Tag Archives: Theodore Dreiser An American Tragedy

more misconceptions about “An American Tragedy” and the true story

 

 

re: Sandra Scott Travels: “An American Tragedy”

Oswego County Today

September 20, 2020

 

Sandra Scott Travels: “An American Tragedy”

 

 

There are a few inaccuracies in this piece.

Scott states that An American Tragedy, “along with books like ‘Grapes of Wrath’ is seen as the beginning of the modern American literature.” This statement seems problematic. Could not ‘modern American literature” be said to have begun with Huckleberry Finn? Or to have been already begun around the time that Dreiser was writing Sister Carrie and Stephen Crane works such as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets?

Scott states that An American Tragedy “shows the extent someone will go to realize the American Dream ignoring any sense of morality.” This is succinctly and well put.

In discussing the factual underpinnings of An American Tragedy — i.e., the Gillette murder case — Scott makes a serious, common error:

Chester Gillette was born into a successful family but his father, after a religious conversion, renounced his wealth and became a roving missionary for the Salvation Army. Gillette, however, still hankered for the good life and when his uncle offered him a job at his factory in Cortland he accepted. He had the opportunity to work hard and advanced. Knowing that he should not consort with the help, Gillette ignored the advice and began seeing Grace Brown, a hard working girl from a farm family. They usually met at her place and not in public. Meanwhile, Gillette moved up the social rung and began dating the daughter of a prominent family. [italics added] Grace Brown became pregnant and wanted to get married but that would have interfered in Gillette’s hope for marrying someone from the upper class.

The notion that Chester Gillette was dating a local girl (Harriet Benedict, not named by Scott) is a common misconception. It has been thoroughly disproved and you would think someone writing an article about An American Tragedy and the Gillette case would know this (or, at least, bother to check). There are numerous publications about the actual case, and Craig Brandon has written a book which provides the definitive account.

The notion that there was “another woman” whom Gillette was involved with and that such a relationship gave him a motive for murdering Grace Brown is not only suggested by the character Sondra Finchley in An American Tragedy, which is FICTION — don’t forget — it was also rumored that this was the case at the time of Chester Gillette’s arrest and trial in 1906.

Perhaps Dreiser himself, who used the New York World as his source for the Gillette case, was influenced by such accounts. Early on, in July 1906, at the time of the murder of Grace Brown and Gillette’s arrest, the World published a story suggesting that Gillette may have been engaged to another girl. The girl was Harriet Benedict, a member of the of the “best’ families in town. Miss Benedict, who testified at Gillette’s trial, said that she knew Gillette and had been on a social outing in which Gillette was a member of the party, but she stated, unequivocally, that there had never been any romantic relationship, much less an engagement. Scott’s assertion that “Gillette moved up the social rung and began dating the daughter of a prominent family,” presumably establishing a motive for his murdering Grace Brown, is flat out wrong.

 

 

— Roger W, Smith

   September 2020

 

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Addendum:

While I am at it, I would like to point out that many misconceptions about both An American Tragedy and the Gillette case itself have come from the film A Place in the Sun and comments by film critics. There was an earlier film based on the novel: An American Tragedy (1931), directed by Josef von Sternberg.

The 1931 film has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies. Host Ben Mankiewicz stated that Chester Gillette’s mother sued Paramount, the film company. It was Grace Brown’s mother, Minerva Brown, who sued, not Chester Gillette’s mother.

I emailed Mankiewicz about this and got no response.

new post – “looking for work”

 

 

To fellow Dreiserians

Please see my post

“looking for work”

looking for work

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

James E. Barcus, “More Light on Dreiser’s Chester Gillette/Clyde Griffiths Family”

 

 

 

James E. Barcus, ‘More Light on Dreiser’s Chester Gillette-Clyde Griffiths Family’ – English Language Notes, Sept 2000

 

 

James E. Barcus, ‘More Light on Dreiser’s Chester Gillette-Clyde Griffiths Family’ – English Laguage Notes, Sept 2000

 

 

Posted here (PDF document and Word document transcription, above) is the following article:

 

“More Light on Dreiser’s Chester Gillette/Clyde Griffiths Family”

by James E. Barcus

English Language Notes, 38:1 (2000): 68-73

 

 

Chester Gillette was the prototype of Clyde Griffiths, the main character in Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   June 2020

Ruth Reynolds, “Justice and the Two American Tragedies”

 

 

 

 

first page 7-7-1935

 

 

 

firt page 9-18-1966

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

Justice and the Two American Tragedies

Attempt to Forget Life Task of Many Who Were Involved

by Ruth Reynolds

Daily News (New York)

Sunday, July 7, 1935

pp. 42-47

And also a follow up article by the same author:

Echo of ‘An American Tragedy’

by Ruth Reynolds

Daily News (New York)

Sunday, September 18, 1966

pp. 134-135

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Famous novel might have inspired local murder

by William C. Kashatus

The Citizens’ Voice

Wilkes-Barre (PA)

August 2, 2009

pg. C1

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

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 2020

Roger W. Smith, “Dreiser’s Nephew Carl”

 

 

 

‘Dreiser’s nephew Carl’

 

 

This post is in the form of a downloadable Word document (above).

 

 

'Dawn' - first typescript - Chapter XLII, pg. 13

Theodore Dreiser, “Dawn,” first typescript, Chapter XLII, pg. 13

 

 

 

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Abstract

 

 

This article focuses on Theodore Dreiser’s nephew Carl Dresser, who was born out of wedlock in 1886 to Dreiser’s sister Cacilia (Sylvia) Dreiser. The article provides hitherto unknown details about Sylvia’s affair with Carl’s father — the pseudonymous “Don Ashley” — when Theodore Dreiser, his sister Sylvia, and other siblings were living in Warsaw, Indiana with their mother, as recounted by Dreiser, with some major modifications of facts, in his autobiographical work Dawn.

I have discovered the identity of Carl’s father and confirmed details of Carl’s death. It was “known” on scant evidence that he was a suicide. It has been said, which is inaccurate, that Carl died in his teens. I have found Carl’s death record, as well as his birth record.

Dreiser’s sister Sylvia abandoned Carl and did not raise him; he was raised by Dreiser’s parents and also by his aunt Mame (Theodore Dreiser’s sister) and her husband. As an unwanted child, Carl had a difficult life. Many details have remained sketchy or were never investigated by Dreiser biographers; there is scant mention of Carl in Dreiser biographies.

The story of Sylvia’s affair and pregnancy, a scandal at the time, is worth investigating, since Dreiser saw it as not insignificant in his family history and as contributing to ideas about sex and morality he had as a teenager — he used it as the subject matter of two chapters in Dawn. And, the story of Carl’s birth and his short, unhappy life throws some light on characters in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and, to a lesser extent, in his novel Jennie Gerhardt.

 

 

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Theodore Dreiser, “The Return of the Genius,” Chicago Sunday Globe. October 23, 1892 (under byline Carl Dreiser)

 

 

Theodore Dreiser, ‘The Return of the Genius.’

 

 

 

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132 West 15th Street, NYC

+ 132 West 15th Street, Manhattan; photo by Roger W. Smith, May 2020. Carl Dreiser was born at this address, in the apartment of Theodore Dreiser’s sister, Emma, in 1886.

 

 

 

Carl's building

53 West Erie Street, Chicago; where Carl Dresser lived at the time of his death; photo by Tamie Dehler

 

 

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Addendum, August 16, 2020:

 

I received an email from Professor Emeritus Thomas Kranidas today which called my attention to something I had overlooked (italics): “Dreiser was surely influenced by memory of Carl’s bellhop days. And Carl was tragically influenced by Dreiser’s portrayal of Hurstwood’s suicide in “Sister Carrie.”

Note that Carl Dresser (as detailed in my essay ) died from “Asphixiation by illuminating gas.”

 

 

— posted by Roger W.  Smith

   May 2020; updated August 2020

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

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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

 

 

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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