Tag Archives: Harriet Benedict

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.

new post – “looking for work”

 

 

To fellow Dreiserians

Please see my post

“looking for work”

looking for work

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

Ruth Reynolds, “Justice and the Two American Tragedies”

 

 

 

 

first page 7-7-1935

 

 

 

firt page 9-18-1966

 

 

Ruth Reynolds, ‘Justice and the Two American Tragedies’ – Daily News (NY) 7-7-1935

 

 

Ruth Reynolds, ‘Echo of An American Tragedy’ – Daily News (NY) 9-18-1966

 

 

 

Posted here (downloadable Word documents above) is a groundbreaking article on the Gillette case:

 

Justice and the Two American Tragedies

Attempt to Forget Life Task of Many Who Were Involved

by Ruth Reynolds

Daily News (New York)

Sunday, July 7, 1935

pp. 42-47

And also a follow up article by the same author:

Echo of ‘An American Tragedy’

by Ruth Reynolds

Daily News (New York)

Sunday, September 18, 1966

pp. 134-135

 

 

The first article, which appeared in the New York Daily News Sunday magazine in 1935, has never been reprinted and is, for all practical purposes, unavailable. I found a copy on microfilm in the New York Public Library, and transcribed the entire article. It is a very well written and researched account of the Gillette case. There are some minor inaccuracies, but the article contains information available nowhere else. This is particularly true of Chester Gillette’s family and what became of them. Reynolds interviewed surviving family members for the story.
Ruth Reynolds (1904-1971 was a staff writer for the New York Daily News. She won acclaim for her series of “justice” stories on noted criminal cases.

 

 

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Ms. Reynolds’s 1935 article also covered the Robert Edward murder case, which Dreiser covered. On the Edwards case, see:

 

Theodore Dreiser, “I Find the Real American Tragedy.” Mystery Magazine 11 (April-May 1935): 22-24, 83-86. Reprinted: Resources for American Literary Study 2 (Spring 1972): 40-55.

 

Salzman, Jack. Introduction to “‘I Find the Real American Tragedy’ by Theodore Dreiser.” Resources for American Literature Study 2 (Spring 1972): 3-4.

 

Famous novel might have inspired local murder

by William C. Kashatus

The Citizens’ Voice

Wilkes-Barre (PA)

August 2, 2009

pg. C1

https://www.citizensvoice.com/arts-living/famous-novel-might-have-inspired-local-murder-1.155509

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 2020