Harold J. Dies (1914-2012) was Trustee of the Dreiser Trust.
Harold J. Dies (1914-2012) was Trustee of the Dreiser Trust.
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
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
Below is a downloadable Word document which contains an inventory of Dreiserana — books and other materials by, about, and related to Theodore Dreiser — in my personal library.
— Roger W. Smith
Note – the Word document below containing the article by Roger W. Smith on which this post is based has been updated as of March 16, 2017 with some new content based upon news accounts appearing in Chicago newspapers in February 1886.
Theodore Dreiser drew heavily on real life incidents in writing his first novel, Sister Carrie. The main persons behind the story were his sister Emma and her lover, Lorenzo A. Hopkins.
I have done some investigating attempting to dig out more facts about Emma, about Hopkins, and about their relationship and children. There is much confusion despite what scholars have already managed to uncover. Dreiser himself gave sketchy accounts in his autobiographical writings.
I was aware that Hopkins’s wife, before he became involved with Emma Dreiser, was named Margaret and that they had one child, a daughter named Maria, who around 18 years old when Hopkins stole money from his employer in Chicago and absconded with Emma.
There was a Margaret Lutz, a married woman who seemed to be right age as Hopkins’s wife, who was murdered in 1900 — 14 years after her husband absconded — by her brother-in-law and who was, at the time, living just down the street (on the same block) from where she and Hopkins were previously living. Could this be the same woman as Margaret Hopkins, who had remarried a man surnamed Lutz?
It turned out that it indeed was. The key to proving this was that I recently found records of Margaret Hopkins’s divorce from her first husband, Lorenzo Hopkins, and her marriage to Alfred Lutz around eight years before she was murdered.
Attached below as a downloadable Word document is a new article of mine about the case and its relationship to the portrayal of Hurstwood and his wife Julia in Sister Carrie.
— Roger W. Smith
Also posted here below as a downloadable PDF document is a brief genealogical report for Margaret (Menkler Hopkins) Lutz.
“Lorenzo A. Hopkins (the real George Hurstwood)”
Theodore Dreiser’s “Dawn” — The Formation of a Mind: An Autobiographical Representation, by Nadja Firner. Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller Aktiengesellschaft & Co. KG, 2008. 126 pp. Paper, $92.00.
In my opinion, which I think would be shared by many Dreiserians, the two autobiographical works of Theodore Dreiser, A Book About Myself (1922) and Dawn (1931), should be ranked very high among American autobiographies. In view of this, it is surprising that Dreiser’s two autobiographical books (which he envisioned as part of a four-volume autobiography that was never finished) are not better known.
I think that A Book About Myself (later published as Newspaper Days) is actually the better written of the two books. It seems to have a tighter focus and to exhibit less of Dreiser’s tiresome philosophizing than does the later work, Dawn. But Dawn can stand on its own as a compelling work and as an invaluable narrative of Dreiser’s youth.
Hence my excitement when I saw that this book by Nadja Firner had been published and jumped to the conclusion that it was a study of Dawn (which, as is explained below, it is not, quite) and thus, by implication, of Dreiser’s autobiographical oeuvre. That I did so was not incomprehensible given that the publicity material for the book, found on Amazon.com and on the back cover of the book, states that the book “studies Theodore Dreiser’s autobiography of youth.” This statement would seem to indicate that it is a study of Dawn. While Dawn does receive consideration, it is more exact to say that this is a book about the “dawning” of Dreiser’s consciousness and the development of his worldview over his lifetime. (A Book About Myself, incidentally, does not receive consideration.) But the subject of the book is still not clear to me after struggling to complete Firner’s study, and this indicates that there are serious flaws in the book’s conception and construction. The content – or perhaps I should say the context in which the content is embedded – of this study is often out of focus.
Firner considers the major works of Dreiser and references much Dreiser scholarship (notably by Elias, Lehan, Lingeman, Lundén, Mathiessen, Mukherjee, Swanberg, Warren, Wirth-Nesher, and Zanine), but while at times provocative and compelling points are made, a direct, seemingly inevitable consequence of such broad coverage is that it is superficial.
I once took a copyediting course in which the instructor made a point about why attention to detail on the part of editors and copyeditors is essential: Sloppiness in editing and production tends to decrease the reader’s overall confidence in a nonfiction book’s accuracy. Firner’s study appears to have been written by a non-native speaker of English; it may be a translation (and a very awkward one at that) from a manuscript in German. It is written in prose that very often does not conform to standard English usage even by relaxed standards; it is plagued with awkward wording, errors in tense and syntax and typographical errors; and it’s a very tough read. There are also annoying inconsistencies in the treatment, say, of items like young Dreiser’s name (Theo vs. Theodore). It is incredible that this book has been published as is.
The first chapter of this book illustrates what is wrong with the whole work, structurally and focus-wise. Instead of focusing on Dreiser, the chapter provides a broad (very broad, in fact overly general) overview of American society during the Gilded Age. It contains sections entitled “America’s new industrial workers,” “The new managerial class,” “The Labor Movement,” and so on in which statements such as the following are made:
In the 1890s, Coney Island was transformed into the site of some of the largest and most elaborate amusement parks in the country. Its popularity signaled the rise of mass entertainment, making the New York amusement park the unofficial capital of a new mass culture. (pg. 23)
The reader must infer what the relevance to Dreiser (if any) is. It is anyone’s guess.
In her concluding chapter, Firner makes the point that Dreiser’s writing life can be divided into distinct phases: “the yearner and dreamer in a despairingly rough reality” (seen in Dreiser’s portrayals of himself in Dawn and of Carrie Meeber in Sister Carrie); the social Darwinian; a stage in which Dreiser’s outlook became more mystical and “antithetical to the amoral objectivity of a conventionally conceived naturalist”; and a final stage where he managed to reconcile his more romantic or mystical views with a scientific and materialistic outlook. (I am not sure that I have correctly identified the phases here. Firner states that there were three phases, then seems to identify four.) These phases are treated at various points in the exposition, but if they are construed as controlling or organizing themes, then the book can be said to often wander into other territory.
The book is divided into chapters on young Dreiser’s America (already noted), his family and the immigrant experience (in which Dawn gets attention), the importance of the city in Dreiser’s development (in which both Dawn and Sister Carrie are the main focus), Dreiser’s use of symbols (in which several of the novels are scrutinized), major influences on Dreiser from Spencer to Balzac, themes in his work such as the ideal of beauty, and so on. Some of this is quite interesting, or at least potentially so, but it is all too much to cover — the book’s content does not cohere.
Many of Firner’s observations about Dreiser are derivative, which is not in itself a criticism. She clearly acknowledges indebtedness to sources and in fact uses them skillfully. She does make a lot of interesting points of her own, such as that Dreiser suffered from a “poverty complex” not unlike his father’s obsession with religion (38), that “there is hardly anyone to imagine who was more repressive, a sometimes more enthusiastic ‘believer’ and in some respects more fanatic than” Dreiser, whose beliefs about class conflict, for example, were founded, ironically, in opposition to his father’s rigidity and orthodoxy (43); that if Dreiser was in his youth impressed by Horatio Alger-like rags to riches stories, he was not in his later years blinded by them (60); that Dreiser “carried the American business novel into previously unexamined territory by suggesting that the synthesis of commercial success and conventional moral precepts were [sic] possible but by no means necessary” (60); that Dreiser gradually moved away “from the sense of social misery as individual fate to escape from by no matter what means in order to ‘rise’ in society, to the sense of social misery as a collective problem to be solved by political and fair means” (65); that illusion and reality in Dreiser’s view “existed in mutual dependence in that one was unthinkable without the other” (72); that “Dreiser was not merely a documentary social realist, but rather a profound observer of the underlying myths and emotional realities of the American experience” (117); that Dreiser’s philosophy was built more on intuition and faith than on logic and reason (117).
The problem with this study is the way such points are developed, haphazardly and sloppily, which is unfortunate, since the author evinces insightfulness and a clear enthusiasm for her subject. She needed an editor’s help. I would not recommend this book, leaving aide consideration of its exorbitant price.
— Roger W. Smith
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
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
“Clyde is tugged by forces — internal and external — that he can scarcely grasp.” — Ben McArthur, email to Roger W. Smith, August 5, 2016
(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.)
Sondra Finchley’s letter:
Pine Point Landing, June 10th
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 :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.
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
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