Townships include Homer, Solon, Virgil, Marathon, and Cincinnatus. Lycurgus, the pseudonym given to Cortland, was the legendary law-giver of ancient Sparta. Grace Brown, a farm girl from the small town of South Otselic in adjacent Chenango County, was the factory girl who was Gillette's lover. The place where Grace was killed, Big Moose Lake, an actual place in the Adirondacks, was called Big Bittern Lake in Dreiser's novel. The identity of the "rich girl" in the love triangle (Sondra Finchley in the novel) has apparently never been clearly established.
A strikingly similar murder took place in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1934, when Robert Edwards clubbed Freda McKechnie, one of his two lovers, and placed her body in a lake. The cases were so similar that the press at the time dubbed the Edwards/McKechnie murder "The American Tragedy". Edwards was eventually found guilty, and also executed by electric chair.
The novel is a tragedy in the strict sense, Clyde's destruction being the consequence of his innate weaknesses: moral and physical cowardice, lack of scruple and self-discipline, muddled intellect, and unfocused ambition; additionally, the effect of his ingratiating (Dreiser uses the word "soft") social manner places temptation in his way which he cannot resist.
This novel is full of symbolism, ranging from Clyde's grotesque description of the high gloomy walls of the factory as an opportunity for success, symbolizing how it is all a mirage, to the description of girls as "electrifying" to foreshadow Clyde's destination to the electric chair; Dreiser transforms everyday mundane objects to symbols.
Dreiser sustains readers' interest in the lengthy novel (over 800 pages) by the accumulation of detail, and by continually varying the "emotional distance" of his writing from Clyde and other characters, from detailed examination of their thoughts and motivations to dispassionate reportage.
As noted by Anne Heller, Ayn Rand's biographer, Rand's mother earned a living in the early Soviet period by translating English-language books to Russian. After immigrating to the US in 1926, Rand was looking for American books which her mother could translate and which would be acceptable to the Soviet authorities; among others, she sent her mother a copy of " An American Tragedy" which was duly translated and published in the Soviet Union (without paying royalties to Dreiser). As Rand correctly anticipated, the Soviets classed the book as being "critical of Capitalism".
The novel has been adapted several times into other forms, and the storyline has been used, not always attributed, as the basis for other works:
In 2005, the book was placed on Time Magazine's list of the top 100 novels written in English since 1923.
Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser was an American novelist and journalist of the naturalist school. His novels often featured main characters who succeeded at their objectives despite a lack of a firm moral code, and literary situations that more closely resemble studies of nature than tales of choice and agency. Dreiser's best known novels include Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925).
Sister Carrie (1900) is a novel by Theodore Dreiser about a young country girl who moves to the big city where she starts realizing her own American Dream, first as a mistress to men that she perceives as superior, and later becoming a famous actress. It has been called the "greatest of all American urban novels".
Inlet is a town in Hamilton County, New York, United States. The population was 333 at the 2010 census. The name is derived from its location at the east end (inlet) of Fourth Lake, part of the Fulton Chain of Lakes.
Herkimer is a village on the north side of the Mohawk River and the county seat of Herkimer County, New York, United States, about 15 miles (24 km) southeast of Utica. As of the 2010 census, it had a population of 7,743. It was part of the Burnetsfield Patent and the first European-American settlement this far west in the Mohawk Valley.
The State University of New York College at Cortland is a public college in Cortland, New York. It is part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system.
Erwin Friedrich Maximilian Piscator was a German theatre director and producer and, along with Bertolt Brecht, the foremost exponent of epic theatre, a form that emphasizes the socio-political content of drama, rather than its emotional manipulation of the audience or the production's formal beauty.
Big Moose Lake, at the head of the Moose River, is a large lake about five miles (8 km) north of Fourth Lake in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. The lake is within both Herkimer and Hamilton counties, and covers portions of the towns of Webb and Long Lake. Located southwest of the lake is the hamlet of Big Moose.
A Place in the Sun is a 1951 American drama film based on the 1925 novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser and the 1926 play, also titled An American Tragedy. It tells the story of a working-class young man who is entangled with two women: one who works in his wealthy uncle's factory, and the other a beautiful socialite. Another adaptation of the novel had been filmed once before, as An American Tragedy, in 1931. All these works were inspired by the real-life murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette in 1906, which resulted in Gillette's conviction and execution by electric chair in 1908.
Scoop is a 2006 romantic crime comedy film written and directed by Woody Allen and starring Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Ian McShane and Allen himself. The film was released in the United States by Focus Features on July 28, 2006.
A Northern Light, or A Gathering Light in the U.K., is an American historical novel for young adults, written by Jennifer Donnelly and published by Harcourt in 2003. The story is known as Realistic Fiction because of the untrue life story of Mattie Gokey, the real death of Grace Brown, and the events that could take place in the 1900s. Set in northern Herkimer County, New York in 1906, it is based on the murder of Grace Brown case —the basis also for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (1925). It features a girl -the narrator-, who gets caught up in the events.
Crazy in Alabama is a 1999 American comedy-drama film directed by Antonio Banderas, written by Mark Childress, and starring Melanie Griffith, David Morse, Lucas Black, Cathy Moriarty, Meat Loaf, John Beasley, and Rod Steiger. The plot follows an abused housewife in 1965 Alabama who heads to California to become a movie star while her nephew has to deal with a racially motivated murder involving a corrupt sheriff.
Chester Ellsworth Gillette, an American convicted murderer, became the basis for the fictional character Clyde Griffiths in Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy, which was the basis of the 1931 film An American Tragedy and the 1951 film A Place in the Sun.
Grace Mae Brown was a young American woman who was known for having been drowned by her boyfriend on Big Moose Lake, New York, after she told him she was pregnant. The events and trial of the suspect attracted national newspaper attention.
Hortense is a French feminine given name that comes from Latin meaning gardener. It may refer to:
.com for Murder is a 2001 science fiction crime drama film written by Nico Mastorakis and Phill Marr and directed by Mastorakis, starring Nastassja Kinski, Nicollette Sheridan, Roger Daltrey, and Huey Lewis. After being screened at various film festivals, it was released direct-to-video on January 14, 2003.
An American Tragedy is an opera in two acts composed by Tobias Picker, with a libretto by Gene Scheer. This was Picker's fourth opera, written four years after the debut of Thérèse Raquin. Based on the Theodore Dreiser novel, An American Tragedy, the opera was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, and premiered in New York City on December 2, 2005.
Sondra is a feminine Greek given name meaning protector of man. By 2013, the name reached the verge of extinction in the United States; it had reached a peak of usage in 1939.
American Tragedy may refer to:
Avana Ivan is a 1962 Indian Tamil-language thriller film directed by S. Balachander. The film was an adaptation of the 1951 American film A Place in the Sun, itself adapted from the novel An American Tragedy written by Theodore Dreiser. The novel was based on the Gillette murder case that shook America in the early 20th century.
An American Tragedy (1931) is a pre-Code drama film directed by Josef von Sternberg. It was produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures. The film is based on Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy and the 1926 play adaptation. These were based on the historic 1906 murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette at Big Moose Lake in upstate New York.