Category Archives: An American Tragedy

Dreiser’s foreword to “The Symbolic Drawings of Hubert Davis for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser”

 

 

 

The following is Theodore Dreiser’s foreword to The Symbolic Drawings of Hubert Davis for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (Horace Liveright, 1930), which was published as a limited edition.

 

 

 

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THREE THINGS arrest me in these twenty commentaries on Clyde Griffiths and his family life cycle. They are: (one) the very distinguished power of symbolization, accompanied and strengthened as it is by (two) the gift of epitomizing symbolically, and (three) the sketchy and yet really deft craftmanship (sympathetic, moody and even emotional as it becomes at times) with which things not ordinarily joined in strong ideographic or symbolic wholes are nevertheless here brought together in an illuminating and at times flashing way.

Consider only the emotional imaginings of Clyde as they related to Sondra (Plate 7), or the drabness and lack of understanding and futility of the Griffiths group as pictured by him in Scene I–old Asa Griffiths, and Elvira, little Clyde and the others. Or that other particular scene after the party at Sondra’s, where he approaches the house of the Gilpins and notes the glow of Roberta’s waiting lamp. The somberness of the problem suggested– its ominous implications. Again, where Clyde—(or put in his place all distrait youth and inexperience, all troubled sense of error and failure, as it finds itself on occasion in this world)–stands before the druggist waiting. That suggestion, not so much of Clyde as of all human misery– of embryo life itself–caught in the toils of circumstance. And the suggestion of the toils of circumstance, the iron and yet shadowy fingers of weaving, irresistible life behind it all–its out-reaching arm! Or again, that quite marvelous condensation of all that is macerating in doubt and in fear–the scene before the house of Doctor Glenn, where Clyde and Roberta wait and argue–the gripping misery, the haunting sense of failure. Or yet again, the scene where Roberta drowns–that eye in the water; or where Clyde wanders south, through the woods–a morass of misery rather than of trees. Yet actually, if it were of any value so to do, I would name not just these, but each and every one of them and commend all for the qualities first listed by me — the power of symbolization as well as epitomization. In short, if An American Tragedy itself were lost from life, its essential tragedy, if not text, might well be reconstructed from these various intense reactions–their inherent understanding and epitomization of all that is so true and so sad about that very complicated mesh of misery that was Clyde and his desires and his weaknesses and failures.

And yet, no one of them in particular any more than all of them collectively evoked by the essential grimness or pathos of this particular tragedy, as opposed to any other true tragedy. Rather inherent, I think, in Davis’ personal viewpoint, his temperamental as well as craft reactions to what he sees in life and how the human comedy or tragedy appeals to him personally. A large viewpoint and large gift. And proved by the ease with which he turns from this particular theme (An American Tragedy) to the tales of Poe, as well as the novels of Dostoievsky–an ease and surety which I am sure could and would encompass and symbolize the essentials of almost any other important, brooding or sombre analysis and presentation of life on the part of any one. As a matter of fact, I see as properly lying within this his field and range such volumes or studies as Wuthering Heights, The Inferno of Strindberg, The Ancient Mariner, The Master Builder of Ibsen, The Diary of A. Gordon Pym, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Paradise Lost, The Great Plague of London, possibly even Dante’s Inferno had not Doré done that.

Returning to An American Tragedy and his interpretation of that, let me say here I count the work as well as myself fortunate in that it has found in him one so truly gifted and at the same time so interested as to symbolize that much of it as truly moved him. In short, since first this collection, as well as that other relating to the stories of Poe, was shown to me, I have never wearied of them. To me they sound a new and sure note in American Symbolic Art–so much so that I am loath to think of him deserting this particular phase of his gift before he has undertaken some of the other works above mentioned which so obviously and properly fall within his range. I would give not a little to have him illustrate Crime and Punishment.

Finally, in connection with this type of thing–Doré’s illustration of Dante’s Inferno and Blake’s illumination of his mysterious spirit world–I have the feeling that they not only illuminate the woks they accompany, but better, restate its substance or essence in another and scarcely less valuable medium; in some instances more effectively than do the words or the books themselves. For here much that at times in books at least, must be almost tediously and certainly meticulously recounted, comes smack and instanter to the mind, as light to the eye or a cry to the ear. And often–as in the skeleton figure of the keeper above the prison in this group–they gather up in a few tragic and to me almost spectral lines all that is meant by fate or ignorance, illusion, delusion, defeat, torture, death–the shambling and ragged procession, mental and physical, of those who come botched and defective–unfavored by Chance and hence despised and ever accursed by society. But by whose fault? And why?

 

Ask me now whose.

Ask me not why.

 

 

(signed) Theodore Dreiser

 

 

 

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Note that Dreiser states: “Consider … that other particular scene after the party at Sondra’s, where [Clyde] approaches the house of the Gilpins and notes the glow of Roberta’s waiting lamp.” This is characteristic carelessness by Dreiser, in this case regarding the details of his own novel. The scene where Clyde approaches the house where Roberta is boarding occurs in Book Two, Chapter XXXI of An American Tragedy. The scene occurs not after a party given by Sondra, but on Christmas day after Clyde has attended Christmas dinner at the home of his uncle.

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    June 2017

TCM screens 1931 film version of “An American Tragedy”

 

 

It was great to see a rare screening of the original 1931 film version of An American Tragedy on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) this evening. I am convinced that this version is superior to the acclaimed film A Place in the Sun, which I, personally, do not feel deserves the praise it has been accorded. See my post to this effect at

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2016/06/27/mary-gordon-on-a-place-in-the-sun/

Particularly appealing — indeed, gratifying — to me was the quality of the print. I have seen the 1931 film several times, and the image was always grainy.

The host for the program, Ben Mankiewicz, got most of the details about the circumstances associated with the making of the film — and Theodore Dreiser’s objections to it — right. But, at the end of the program, he made a serious factual error. He stated that Chester Gillette’s mother sued Paramount. This is not true.

It was Grace Brown’s mother who sued the producers, as is indicated in the following news item:

“Ithaca Picked for Trial of Movie Suit; ‘American Tragedy’ Producers Denied Pre-Trial Questioning Petition,” Syracuse Herald, September 7, 1934, pg. 16

$150,000 libel action of Mrs. Grace Brown, 78, of Smyrna [NY], against Paramount-Publix moving picture corporation for alleged destructive character delineation in the film version of “An American Tragedy.” … Clifford Searl of Syracuse, counsel for Mrs. [Minerva] Brown. “Mrs. Brown claims in her suit she was depicted as ‘illiterate’ in the film version.”

Also see below a PDF file of a New York Times article dated November 9, 1934 about the settlement of the suit.

 

 

Roger W. Smith

May 17, 2017

 

 

‘Paramount Settles Suit’ – NY Times 11-9-1934

 

 

 

 

Thomas Kranidas, “The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy”

 

 

Thomas Kranidas, ‘The Materials of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy’

 

 

A while ago, I was contemplating writing an article on the sources of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. In my research, I came across a master’s thesis which was listed in Pizer, Dowell, and Rusch’s Dreiser bibliography.

I decided to look the thesis up because it was at Columbia University (accessible to me, since I live in New York City) and because the title intrigued me. It was by Thomas Kranidas and is entitled “The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy” (Master’s thesis, Columbia University, 1953, 94 pp.).

I read the thesis at Columbia. It wasn’t really an investigation of the sources of An American Tragedy, but it was mainly focused on that novel. It included consideration to a limited extent of other works of Dreiser — e.g., his poetry and essays — that pertained to the author’s argument.

This thesis is, in my opinion, excellent — very penetrating. It is one of the best analyses I have ever read of Dreiser as a writer and muddled thinker, and someone with pretensions to intellectual and social stature that can be detected in his writings. It is for the most part critical of Dreiser, but I think it is one of the best analyses of him I have ever read. It gets under Dreiser’s skin and “nails” him.  Nonetheless, the author, Thomas Kranidas, is appreciative of the strengths of An American Tragedy.

The thesis is here made available for the first time. It is posted above as a downloadable PDF file.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   April 2017

 

 

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email from Roger W. Smith to Thomas Kranidas, April 25, 2017

 

 

Dear Professor Kranidas,

Following up on our conversation today, a few thoughts about your master’s thesis.

I read it at Butler Library. It is available nowhere else, I believe. (It was not available and was irretrievable until I copied and scanned it and posted in on my Dreiser site.)

My basic reaction, gut feeling was that (1) it was an M.A. thesis, not a dissertation; (2) it was not based on exhaustive research into the sources of An American Tragedy (which was not your objective).

Neverthless, I felt that it was one of the best statements I have read about Dreiser qua writer; Dreiser the self-styled “philosopher”; and Dreiser the social climber who yearned for what he professed to disdain.

You “nailed” him … got under his skin. Analyzed, penetratingly, his weaknesses as a writer and the shortcomings of his worldview … his pretensions, his myopia when it came to writing about the privileged classes.

While at the same time appreciating his strengths, and steering clear of a hatchet job.

Roger W. Smith, “An American Tragedy: Clyde Griffiths vis-à-vis Roberta Alden and Sondra Finchley”

 

 

clyde-vis-a-vis-roberta-and-sondra

 

Downloadable file above

 

 

 

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In Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, which was based on an actual murder case, the protagonist, CLYDE GRIFFITHS, kills his pregnant girlfriend ROBERTA ALDEN. Both Clyde Griffiths and Roberta Alden were based on real life prototypes.

There is a third major character in the novel, SONDRA FINCHLEY, an invented character. She becomes a love interest for Clyde, and the ensuing love affair between Clyde and Sondra – plus the fact that Roberta Alden (who was and still is Clyde’s girlfriend despite his new relationship with Sondra) becomes pregnant – which will perhaps force Clyde to marry her – underlies Clyde’s plot to murder Roberta, which he carries out (accidentally, he says).

Roberta is portrayed sympathetically by Dreiser. She is a winsome farm girl who is now working in the factory where Clyde is a supervisor.

Sondra Finchley, Clyde’s other love interest, is portrayed by Dreiser as being alluring—in fact, beautiful — but Dreiser also makes it plain as day to the reader that she is vain and self centered.

Clyde is attracted to Sondra on many levels, which include her wealth and social position as well as her beauty.

It seems to me that many readers have missed subtle points being made by Dreiser in the novel: for example, about romantic love vis-à-vis sexual desire; about class and privilege as factors underlying romance; about love that is admixed with the desire for wealth or status or with other ulterior motives; about tensions revolving around consummated versus unconsummated passion.

It seems that there are many who claim to be acquainted with — or feel that they are acquainted with — the book who have not actually read it but have seen the film Place in the Sun and, therefore, think they know what the book is about.

A Place in the Sun distorts key elements of the novel, especially the relationship between Clyde and Sondra, and (to a lesser extent, when speaking of distortion) the relationship between Clyde and Roberta. The film seems to ascribe to the Sondra character traits that in the novel she lacks (such as love surpassing or trumping vanity and her own ego), and to deny to the Roberta character traits that in the novel she does have (such as attractiveness, charm, and a certain refinement or delicacy of feeling that she comes by naturally).

In the film, the names of the characters have been changed, so that Clyde becomes George Eastman, Roberta becomes Alice Tripp, and Sondra becomes Angela Vickers.

I have reexamined An American Tragedy closely to see how Dreiser actually portrays these three central characters – in expository and narrative or descriptive passages and through interpolated comment, and through direct and indirect discourse – throughout the novel. What does this say about their fundamental characters and about their desirability as love objects vis-à-vis one another?

 

–Roger W. Smith

  September 2016

 

 

Note: The attached Word document (above) contains additional content, namely, extensive excerpts from the novel which illustrate my analysis, as per the discussion above.

 

 

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Book One, Chapter I

We get a first glimpse of Clyde as an adolescent with his family, who are engaged in street preaching: “A tall and as yet slight figure …”

Summary and Analysis: Clyde is not stupid (he is “keenly observant”) and is curious about the larger world. He is physically appealing.

 

 

Book One, Chapter II

“Casual examination of himself in mirrors….”

Summary and Analysis: Clyde is good looking but vain. And his vanity is offended by his parents’ occupation. which he is ashamed of.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter X

Clyde meets Sondra for the first time.

Summary and Analysis: Clyde “flips out” over Sondra upon their first meeting. The attraction is immediate, without her doing anything to foster it.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XII

Clyde meets Roberta when she comes to work at the factory.

Summary and Analysis: Roberta (portrayed by Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun as dowdy) is attractive, more attractive than the other factory girls in Clyde’s department. Not only does she have good looks and charm, there is a sense of native intelligence and refinement about her.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XIII

“because of a warm, imaginative, sensuous temperament, she [Roberta]  was filled … with the world-old dream of all of Eve’s daughters … that her beauty or charm might some day and ere long smite bewitchingly and so irresistibly the soul of a given man or men…. “

Summary and Analysis: Roberta is more than a drudge (unlike the character played by Shelley Winters).

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XIV

“… Clyde, on encountering her [Roberta], was greatly stirred.”

Summary and Analysis: The attraction between Clyde and Roberta is real. Meaning that Sondra is not the first beauty he falls in love with and that he did not get involved with Roberta merely because she was easy pickings.  Also, we see that Roberta — while she is conscious of rules about relationships in the factory, does not want to be a loose woman, and wonders if she is of a high enough social status to interest Clyde — is not a prude.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XV

“In loneliness and resentment and disappointment, his mind now wandered from the Griffiths and their world, and particularly that beautiful Sondra Finchley, … to Roberta and the world which she as well as he was occupying here.”

Summary and Analysis: Clyde already has aspirations to belong to the “higher world” represented by his Griffiths relatives. Yet, his attraction to Roberta is “chemic” (to use a Dreiserism) – he can’t help it. The attraction is real. By no means does Roberta set out to ensnare him.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XVII

“… the sight of his dark hair blown by the wind, the pale blue outing shirt he wore open at the neck, his sleeves rolled up and the yellow paddle held by him above the handsome blue boat, quite thrilled her.”

Summary and Analysis: Clyde represents to Roberta the fulfillment of all her desires. She is intensely attracted to him, also a “chemic” attraction.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XVIII

“They went about the floor once more, then a third time, before the music stopped and by the time it did, Roberta was lost in a sense of delight such as had never come to her before.”

Summary and Analysis: The attraction between Clyde and Roberta is intense and magnetic on both sides, both sexually and temperamentally. Clyde is already thinking of Sondra vis-à-vis his relationship with Roberta – he already has social climbing aspirations.  But this is not at this point in the novel seen by Clyde as a real possibility – as something to pursue — a relationship with Sondra, that is — because she is out of his reach, class wise.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XX

“Pain constricted her heart and whitened her lips. [Roberta] stood there numb and silent–unable to voice anything, even the name Clyde …”

Summary and Analysis: This is the first time that Clyde hurts Roberta, prefiguring his emotional cruelty to her throughout most of the novel. Roberta has refused to consent to having sex with Clyde (for good reasons that do not involve him). Clyde acts totally self centered, is indifferent to Roberta’s legitimate concerns about the consequences.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XXI

“[Roberta] retired to the rest room at about three in the afternoon and there with the aid of a piece of paper found on the floor and a small bit of pencil which she had, she composed a brief note.”

Summary and Analysis: Clyde gets his way.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XXIII

“And then, one November evening as Clyde was walking along Wykeagy Avenue, …”

Clyde meets Sondra accidentally.

Summary and Analysis: The stage is set by Dreiser for a romantic entanglement between Clyde and Sondra. He sets it up as an unlikely occurrence that arises from unforeseen coincidental happenstances. We get a hint of interest from Sondra in Clyde and see at the same time that there are elements of vanity here – she is flattered by Clyde’s diffidence, and is always thinking of ways to even the score with Clyde’s cousin Gilbert Griffiths.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XXIV

“The effect of this so casual contact was really disrupting in more senses than one. For now in spite of his comfort in and satisfaction with Roberta, once more and in this positive and to him entrancing way, was posed the whole question of his social possibilities here.”

Sondra invites Clyde to a dinner dance.

Summary and Analysis: This section of the novel is critical to understanding what subsequently occurs. It establishes that: (1) Clyde does not regard his just established sexual relationship with Roberta as anything sacred or that special; (2) Clyde, we learn, has promised to marry Roberta if sex between them results in her becoming pregnant -– he is confident he knows how to prevent this; (3) Sondra has decided to condescend to being nice to Clyde and “take him up,” mostly for selfish motives that do not have to do with Clyde.  The foundation for Clyde’s betrayal of Roberta has been laid.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XXV

“But in the interim, in connection with his relations with Roberta no least reference to Sondra, although, even when near her in the factory or her room, he could not keep his thoughts from wandering away to where Sondra in her imaginary high social world might be.”

Summary and Analysis: We see how confused Clyde is. He does care for Roberta, we are told, yet he is dazzled by the “actinic rays” of Sondra and the allure of her world of luxury and privilege. He is inclined to avoid Roberta henceforth, but he knows that, by conventional moral standards, this will be regarded as wrong, not proper (considering that he has seduced Roberta).

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XXVII

“The ensuing December days brought to Clyde some pleasing and yet complicating and disturbing developments. For Sondra Finchley, having found him so agreeable an admirer of hers, was from the first inclined neither to forget nor neglect him. But, occupying the rather prominent social position which she did, she was at first rather dubious as to how to proceed.”

Summary and Analysis: We see how the vain, self centered Sondra’s mind works in deciding how to proceed with Clyde. An interesting thought: just as Clyde’s motives with respect to Roberta turn out to be devious (although he was at first genuinely attracted to her not only physically but also as a person), Sondra’s motives could also be categorized that way.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XXVIII

“And he was thinking to himself as he went what to say now. What to do? How in the face of this suddenly frosted and blanched affection to pretend an interest he did not feel–how, indeed, continue with a relationship which now, as alive and vigorous as it might have been as little as fifteen days before, appeared exceedingly anemic and colorless.”

Summary and Analysis: The relationship with Roberta, “as alive and vigorous as it might have been as little as fifteen days before,” now appears to Clyde “exceedingly anemic and colorless.” He has become completely calculating. (“As contrasted with one of Sondra’s position and beauty, what had Roberta really to offer him?”)  The fulcrum of the novel is in place, the “real American tragedy” which Dreiser had wanted for years to write a novel about (lover of poor girl murders her after finding rich girl).

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XXXI

” ‘Do you like that Miss Finchley very much?’ she suddenly asked, looking up at him in the shadow, her desire to obtain some slight satisfaction–some little light on all this trouble–still torturing her.”

Summary and Analysis: What is happening to Roberta is cruel. She suffers greatly. She is a central character in the novel, with whom the reader empathizes, and a far more complex and compelling character than the vain, self centered flapper Sondra. Clyde, we are shown, does have feelings, including feelings for Roberta. He is not a complete psychopath devoid of them. But his feelings run only so deep. His pity for Roberta will not last.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XXXII

“… at the sight of her [Sondra] now in her white satin and crystal evening gown, her slippered feet swinging so intimately near, a faint perfume radiating to his nostrils, he was stirred. … And he, noting the wavering something in her own eyes, pulled her closer and kissed her.”

Summary and Analysis: Sondra submits to a kiss from Clyde, but this is not passion. Yes, she finds Clyde handsome, but she is not erotically attracted – he merely excites her vanity. The nature of Clyde’s attraction is curious too: “… his imagination in regard to her was really inflamed. Youth, beauty, wealth such as this–what would it not mean?” These are not words ordinarily used to describe the feelings of someone in the throes of passion.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XXXIII

“But most foolishly anticipating, as he now did, a future more substantial than the general local circumstances warranted, he was more concerned than ever lest his present relationship to Roberta should in any way prove inimical to all this. “
Roberta finds herself pregnant.

Summary and Analysis: Clyde, it has been revealed in an earlier chapter, has given Roberta assurances that, if she becomes pregnant as a result of their liaison, he will marry her. But now Clyde has come to the conclusion that he has to extricate himself from Roberta; he is beginning to feel that there is a real possibility of his being able to marry Sondra. Clyde feels strongly the need for absolute secrecy, especially as regards the possibility of Sondra finding out about his relationship with Roberta. And, Clyde does experience feelings of guilt, as shown in this passage, realizing that he has “taken undue advantage of a girl who, left to herself, would never have troubled with him.”

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XXXVIII

“The first effect of the doctor’s decision was to shock and terrify them both. …”

Summary and Analysis: The stark realities of Clyde and Roberta’s predicament are limned. Of course, there is a way out: for Clyde to marry Roberta.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XXXIX

“… in the very teeth of this grave dilemma he continued to pursue the enticing dream in connection with Sondra–the dark situation in connection with Roberta seeming no more at moments than a dark cloud which shadowed this other.”

Summary and Analysis: Sondra and Clyde both are calculating in their “love,” have devised motives grounded upon self-interest. Sondra is acting oppositional towards her parents; exactly what she has in mind regarding her future with Clyde is not clear. Clyde has pinned his hopes on marrying her. His love for Roberta has waned; his connection with her seems “no more at moments than a dark cloud which shadowed this other.”
Book Two, Chapter XLII

“Two letters, which arrived at this time and simultaneously, but accentuated the difficulty of all this.”

Summary and Analysis: The letters have the opposite effect on Clyde (as it seems Dreiser intended) than what one would hope they would have on the reader. Despite the shallow banter in Sondra’s letter and the sincerity and pathos of Roberta’s, all Clyde can see is details about Roberta’s situation and her humble farm family that remind him of what he considers to be her undesirability as a romantic object and, in Sondra’s vapid letter, hints of what to Clyde appear to be her superiority to Roberta based upon indicators of class and privilege.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XLIII

“And so he said: ‘Why couldn’t you run away with me now, Sondra, darling? It’s so long until fall and I want you so much.’ “

Summary and Analysis: Clyde’s suggestion made to Sondra that they elope immediately — a desperate and urgent one on his part, made because of the threat of his being arrested – is considered by Sondra, as is usual for her, from the point of view of herself and her self-interest. She of course does not know of Clyde’s predicament. Clyde’s appeal flatters her vanity. She is amused by the thought of discomfiting her parents in this regard. But then she thinks better of Clyde’s suggestion, out of calculations based upon her own situation. As usual, her love for Clyde is only skin deep; she is not prepared to throw away everything for him.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XLIV

letter from Roberta: ” ‘Can’t you come for me before July third? …’ ”

another letter: ” ‘I am writing to tell you that I am coming back to Lycurgus.’ ”

Summary and Analysis: Roberta’s pregnancy has reached the stage where she will not be able to continue hiding it from her parents. Hence, her urgent appeal to Clyde to come get her at once, and, if he won’t, she plans to return to Lycurgus. She does not say what she will do if that happens, but it’s clear that Clyde must act, because he absolutely does not want Roberta to return.

 

 

Book Two, Chapter XLV

“ ‘Dear Clyde: This is to tell you that unless I hear from you either by telephone or letter before noon, Friday, I shall be in Lycurgus that same night, and the world will know how you have treated me.’ ”

“And with this in his hands, he was finally all but numbed by the fact that now decidedly he must act. “

Summary and Analysis: This letter from Roberta is written two weeks after the preceding one.  Clyde has managed to stall her for an additional fortnight. Hence, Roberta’s urgent appeal, in which, uncharacteristically, she uses strong language threatening him: “I shall be in Lycurgus that same night, and the world will know how you have treated me.” Upon receiving which letter, Clyde, as Dreiser tells us, has reached the point of no return: he knowns for certain that he must “act.”
Book Three, Chapter VII

“And he, in spite of his troubled thoughts achieving a gay smile,–for once in her presence even the terror of Roberta’s death, his own present danger appeared to dwindle.”

Summary and Analysis: Bedazzled by the prospect of marrying Sondra, Clyde thinks he can pull off and get away with the “perfect crime.”

 

 

Book Three, Chapter VIII

“… The joy of this trip if only that other thing were not hanging over him now.  This exquisite pleasure of being near Sondra. …”

Summary and Analysis: Clyde is horrified by the realization that he has murdered Roberta. He thinks that he can avoid detection, but he is terrified at the thought that he could instead be caught. Underlying his mortification is one major concern: that he be exposed and humiliated before Sondra and lose all hopes of continued ecstasy with her and of marriage to her. Sondra, needless to say, is clueless, which is not, at this juncture, her fault. In this chapter, in which Clyde gets arrested, we see Clyde and Sondra, ironically, acting in the most loving fashion of their scenes together in the entire novel.  We learn that Mrs. Finchley has given Sondra an ultimatum: her relationship with Clyde must go no further. Sondra does not take this seriously. She mentions how handsome and popular Clyde is; this view that others have of him appeals to Sondra’s vanity.

 

 

Book Three, Chapter IX

Distinct Attorney Mason reaches Shelter Beach, where Clyde and Sondra and their party have been staying, and encounters Sondra for the first time.

Deputy Kraut arrives at the camp with Clyde, who is questioned aggressively by Mason.

Summary and Analysis: Mason’s impression confirms for the reader and corroborates what has already been made manifest by Dreiser: Sondra’s allure, her beauty. Clyde’s major concern is exposure and humiliation. It outweighs his fear of the consequences of prosecution.

 

 

Book Three, Chapter X

Mason reappears at the camp with the news that Clyde is under arrest, having confessed to having been with Roberta at Big Bittern.

Summary and Analysis: How does Sondra react on learning of Clyde’s arrest? With disbelief, which is to be expected. Clyde had never divulged anything to her about other relationships. Besides that, Sondra is concerned mostly about herself, about what her parents will think and about the possibility that because letters of hers to Clyde were found in Clyde’s room they might be made public. She expresses concern for Clyde, but only fleetingly.

 

 

Book Three, Chapter XII

“… in the home of the Finchleys on Fourth Lake, Sondra herself, after forty-eight hours of most macerating thoughts spent brooding on the astounding climax which had put a period to all her girlish fancies in regard to Clyde, deciding at last to confess all to her father. …”

Summary and Analysis: Sondra has a vapid personality. Despite her hauteur, she is immature and unsophisticated when it comes to matters worldly. She is terribly afraid of scandal.

 

 

Book Three, Chapter XXVI

Clyde is convicted.

“And what would the Griffiths–his uncle and Gilbert–think now? And Sondra! Sondra! Not a word from her. And through all this he had been openly testifying, as Belknap and Jephson had agreed that he must do–to the compelling and directing power of his passion for her. …”

Summary and Analysis: Clyde on the stand had testified to his love for Sondra. He has been hoping that she will become aware of this and that this will somehow be a means of keeping the flame of their romance alive (despite the futility of this). Now, upon his conviction, he is beginning to realize the utter futility of such hopes. A key factor is that Sondra has not communicated with him at all during the trial.

 

 

Book Three, Chapter XXXI

Clyde, in his cell on death row, receives a letter of sorts from Sondra.

“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. … His last hope–the last trace of his dream vanished.”

Summary and Analysis: It is a crushing blow to Clyde that when a letter of sorts from Sondra (yes, a letter, but such a formal one that it is almost more akin to a memorandum) finally comes to him, on death row, it is so impersonal, typewritten with no signature, and phrased formally and carefully with no expression of love – the best she can do is to say that she has not forgotten Clyde and wishes him “freedom and happiness.” This is a climactic moment in the novel. Clyde’s delusions have been smashed. He realizes that his dreams have been futile and that all hope (in the Dante-esque sense) is lost. In a sense, he is now ready to die.
Book Three, Chapter XXXII

“… the complications and the fever in connection with his desire for Sondra having subsided somewhat, it was possible on occasion now for him to reason without the desperate sting and tang of the mental state that had characterized him at the time when he was so immediately in touch with her.”

Summary and Analysis: The fire of Clyde’s passion for Sondra, the fulcrum of the novel, is “only smoldering” now. Clyde has achieved a breakthrough, an apotheosis, on death row. He has come face to face with his own delusions and can only now begin to see them for what they were.

 

 

Book Three, Chapter XXXIII

“[Clyde] had a feeling in his heart that he was not as guilty as they all seemed to think. … How could they judge him, these people, … even his own mother, when they did not know what his own mental, physical and spiritual suffering had been?”

Summary and Analysis: In his final moments, Clyde is ambivalent about his guilt. Among the extenuating factors, as he sees it, are that Roberta had “tortured him” and ruined his life with her insistence that he marry her; and the “unquenchable passion for the Sondra of his beautiful dream.” In Clyde’s view, he has been misunderstood and persecuted for desires and actions (what Dreiser would undoubtedly call “chemisms”) and entanglements which he could not avoid. In his view, only someone who has experienced them themselves would be qualified to say whether or not he should have been found guilty.

Roger W. Smith, “Impressions on Rereading ‘An American Tragedy’ “

 

 

Last night, I was rereading portions of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.

The reason I am rereading the novel, Dreiser’s magnum opus – portions, that is – is that I am working with a screenwriter who has written a film script of what would be a third film based on An American Tragedy.

Anyway, my impression, after all these years, is that the book holds up very well, retains its power.

It is incredible to me – at least surprising – that this is true. (I haven’t read the book for a while.) Dreiser couldn’t write, could he? An American Tragedy exhibits all his faults as a writer. And, yet …

The book is incredibly powerful; is sui generis; was done just right for its subject matter; holds the reader in thrall.

How can this be? How does Dreiser do it?

An American Tragedy is the book that introduced me to Dreiser. I read it in the mid 1980’s. It bowled me over. The amazing thing to me is that it retains its power, despite the fact that, over the years, I have become acutely aware of Dreiser’s limitations as a writer.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

      August 2, 2016

 

 

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Addendum: The following are some specific comments of mine about the novel based upon a rereading of key parts.

In Book Two, Chapter XLVII of An American Tragedy, Roberta Alden, who is drowning, calls out to Clyde Griffiths, but Clyde says nothing; he merely swims to shore. He ignores her cries.

He does not respond to her or (out loud) to himself. Instead, what occurs is an interior monologue described by Dreiser in which Clyde comes to a realization that here is his opportunity to be rid of Roberta without him actually being culpable for her death, because it was an accident and (though he has been intending to kill her), when the moment arrived, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Right then, Roberta lunges forward and gets struck by the camera in what is described as an “unintended blow by Clyde.”

Clyde gets ensnared by his own thoughts, which make him feel that perhaps he should not try to save her (and he also thinks, during this interior monologue, that perhaps she might cause him to drown too, by pulling him under, if her tried to save her). Clyde is upset — and confused. He tells himself that “he had not really killed her.” Then he hides the camera tripod and sets off, heading to a rendezvous elsewhere in the Adirondacks with Sondra’s party.

Clyde in the drowning scene (Book Two, Chapter XLVII) has a passing thought that he should save Roberta before he swims to shore. But his predominating thought is that, well – I didn’t actually commit murder, but she’s drowning, accidentally (or at least it can be construed that way) — so here’s my chance to be rid of her without culpability. (Yet, Clyde is not a complete psychopath. When he gets to shore, he debates with himself — in the penultimate paragraph of Chapter XLVII — whether he is guilty or not.)

Clyde tells defense attorney Jephson when he is on the stand that it was hopeless for him to try to save Roberta. He thought he should get her to take hold of the boat, but saw it was hopeless. “By then the boat had floated all of thirty or forty feet away and I knew that I couldn’t get her into that. And then I decided that if I wanted to save myself I had better swim ashore,” Clyde says to Jephson.

District Attorney Mason asks Clyde similar questions in Book Three, Chapter XXV: how far away was Clyde from Roberta when she went into the water? why if Clyde was such a good swimmer, couldn’t he have swum to her? Clyde’s answer to Mason is that he was “rattled” when it happened, “didn’t think quite quick enough, and was afraid if I went near her …” (Mason cuts Clyde off). The rest of the uncompleted sentence would have been Clyde stating that he was afraid Roberta might have caused him to drown too.

Clyde he is rattled by Mason. He answers in a confused, halting, clipped manner.

When Roberta and Clyde stop for lunch on the shore (in Book Two, Chapter XLVII), Roberta is described by Dreiser as “feeling quite at peace with all the world. ….” She talks to Clyde about what they will do (where they might find work, for example) when they are together at whatever undisclosed locale Clyde is supposedly taking her to (to marry her? we don’t really know). She cheerfully sings “my old Kentucky home.” But Roberta notices after a brief interval that Clyde is acting strangely — that there is something the matter with him, his “lurid” eyes, for example. In the brief interval, Clyde is doing things such as taking pictures of himself and Roberta, who has not yet caught on to Clyde’s true mental state. He is going practically crazy with the murderous, demonic thoughts and impulses raging within him.

At this juncture in the novel, and nowhere else, does Roberta ever come right out and say to Clyde, “you must marry me.” The closest thing she does do (before the trip to the Adirondacks) is to give Clyde an ultimatum – in her letters (i.e., letters to Clyde to come for her when she is at her parents’ home during her pregnancy). This was the case in the real life affair between Grace Brown and Chester Gillette (as seen in her letters to him).

Dreiser makes it clear – it is important to his conception of the crime – that Clyde does not strike Roberta when they are in the boat – meaning that he did not haul off and give her a blow to the head. What happens is that she draws near him “seeking to take his hand in hers and the camera from him in order to put it into the boat, he flinging out at her, but not even with any intention to do other than free himself from her” … the camera “pushing her at her with so much vehemence as not only to strike her lips and nose and chin with it, but to throw her back sidewise toward the left wale which caused the boat to careen. ….” And, then, when Clyde rises “half to assist or recapture her and half to apologize for the unintended blow” [italics added], he capsizes the boat, which (the side of the boat, that is) strikes Roberta.

In real life, there is no indication from an account of Chester Gillette’s execution in Craig Brandon’s book about the case, Murder in the Adirondacks, that Chester spoke any last words. Nor does Clyde from what we learn in in the novel. The execution scene is narrated indirectly, through the impressions of the prison chaplain, Reverend McMillan, whose impressions and feelings are narrated retrospectively (what Reverend McMillan recalls most vividly post execution).

Clyde has a yearning for wealth, status, and happiness; he also has the emotional makeup to be led astray. He is both a sympathetic character and a nefarious one who is capable of plotting murder. Dreiser by masterful strokes makes Clyde both vile and, at the same time, sympathetic. In Book Two, one is asking oneself: how could Clyde be so benighted and emotionally shallow as to pine for the vapid Sondra and ditch the sweet, sincere, wholesome Roberta? How could he be so callous to plot the murder of Roberta, the woman who genuinely loves him? Dreiser makes Clyde’s guilt – at the crucial moment (the drowning) — ambiguous, yet Clyde is, in many respects, clearly guilty. He takes Roberta away, traveling in a separate train car, registers in hotels under an assumed name, takes a suitcase and tennis racket on the boat with him when he drowns her, pretends not to know of her death when arrested, etc., etc. These facts are true to the real case.

Yet, at the end of the book – how does Dreiser achieve this? – one feels compassion for the murderous cad Clyde; one is torn apart, emotionally, by his execution, as are his mother and his spiritual counselor, the prison chaplain Reverend Duncan McMillan.

Clyde is actually a sufferer at the book’s end. The reader has come to care about him rather than despise him. The reader also identifies, in Book Two, with Roberta. Roberta experiences great emotional pain prior to her murder.

In the 1951 film based on the novel, A Place in the Sun, two main characters engage viewers’ attention and sympathies: George Eastman (Clyde), played by Montgomery Clift, and Angela Vickers (Sondra), played by Elizabeth Taylor. Alice Tripp (the Roberta character), who is played by Shelley Winters, is not portrayed sympathetically. In the novel, it is really Clyde and Roberta whose emotional predicaments are the main focus, with Clyde being the most important character in the book. He is always center stage.

Sondra Finchley is an idol to Clyde, but she is really a marginal character, fundamentally, a foil, not one who engages our true sympathies. She shouldn’t. George Stevens, the director of A Place in the Sun, was guilty of gross distortion in this respect.

Clyde is a victim of circumstances: social conditions and constraints (as well as his own limitations). He wants to rise in society and this underlies, actuates a lot of his behavior. Nonetheless, he fumbles and stumbles throughout the novel. He has a very hard time determining right from wrong; overcoming urges (sexual, pecuniary, and social); untangling his thoughts. Dreiser wants us to see that what often seems plain (or plainly right) to us was not so to Clyde.

Clyde can be cunning and calculating – in planning to murder Roberta, for example. But, most of the time, he is winging it, improvising, trying to figure out what to do while being very unsure of himself.

A challenge which Dreiser managed somehow to surmount was to not sugar coat or gloss over Clyde’s criminality, his moral vapidity, while at the same time not making him a monster. In the novel, Clyde often questions his own motives, feels remorse, regrets what he has done.

Throughout, he has human moments. For example, he can be kind to other people, including Roberta at different stages of their relationship. He can feel pity and remorse. When the child is struck and killed by the automobile in Kansas City, Clyde knows it is wrong to run away.

When he meets Roberta, Clyde has just gotten to know the Griffiths. He has not at that point advanced far with them. Only gradually does he begin to get in with Sondra’s set. This happens after he has already become deeply involved with Roberta. It leads to great emotional pain on her part. As an example of the complexity of Clyde’s character, he acts in a devious manner with Roberta, makes excuses for avoiding her, feels that Sondra is clearly the desired love object, but at the same time he continues to have pangs of pity and occasional feelings for Roberta (and they continue their intimacy and sexual relationship). The Clyde-Roberta relationship is a complex one and is central to the novel.

In the 1931 film. directed by Josef von Sternberg (entitled An American Tragedy) based on the novel, Clyde is presented as cold, wooden, incapable of feeling love. He is almost entirely excluded from authorial and audience sympathy.

Regarding von Sternberg’s Clyde, though he is cunning and calculating, he is capable of showing genuine affection, not only because of motives of self-interest (advancing socially by marrying Sondra), but also in the case of Roberta. There is passion and LOVE between her and Clyde, which compel them to violate social taboos. von Sternberg, while he portrays Clyde this way, does make Roberta (played by Sylvia Sidney) sympathetic. von Sternberg’s Sondra is a shallow and vain flapper who is very aware of her social positon and desirability, and who is capable of acting condescending towards Clyde.

In the novel, Clyde is swept off his feet when he meets Sondra. Yet, as many commentators have pointed out, Sondra, while her beauty is emphasized, is not perceived as a sex object by Clyde. She is the almost unobtainable ideal. Clyde can’t quite conceive of having sex with her; it (i.e., the desire for and possibility of sex) is not mentioned or suggested and the relationship between Clyde and her remains chaste.

Dreiser leaves us feeling ambivalent about whether we want to see Clyde acquitted and whether he should be. He makes Clyde’s guilt clear, yet things are presented from Clyde’s point of view, how Clyde must feel (not so much how those victimized or horrified by the crime feel): the harsh questioning he has to endure from District Attorney Mason, for example. And, in Book Three, Chapter XXVI, we are told that one jury member who has been holding out for acquittal is threatened with retribution and harm to his business, so that he decides to vote guilty. All the time, Dreiser is making us see things from many sides: Clyde’s, Roberta’s (both the living Roberta and Roberta the murder victim), the outrage of the community. It is not a simple crime story in which we are just waiting for the bad guy to be caught, convicted, and punished.

Dreiser devotes a great deal of space – Book Three, Chapter XXVII, to Book III, Chapter XXXIV (the last chapter), 13 chapters plus the ending coda (“Souvenir”), that is — to the post trial phase: the horrors of the death house, Clyde’s unsuccessful appeal, and the emotional growth Clyde undergoes. This concluding section is a very important part of the novel, essential for experiencing the pathos, getting the point, grasping the novel’s complexity (and the complexity of the central character, Clyde), and understanding what Dreiser is attempting to do.

Clyde really changes. He feels remorse. He undergoes tortuous examinations of his conscience. His values change. He is counseled by Reverend McMillan and begins to appreciate the importance and value of religious faith, something which he had hitherto looked askance on. The end of the novel is anything but anticlimactic. By some miracle, Dreiser makes us feel sympathy and compassion for Clyde, the clueless, benighted cad of Book Two. At the end, we experience pathos anew — this time not for Roberta’s death, but for Clyde’s death when he seems to be at the point of redemption.

The murderer, Clyde, is himself not certain whether or not he actually did kill Roberta. Dreiser has carefully constructed the drowning scene to create confusion in our minds as to Clyde’s culpability, as was noted above.

Mason and a detective find fifteen letters from Robert to Clyde in a trunk in Clyde’s room in the boarding house where he has been living in Lycurgus. The letters are crucial evidence used against Clyde. They establish a motive and are used with damaging effect at the trial to sway the jury (and public opinion) against Clyde. The use of Roberta Alden’s (Grace Brown’s) letters as evidence at the trial was a sticky point — a point of contention between the prosecution and defense — with the judge allowing them to be admitted as evidence, supposedly under certain conditions. The defense felt they were prejudicial against Clyde and this was part of the grounds on which an appeal (unsuccessful) of his conviction was made.

Clyde’s attorneys, Belknap and Jephson, concoct an alibi and line of defense for him, which they then convey to Clyde, in Book Three, Chapter XVI. Clyde is not a cagey defendant eager to go along with any alibi that will get him off. He does go along with it, however, because, by nature, being unsure of himself and often confused, he is easily influenced by others. But he is presented (in Book Three Chapter XVIII) as being nervous about having to confront “the fierce assault of Mason … for the most part with the lies framed for him by Jephson and Belknap.”

We are told that Clyde is constantly trying to “salve his conscience” with the thought that at the last moment he had not had the courage to go through with the murder (and that Roberta was struck accidentally), but that the story concocted by Jephson and Belknap is “terribly difficult for him [Clyde] to present and defend.” This is a nervous and insecure young man, not a hardened criminal (the latter type which he is basically portrayed by von Sternberg as, but not by George Stevens), guilty as he may be.

Roberta was portrayed as frumpy in the film A Place in the Sun. She is portrayed differently in the novel. In Book Two, Chapter XII, Roberta, who has just arrived from Biltz for her new job at the factory, is described by Dreiser as “more intelligent and pleasing — more spiritual … more gracefully proportioned” than the other girls in the factory. She is said to possess “a charm. … … a certain wistfulness and wonder combined with a kind of self-reliant courage and determination.”

Roberta is further described (on the same page) as follows: “small brown hat … pulled over a face that was regular and pretty and that was haloed by bright, light brown hair. Her eyes were of translucent gray blue.”

Roberta’s hair was used as evidence in the actual case –was found on the oars and so forth. This happens in the novel, and Burton Burleigh, DA Mason’s legal assistant, places hairs of Roberta on the camera’s sides to make a stronger case against Clyde (Book Three, Chapter XI).

In Book Two, Chapter XXXIII, Roberta realizes that she is pregnant. She tells Clyde, “It’s two whole days, and it’s never been that way before.” She does not say “I missed my period.” On the same page, we are informed that Clyde is, by his own assessment, “sparingly informed in regard to the mysteries of sex.” There is restraint in the novel when sexual scenes are depicted or sexual matters are discussed (by the author, Dreiser. and the characters) – a restraint appropriate to a book of its time.

Dreiser writes of “the horror of death row … the sighs and groans of the men.” Clyde is painfully aware of fellow prisoners being led, seriatim, to their executions, keeping their dates with the chair, with the curtains of each cell being drawn as the condemned man passes. The death walk. This terrifies and depresses Clyde, who becomes increasingly aware of his own impending fate. Clyde dwells on what lies ahead for him “beyond that door.” The door leading to the death chamber is a motif in the novel.

Miller Nicholson is a fellow death row inmate who befriends Clyde and encourages him not to lose his nerve. Nicholson is an intellectual who lends Clyde books. It blows Clyde’s mind that he is in earnest conversation with Nicholson on one day and a day or two later Nicholson is gone, having been executed. Clyde gets to know Nicholson in Book Three, Chapter XXXI, and Nicholson goes to the chair in the same chapter.

There is a wrenching scene in Book Three, Chapter XXXII, in which Clyde, in his cell, lying on his cot, “responding rhythmically to the chant of the [young, mentally tortured] Jew,” joins with him, saying, silently, to himself, “I have been evil. I have been unkind. I have lied. … I have been unfaithful. My heart has been wicked. … I have been false. I have been cruel. I have sought to murder.”

Clyde’s mother, Elvira Griffiths, takes up lecturing in Book Three to try to reverse public opinion against Clyde and to pay for her travel expenses. The lectures are not successful on the whole and she ultimately gives them up.

The prison chaplain, Reverend McMillan, plays a very important role vis-à-vis Clyde in Book Three. Reverend McMillan is introduced to the reader in Book Three, Chapter XXXI and his spiritual effect on Clyde in the next chapter (Book Three, Chapter XXXII).

A key incident in which Reverend McMillan figures is in Book Three, Chapter XXXIV. It is almost equivalent in importance to the drowning scene and Clyde’s execution. In this climactic chapter, Clyde’s mother makes a final appeal to Governor Waltham for clemency. The governor has not made up his mind. He turns to Reverend McMillan and asks for McMillan’s opinion as to Clyde’s guilt – does McMillan “know of any material fact not introduced at the trial which would in any way tend to invalidate or weaken any phase of the testimony offered at the trial?” McMillan’s answer does not convince the governor of Clyde’s innocence and the appeal is denied. What McMillan says in reply to the governor’s question, basically, is that he is qualified to speak only as to the spiritual aspect(s) of Clyde’s life, not the legal ones – in fact, the chaplain does not consider Clyde innocent and feels that he cannot in good conscience say otherwise.

Clyde is doomed; McMillan’s reluctance ensures it. The governor immediately terminates the interview with the chaplain and Mrs. Griffiths. “Never in my life have I faced a sadder duty,” the governor says.

In the final chapter, Book Three, Chapter XXXIV, upon Clyde’s execution, Elvira Griffiths says to Clyde, “You have told the world you are innocent. if you are not you must say so.”

In the same chapter, four pages ahead, Elvira Griffiths writes a desperate note to Governor Waltham: “Can you say before your God that you have no doubt of Clyde’s guilt? If you cannot, then his blood will be upon your head. His mother.”

On the next page in the same chapter (XXXIV), we have Clyde’s final farewell to his mother. He says, “I die resigned and content. it won’t be hard. God has heard my prayers. He has given me strength and peace.” (An interpolated comment representing Clyde’s thinking shows that he is not sure about this.)

The novel (Book Three, Chapter XXXIV) does not actually “show” Clyde’s execution. What happened is told indirectly through the impressions of a witness, Reverend McMillan.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

      August 2016

 

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“Clyde is tugged by forces — internal and external — that he can scarcely grasp.” — Ben McArthur, email to Roger W. Smith, August 5, 2016

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

(A downloadable Word document — slightly modified, and fully documented — of this post is available below.)

 

 

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 Finchley’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 Alden’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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Critical Response

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 upon 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 Roberta for Sondra (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, 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” (Columbia University, 1953), 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,” pp. 35-40)

This brilliant thesis was for years unavailable and has been overlooked.  The thesis is posted here at

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2016/02/23/thomas-kranidas-the-materials-of-theodore-dreisers-an-american-tragedy/

 

 

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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, ‘Two Letters from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (SAN)

 

— Roger W. Smith

   April 2017

 

 

 

Continue reading Roger W. Smith,“Two Letters from ‘An American Tragedy’”

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) — considered to be 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; see below). 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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[T]he film is a travesty of Dreiser’s novel. … An example of the compromise involved—typical in Hollywood films, which is why so few can be taken seriously as social comment—occurs in the final scene when George [the Clyde Griffiths character] is in jail awaiting execution. Sondra visits George in his cell and expresses her love for him. The book makes it explicitly clear that once her lover was in trouble and had become a social undesirable, this rich girl wanted nothing more to do with him. The scene in the film is the antithesis of realism.

— Charles Higham on A Place in the Sun, in The Art of the American Film 1900-1971 (1973)

 

 

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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.