Tag Archives: Theodore Dreiser An American Tragedy

getting it all (mostly) wrong

 

 

This brief post concerns the following recent posts on the web:

 

Behind the True Crime Story That Inspired “A Place in the Sun”; Over a century before the true-crime boom, People v. Gillette attracted the nation’s attention

By Tobias Carroll

InsideHook

February 25, 2020

Behind the True Crime Story That Inspired “A Place in the Sun”

 

 

People v. Gillette: How an Obscure Execution in the Finger Lakes Inspired Generations of Storytellers; The Long Cultural Afterlife of a Horrifying Crime

By S.L. McInnis

via Grand Central Publishing

February 24, 2020

People v. Gillette: How an Obscure Execution in the Finger Lakes Inspired Generations of Storytellers

 

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

It is frankly annoying to see constant misstatements of fact about — or wrong inferences being made from — the Gillette case, which provided the factual basis for Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. The case has been recounted and examined thoroughly in Craig Brandon’s Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited. A few errors and missed facts about the case have been discovered and corrected by Brandon himself over the years; and on this blog, as well as elsewhere.

Confusion seems to arise from true crime enthusiasts and movie buffs, as well as readers of the novel, having conflated facts derived from An American Tragedy and the 1951 film A Place in the Sun.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

Tobias Carroll states:

[T]he defendant, Chester Gillette … was put on trial for the murder of a co-worker with whom he’d been having an affair. After he began another affair with a woman of higher social standing, Gillette got some news: his co-worker was pregnant. Gillette got nervous, and he and his co-worker took a fateful trip by boat from which only Gillette returned. He was found guilty and executed, but [S. L.] McInnis notes that evidence that surfaced decades later supports Gillette’s innocence.

 

 

S.L. McInnis states:

Chester Gillette, a poor relation … got a job at his wealthy uncle’s shirt factory in Cortland, New York in 1905. He was only twenty-two at the time and on his way up in the world, a handsome young man in pursuit of the American Dream.

Gillette met another young employee at the factory, a pretty brunette named Grace Brown. …. Gillette and Brown began a sexual affair and by the spring of 1906, she was pregnant with his child.

Meanwhile, Gillette, who was a local playboy, had started hobnobbing with the upper classes in town and had apparently become involved with someone more appealing: a wealthy young socialite who would become known as “Miss X.” When Brown told Gillette she was pregnant, and begged him to make her an honest woman, he allegedly began plotting her murder. …

Throughout the trial, [Gillette] maintained his innocence, explaining that his statement changed because he was terrified of being blamed for Brown’s death after her body was found. There was no hard evidence against Gillette at all, in fact. Everything was circumstantial.

Years after the verdict, another witness came forward saying he observed a search volunteer poking Brown’s corpse with a stick. It was enough to inflict the wounds Gillette had been accused of. According to Professor Susan N. Herman of Brooklyn Law School, who’s written extensively about the case, even the District Attorney at the time said if the evidence had been presented in court, Gillette would’ve been acquitted.

Was an innocent young man put to death simply because he appeared guilty? Is merely “wishing” someone dead a crime? If that’s the case, even if we hate to admit it, wouldn’t we all be guilty of that at some point in our lives?

Could we actually go through with murdering another human being to get what we want in life? Probably not, although none of us know what we’re truly capable of until put to the test. Did Gillette? Most retellings of the story let us decide what to believe. And that mystery–did he or didn’t he?–lets us hope for his innocence, and perhaps root for him just a little bit.

Ironically, Gillette confessed to the crime while he was on death row. But that fact isn’t included in either the book or the film. Even at the time, officials didn’t take Gillette seriously because he’d “found religion” and his state of mind was in question.

What endures about People v. Gillette is a relatable suspect, that evocative love triangle – and a murder with no hard evidence.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

What’s wrong with these assertions? Just about everything.

Dreiser was seemingly true to the “spirit” of Chester Gillette/Clyde Griffiths’s motivation for murdering Grace Brown/Roberta Alden. After becoming involved with Grace Brown, Gillette became popular with the girls in the town of Cortland, New York, where the Gillette Skirt Company was located. It was not a ‘shirt” factory, as McInnis states.

Perhaps Gillette felt he had better marriage prospects. Grace Brown was undoubtedly viewed as an encumbrance by him. It was rumored that Gillette had courted Harriet Benedict (the “Miss X” of Dreiser’s novel; there was no mention of a “Miss X” at the trial or by the press at the time), an attractive girl from one of the “best’ families in town, but there is no factual basis for this whatsoever. Miss Benedict herself denied it.

The search volunteer said by McInnis to have poked Grace Brown’s corpse (he never did any such thing) with “a stick” (a pike pole) was Roy Higby, who was a thirteen-year-old boy at the time when a steamer was sent out to search for Grace Brown’s body in Big Moose Lake. Years later, he recounted details of the search in an article published in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. Higby does state that a pike pole was used to pull Grace Brown’s body out of the lake. Higby wrote (Adirondack Daily Enterprise, March 28 [29?], 1958): “I can remember exactly my first sight of the body. Her forehead was badly cut from the hairline of her left forehead across the right eyebrow and looked as though it had been struck by a fairly sharp-or medium blunt instrument, heavily enough to lay the scalp wide open.”

And a Mrs. Marjory Carey testified at the trial to hearing a “piercing cry” on the lake at the approximate time of Grace Brown’s death.

Gillette did not confess to the crime “while he was on death row.” He was said to have made an admission of guilt just prior to his execution, but no one knows for sure.

The bottom line is that Chester Gillette was guilty of premeditated murder. One does not need legal expertise to see that. His actions leading up Grace Brown’s drowning and immediately afterward, his statements when arrested, etc. all show this conclusively.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   February 2020

 

“The American Art of Murder”

 

 

 

A new article of potential interest to Dreiserians is the following:

“The American Art of Murder”

by Algis Valiunas

National Affairs

Summer 2019

 

https://nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-american-art-of-murder

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Dreiser’s An American Tragedy are featured. The commentary on An American Tragedy is brief, and there are no new findings per se, but the author’s analysis of murder in the novel, of Clyde’s motives and psychological makeup, are lucid and clear.
Algis Valiunas comments:

When it comes to murder, Fitzgerald and Dreiser are the most eminent American writers of the old school, in which men kill for familiar, time- honored reasons: the blind rage of vengeance, the seductive gleam of ambition. This conventional sort of murder has an honored tradition in American literature, and its lesser masters include Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, Raymond Chandler, all of whom were considered purveyors of pulp fiction in their day but whose work has now been enshrined in the Library of America. Murder is their special subject, and their principal traffic runs to crimes of limitless avarice and uncontrollable sexual passion.

He then goes on to analyze Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Meyer Levin’s Compulsion (based on the actual murder of Robert Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb), Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences, and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.

“The American art of murder,” Valiunas concludes, “has traveled a long way from the days of Fitzgerald and Dreiser. Where murderers once killed for some plausible purpose, they now do so for the elemental joy of killing.”

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2020

Edwin Seaver, “Theodore Dreiser and the American Novel,” New Masses, 1926

 

 

Edwin Seaver, review of An American Tragedy – New Masses, May 1926

 

 

 

Posted here (PDF file above) is the following review of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. It was published in the inaugural issue of New Masses, a Marxist publication:

 

“Theodore Dreiser and the American Novel,” by Edwin Seaver, New Masses, vol. 1, no 1 (May 1926), pg. 24

 
The review is cited in the standard Dreiser bibliography by Pizer, Dowell, and Rusch, but it does not seem to have been reprinted. It is not included in Jack Salzman’s Theodore Dreiser: The Critical Reception.

Seaver, who frequently wrote for New Masses, had leftist views. One might say that he approved of An American Tragedy because of its realistic portrayal of American life as opposed to a tendency of novelists who, Seaver felt, wallowed in self-expression.

 
— posted by Roger W. Smith
   December 2019

Grace Brown and Chester Gillette (photo)

 

 

 

Grace Brown and Chester Gillette - Altanta Const 7-21-1935 pg 6

Grace Brown and Chester Gillette – The Atlanta Constitution, Sunday Magazine, April 21, 1935, pg. 6

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   September 2019

Tobias Picker’s opera “An American Tragedy”

 

 

Today, I have been listening to a performance I taped in 2005 of Tobias Picker’s opera An American Tragedy, which is based on the Dreiser novel.

The opera is not available for sale in any format: CD or digital.

I found one or two excerpts on YouTube.

The opera got generally favorable (some very much so, some lukewarm) reviews.

It premiered in 2005 at the Metropolitan Opera. There was a follow up production in 2014 by the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, NY of a revised version (by Picker) of the opera.

I attended both the 2005 (Met Opera) and the 2014 (Glimmerglass) productions. I did not think the revised version was an improvement — I could not see the logic behind it — and noted that some of the best sections had been eliminated.

I offered to share my taped version with a very few Dreiser scholars. One was very appreciative. Others, English professors, said they had no interest in opera.

I am not an opera connoisseur. The work is uneven, I would say. But there is much beautiful music, some exquisite passages: for example the opening duet between the young Clyde and his mother, the hymn, and the scene where the libretto is based on Roberta Alden’s letters.

Picker’s opera seems to have been overlooked. I am sure that the fact of there being no available recording has to do with the Dreiser Trust.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 2019

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