An American Tragedy

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An American Tragedy
An American Tragedy Theodore Dreiser dust jacket.jpeg
Dust jacket of early edition of An American Tragedy, published by Boni & Liveright, 1926
Author Theodore Dreiser
CountryUS
Language English
Genre Crime fiction
Tragedy
Publisher Boni & Liveright
Publication date
December 17, 1925
813.52

An American Tragedy is a novel by American writer Theodore Dreiser, published at the end of 1925. He began the manuscript in the summer of 1920, but a year later abandoned most of that text. 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. [1]

Theodore Dreiser Novelist, journalist

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).

Contents

Plot summary

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.

Missionary member of a religious group sent into an area to do evangelism

A missionary is a member of a religious group sent into an area to promote their faith or perform ministries of service, such as education, literacy, social justice, health care, and economic development. The word "mission" originates from 1598 when the Jesuits sent members abroad, derived from the Latin missionem, meaning "act of sending" or mittere, meaning "to send". The word was used in light of its biblical usage; in the Latin translation of the Bible, Christ uses the word when sending the disciples to preach The gospel in his name. The term is most commonly used for Christian missions, but can be used for any creed or ideology.

A dead-end job is a job where is little or no chance of career development and advancement into a higher paid position. If an individual requires further education to progress within their firm that is difficult to obtain for any reason, this can result in the occupation being classified as a dead-end position. Based on human resources and career strategist Toni Howard Lowe, some individuals who have worked for the same company for several years may not be privy to the signs that they are currently employed in a dead-end job.

Soda jerk person who operates the soda fountain in a drugstore, often for the purpose of preparing and serving flavored soda water

A soda jerk is a person—typically a youth—who operates the soda fountain in a drugstore, often for the purpose of preparing and serving soda drinks and ice cream sodas. This was made by putting flavored syrup into a specially designed tall glass and adding carbonated water. One or two scoops of ice cream, or occasionally malt powder, could be added. The result was served with a long-handled spoon, most commonly known as a "soda spoon", and drinking straws.

Enjoying his new lifestyle, Clyde becomes infatuated with manipulative Hortense Briggs, who persuades Clyde 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.

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' 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.

Chicago City in Illinois, United States

Chicago, officially the City of Chicago, is the most populous city in Illinois, as well as the third most populous city in the United States. With an estimated population of 2,705,994 (2018), it is the most populous city in the Midwest. Chicago is the principal city of the Chicago metropolitan area, often referred to as Chicagoland, and the county seat of Cook County, the second most populous county in the United States. The metropolitan area, at nearly 10 million people, is the third-largest in the United States.

Samuel Griffiths' 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 this is happening, 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 doesn't give her 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, having read a local newspaper report of a boating accident.

Clyde takes Roberta out in a canoe on Big Moose Lake in upstate New York, and rows to a secluded bay. He doesn't have the nerve to go through with the plan and freezes. Sensing something wrong, Roberta moves towards 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.

New York (state) State of the United States of America

New York is a state in the Northeastern United States. New York was one of the original thirteen colonies that formed the United States. With an estimated 19.54 million residents in 2018, it is the fourth most populous state. In order to distinguish the state from the city with the same name, it is sometimes referred to as New York State.

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 religious 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.

Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is a government-sanctioned practice whereby a person is killed by the state as a punishment for a crime. The sentence that someone be punished in such a manner is referred to as a death sentence, whereas the act of carrying out the sentence is known as an execution. Crimes that are punishable by death are known as capital crimes or capital offences, and they commonly include extreme offenses such as murder, mass murder, terrorism, treason, espionage, offenses against the State, such as attempting to overthrow government, piracy, drug trafficking, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, but may include a wide range of offences depending on a country. Etymologically, the term capital in this context alluded to execution by beheading.

Electric chair Execution method

Execution by electrocution, performed using an electric chair, is a method of execution originating in the United States in which the condemned person is strapped to a specially built wooden chair and electrocuted through electrodes fastened on the head and leg. This execution method, conceived in 1881 by a Buffalo, New York, dentist named Alfred P. Southwick, was developed throughout the 1880s as a "humane alternative" to hanging, and first used in 1890. This execution method has been used in the United States and for a period of several decades, in the Philippines. While death was originally theorized to result from damage to the brain, it was eventually shown in 1899 that it primarily results from ventricular fibrillation and eventual cardiac arrest.

Pathos appeals to the emotions of the audience and elicits feelings that already reside in them. Pathos is a communication technique used most often in rhetoric, as well as in literature, film, and other narrative art.

Influences and characteristics

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. [2] 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.

Adirondack Mountains Mountain range in northern New York state, USA

The Adirondack Mountains form a massif in northeastern New York, United States. Its boundaries correspond to the boundaries of Adirondack Park. The mountains form a roughly circular dome, about 160 miles (260 km) in diameter and about 1 mile (1,600 m) high. The current relief owes much to glaciation.

Upstate New York region of the U.S. state of New York north of the core of the New York metropolitan area

Upstate New York is the portion of the American state of New York lying north of the New York metropolitan area. The Upstate region includes most of the land area of the state of New York, but a minority of the state's population; it excludes New York City, the Lower Hudson Valley, and Long Island, although the precise boundary is debated. Major cities in Upstate New York include Buffalo, Rochester, Albany, and Syracuse.

Chester Gillette

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.

The historical location of most of the central events was Cortland, NY, 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. [3]

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. [4]

Adaptations

The novel has been adapted several times into other forms, and the storyline has been used, not always unattributed, as the basis for other works:

Awards

In 2005, the book was placed on Time Magazine's list of the top 100 novels written in English since 1923. [8]

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References

  1. Dreiser, Theodore. An American Tragedy. Thomas P. Riggio, ed. New York: Library of America, 2003, pp. 966–67. ISBN   1-931082-31-6
  2. Nelson, Randy F. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981: 195-196. ISBN   0-86576-008-X
  3. Elizabeth Skrapits (2009-10-04). "The 'American Tragedy' murder". citizensvoice.com. Retrieved 2017-06-14.
  4. Howe, Irving (1964). Afterword to Signet edition. Signet.
  5. "Our Miss Brooks". Archived from the original on 2007-11-24.
  6. French, Philip (2006-01-07). "Match Point." Film review. TheGuardian.com. Retrieved 2016-03-13.
  7. Denby, David (2006-01-09). "Game Playing: 'Match Point', 'Casanova', and 'The Matador'." The New Yorker (NewYorker.com). Retrieved 2016-03-13.
  8. Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo (2005-10-16). TIME Specials: ALL TIME 100 Novels, Time. Retrieved 2011-10-23.

Further reading