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
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 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)”
(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
On page 335 of Craig Brandon’s Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited (Fully Revised and Expanded Edition, 2016) — considered to be the definitive book about the “American Tragedy” murder case — Brandon states:
In the novel [Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy], Sondra is with Clyde when he is arrested, and she comes to visit him when he is in prison, something that is very unlikely to have happened in real life.
Actually, this is not the case with respect to the novel. Brandon is conflating the novel with the 1951 movie version, A Place in the Sun. It is questionable whether he has actually read An American Tragedy.
In Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Clyde Griffiths receives a letter from Sondra Finchley when he is on death row (Book Three, Chapter XXXII; see below). The letter is typewritten with no signature.
Sondra does not visit Clyde in prison at any point in the novel.
Clyde is despondent after receiving the letter because of its terseness, formality, and impersonal character.
The overrated film A Place in the Sun has been the source of much confusion in this regard. In the film, which takes shameless liberties with Dreiser’s novel, Angela Vickers (Sondra Finchley), played by Elizabeth Taylor, visits George Eastman (Clyde Griffiths), played by Montgomery Clift, on death row.
The film ends with Angela visiting George in prison, saying that she will always love him, and with him slowly marching towards his execution.
This is – to put it kindly – ridiculous. It undercuts and violates the plot of the novel and premises about the central characters upon which it was based.
— Roger W. Smith
[T]he film is a travesty of Dreiser’s novel. … An example of the compromise involved—typical in Hollywood films, which is why so few can be taken seriously as social comment—occurs in the final scene when George [the Clyde Griffiths character] is in jail awaiting execution. Sondra visits George in his cell and expresses her love for him. The book makes it explicitly clear that once her lover was in trouble and had become a social undesirable, this rich girl wanted nothing more to do with him. The scene in the film is the antithesis of realism.
— Charles Higham on A Place in the Sun, in The Art of the American Film 1900-1971 (1973)
Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy, Book Three, Chapter XXXII:
But the days going by until finally one day six weeks after–and when because of his silence in regard to himself, the Rev. Duncan was beginning to despair of ever affecting him in any way toward his proper contrition and salvation–a letter or note from Sondra. It came through the warden’s office and by the hand of the Rev. Preston Guilford, the Protestant chaplain of the prison, but was not signed. It was, however, on good paper, and because the rule of the prison so requiring had been opened and read. Nevertheless, on account of the nature of the contents which seemed to both the warden and the Rev. Guilford to be more charitable and punitive than otherwise, and because plainly, if not verifiably, it was from that Miss X of repute or notoriety in connection with his trial, it was decided, after due deliberation, that Clyde should be permitted to read it–even that it was best that he should. Perhaps it would prove of value as a lesson. The way of the transgressor. And so it was handed to him at the close of a late fall day–after a long and dreary summer had passed (soon a year since he had entered here). And he taking it. And although it was typewritten with no date nor place on the envelope, which was postmarked New York–yet sensing somehow that it might be from her. And growing decidedly nervous–so much so that his hand trembled slightly. And then reading–over and over and over–during many days thereafter: “Clyde ? This is so that you will not think that some one once dear to you has utterly forgotten you. She has suffered much, too. And though she can never understand how you could have done as you did, still, even now, although she is never to see you again, she is not without sorrow and sympathy and wishes you freedom and happiness.”
But no signature–no trace of her own handwriting. She was afraid to sign her name and she was too remote from him in her mood now to let him know where she was. New York! But it might have been sent there from anywhere to mail. And she would not let him know–would never let him know–even though he died here later, as well he might. His last hope–the last trace of his dream vanished. Forever! It was at that moment, as when night at last falls upon the faintest remaining gleam of dusk in the west. A dim, weakening tinge of pink–and then the dark.
He seated himself on his cot. The wretched stripes of his uniform and his gray felt shoes took his eye. A felon. These stripes. These shoes.
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.
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?
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