Category Archives: appraisals by non-critics

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

Robert Penn Warren, “Homage to Theodore Dreiser”

 

 

Robert Penn Warren

HOMAGE TO THEODORE DREISER

On the Centennial of His Birth

(August 27, 1871)
Robert Penn Warren, ‘Homage to Theodore Dreiser’

 

 

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

The first recounts the narrator’s visit to a friend’s ranch in the high country of the American West, a trip from which he recalls wranglers driving horses down a mountain and an Indian named Laughing Boy who was good at killing rattlesnakes by dousing them with gasoline and flicking a lighted match just before they disappeared into their holes.

But it turns out that in “Homage to Theodore Dreiser” the novelist’s Indiana birthplace shares common ground, almost literally–and perhaps ironically, given the name of the town in question–with the first poem’s high-altitude setting: “Past Terre Haute, the diesels pound,/ … Deep/ In the infatuate and foetal dark, beneath/ The unspecifiable weight of the great/ Mid-America loam-sheet, the impacted/ Particular particles of loam, blind,/ Minutely grind … vibrate/ At the incessant passage/ Of the transcontinental truck freight.” In Indiana, loam is pounded by truck freight, while in “Rattlesnake Country” loam was truck freight: “Arid that country and high … but/ One little patch of cool lawn: // Trucks/ Had brought in rich loam. Stonework/ Held it in place like a shelf.” It is on such imported earth that the snakes are set aflame as they disappear into the loam, there to perish, trapped in their holes.

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

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

 

— Randolph Paul Runyon,  “A problem in spatial composition: on the order of Or Else,” The Southern Review,  September 2002

Henry Miller and Dreiser

 

 

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

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

Clipped Wings, a novel about twelve telegraph messenger boys, was inspired by Dreiser’s Twelve Men,  which had been published three years earlier, in 1919.

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

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

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

— Roger W. Smith

     July 2016

 

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Dreiser’s Style

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

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

Henry Miller.

New York, N. Y.

 

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

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

 

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See also: Henry Miller, The Books in My Life (New Directions, 1969), pp. 219-220. There, Miller misspells the title of Dreiser’s second novel as Jenny Gerhardt.

Roger W. Smith, “Thoughts on An American Tragedy”

 

 

I don’t have a Ph.D. and lack the academic qualifications of many literary scholars, yet I have a broad and deep knowledge of literature from a lifetime of reading and I feel I have excellent taste.

I also happen to be Dreseirian.

When people ask me who my favorite writers are, I will mention a few, usually them same ones: Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Johnson, William Blake, Charles Dickens, George Gissing, Robert Louis Stevenson, Balzac, Tolstoy, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman …

and Theodore Dreiser.

Dreiser is one of the first I mention. I always experience some embarrassment when I do so. He doesn’t seem to belong in such company.

Dreiser’s massive novel An American Tragedy — it is over 900 pages long —  was the book which got me deeply into Dreiser; it bowled me over. I have read it at least twice.

I have been rereading portions of the novel recently. I am surprised how well it holds up and that much of its impact seems undiminished.

Yet Dreiser couldn’t write! Here’s what some commentators have said about this:

Dreiser writes bunglingly and poorly. His style is groping, clumsy and crude, and sometimes even outrageous. He has no sense of form, and he constantly piles up irritating and useless detail. (guest contributor, Oakland Tribune, 1934)

His novels are excruciatingly long, clumsily written, with endless stretches of tedium and scarcely a single redeeming touch of lightness or humor. (Charles A. Fecher, Chicago Tribune, 1990)

Theodore Dreiser was and is the great grizzly bear of American literature. … Smooth prose composition eluded him forever. His style was raw, his sentences often bewildering, and he organized poorly. Dreiser’s major novels are structurally chaotic, causing one to wonder if he outlined his material before commencing a project. (Larry Swindell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 1994)

Critics say Dreiser is a terrible prose writer. Maybe so. But he’s a great storyteller. (Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times, June 24, 2002)

To read Dreiser is to become aware of a flat declamatory tone apparently unconcerned with niceties of style. He has been described as the kind of writer who triumphs over his own deficiencies of style, and as a writer who rummages through his characters’ thoughts with the impatient thoroughness of a child left alone to explore the contents of an attic. (Geoffrey O’Brien, Bookforum, 2003)

[His] tales of the rise and fall of ordinary people in the Gilded Age retained their power despite slovenly diction, bad grammar, and the author’s penchant for surges of bombastic prose-poetry. (Scott McLemee, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2004)

Theodore Dreiser couldn’t write.

Or could he?

An American Tragedy has stock characters (like Sondra Finchley, a 1920’s flapper) who are unbelievable.

The prose is turgid and leaden.

Dreiser copied whole chunks of the book from press accounts of an actual murder case.

Admitted, thricely.

And, yet.

The Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case of 1906 (on which An American Tragedy was based) fixated public attention and still fascinates people today. It remained for Dreiser to make literature out of it — the way, say, Herman Melville (a far greater writer than Dreiser) made literature out of the sinking of the whaleship Essex. In so doing, Dreiser created a classic which far outranks his first novel, Sister Carrie (which is more widely read).

The power of  An American Tragedyis undeniable. It retains that power upon being reread.

The crude, flat prose style is just right for the narrative, the story.

I just opened, totally at random, to a page in my 1948 World Publishing Company edition of An American Tragedy. Page 505 (Book Two, Chapter XLV) contains the following paragraph about Clyde Griffiths, the central character (Clyde was based a real life model, Chester Gillette):

And Clyde, listening at first with horror and in terror, later with a detached and philosophic calm as one who, entirely apart from what he may think or do, is still entitled to consider even the wildest and most desperate proposals for his release, at last, because of his own mental and material weakness before pleasures and dreams which he could not bring himself to forgo, psychically intrigued to the point where he was beginning to think that it might be possible. Why not? Was it not even as the voice said — a possible and plausible way — all his desires and dreams to be made real by this one evil thing? Yet in his case, because of flaws and weaknesses in his own unstable and highly variable will, the problem was not to be solved by thinking thus — then — nor for the next ten days for that matter.

Is this the prose of a James Joyce?

Decidedly not.

It is heavy on exposition (granted, this is an expository passage), perhaps too much so. That can be said of the entire book.

Yet, there is something about Dreiser’s prose that, in the case of this novel, is extremely effective.

There is a sort of Joycean technique (yes!) operating here. The narrator, the author’s, voice is “representing,” standing in for, the thoughts of the character. We thereby enter Clyde’s consciousness.

This is true of the entire book. We are like bystanders of Clyde’s psyche. We are always present, observing him close up without authorial intervention. In fact, Dreiser, by “getting out of the way” — by not distinguishing between what is exposition and what is narration — has merged the two and made the book thereby ten times more powerful in its impact.

We almost BECOME Clyde. This makes the book very powerful, very effective.

The narrative flows artlessly yet effortlessly. We are drawn right in. We can’t desist.

To read the book is to become one with Clyde and his predicament. And, we can’t stop reading. It is also very readable because the style – to the extent there is one — aids and abets the story, fits right in with it, doesn’t get in the story’s way; is not pretentious; is entirely unaffected. It’s like some old timer sitting on his front porch and telling you a story he heard about once.

Here, at least, Dreiser gains by being non-literary.

He wrote – I repeat – a classic.

An American Tragedy stands by itself. It is not allied with and wasn’t written as a response to or commentary on any literary fashion or trend.

It is sui generis, autochthonous.

As was the case with its author, the book has “muscled” its way into the corpus of great American novels. It belongs there, even if few would care to admit it.

Even though it’s hardly ever taught nowadays in English courses.

 

 

– Roger W. Smith

September 2016

 

 

An American Tragedy - title page - vol. 1 (1925).jpg

 

 

 

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Editorial Comment Regarding Dreiser, upon His Death (The Times of London, The Spectator)

 

As noted elsewhere in this blog, the obituaries of Theodore Dreiser, who died on December 28, 1945, were “paltry, formulaic, and tepid, and there [were] few original ones.”

An exception is an obituary in The Times of London which is transcribed below, followed by commentary in The Spectator four days later by an editorial writer who took exception to remarks made in The Times about Dreiser.

 

The Times (London)
Monday, December 31, 1945
MR. THEODORE DREISER
AMERICAN NOVELIST

 

Mr. Theodore Dreiser, the American novelist, died at Hollywood on Friday night, shortly before completing the last chapter of a new trilogy called “The Stoic,” telegraphs our Los Angeles Codependent.

There was a time when Theodore Dreiser was widely regarded as the most impressive figure in American literature since Whitman, excepting only Mark Twain. He seemed to possess something of Whitman’s symbolic quality, a similar power of articulating popular criticism while appearing to maintain an Olympian detachment, a comparable largeness and intensity of purpose. In volume after volume of prodigious size he depicted in unwearying detail the rhythm and colour of life in the great new cities of the United States. Of his sprawling strength and vitality as a novelist there can to-day be little question. But Dreiser has not quite the towering stature in American literature that he possessed in the eyes of his warmest admirers during, say, the 1920s. In retrospect his novels come a little too near to being vast and unwieldy exercises in descriptive journalism to attain the high rank that was once claimed for them.

It is not merely that Dreiser was an incorrigibly unselective writer or that he wrote in an almost painfully plodding, graceless, and prolix style. Nor is it the arid and melancholy of his cast of thought that limits his power in the first place. It is rather the unilluminated quality of his imaginative creation, the absence in him of any strong feeling for what was not obvious and on the surface of American life, that accounts for peculiarly bleak impression his novels make. After his tremendous success with “An American Tragedy” in 1925, he wrote volumes of autobiographical complexion or of social criticism – volumes which in all essential respects were not very different in descriptive quality from his fiction.

Born in 1871 in Terre Haute, in Indiana, the son of humble German parents who had emigrated to the Middle West, Dreier was one of a family of 13 children. His father’s narrow and authoritarian Roman Catholicism, joined as it was to a complete ineffectualness in practical, matters, drove him at an early age into hatred of all Churches and dogmatic creeds. His mother’s struggles to support the family always shadowed the love he felt for her. It was, without question, the experience of his childhood which made Dreiser a materialist by temperament. He found his education where he could, went early to work, and in turn sold newspapers in the streets of Chicago, washed dishes in a restaurant, was a photographer’s assistant, a clerk in a railway goods station, a packer in a hardware firm. Then, through the generosity of a woman teacher who had discerned his abilities, he went to the State University of Indiana.

At various times between 1891 and 1895 he was a newspaper reporter in Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and New York. In observing from time to time the movement of events and personalities behind the scenes in that predatory gilded age of American expansion he came to see life in the big cities as a naked and ruthless struggle for existence which devoured all the conventional pieties of the current moral code. His reading of Herbert Spencer and T. H. Huxley seems to have confirmed him in his view of man as a creature little better than the beasts, dominated by fear and hunger. When he conceived the ambition of becoming, in some sort, “the American Balzac,” it was with the firm intention of conceding nothing to other dissenting views.

“Sister Carrie,” his first novel, ponderous in style but of a brutally harsh realism for the times, appeared in 1900, and made little stir. Legend has surrounded the event with the suggestion that the book was deliberately suppressed by the publishers, but in fact it seems to have been issued in quite a normal way, and the most that can be urged in the circumstances in that there was possibly a lack of anxiety on the publisher’s part to “push” its sale. Dreiser, however, who was by then a successful journalist, felt deeply injured by the inadequate notice the book received (and by various items of hostile criticism), and did not publish another novel for 11 years. In the interval, he held several editorial posts, being editor-in-chief of the Butterick publications from 1907 until 1910. In 1911 he produced the relatively short “Jennie Gerhardt,” which won considered praise. Then came “The Financier” (1912, rewritten 1927) and “The Titan” (1914), which embodied at enormous length, and with a fair degree of novelist’s license, something of the career of a well-known traction magnate of the period, C. T. Yerkes. These are probably Dreiser’s best books, Illustrating with obdurate strength the corrupting psychology of wealth and power in American society.

Neither his novels nor later works of non-fiction – “A Traveller at Forty,” “A Hoosier Holiday,” “Hey Rub-A-Dub-Dub,” and others – received anything like their just due when they first appeared. It was necessary for him to await the full development of an after-war mood of disillusionment before receiving adequate recognition. That, and rather more than that, came with the appearance of the earnest, massive but fatiguing “An American Tragedy,” an over-praised book.

There remain his volumes of autobiography, which in chronological order begin with “Dawn”; “Moods Cadenced and Declaimed”; “Chains”; a volume of short stories – his short stories were merely large-sized chunks of function, indistinguishable in artistic method from his novels; “Dreiser Looks at Russia,” written after a tourist’s visit with Mr. Sinclair Lewis in 1927, very sympathetic in tone but expressing doubt of the outcome; and “Tragic America,” published in this country in 1932 and leaving an impression of somewhat rhetorical bitterness and heat. In the 1939-45 war he several times created a minor stir by the virulence of his anti-British outbursts. In 1942, for instance, he described the British as ‘lousy and aristocratic horse-riding snobs,” predicted that Russia would go down in defeat, and hoped the Germans would invade England, which in any case had done nothing in the war, he said, except borrow money and men from the United States. Having thus spoken his mind on the eve of a public address which he was due to deliver in Toronto, he was obliged to depart in a hurry from the city and from Canada. Dreiser was not a sympathetic personality and grew crabbed and assertive in his last years. As a writer, he was, in one sense, as native to the American soil as Hawthorne or Whitman, a grim, hard, uncompromising, and powerful witness to the truth as he saw it.

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The Spectator, Friday, January 4, 1946

 

Ordinary readers – I will not say admirers – of Theodore Dreiser’s works will, I should imagine, have read with some surprise the depreciatory obituary notice of him in Monday’s Times. Take one judgement alone: “The earnest, massive, but fatiguing An American Tragedy, an over-praised book.” Well, anyone, of course, is free to think that, and to say that. Equally anyone is free to express astonishment, as I take leave to do, at such a verdict. To me this deeply moving novel has always seemed charged with all the relentless inevitability of a Greek tragedy. That I am not alone in this I know. I may be in a minority, but I doubt it.