Robert Penn Warren, “Homage to Theodore Dreiser”

 

 

Robert Penn Warren

HOMAGE TO THEODORE DREISER

On the Centennial of His Birth

(August 27, 1871)

 

 

Robert Penn Warren, ‘Homage to Theodore Dreiser’

 

 

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[Robert Penn Warren’s] Or Else is actually composed of two intertwining sequences: There are twenty-four Roman-numeraled poems and eight Arabic-numeraled “Interjections” which occur after the first, fourth, fifth, eighth, twelfth, fifteenth, eighteenth, and twenty-first poems of the first group. I will begin with the tenth and eleventh poems in this sequence, “Rattlesnake Country” and “Homage to Theodore Dreiser.”

The first recounts the narrator’s visit to a friend’s ranch in the high country of the American West, a trip from which he recalls wranglers driving horses down a mountain and an Indian named Laughing Boy who was good at killing rattlesnakes by dousing them with gasoline and flicking a lighted match just before they disappeared into their holes. But it turns out that in “Homage to Theodore Dreiser” the novelist’s Indiana birthplace shares common ground, almost literally–and perhaps ironically, given the name of the town in question–with the first poem’s high-altitude setting: “Past Terre Haute, the diesels pound,/ … Deep/ In the infatuate and foetal dark, beneath/ The unspecifiable weight of the great/ Mid-America loam-sheet, the impacted/ Particular particles of loam, blind,/ Minutely grind … vibrate/ At the incessant passage/ Of the transcontinental truck freight.” In Indiana, loam is pounded by truck freight, while in “Rattlesnake Country” loam was truck freight: “Arid that country and high … but/ One little patch of cool lawn: // Trucks/ Had brought in rich loam. Stonework/ Held it in place like a shelf.” It is on such imported earth that the snakes are set aflame as they disappear into the loam, there to perish, trapped in their holes.

A parallel event takes place within Dreiser’s soul: “the screaming, and stench, of a horse-barn aflame,/ … their manes flare up like torches.” The rattlers and horses are both trapped where they live by flames; and the association of makes and horses had already begun in “Rattlesnake Country,” where the flame at the hole-mouth that “flickers blue” was anticipated by the faces of the wranglers driving horses from the ountain pastures, faces “flickering white through the shadow” as “the riderless horses,/ Like quicksilver spilled in dark glimmer and roil, go/ Pouring downward.” Warren intensifies the connection between this recollected scene and that of Laughing Boy and the snakes by saying that both are “nearer” but that the second is nearer than the first: “The wranglers cry out.// And nearer.// But,/ Before I go for my quick coffee-scald and to the corral,/ I hear, much nearer, not far from my window, a croupy/ Gargle of laughter.// It is Laughing Boy.” The Indian’s method for exterminating rattlers is then recounted. The liquid horses prefigure both the poured gasoline and the snakes slithering down their holes–indeed, prefigure the snakes and burning petrol together “Pouring downward,” like “quicksilver spilled in dark.” The burning horses in the Dreiser poem thus recall not just the burning snakes of “Rattlesnake Country” but the linkage already there established between horses and snakes.

Warren focuses on Dreiser’s mouth–“Watch his mouth, how it moves without a sound”–as he had, in the poem before, on Laughing Boy’s: “Sometimes, before words come, he utters a sound like croupy laughter.” Both Dreiser and Laughing Boy have trouble getting out the utterance that boils within. Dreiser’s mouth, where “Saliva gathers in the hot darkness of mouth-tissue,” recalls the snake-hole as well, appropriately termed “the hole-mouth,” where flames consume snakes in darkness, as flames consume horses in his soul.

 

Randolph Paul Runyon

 “A problem in spatial composition: on the order of Or Else”

The Southern Review

 September 2002

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chester Gillette’s uncle

 

Craig Brandon is the author of Murder in the Adirondacks, the definitive book about the Chester Gillette murder case. This case, which resulted in Gillette’s execution in Auburn State Prison in New York in 1908, provided the basis for Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.

Chester Ellsworth Gillette (1883-1908) was arrested on July 14, 1906 at the Arrowhead Hotel in Inlet, New York, an Adirondack outpost, for the murder of Grace Mae Brown (1886-1906).

Brandon gives lectures about the case, about which he is recognized as the foremost authority. In one such lecture, I recall that Brandon spoke of an uncle from Chicago who, learning of Gillette’s arrest from the newspapers, tried to contact either his nephew or the authorities. (I can’t recall which was the case.) Brandon expressed befuddlement over this and assumed that the so called uncle was not in fact Chester Gillette’s uncle.

There indeed was such an uncle and his name was Josiah Rice. He was an uncle of Chester Gillette on Chester’s mother’s side.

 

Attached is the death certificate of one Josiah Rice. The details are as follows:

Josiah Rice

residence: 5400 N. Ashland Avenue, Chicago

died in Edgewater Hospital on April 8, 1939

widower; husband of Matilda Rice

his date of birth: February 5, 1855

his age: 84 years 1 month 23 days

his place of birth: Oxford, Massachusetts

father’s name: Leonard Rice (born Oxford, Massachusetts)

mother’s maiden name: Matilda Coyne (born Rock Island, Illinois)

Now, some facts about Chester Gillette’s mother:

Her maiden name was Louisa Maria Rice

She was born in Millbury, Worcester County, Massachusetts on May 12, 1859

Her parents were Leonard Rice and Dulcena (or Dulcimer) S. (Gale) Rice

Leonard Rice and Dulcena Gale were married in Millbury on April 25, 1855

 

So, it is apparent that Josiah Rice was the son of Leonard Rice by a first wife of Leonard, namely, Matilda (Coyne) Rice, and it would seem to be a certainty that Matilda died giving birth to Josiah.

Therefore, it is conclusive that Chester Gillette’s mother, Louisa (Rice) Gillette was the half-sister of Josiah Rice of Chicago. So, it would be quite proper for Josiah Rice to call himself Chester Gillette’s uncle and to inquire after Chester upon learning of his arrest from newspapers.
— Roger W. Smith

     July 2016

 

 

Josiah Rice death cert.jpg

 

 

Henry Miller and Dreiser

 

Henry Miller was an admirer of Theodore Dreiser. He admired Dreiser’s realism; admired the size, scope, and power of Dreiser’s novels; admired the cumulative effect of Dreiser’s massive plots.  Dreiser was one of Miller’s major literary influences.

In March 1922, Miller took a three week vacation from his employer, The Western Union Company (the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America in his novel Tropic of Capricorn). During the vacation, he wrote his first novel, Clipped Wings, which was never published.

Clipped Wings, a novel about twelve telegraph messenger boys, was inspired by Dreiser’s Twelve Men.

Early in his writing career, Miller made efforts to get published in The New Republic which did not meet with success. He wrote a long essay about Dreiser for the magazine that was rejected. However, a brief except from the essay was published in April 1926 in the magazine’s letters to the editor section under the heading “Dreiser’s Style.”

The letter has not hitherto been reprinted. Texts of Miller’s early writings are in many cases unavailable.

The following is the text of Miler’s letter. It was written in response to a review of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy by T. K. Whipple in The New Republic of March 17, 1926. The text of the review is appended here as a PDF file

 

— Roger W. Smith

     July 2016

 

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Dreiser’s Style

Sir: In his review of Dreiser’s American Tragedy, Mr. T. K. Whipple raises an interesting problem in the art of the novel in in his discussion of Mr. Dreiser’s style. “Dreiser could not write as he does,” says Mr. Whipple, “mixing slang with poetic archaisms, reveling in the cheap, trite and florid, if there were not in himself something correspondingly muddled, banal and tawdry … a failure in writing is necessarily a failure in communication.” This is all very true when the thing to be communicated is an abstract idea or philosophy. The novel, however, is effective because of images and emotions and not because of its abstract ideas. Mr. Whipple’s error lies in applying intellectual criteria such as logic and profundity to art, which affects us by its vividness or beauty.

From this point of view it becomes evident that Mr. Dreiser’s effects are not achieved in spite of but because of his style. The “cheap trite, and tawdry” enable him to present a world which a more elegant and prices style could only hint at. He uses language, consciously or not, in the manner which modern writers, notably Joyce, use deliberately, that is, he identifies his language with the consciousness of his characters. Mr. Whipple evidently expects all writing to conform to the “mot just’ technique of the Flaubert school. But fortunately style cannot be prescribed by rule.

Henry Miller.

New York, N. Y.

 

T. R. Whipple, review of American Tragedy New Republic, April 1926

 

 

 

Roger W. Smith,“Two Letters from ‘An American Tragedy'”

 

In Book Two, Chapter XLII of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, letters from Sondra Finchley and Roberta Alden to Clyde Griffiths, which Clyde receives on the same day, are paired and quoted in full.

The simultaneous reception of the two letters and the contrast between them, as Clyde perceives it, have a decisive impact on his motives.

This is one of the key points in a novel which appears to some readers to be shapeless. The pairing of these letters by Dreiser was a brilliant stroke. They are a focal point of the novel, illustrating the choice between Roberta and Sondra upon which Clyde is impaled. (It is ironic that Boni and Liveright editor T. R. Smith felt the real life letters of murder victim Grace Brown, which Roberta Alden’s letters are either closely or loosely based upon, depending upon the letter, should be excised from the novel.)

 

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Sondra’s letter:

 

Pine Point Landing, June 10th

CLYDE MYDIE:

How is my pheet phing. All whytie? It’s just glorious up here. Lots of people already here and more coming every day. The Casino and golf course over at Pine Point are open and lots of people about. I can hear Stuart and Grant with their launches going up toward Gray’s Inlet now. You must hurry and come up, dear. It’s too nice for words. Green roads to gallop through, and swimming and dancing at the Casino every afternoon until four. Just back from a wonderful gallop on Dickey and going again after luncheon to mail these letters. Bertine says she’ll write you a letter to-day or to-morrow good for any week-end or any old time, so when Sonda says come, you come, you hear, else Sonda whip hard. You baddie, good boy.

Is he working hard in the baddie old factory? Sonda wishes he was here wiss her instead. We’d ride and drive and swim and dance. Don’t forget your tennis racquet and golf clubs. There’s a dandy course on the Casino grounds.

This morning when I was riding a bird flew right up under Dickey’s heels. It scared him so that he bolted and Sonda got all switched and scwatched. Isn’t Clydie sorry for his Sonda?

She is writing lots of notes to-day. After lunch and the ride to catch the down mail, Sonda and Bertine and Nina going to the Casino. Don’t you wish you were going to be there? We could dance to “Tandy.” Sonda just loves that song. But she has to dress now. More to-morrow, baddie boy. And when Bertine writes, answer right away. See all ‘ose dots? Kisses. Big and little ones. All for baddie boy. And wite Sonda every day and she’ll write ‘oo.

More Kisses.

 

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Roberta’s letter

 

(I have italicized the interpolated authorial comments representing Clyde’s thoughts; Dreiser MUST have intended them to be taken ironically.)

 

Biltz, June 10th.

DEAR CLYDE:

I am nearly ready for bed, but I will write you a few lines. I had such a tiresome journey coming up that I was nearly sick. In the first place I don’t want to come much (alone) as you know. I feel too upset and uncertain about everything, although I try not to feel so now that we have our plan and you are going to come for me as you said.

(At this point, while nearly sickened by the thought of the wretched country world in which she lived, still, because of Roberta’s unfortunate and unavoidable relation to it, he now experienced one of his old time twinges of remorse and pity in regard to her. For after all, this was not her fault. She had so little to look forward to — nothing but her work or a commonplace marriage. For the first time in many days, really, and in the absence of both, he was able to think clearly — and to sympathize deeply, if gloomily. For the remainder of the letter read:)

But it’s very nice here now. The trees are so beautifully green and the flowers in bloom. I can hear the bees in the orchard whenever I go to the south windows. On the way up instead of coming straight home, I decided to stop at Homer to see my sister and brother-in-law, since I am not so sure when I shall see them again, if ever, for I am resolved that they shall see me respectable, or never at all any more. You mustn’t think I mean anything hard or mean by this. I am just sad. They have such a cute little home there, Clyde — pretty furniture, a victrola and all, and Agnes is so very happy with Fred. I hope she always will be. I couldn’t help thinking of what a dear place we might have had, if only my dreams had come true. And nearly all the time I was there Fred kept teasing me as to why I don’t get married, until I said, “Oh, well, Fred, you mustn’t be too sure that I won’t one of these days. All good things come to him who waits, you know.” “Yes, unless you just turn out to be a waiter,” was the way he hit me back.

But I was truly glad to see mother again, Clyde. She’s so loving and patient and helpful. The sweetest, dearest mother that ever, ever was. And I just hate to hurt her in any way. And Tom and Emily, too. They have had friends here every evening since I’ve been here — and they want me to join in, but I hardly feel well enough now to do all the things they want me to do — play cards and games — dance.

(At this point Clyde could not help emphasizing in his own mind the shabby home world of which she was a part and which so recently he had seen — and that rickety house! those toppling chimneys! Her uncouth father. And that in contrast to such letter as this other from Sondra.)

Father and mother and Tom and Emily just seem to hang around and try to do things for me. And I feel remorseful when I think how they would feel if they knew, for, of course, I have to pretend that it is work that makes me feel so tired and depressed as I am sometimes. Mothers keeps saying that I must stay a long time or quit entirely and rest and get well again, but she just don’t know, of course — poor dear. If she did! I can’t tell you how that makes me feel sometimes, Clyde. Oh, dear!

But there, I mustn’t put my sad feelings over on you either. I don’t want to, as I told you, if you will only come and get me as we’ve agreed. And I won’t be like that either, Clyde. I’m not that way all the time now. I’ve started to get ready and do all the things it’ll take to do in the three weeks and that’s enough to keep my mind off everything but work. But you will come for me, won’t you, dear? You won’t disappoint me any more and make me suffer this time like you have so far, for, oh, how long it has been now — ever since I was here before at Christmas time, really. But you were truly nice to me. I promise not to be a burden on you, for I know you don’t really care for me any more and so I don’t care much what happens now, so long as I get out of this. But I truly promise not to be a burden on you.

Oh, dear, don’t mind this blot. I just don’t seem to be able to control myself these days like I once could.

But as for what I came for. The family think they are clothes for a party down in Lycurgus and that I must be having a wonderful time. Well, it’s better that way than the other. I may have to come as far as Fonda to get some things, if I don’t send Mrs. Anse, the dressmaker, and if so, and if you wanted to see me again before you come, although I don’t suppose you do, you could. I’d like to see you and talk to you again if you care to, before we start. It all seems so funny to me, Clyde, having these clothes made and wishing to see you so much and yet knowing that you would rather not do this. And yet I hope you are satisfied now that you have succeeded in making me leave Lycurgus and come up here and are having what you call a good time. Are they so much better than the ones we used to have last summer when we went about to the lakes and everywhere? But whatever they are, Clyde, surely you can afford to do this for me without feeling too bad. I know it seems hard to you now, but you don’t want to forget either that if I was the like some that I know, I might and would ask more. But as I told you I’m not like that and never could be. If you don’t really want me after you have helped me out like I said, you can go.

Please write me, Clyde, a long, cheery letter, even though you don’t want to, and tell me all about how you have not thought of me once since I’ve been away or missed me at all — you used to, you know, and how you don’t want me to come back and you can’t possibly come up before two weeks from Saturday if then.

Oh, dear, I don’t mean the horrid things I write, but I’m so blue and tired and lonely that I can’t help it at times. I need some one to talk to — not just any one here, because they don’t understand and I can’t tell anybody.

But there, I said I wouldn’t be blue or gloomy or cross and yet I haven’t done so very well this time, have I? But I promise to do better next time — to-morrow or next day, because it relieves me to write to you, Clyde. And won’t you please write me just a few words to cheer me up while I’m waiting, whether you mean it or not, I need it so. And you will come, of course. I’ll be so happy and grateful and try not to bother you too much in any way.

Your lonely

BERT

 

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For this writer — reading An American Tragedy for the first time (it was my introduction to Dreiser) — it was a gut-wrenching experience to read Roberta’s letter, to realize how oblivious Clyde is to her claims to superiority over Sondra in practically every respect (excluding wealth and social status).

These two letters — superimposed one on the other, as it were — have, of course, the opposite effect on Clyde:

[I]t was the contrast presented by these two scenes which finally determined for him the fact that he would never marry Roberta … or let her come back to him here, if he could avoid that.

Almost immediately afterward, Clyde sees the newspaper headline “Double Tragedy At Pass Lake” and the plot to murder Roberta begins to take shape in his mind.

Dreiser is able in this novel, his masterpiece, both to identify with Clyde’s twisted point of view and to see its limitations, which is to say that he wants to make plausible the kind of feelings that could cause Clyde to want to forsake Sondra for Roberta (similar to yearnings for wealth and status that Dreiser himself had) and, at the same time, intends for the reader to see the sadness, the pathos in all of this: the ironic contrast between the outlook of the totally vapid, self-centered flapper Sondra and  the farm girl now factory worker Roberta, who, while less sophisticated, socially speaking, is clearly Sondra’s moral superior (and, actually, though Clyde doesn’t realize it, the better woman for him).

Roberta is wholesome and honest, and sincere; she really loves Clyde. She is considerate of Clyde’s feelings and those of others. She has a wholesome family life. This is precisely what Clyde needs, not the imagined glories of Sondra’s world.

Sondra comes across as narcissistic and shallow, and as so self-centered it is almost beyond belief. Yet somehow Dreiser makes Clyde’s incomprehension plausible — his adoration of Sondra and detestation of Roberta. And this makes Clyde’s crime believable and understandable in terms of his and its perverse logic.

 

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The Analysis of James L. McDonald

 

I was surprised to read James L. McDonald’s article “Dreiser’s Artistry: Two Letters from An American Tragedy” in a past issue of the Dreiser Newsletter (7 [1976]:2–6), in which he expresses an entirely opposite point of view.

Professor McDonald states:

 [T]he letters … show Dreiser’s finely wrought presentation and dramatization of the characters of Roberta and Sondra. Further, they reveal his subtle use of irony to reverse the readers’ [sic] previous judgments of the two women and to indicate the dimensions of the worlds they inhabit, thus deepening our awareness of Clyde’s callowness and naiveté and complicating the whole problem of his guilt.

What does McDonald mean by “subtle use of irony” and “reverse the readers’ previous judgments of the two women”? He goes on to explain:

A hasty reading of the letters seems to confirm what readers have been led to believe about Sondra and Roberta. On the surface, Dreiser has been manipulating two stock characters: the beautiful but hollow and demanding rich girl … and the rather plain but loving and fertile girl-next-door. … Thus one can note an apparent contrast between the superficiality and frivolity of Sondra and the love and devotion of Roberta. Sondra, the wealthy golden girl of Clyde’s dreams, writes–in a language characterized by babytalk and imperious commands–of her carefree, trivial activities…. in the world of wealth Clyde yearns to enter. Roberta, the poor battered girl who has become a handicap to Clyde’s ambitions. writes simply and naturally about her loneliness, the discomforts of her pregnancy, and the virtues of the lower-class domestic world which he is trying to escape.

 The sympathies of Dreiser’s readers–formed in a respectable middle-class environment which views the pleasure-loving rich as decadent and immoral and sees the ordinary, average citizen as the salt of the earth–incline toward Roberta. So these readers are prone to interpret Clyde’s preference for Sondra as a sign of his vanity, conceit, and ultimate folly. This view of Clyde is not incorrect. Yet Dreiser is also working to reverse these sympathies; and this irony makes possible a deeper understanding of the characters and the moral problems in the novel.

Can this be true? Can this really be what Dreiser had in mind?

Dreiser may have had such intentions, but if he did, I for one would never have suspected, on a first reading, that this was the case.

McDonald’s analysis continues:

 Dreiser juxtaposes two worlds. Sondra’s letters come from and dramatize the world of wealth. … It is an active, competitive society where golfing, boating, horseback-riding, swimming, and dancing are the privileges of charming, polished, carefree young people–a social climate which she thoroughly enjoys and wants to share with Clyde. Roberta’s letters come from and present the world of the lower-class, “Blitz” [sic] and “Homer,” ‘where her sister and brother-in-law have “such a cute little home” with “pretty furniture, a victrola and all . . .”: a passive, drearily domestic existence whose pleasures are dim and routine (playing cards and games) — a life which she does not enjoy, which makes her bored and lonely, but which she wishes to drag Clyde into.

 Dreiser makes these worlds explicit in the styles of the writers: through contrasting diction, rhythm, emphasis, and tone, he specifies the essential qualities which mark the gap between Sondra and Roberta, and the worlds they represent. One is struck by the stylishness and dynamism of Sondra” from the speed and intensity of the opening lines. As her diction and rhythms indicate, Sondra is more than just a social butterfly. … The sharp, arresting address, the playful banter which follows, and the abrupt, frank, natural summation of the situation reveal Sondra as a singularly dashing and vibrant young lady.

“There is nothing striking about the beginning of Roberta’s letter,” McDonald goes on to say. “It is utterly drab and lifeless. … Roberta may be fertile, but her diction and rhythm are remarkably dingy, plodding, and labored.”

McDonald proceeds to make the following points about Sondra’s correspondence vis-à-vis Roberta’s:

Roberta’s letter drags on, detailing her miseries, with a characteristic stress on “I,” a word she uses 71 times in all.

Throughout Sondra’s letter, one is aware of her serene self-assurance, typified by her personification of herself as “Sonda” and her use of babytalk. … The babytalk reflects a surface immaturity. But it also shows her social position; the babytalk about the [horseback riding] accident directs Clyde’s attention away from a possibly battered and disheveled Sondra to a desirable, commanding “Sonda” who, provocatively, “has to dress now,” and can promise “Kisses. Big and little ones. All for baddie boy.”

Roberta …. has no such self-awareness, much less self-assurance. … Trapped within her own wounded ego and unable to cope with her physical predicament, she cannot see the image she presents to Clyde. Though “nearly ready for bed,” she is anything but enticing. She cannot present herself as anything more than a self- centered, self-pitying, whining problem-child.

In the abstract, and given the readers’ predispositions, it would be easy and natural to sympathize with Roberta, her condition and the world she represents. But, juxtaposed to Sondra, Roberta comes off very badly. Her dullness, egotism, self-pity, her inability to cope with her situation (“Oh, dear, don’t mind this blot. I just don’t seem able to control myself these days like I once could.”) are the results of serious weaknesses of character and the moral, as well as material, poverty of the class she comes from. Her condition is not advanced enough to be noticed; but Roberta has degenerated into a pregnant lump. In Sondra’s letter, a calculated artificiality is evident, in keeping with her self-styled role as fashionable darling among the wealthy elite. But before she can begin to behave and write so successfully, before she can offer such an image, Sondra has to know herself and her capabilities very well and has to appreciate the motives and predispositions of others. The fact is that she does not lack substance. And the world that she comes from–with its allure, power, and almost unlimited opportunities–has helped provide that substance and has a richness and depth that Dreiser recognizes and communicates to the reader.

The point about Roberta’s essence — she is referred to by McDonald as “a pregnant lump” — is a crucial one. If Dreiser intended us to see her this way (Clyde, admittedly, does), it is regrettable. (Yet, in the film A Place in the Sun, Alice Tripp, the Roberta character, is portrayed this way by Shelley Winters.)

I think that Professor McDonald gets it entirely wrong, backwards. I can’t believe that Dreiser intends us to view Sondra as Roberta’s superior — morally speaking, that is, as a person.

But there is indeed ambiguity in the novel — there was undoubtedly ambiguity in Dreiser’s (and Clyde’s) mind. The reader experiences this.

 

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Another Point of View

A thesis by Thomas Kranidas (“The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy“) provides the best analysis that I am aware of. It clears up some of the confusion that the novel seems to create. The “confusion,” so to speak, seems to be inherent. Dreiser himself experienced it, he makes us experience it, he makes his principal characters experience it.

The following is the analysis of Kranidas:

One of the keys to Dreiser’s social thinking and to the feelings directing his writing, is his conception of the High-class Woman. The phrase is, I think, appropriate; it implies a vulgar conception of a woman with certain qualities that set her above other women, a woman who is desirable to men as a class distinction, a woman of good family, good education, money (generally) and of a certain kind of rarefied prettiness. Rarefied is perhaps the best word for her; she is fragile and needs special care by nature, yet she is independent and selfish. …

Dreiser’s ideal woman is … a figure to be set among and complimented with the conventional symbols of luxury — jewels, fountains, silks, satins. …

… in An American Tragedy, the low-class women are called Hortense Briggs, Doris Trine, and Lura Sipe. The names of Dreiser’s upper-class women point to the shallowness and naiveté of his conception. … The names are if not downright fanciful, hyphenated, exotic, at least cool and distinctive. The climax of “distinctive” names comes in An American Tragedy. Sondra is like a childish drawling of the exotic name Sandra; and children drawl when they talk like rich people. Sondra’s friends are called Bertine Cranstan, Arabella Stark, Bella Griffiths and Constance Wynant. And these names are not used as part of a Dickensian caricature but as part of what Dreiser considered “class.”

The upper-class women of Dreiser’s novels are not sexy, they have even a slight touch of frigidity like the photos of Vogue models. Aloof rather than interested, they put a social rather than sexual gauge on their young men. These women are not portrayed deeply enough to give us any feeling of real superiority. There is no real delicacy or insight that reflects careful training. There is rather a shallow stereotype of a pretty, vain, well-dressed young woman. Dreiser never once did justice to a young woman of the upper classes. … the rude love of Roberta Alden is convincing while the baby talk of Sondra Finchley is not.

Dreiser wanted to write about the rich; he had a pitiful need to appear familiar with the “great world.” … And all this time Dreiser knew and felt and wrote that class was unimportant, that wealth was an evil thing, that the rich were not so very much after all. Through his work rages his own private battle between hate and resentment of the upper class and abject admiration and envy, and an attempt to identify with them. Wherever Dreiser’s class consciousness touches his writing, the effect is false. Wherever he attempts to identify through knowingness or annihilate with scorn, he is unrealistic. Whenever he sees his character as apart from his social yearnings, as united to him, not in education and money, but in love, hate, hunger, fear, he is realistic. So Roberta is true and Sondra is not.

 — Thomas Kranidas, “The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy,” Master’s thesis, Columbia University, 1953, pp. 35-40

This brilliant thesis was for years unavailable and has been overlooked.

 

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Conclusion

 

In the final analysis, one can say with confidence that:

Dreiser did not intend Roberta Alden to be less admirable or desirable than Sondra Finchley. Clyde is wrong to feel that way.

Roberta writes beautifully, showing her inner beauty. Sondra’s prose is insipid, as befits her personality.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    June 2016

 

did Sondra visit Clyde on death row?

 

On page 335 of Craig Brandon’s Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited (Fully Revised and Expanded Edition, 2016) — the definitive book about the “American Tragedy” murder case — Brandon states:

In the novel [Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy], Sondra is with Clyde when he is arrested, and she comes to visit him when he is in prison, something that is very unlikely to have happened in real life.

Actually, this is not the case with respect to the novel. Brandon is conflating the novel with the 1951 movie version, A Place in the Sun. It is questionable whether he has actually read An American Tragedy.

In Dreiser’s An American Tragedy , Clyde Griffiths receives a letter from Sondra Finchley when he is on death row (Book Three, Chapter XXXII). The letter is typewritten with no signature. Sondra does not visit Clyde in prison at any point in the novel.

Clyde is despondent after receiving the letter because of its terseness, formality, and impersonal character.

The overrated film A Place in the Sun has been the source of much confusion in this regard. In the film, which takes shameless liberties with Dreiser’s novel, Angela Vickers (Sondra Finchley), played by Elizabeth Taylor, visits George Eastman (Clyde Griffiths), played by Montgomery Clift, on death row.

The film ends with Angela visiting George in prison, saying that she will always love him, and with him slowly marching towards his execution.

This is – to put it kindly – ridiculous. It undercuts and violates the plot of the novel and premises about the central characters upon which it was based.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     June 2016

 

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Addendum:

Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy, Book Three, Chapter XXXII

 

But the days going by until finally one day six weeks after–and when because of his silence in regard to himself, the Rev. Duncan was beginning to despair of ever affecting him in any way toward his proper contrition and salvation–a letter or note from Sondra. It came through the warden’s office and by the hand of the Rev. Preston Guilford, the Protestant chaplain of the prison, but was not signed.  It was, however, on good paper, and because the rule of the prison so requiring had been opened and read.  Nevertheless, on account of the nature of the contents which seemed to both the warden and the Rev. Guilford to be more charitable and punitive than otherwise, and because plainly, if not verifiably, it was from that Miss X of repute or notoriety in connection with his trial, it was decided, after due deliberation, that Clyde should be permitted to read it–even that it was best that he should.  Perhaps it would prove of value as a lesson.  The way of the transgressor.  And so it was handed to him at the close of a late fall day–after a long and dreary summer had passed (soon a year since he had entered here).  And he taking it.  And although it was typewritten with no date nor place on the envelope, which was postmarked New York–yet sensing somehow that it might be from her.  And growing decidedly nervous–so much so that his hand trembled slightly.  And then reading–over and over and over–during many days thereafter: “Clyde ? This is so that you will not think that some one once dear to you has utterly forgotten you.  She has suffered much, too.  And though she can never understand how you could have done as you did, still, even now, although she is never to see you again, she is not without sorrow and sympathy and wishes you freedom and happiness.”

But no signature–no trace of her own handwriting.  She was afraid to sign her name and she was too remote from him in her mood now to let him know where she was.  New York!  But it might have been sent there from anywhere to mail.  And she would not let him know–would never let him know–even though he died here later, as well he might.  His last hope–the last trace of his dream vanished. Forever!  It was at that moment, as when night at last falls upon the faintest remaining gleam of dusk in the west.  A dim, weakening tinge of pink–and then the dark.

He seated himself on his cot.  The wretched stripes of his uniform and his gray felt shoes took his eye.  A felon.  These stripes. These shoes.  This cell.  This uncertain, threatening prospect so very terrible to contemplate at any time.  And then this letter. So this was the end of all that wonderful dream!  And for this he had sought so desperately to disengage himself from Roberta–even to the point of deciding to slay her.  This!  This!  He toyed with the letter, then held it quite still.  Where was she now?  Who in love with, maybe?  She had had time to change perhaps.  She had only been captivated by him a little, maybe.  And then that terrible revelation in connection with him had destroyed forever, no doubt, all sentiment in connection with him.  She was free.  She had beauty–wealth.  Now some other–

 

Mary Gordon on “A Place in the Sun”

 

The following are critic Mary Gordon’s comments on the contrasting characters of Roberta Alden and Sondra Finchley in Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, viewed in the context of A Place in the Sun, the 1951 film directed by George Stevens that was based on An American Tragedy.

The film was a critical and commercial success and is regarded as a classic. It is my opinion – not the prevailing one – that the film is overrated; that the principal characters are miscast; that the acting is poor; and, what is worst, that the film takes shameful liberties with the plot and spirit of Dreiser’s masterpiece.

 

— Roger W. Smith

      July 2016

 

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Dreiser makes both Roberta’s attractiveness and her virtue real.  She is a genuinely loving young woman who is sexually awakened by her feelings for Clyde.  Hollywood’s casting of Shelley Winters, the perennial slut, to play her in the second movie version of the novel, A Place in the Sun, was a serious violation of the spirit of Dreiser’s book.  … Dreiser’s Roberta is a genuine innocent, forced by poverty to leave the “reduced grimness:” of her decaying farm … in order to take up factory work, which is really beneath her.  Dreiser makes the point, that like Clyde, she has innate finesse.  … Sondra, on the other hand, is a dreadful girl who happens to be irresistibly beautiful and marvelously rich. Her clothes, her car, her sports equipment, at least as much as her body, are the locus of her sexual allure.  … Clearly, Dreiser wants us at once to realize Sondra’s ridiculousness and the allure of all she has.  … Astonishingly, we are on Clyde’s side in his conviction that marrying Roberta, with whom he was quite happy until Sondra appeared, is impossible.  … We are at one with Clyde in his plans to murder this encumbered woman, this encumbrance, heavy with child and the limitations of her poverty.

 

—  Mary Gordon, “Good Boys and Dead Girls,” in Good Boys and Dead Girls and Other Essays (Viking, 1991), pp. 8-10

 

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