Category Archives: An American Tragedy

from Donald Friede, “The Mechanical Angel”

 

Donald Friede, ‘The Mechanical Angel’

 

Posted here are excerpts about Dreiser from:

Donald Friede, The Mechanical Angel (New York Alfred A. Knopf, 1948)

Friede recalls his various experiences as Dreiser’s publisher, the stage production of An American Tragedy, and the trial in Boston in 1929 to suppress An American Tragedy.

Mentioned in the book are T. R. Smith (pg. 22) and George Antheil (pp. 54-55). Smith was editor-in-chief at Boni & Liveright. He was heavily involved in the editing and cutting of An American Tragedy. Antheil was an American avant-garde composer, pianist, and author.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   November 2021

 

“Horace Liveright: Publisher of the Twenties” (the chapters on Dreiser)

 

 

Horace Livreright, ‘Theodore Dreiser’

 

Horace Liveright, ‘An American Tragedy’

 

 

I have posted here excepts from the following book:

Horace Liveright: Publisher of the Twenties

By Walker Gilmer

New York: David Lewis, 1979

namely, the following chapters in their entirety:

“Theodore Dreiser,” pp. 39-59

“An American Tragedy,” pp. 134-152

plus footnotes

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2021

 

 

Horace Liveright

re stage adaptations of An American Tragedy

 

‘Gossip Around Paris’ – Holywood Reporter 7-6-1935

 

‘Paris Producers Do American Plays’ – Holywood Reporter 7-13-1935

 

‘Dreiser Opus for Paris!’ – Variety 9-14-1935

 

Dreiser_NYT-Four-cases-of-Clyde-Griffiths

 

In the entry “Adaptions, Stage,” by Keith Newlin, in A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia,* there is discussion of Patrick Kearney’s stage adaptation of An American Tragedy , which had a successful run in New York in 1931; of an adaption of the novel performed in Vienna in 1931; and of Erwin Piscator and Lina Goldschmidt’s adaptation, ‘Case of Clyde Griffiths,” which was performed in Pennsylvania and New York City, beginning in 1935.

There is no mention of a French stage adaptation of  An American Tragedy, adapted by Georges Jamin and Jean Servais, which Dreiser mentioned in an article in The New York Times, in 1936.** Dreiser also mentions a Russian adaptation by H. Basilevsky, which was entitled “The Law of Lycurgus”.***

Posted here are PDF files of Dreiser’s Times article and US theater industry publications in which the 1935 French adaptation was mentioned. The French adaptation by Jamin and Servais seems clearly to have been based on Patrick Kearney’s adaptation.

 

*A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia, edited by Keith Newlin (Westport, Connecticut; Greenwood Press, 2003). pp. 3-6

**”Four Cases of Clyde Griffiths,” by Theodore Dreiser, The New York Times, March 8, 1936

*** Закон Ликурга : американская трагедия : пьеса в 4 действиях и 12 картинах : по мотивам “Американской трагедии” Теодора Драйзера (Zakon Likurga : amerikanskai︠a︡ tragedii︠a︡ : pʹesa v 4 deĭstvii︠a︡kh i 12 kartinakh: po motivam “Amerikanskoĭ tragedii” Teodora Draĭzera; The Law of Lycurgus; An American Tragedy: A Play in 4 Acts and 12 Scenes: Based on Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy

 

– posted by Roger W. Smith

   September 2021

my post about Grace and Roberta’s letters

 

 

I encourage Dreiserians to read my post, “Two Letters from An American Tragedy,” with my thoughts and input from Thomas Kranidas.

 

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

 

I have always been interested in Grace Brown’s letters. Grace Brown was the murder victim of Chester Gillette in 1906 who is depicted in An American Tragedy in the character Robert Alden.

I think this post says a lot about what Dreiser was thinking in drawing the characters Roberta Alden and Sondra Finchley; and about common misconceptions about them and the novel.

 

— Roger W. Smith

April 2021

stock characters in Dreiser’s novels

 

 

 

Sondra Finchley … An American Tragedy

Letty Pace … Jennie Gerhardt

Berenice Fleming … The Titan

are stock, papier-mâché high class woman characters.

Straight out of soap opera.

Not believable

 

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Robert Alden is very real. Her ingenuousness. Her emotions. Her love for Clyde. Her sense of betrayal. Her letters. And so on. She is, in the words of Mary Gordon, a “genuinely loving young woman who is sexually awakened by her feelings for Clyde.”

Sondra Finchley, irresistibly beautiful and marvelously rich, bestows an occasional kiss on Clyde. She is the prototypical flapper with zero sex appeal. She is too vain to really show love for Clyde. “Her clothes, her car, her sports equipment,” notes Mary Gordon, “are the locus of her sexual allure.”* Her main reaction and main worry after Clyde is arrested are to keep her name out of the papers.

Characters like Sondra Finchley and Dreiser’s other high class women seem like crude embodiments of a social class or an ideal, not real.

Bob Ames in Sister Carrie — a stand in and mouthpiece for the author, Dreiser — has no purpose or reason for being in the novel. He does not seem real and is not brought to life.

 

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

 

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For purposes of comparison, let’s take an author such as Charles Dickens.

Scrooge in A Christmas Carol could be considered to be a stock character: miser, skinflint, coldhearted businessman — crotchety curmudgeon.

He receives visitations from ghosts (spirits). This is realistic?

Yet …

Scrooge is realer than real. He LIVES in our imaginations.

So does Bob Cratchit, who might have been portrayed one dimensionally as the poor, overworked worker ground down by ruthless capitalism.

Scrooge and Bob Cratchit are so real that it sometimes seems that they actually existed and lived in Victorian London.

Or Tolstoy.

Levin in Anna Karenina is a stand in for Tolstoy the aristocratic landholder, and his views. But he is not a stock figure in the novel. His character is fully developed.

In a novel which Dreiser greatly admired, Balzac’s Père Goriot, there are characters who could be seen as types:

Goriot, old man rejected by his heedless daughters; miser out of necessity

Rastignac, prototypical social climber. Goriot’s self-centered daughters: the same

All are portrayed by Balzac in a manner that makes them fully human, idiosyncratic, and believable.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    March 2021

tendentious (the author as Deus ex machina)

 

 

While the money was in his hand the lock clicked. It had sprung! Did he do it? He grabbed at the knob and pulled vigorously. It had closed. …

The moment he realised that the safe was locked for a surety, the sweat burst out upon his brow and he trembled violently. He looked about him and decided instantly. There was no delaying now.

“Supposing I do lay it on the top,” he said, “and go away, they’ll know who took it. I’m the last to close up. Besides, other things will happen.”

He hurried into his little room, took down his light overcoat and hat, locked his desk, and grabbed the satchel. Then he turned out all but one light and opened the door. …

He walked steadily down the street, greeting a night watchman whom he knew who was trying doors. He must get out of the city, and that quickly.

Sister Carrie, Chapter 27

 

And Roberta, suddenly noticing the strangeness of it all–the something of eerie unreason or physical and mental indetermination so strangely and painfully contrasting with this scene, exclaiming: “Why, Clyde! Clyde! What is it? Whatever is the matter with you anyhow? You look so–so strange–so–so– Why, I never saw you look like this before. What is it?” And suddenly rising, or rather leaning forward, and by crawling along the even keel, attempting to approach him, since he looked as though he was about to fall forward into the boat–or to one side and out into the water. And Clyde, as instantly sensing the profoundness of his own failure, his own cowardice or inadequateness for such an occasion, as instantly yielding to a tide of submerged hate, not only for himself, but Roberta–her power–or that of life to restrain him in this way. And yet fearing to act in any way–being unwilling to– being willing only to say that never, never would he marry her– that never, even should she expose him, would he leave here with her to marry her–that he was in love with Sondra and would cling only to her–and yet not being able to say that even. But angry and confused and glowering. And then, as she drew near him, seeking to take his hand in hers and the camera from him in order to put it in the boat, he flinging out at her, but not even then with any intention to do other than free himself of her–her touch– her pleading–consoling sympathy–her presence forever–God!

Yet (the camera still unconsciously held tight) pushing 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 to the very water’s edge. And then he, stirred by her sharp scream, (as much due to the lurch of the boat, as the cut on her nose and lip), rising and reaching half to assist or recapture her and half to apologize for the unintended blow–yet in so doing completely capsizing the boat–himself and Roberta being as instantly thrown into the water. And the left wale of the boat as it turned, striking Roberta on the head as she sank and then rose for the first time, her frantic, contorted face turned to Clyde, who by now had righted himself. For she was stunned, horror-struck, unintelligible with pain and fear–her lifelong fear of water and drowning and the blow he had so accidentally and all but unconsciously administered. ….

“But this–this–is not this that which you have been thinking and wishing for this while–you in your great need? And behold! For despite your fear, your cowardice, this–this–has been done for you. An accident–an accident–an unintentional blow on your part is now saving you the labor of what you sought, and yet did not have the courage to do! But will you now, and when you need not, since it is an accident, by going to her rescue, once more plunge yourself in the horror of that defeat and failure which has so tortured you and from which this now releases you? You might save her. But again you might not! For see how she strikes about. She is stunned. She herself is unable to save herself and by her erratic terror, if you draw near her now, may bring about your own death also. But you desire to live! And her living will make your life not worth while from now on. Rest but a moment–a fraction of a minute! Wait–wait–ignore the pity of that appeal. And then– then– But there! Behold. It is over. She is sinking now. You will never, never see her alive any more–ever. And there is your own hat upon the water–as you wished. And upon the boat, clinging to that rowlock a veil belonging to her. Leave it. Will it not show that this was an accident?” ..

And then Clyde, with the sound of Roberta’s cries still in his ears, that last frantic, white, appealing look in her eyes, swimming heavily, gloomily and darkly to shore. …

An American Tragedy, Book Two, Chapter XLVII

 

 

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Neither situation, as carefully constructed by Dreiser — while admittedly fiction — is plausible. Dreiser as Deus ex machina, as artificer, “intervenes” in the plot, so to speak, for the purpose of making events be explainable — be construed by the reader — from his tendentious point of view. A clumsy authorial intervention which makes the story, plot, at that point the antithesis of seamless.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   March 2021

“The Tragedy of the North Woods”

 

 

Eleanor Waterbury Franz, ‘The Tragedy of the North Woods’

 

“In my opinion, it is in the interpretation of the case that Dreiser goes furthest afield. His feeling of fate and the social conflict upon which he dwells obscure the right and wrong of the case.” — Eleanor Waterbury Franz

 

Posted here (downloadable PDF file above) is

The Tragedy of the North Woods

By Eleanor Waterbury Franz

New York Folklore Quarterly 4.1 (Spring 1948), pp. 85-97

 

posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2021

Kranidas thesis (post) updated

 

 

I have reposted on this site:

 

Thomas Kranidas

“The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy

Matser’s Thesis

Columbia University, 1953

 

See:

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/thomas-kranidas-the-materials-of-theodore-dreisers-an-american-tragedy/

 

— Roger W. Smith

George Orwell on “An American Tragedy”

 

 

… intellectual refinement can be a disadvantage to a story-teller, as it would be to a music-hall comedian.

Take, for example, Ernest Raymond’s We, the Accused — a peculiarly sordid and convincing murder story, probably based on the Crippen case. I think it gains a great deal from the fact that the author only partly grasps the pathetic vulgarity of the people he is writing about, and therefore does not despise them. Perhaps it even — like Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy -– gains something from the clumsy long-winded manner in which it is written; detail is piled on detail, with almost no attempt at selection, and in the process an effect of terrible, grinding cruelty is slowly built up.

— George Orwell “Good Bad Books,” Tribune, November 2 1945 (republished in Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, 1950).

 

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I concur with Orwell.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   February 2021

more misconceptions about “An American Tragedy” and the true story

 

 

re: Sandra Scott Travels: “An American Tragedy”

Oswego County Today

September 20, 2020

 

Sandra Scott Travels: “An American Tragedy”

 

 

There are a few inaccuracies in this piece.

Scott states that An American Tragedy, “along with books like ‘Grapes of Wrath’ is seen as the beginning of the modern American literature.” This statement seems problematic. Could not ‘modern American literature” be said to have begun with Huckleberry Finn? Or to have been already begun around the time that Dreiser was writing Sister Carrie and Stephen Crane works such as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets?

Scott states that An American Tragedy “shows the extent someone will go to realize the American Dream ignoring any sense of morality.” This is succinctly and well put.

In discussing the factual underpinnings of An American Tragedy — i.e., the Gillette murder case — Scott makes a serious, common error:

Chester Gillette was born into a successful family but his father, after a religious conversion, renounced his wealth and became a roving missionary for the Salvation Army. Gillette, however, still hankered for the good life and when his uncle offered him a job at his factory in Cortland he accepted. He had the opportunity to work hard and advanced. Knowing that he should not consort with the help, Gillette ignored the advice and began seeing Grace Brown, a hard working girl from a farm family. They usually met at her place and not in public. Meanwhile, Gillette moved up the social rung and began dating the daughter of a prominent family. [italics added] Grace Brown became pregnant and wanted to get married but that would have interfered in Gillette’s hope for marrying someone from the upper class.

The notion that Chester Gillette was dating a local girl (Harriet Benedict, not named by Scott) is a common misconception. It has been thoroughly disproved and you would think someone writing an article about An American Tragedy and the Gillette case would know this (or, at least, bother to check). There are numerous publications about the actual case, and Craig Brandon has written a book which provides the definitive account.

The notion that there was “another woman” whom Gillette was involved with and that such a relationship gave him a motive for murdering Grace Brown is not only suggested by the character Sondra Finchley in An American Tragedy, which is FICTION — don’t forget — it was also rumored that this was the case at the time of Chester Gillette’s arrest and trial in 1906.

Perhaps Dreiser himself, who used the New York World as his source for the Gillette case, was influenced by such accounts. Early on, in July 1906, at the time of the murder of Grace Brown and Gillette’s arrest, the World published a story suggesting that Gillette may have been engaged to another girl. The girl was Harriet Benedict, a member of the of the “best’ families in town. Miss Benedict, who testified at Gillette’s trial, said that she knew Gillette and had been on a social outing in which Gillette was a member of the party, but she stated, unequivocally, that there had never been any romantic relationship, much less an engagement. Scott’s assertion that “Gillette moved up the social rung and began dating the daughter of a prominent family,” presumably establishing a motive for his murdering Grace Brown, is flat out wrong.

 

— Roger W, Smith

   September 2020

 

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Addendum:

While I am at it, I would like to point out that many misconceptions about both An American Tragedy and the Gillette case itself have come from the film A Place in the Sun and comments by film critics. There was an earlier film based on the novel: An American Tragedy (1931), directed by Josef von Sternberg.

The 1931 film has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies. Host Ben Mankiewicz stated that Chester Gillette’s mother sued Paramount, the film company. It was Grace Brown’s mother, Minerva Brown, who sued, not Chester Gillette’s mother.

I emailed Mankiewicz about this and got no response.