Tag Archives: Theodore Dreiser An American Tragedy

Clifton Fadiman on ” Native Son” (and Dreiser)

 

 

Richard Wright’s Native Son is the most powerful American novel to appear since The Grapes of Wrath. It has numerous defects as a work of art, but it is only in retrospect that they emerge, so overwhelming is its central drive, so gripping its mounting intensity. No one, I think, except the most unconvertible Bourbons, the completely callous, or the mentally deficient, can read it without an enlarged and painful sense of what it means to be a Negro in the United States of America seventy-seven years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Native Son does for the Negro what Theodore Dreiser in An American Tragedy did a decade and a half ago for the bewildered, inarticulate American white. The two books are similar in theme, in technique, in their almost paralyzing effect on the reader, and in the large, brooding humanity, quite remote from special pleading, that informs them both.

 

 

— Clifton Fadiman, review of Native Son by Richard Wright, The New Yorker, March 2, 1940

review of “An American Tragedy,” Sewanee Review

 

review of ‘An American Tragedy’ – Sewanee Review 1926

 

Posted here (above) as a downloadable PDF file is a review of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy that was published in The Sewanee Review.

The review is notable for how the writer so clearly apprehends Dreiser’s intentions and the strengths of the book, while not neglecting the fact that many found Dreiser’s prose and his narrative style to be ungainly, or, as the writer puts it, “unbeautiful.”

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 2017

 

review of An American Tragedy, The Sewanee Review 34.4 (October-December 1926), p. 495-497

 

Dreiser’s foreword to “The Symbolic Drawings of Hubert Davis for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser”

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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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

 

 

 

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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

    June 2017

Thomas Kranidas, “The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy”

 

 

Thomas Kranidas, ‘The Materials of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy’

 

 

A while ago, I was contemplating writing an article on the sources of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. In my research, I came across a master’s thesis which was listed in Pizer, Dowell, and Rusch’s Dreiser bibliography.

I decided to look the thesis up because it was at Columbia University (accessible to me, since I live in New York City) and because the title intrigued me. It was by Thomas Kranidas and is entitled “The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy” (Master’s thesis, Columbia University, 1953, 94 pp.).

I read the thesis at Columbia. It wasn’t really an investigation of the sources of An American Tragedy, but it was mainly focused on that novel. It included consideration to a limited extent of other works of Dreiser — e.g., his poetry and essays — that pertained to the author’s argument.

This thesis is, in my opinion, excellent — very penetrating. It is one of the best analyses I have ever read of Dreiser as a writer and muddled thinker, and someone with pretensions to intellectual and social stature that can be detected in his writings. It is for the most part critical of Dreiser, but I think it is one of the best analyses of him I have ever read. It gets under Dreiser’s skin and “nails” him.  Nonetheless, the author, Thomas Kranidas, is appreciative of the strengths of An American Tragedy.

The thesis is here made available for the first time. It is posted above as a downloadable PDF file.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   April 2017

 

 

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email from Roger W. Smith to Thomas Kranidas, April 25, 2017

 

 

Dear Professor Kranidas,

Following up on our conversation today, a few thoughts about your master’s thesis.

I read it at Butler Library. It is available nowhere else, I believe. (It was not available and was irretrievable until I copied and scanned it and posted in on my Dreiser site.)

My basic reaction, gut feeling was that (1) it was an M.A. thesis, not a dissertation; (2) it was not based on exhaustive research into the sources of An American Tragedy (which was not your objective).

Neverthless, I felt that it was one of the best statements I have read about Dreiser qua writer; Dreiser the self-styled “philosopher”; and Dreiser the social climber who yearned for what he professed to disdain.

You “nailed” him … got under his skin. Analyzed, penetratingly, his weaknesses as a writer and the shortcomings of his worldview … his pretensions, his myopia when it came to writing about the privileged classes.

While at the same time appreciating his strengths, and steering clear of a hatchet job.

newspaper illustrations of the Chester Gillette trial

 

 

Chester Gillette (1883-1908) was the prototype of the character Clyde Griffiths in Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.

Grace Brown (1886-1906), Chester Gillette’s murder victim, was the prototype for the character Roberta Alden in the novel.

The murder occurred on July 11, 1906 on Big Moose Lake in Herkimer County in the Adirondack region of Upstate New York.

The trial of Chester Gillette took place in Herkimer, NY from November 12, 1906 through December 4, 1906.

Gillette was convicted of first degree murder and was executed at Auburn (NY) State Prison on March 31, 1908

Photographs from the trial were rare.

Posted here (below) are illustrations (mostly sketches done by courtroom artists) from newspaper accounts of the trial.

Dreiser followed the events of the trial very closely – almost exactly – in An American Tragedy.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2016

 

 

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

 

 

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

I also happen to be Dreseirian.

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

and, Theodore Dreiser.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theodore Dreiser couldn’t write.

Or could he?

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

The prose is turgid and leaden.

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

Admitted, thricely.

And, yet.

The Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case of 1906 (upon 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 Tragedy is undeniable. It retains that power upon being reread.

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

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

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

Is this the prose of a James Joyce?

Decidedly not.

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

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

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

This is true of the entire book. We are like bystanders of Clyde’s psyche. We are always present, observing him close up without authorial intervention. In fact, Dreiser, by 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 powerful, very effective.

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

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

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

He wrote – I repeat – a classic.

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

It is sui generis, autochthonous.

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

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

 

 

– Roger W. Smith

   September 2016

the “beehive” passage in Robert Alden’s last letter

 

 

In Book Three, Chapter XXII of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, there is an egregious typographical error, made, presumably, by Dreiser’s typist — Estelle Kubitz? Sally Kussell? Louise Campbell? Helen Richardson?; see Thomas Riggio’s commentary in Library of American edition, pg. 966-67 — in Roberta Alden’s last letter to Clyde Griffiths, a misprint which has been preserved in all subsequent printings of the novel:

I have been biding good-by to some places to-day. There are so many nooks, dear, and all of them so dear to me. I have lived here all my life, you know. First, there was the springhouse with its great masses of green moss, and in passing it I said good-by to it, for I won’t be coming to it soon again — maybe never. And then the old apple tree when we had our playhouse years ago — Emily and Tom and Gifford and I. Then the “Believe,” a cute little house in the orchard where we sometimes played [italics added].

The word transcribed and printed in the novel as “Believe” should have been “Beehive,” which makes sense, whereas “Believe” makes absolutely no sense.

A careful examination of Dreiser’s first draft seems to indicate that he wrote “Beehive,” although it is difficult from his handwriting to distinguish between the h in “Beehive” and the l in “Believe”  Anyway, the typist read “Believe,” and the mistake was not caught in any of the subsequent prepublication stages.

It was a mistake that was not perpetuated elsewhere (in transcriptions of Grace Brown’s letters, that is, such as those published in newspapers; however, translators of An American Tragedy struggled mightily with how to render the odd proper noun).

The letters of Grace Brown (the real life prototype of the character Robert Alden in An American Tragedy) to Chester Gillette (the real life prototype of the character Clyde Griffiths in the novel) were read at Gillette’s murder trial and caused a sensation. The words “the ‘Beehive,’ a cute little house in the orchard” are rendered accurately (as one might expect) in the court transcript of the actual trial; in newspaper accounts of the trial, in which the letters were reprinted; and in pamphlets in which the letters were published for sale at the trial.

It is, however, interesting to see what translators of An American Tragedy have done with this passage. Here’s a sampling of some known translations.

 

 

 

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ENGLISH

Then the ‘Believe,’ a cute little house in the orchard where we sometimes played.

 

ALBANIAN

Pastaj «Besën» ─ një tendë të vogël. të bukuir në kopsht, ku loznim nganjëherë.

Një tragjedi amerikane
trasn. Bujar Doko
Tiran: Naim Frashëri, 1989

 

CZECH

A pak ten hezoučy altánek v štĕpnici, kde jsme si časem hrávali.

Americká Tragedie. Trans. Karel Kraus. Prague: Nakladatelství, 1948; vvol. II, pg. 306

 

DANISH

Og saa det morsomme, lille Skur I Frugthaven, hvor vi sommetider plejede at lege.

En amerikansk tragedie. Ttrans. Tom Kristensen, Copenhagen: Gyldendalske boghandel, 1928, 2 vols., II:197

 

FINNISH

Sitten mehiläispesälle, somalle pikkuvajalle puutarhassa, jossa joskus leikimme. (Then the beehive, a cute little house in the orchard where we sometimes played.)

 

FRENCH

Puis la « Crois-y » une mignonne petite cabane dans le verger où nous jouions parfois ensemble.

 

GERMAN

… und den ,Ewig dein’, einem allerliebsten kleinen Haus im Obstgarten, in den wir manchmal gespielt haben.

“The phrase under examination has been creatively rendered as ‘Ewig dein’, which literally means “forever yours/yours in eternity”, probably resulting from an interpretation of “‘Believe'” as an abbreviation of “I believe in you/in our love”. This shows that a typing mistake can be transformed into something meaningful in both the original and the translation (the typist probably interpreted the word in a similar manner [perhaps a Freudian mistake of a typist in love with Dreiser]. Be it as it may, it fits the context.” (I thank Professor Klaus Schmidt for an email by way of explanation.)

 

ITALIAN

E poi “Believe”, una graziosa costruzione nel frutteto dove a volte giocavamo.

The Italian translator threw up her hands!

 

JAPANESE

Professor Kiyohiko Murayama of Toyo University, Japan consulted two Japanese editions of the novel in which the passage in question varies, namely, a translation by Fukuo Hashimoto (4 vols., 1963-68) and one by Youkich Miyamoto (1970; 1975).

The phrase in question (“the ‘Believe,’ a cute little house”) was translated by Hashimoto as “‘shinrai’ to iu na no kawairashii ie” and by Miyamoto as “‘shinjiru’ to iu chiisana kawaii ie. … Now, Hashimoto translates ‘Believe’ into ‘shinrai’, while Miyamoto ‘shinjiru’. ‘Shinrai’ is a derivative from Chinese, which means ‘trust’ rather than ‘belief’, I think. ‘Shinjiru’ means ‘believe’ or ‘trust,’ sounding more Japanese, since it takes a form equivalent to infinitive in English verb conjugation. The root “shin” is a derivative from Chinese. Chinese derivatives do in Japanese what Latin derivatives in English: both of them tend to be used for conveying rather abstract concepts, such as philosophical, religious, or academic…. it would be very appropriate if ‘a cute little house in the orchard’ is named ‘Believe.’ The problem to a translator would be whether this ‘believe’ is meant to be religious, or to be of human relations. Does it mean to ‘believe in God, or have faith’? Or to ‘believe your friend’?

Hashimoto’s translation ‘shinrai’ means the latter rather than the former. Miyamoto’s ‘shinjiru’ is too unspecified to decide which it really means. Moreover, Hashimoto’s translation may be an attempt to make a point of the irony inherent in Roberta’s situation” (email from Kiyohiko Murayama).

 

KOREAN

A Korean edition of the novel was consulted for me by one of my former students at St. John’s University, who “decoded” the passage in question as follows:

And then, I walked to what it is called “the house of faith” which is in the snug orchard. This is also the place where I often came and played.

 

NORWEGIAN

Og det lille skuret bak låven hvor vi holdt til når det regent. (And the little shed behind the barn where we stayed when it rained.)

 

POLISH

Potem żegnałem “Ustronie”, maleńki, śliczny domek w warzywnym ogrodzie [one can say “w warzywniaku”), gdzie bawiliśmy się często. (“Later I was saying goodbye to the bower, the little, beautiful house in the vegetable garden where we spent a lot of time.” This is perhaps a somewhat stilted translation. The key word, “Ustronie”: means recess, place of retirement or seclusion, backwater, or secluded place.  I thank Anita Ludwikoska for helping me with the Polish.)

 

 

SLOVAK

A potom som bola pri našom peknom altánku v sade, kde sme sa ako deti brávali.
The Dutch and Hebrew editions of An American Tragedy are abridged and omit, egregiously, Roberta’s last letter to Clyde.

 

 

 

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The “beehive” passage occurs in Grace Brown’s eloquent and moving last letter to Chester Gillette of July 5 1907, which was used in the libretto by Gene Scheer for Tobias Picker’s opera An American Tragedy.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

 

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Addendum:

The mis-transcription of the “beehive” passage is discussed in Adirondack Tragedy: A Study of the 1906 Gillette Murder Case, Fourth Edition, by Joseph W.  Brownell and Patricia Enos (Cortland Press & Carbon Copies, 2017), pp. 182-183.