Sunday, November 30, 2014

An American Tragedy (1925)

Theodore Dreiser's "first novel since 1915" is genuinely a great American novel of the 1920s and inevitably invites comparison with The Great Gatsby, published the same year. At something like five times the size, Dreiser's novel is certainly the most imposing. In a comparison of language, perhaps, is where Dreiser's nagging reputation as a poor writer may find some origins. Not only is Fitzgerald's lustrous language one of the fine points about Gatsby, but also An American Tragedy does have some remarkably deplorable passages—I had always wondered why Dreiser had the reputation, and now I think I know. Most of the last third seems to refrain from direct verbs altogether, preferring to use the gerund form, which begins to feel like moving through pitch—the judge deciding, the lawyer presuming, the gallery gasping, the defendant worrying, the investigator scheming. I think it might be the worst I've ever seen, at least within the bounds of formal literature. Still, it does not diminish the blunt force with which Dreiser imagines and moves his characters about. Clyde Griffiths, at the precipice of a career that could have shot to the skies like Jay Gatsby's, is instead felled, by his circumstances—the inferiority of his upbringing in the naturalist fashion, at which Dreiser has never been better—and equally by his choices. Together they sketch Clyde's character, unique yet of an unmistakably 20th-century American stamp, indeed archetype. An American Tragedy is a big fat tome, with clunky writing, but it is a pulpy, breezy, gripping read, as all the forces of the narrative are brought to bear. All of Clyde's decisions, good and bad, are arrived at transparently. The predicament in which he finds himself is aching and relentless. At some point, likely, readers depart from Clyde's choices and begin to disapprove—strongly. But the route to that place is so lullingly banal that it's really hard to say that moment is going to be the same for everyone. The second of the book's three sweeping movements was most interesting to me, a novel of manners that studies American class distinctions closely. The crime and courtroom drama are fine, but increasingly wordy. Still, obviously, this is one not to miss if you care anything about Dreiser and/or 20th-century American lit.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. Richard Riegel again, Jeff. You have my sympathies, as I plowed all the way through "An American Tragedy" forty years ago this summer, and I don't think I have enough stamina left ever to do that again. That said, and despite all of Dreiser's overwriting and generally clumsy prose, the heart of the story has stayed with me forever, particularly in Clyde Griffiths' initially ingenuous yearning just to have a relationship with his co-worker, and then as soon as he's won her, he becomes jaded and attracted to the rich girl instead. That event has always impressed me that Dreiser gave his novel the perfect title, as it concerns a tragedy brought on by the inculcations of that classically American consumer society, in which what you've already achieved is no longer good enough, you must ALWAYS trade up.

    An interesting sidelight that's stuck with me is that some other time in the 1970's, I was watching Norman Mailer being interviewed about American literature on TV, by Dick Cavett or somebody like that, and the host made an offhand remark about Dreiser being "a bad writer," to which Norman cheerfully retorted, "I've always liked Dreiser." I knew just what Mailer meant, and agreed with his endorsement.

    If you haven't already, you might want to check out Dreiser's "Sister Carrie," which came out 25 years before "Tragedy," has a more youthful vigor in the writing, and a somewhat more compact narrative with just as many memorable scenes.

  2. Thanks as always, Richard. Hey, I am with Normal Mailer too -- I've always liked Dreiser. Read Sister Carrie a few times, first in college along with The Financier and The Titan. But had never managed Tragedy until recently. He's very good at working with the raw materials of life unadorned -- envy and pride and lust -- the seven deadlies, I guess, come to think of it. The verities of American consumer society, as you say. People in big cities go to ball games and shows just the same. And his language has always seemed perfectly utilitarian to me. I think Tragedy may account for the reputation.

  3. Just to chip in, going on the basis of A Place In the Sun as an adaptation of the story, I haven't read the book, I do think there is something elementally American in the fickle, conniving, restless, consumer man narrative that is hard to ruin, however crude or debased the language.

  4. New bulletin from Richard Riegel: I'm now reading James Atlas's 2000 biography of Saul Bellow, and on p. 58, I came across this: "Dreiser was 'a revelation' for Bellow, who wrote, "You saw what could be done with people like those you knew, people completely familiar -- neighbors, relatives, working people, shopkeepers. You saw them, with astonishment, as characters." Atlas notes that Bellow commented in a later review, "[Dreiser's] history is that of a man convinced by his experience of 'unpoetic reality' of the need to become an artist."

    Very interesting to me that such a consummate prose stylist as Bellow found inspiration in the less-polished writings of Dreiser, but it also makes perfect sense, as Bellow really came into his own as a writer in "The Adventures of Augie March", in his seamless blend of vulgar and highbrow elements and language. In a way, that oxymoronic synthesis anticipated exactly the kind of prose we'd spin in CREEM twenty years later, though I'm sure Bellow (in his later Mr. Sammleresque conservatism), would have disapproved of CREEM had he ever seen it.

  5. Hey Richard, this is kind of funny. I love Bellow and especially Augie March, and when I went to look up my review of it from a couple of years ago found a reference to Dreiser! --

    "There's something more like Dreiser or Richard Wright—or maybe it's Chicago—something naturalistic about the way the characters in Augie's life, such as his brother, simply come and go, reappearing randomly in various circumstances that usually feel like the way things really happen ... "

    Review is here:

    Bellow always was a bit of the stereotype of the conservative as liberal who got mugged, wasn't he? Thinking particularly of the mindset of Sammler. Thanks as always for your comments!