— posted by Roger W. Smith
— posted by Roger W. Smith
Posted here (above) is the death certificate for Theodore Dreiser’s nephew Carl Dresser.
Carl Dresser was the illegitimate son of Dreiser’s sister Cacilia (Sylvia).
Carl Dresser … certificate of death #14567 … Department of Health, Chicago … date of birth, unknown … age, 26 years … date of death, March 29, 1915 … occupation, Bellboy … buried Elmwood [Cemetery], March 31, 1915 … evidence obtained at inquest … Cause of death – Asphyxiation by illuminating gas (suicide) … address, 53 W Erie St. …. length of time living in city – 4 years … name of father – unknown … name of mother – unknown. [Elmwood Cemetery is located in River Grove, IL; the village of River Grove is located about 15 miles from Chicago]
Note the cause of death, suicide, and Carl’s occupation, bellboy.
Carl Dresser gets scant mention by Dreiser biographers. In an entry for Cacilia (Sylvia) Dreiser in A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia, her illegitimate son Carl is said to have been born on October 16, 1886. This is accurate. In a letter to Theodore Dreiser dated October 16, 1908, Carl stated, “I am twenty two years old to day.” This would mean that the age of death shown on the death certificate is not accurate. It should have been 28 years.
Carl was raised by various Dreiser family members and had contact with his uncle Theodore over the years, as is indicated by the correspondence posted as a PDF file below. He lived for a period of time with Dreiser’s’ sister Mame (Carl’s aunt) and his maternal grandfather Johann Paul Dreiser in upstate New York.
Here’s a question which intrigues me. Book One of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy is all about Clyde Griffith’s life prior to his moving to Lycurgus to work in his uncle’s collar factory. This part of the novel is all invented; it does not correspond to the life of the actual murderer Chester Gillette, who was the prototype of Clyde Griffiths. Has anyone noticed that when Clyde meets his uncle Samuel Griffiths he is BELLHOP working in a HOTEL in CHICAGO? Could Dreiser have had his nephew Carl in mind when he was writing parts of this part of the novel?
— Roger W. Smith
Richard Wright’s Native Son is the most powerful American novel to appear since The Grapes of Wrath. It has numerous defects as a work of art, but it is only in retrospect that they emerge, so overwhelming is its central drive, so gripping its mounting intensity. No one, I think, except the most unconvertible Bourbons, the completely callous, or the mentally deficient, can read it without an enlarged and painful sense of what it means to be a Negro in the United States of America seventy-seven years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Native Son does for the Negro what Theodore Dreiser in An American Tragedy did a decade and a half ago for the bewildered, inarticulate American white. The two books are similar in theme, in technique, in their almost paralyzing effect on the reader, and in the large, brooding humanity, quite remote from special pleading, that informs them both.
— Clifton Fadiman, review of Native Son by Richard Wright, The New Yorker, March 2, 1940
Posted here (above) as a downloadable PDF file is a review of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy that was published in The Sewanee Review.
The review is notable for how the writer so clearly apprehends Dreiser’s intentions and the strengths of the book, while not neglecting the fact that many found Dreiser’s prose and his narrative style to be ungainly, or, as the writer puts it, “unbeautiful.”
— Roger W. Smith
review of An American Tragedy, The Sewanee Review 34.4 (October-December 1926), p. 495-497
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.
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
— transcribed by Roger W. Smith
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
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
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
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
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.