Tag Archives: Theodore Dreiser An American Tragedy

my post about Grace and Roberta’s letters

 

 

I encourage Dreiserians to read my post, “Two Letters from An American Tragedy,” with my thoughts and input from Thomas Kranidas.

 

Roger W. Smith,“Two Letters from ‘An American Tragedy’”

 

I have always been interested in Grace Brown’s letters. Grace Brown was the murder victim of Chester Gillette in 1906 who is depicted in An American Tragedy in the character Robert Alden.

I think this post says a lot about what Dreiser was thinking in drawing the characters Roberta Alden and Sondra Finchley; and about common misconceptions about them and the novel.

 

— Roger W. Smith

April 2021

Dreiser and Zola; The Financier

 

 

The Philadelphia into which Frank Algernon Cowperwood was born was a city of two hundred and fifty thousand and more. It was set with handsome parks, notable buildings, and crowded with historic memories. Many of the things that we and he knew later were not then in existence–the telegraph, telephone, express company, ocean steamer, city delivery of mails. There were no postage-stamps or registered letters. The street car had not arrived. In its place were hosts of omnibuses, and for longer travel the slowly developing railroad system still largely connected by canals.

— Theodore Dreiser, The Financier, Chapter 1

 

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

 

“The Financier, the third of Dreiser’s published novels, marks a distinct turning point in his career. It is at once a departure from his characteristic subject matter and the beginning of his use of the larger canvas to which he knew that his fictional works were most ideally suited. Both Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt had been essentially autobiographical works drawn from Dreiser’s family and work experiences, as was The “Genius,” which was drafted by 1911 but not yet published. Contrasting strongly with those works, The Financier was planned from its inception as an extensive work based (as Emile Zola had advised) upon research. Elements deriving from the writer’s personal and professional lives were now held to a mere shadow of their former prominence. The new story itself was huge, involving a multitude of prominent characters interacting with the central figure over a span of years; it was conceived as a cradle-to­-grave saga, the complete telling of one very significant and individual American life.

“As always in Dreiser’s realist fiction, The Financier is grounded firmly in the socioeconomic context of the author’s youth and young manhood. …”

— Philip Gerber, A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia

 

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

I loved the way The Financier begins. In typical Dreiser fashion it draws you right into the novel. And, the beginning and opening chapters place you in nineteenth century Philadelphia, what it was like to live there. And for a boy such as Frank Algernon Cowperwood.

Cowperwood is born in Philadelphia, as was the financier Charles Tyson Yerkes Jr., the real life model for Cowperwood. Dreiser closely followed the actual life of Yerkes in The Financier and two succeeding novels. (Dreiser’s three novels — The Financier, The Titan, and The Stoic — comprise the so-called Trilogy of Desire.)

By the time Dreiser began The Financier, he had amassed over 2,000 pages of handwritten notes, some of them verbatim transcriptions of newspaper articles, and he had been saving newspaper clippings from at least a decade earlier when he was living in New York City, Yerkes’ last place of residence.

The influence of Balzac on Dreiser — evident in the latter’s first work, Sister Carrie — has been commented upon frequently by Dreiser scholars (and by me in posts on this site). Zola was clearly a major influence too. This is most evident in An American Tragedy, but it can also be seen in works such as The Financier, as noted above by the late Philip Gerber, an authority on the Trilogy of Desire.

When it comes to An American Tragedy, I feel that Dreiser does not get sufficient credit for the extensive research by him in newspapers that was involved. All we hear for the most part is complaints about how Dreiser plagiarized from accounts of the Gillette murder case and trial. Actually, this was not plagiarism. He drew upon such accounts. And he (for example) quoted more or less verbatim from some of the letters of Grace Brown (the real life Roberta Alden). That is not technically plagiarism. Plagiarism is when one steals another author’s work without giving credit.

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   April 2021

 

 

 

An American Tragedy (film) scenario (Eistenstein, Alexandrov, Montagu)

 

 

An American Tragedy – scenario (Eisenstein, Alexandrov, Montagu)

 

The complete scenario, written by Sergei Eisenstein, Grigori Alexandrov, and Ivor Montagu, for a film of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy  (downloadable PDF file above) is posted here. The scenario was written in 1930. The film was never produced.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2021

tendentious (the author as Deus ex machina)

 

 

While the money was in his hand the lock clicked. It had sprung! Did he do it? He grabbed at the knob and pulled vigorously. It had closed. …

The moment he realised that the safe was locked for a surety, the sweat burst out upon his brow and he trembled violently. He looked about him and decided instantly. There was no delaying now.

“Supposing I do lay it on the top,” he said, “and go away, they’ll know who took it. I’m the last to close up. Besides, other things will happen.”

He hurried into his little room, took down his light overcoat and hat, locked his desk, and grabbed the satchel. Then he turned out all but one light and opened the door. …

He walked steadily down the street, greeting a night watchman whom he knew who was trying doors. He must get out of the city, and that quickly.

Sister Carrie, Chapter 27

 

And Roberta, suddenly noticing the strangeness of it all–the something of eerie unreason or physical and mental indetermination so strangely and painfully contrasting with this scene, exclaiming: “Why, Clyde! Clyde! What is it? Whatever is the matter with you anyhow? You look so–so strange–so–so– Why, I never saw you look like this before. What is it?” And suddenly rising, or rather leaning forward, and by crawling along the even keel, attempting to approach him, since he looked as though he was about to fall forward into the boat–or to one side and out into the water. And Clyde, as instantly sensing the profoundness of his own failure, his own cowardice or inadequateness for such an occasion, as instantly yielding to a tide of submerged hate, not only for himself, but Roberta–her power–or that of life to restrain him in this way. And yet fearing to act in any way–being unwilling to– being willing only to say that never, never would he marry her– that never, even should she expose him, would he leave here with her to marry her–that he was in love with Sondra and would cling only to her–and yet not being able to say that even. But angry and confused and glowering. And then, as she drew near him, seeking to take his hand in hers and the camera from him in order to put it in the boat, he flinging out at her, but not even then with any intention to do other than free himself of her–her touch– her pleading–consoling sympathy–her presence forever–God!

Yet (the camera still unconsciously held tight) pushing at her with so much vehemence as not only to strike her lips and nose and chin with it, but to throw her back sidewise toward the left wale which caused the boat to careen to the very water’s edge. And then he, stirred by her sharp scream, (as much due to the lurch of the boat, as the cut on her nose and lip), rising and reaching half to assist or recapture her and half to apologize for the unintended blow–yet in so doing completely capsizing the boat–himself and Roberta being as instantly thrown into the water. And the left wale of the boat as it turned, striking Roberta on the head as she sank and then rose for the first time, her frantic, contorted face turned to Clyde, who by now had righted himself. For she was stunned, horror-struck, unintelligible with pain and fear–her lifelong fear of water and drowning and the blow he had so accidentally and all but unconsciously administered. ….

“But this–this–is not this that which you have been thinking and wishing for this while–you in your great need? And behold! For despite your fear, your cowardice, this–this–has been done for you. An accident–an accident–an unintentional blow on your part is now saving you the labor of what you sought, and yet did not have the courage to do! But will you now, and when you need not, since it is an accident, by going to her rescue, once more plunge yourself in the horror of that defeat and failure which has so tortured you and from which this now releases you? You might save her. But again you might not! For see how she strikes about. She is stunned. She herself is unable to save herself and by her erratic terror, if you draw near her now, may bring about your own death also. But you desire to live! And her living will make your life not worth while from now on. Rest but a moment–a fraction of a minute! Wait–wait–ignore the pity of that appeal. And then– then– But there! Behold. It is over. She is sinking now. You will never, never see her alive any more–ever. And there is your own hat upon the water–as you wished. And upon the boat, clinging to that rowlock a veil belonging to her. Leave it. Will it not show that this was an accident?” ..

And then Clyde, with the sound of Roberta’s cries still in his ears, that last frantic, white, appealing look in her eyes, swimming heavily, gloomily and darkly to shore. …

An American Tragedy, Book Two, Chapter XLVII

 

 

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

 

Neither situation, as carefully constructed by Dreiser — while admittedly fiction — is plausible. Dreiser as Deus ex machina, as artificer, “intervenes” in the plot, so to speak, for the purpose of making events be explainable — be construed by the reader — from his tendentious point of view. A clumsy authorial intervention which makes the story, plot, at that point the antithesis of seamless.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   March 2021

“The Tragedy of the North Woods”

 

 

Eleanor Waterbury Franz, ‘The Tragedy of the North Woods’

 

“In my opinion, it is in the interpretation of the case that Dreiser goes furthest afield. His feeling of fate and the social conflict upon which he dwells obscure the right and wrong of the case.” — Eleanor Waterbury Franz

 

Posted here (downloadable PDF file above) is

The Tragedy of the North Woods

By Eleanor Waterbury Franz

New York Folklore Quarterly 4.1 (Spring 1948), pp. 85-97

 

posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2021

Kranidas thesis (post) updated

 

 

I have reposted on this site:

 

Thomas Kranidas

“The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy

Matser’s Thesis

Columbia University, 1953

 

See:

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/thomas-kranidas-the-materials-of-theodore-dreisers-an-american-tragedy/

 

— Roger W. Smith

George Orwell on “An American Tragedy”

 

 

… intellectual refinement can be a disadvantage to a story-teller, as it would be to a music-hall comedian.

Take, for example, Ernest Raymond’s We, the Accused — a peculiarly sordid and convincing murder story, probably based on the Crippen case. I think it gains a great deal from the fact that the author only partly grasps the pathetic vulgarity of the people he is writing about, and therefore does not despise them. Perhaps it even — like Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy -– gains something from the clumsy long-winded manner in which it is written; detail is piled on detail, with almost no attempt at selection, and in the process an effect of terrible, grinding cruelty is slowly built up.

— George Orwell “Good Bad Books,” Tribune, November 2 1945 (republished in Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, 1950).

 

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

 

I concur with Orwell.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   February 2021

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

 

.
*****************************************************

 

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