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An American Tragedy Revisited

By Fred Skolnik

During my high school years I systematically went through what had come to be called the Classic American Novel, from The Red Badge of Courage to Native Son. Before that, in junior high, I had read mostly the English classics, and afterwards I would discover European literature. However, it was these American novels that shaped my will to write. And of all these novels, a few made an indelible impression on me. One of them was An American Tragedy. I return to it now out of a certain curiosity, to see if it will move me in the same way after all these years.

The opening sentence of An American Tragedy is for me the most evocative in all of American literature: “Dusk – of a summer night.” Instantly, when I read these words, something that for me has always been at the heart of the American experience, and consequently of my own sensibility, comes to life. I have a sense, a memory even, of reading that sentence 50 years ago and pausing, and reflecting, and perhaps of laying the book aside. “Dusk – of a summer night. And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city …” Here for me was the romance of the American night, the winding down of balmy days, a certain stillness in the darkening air that brought a sense of perfect peace and longing too.

But An American Tragedy is not a romance. It tells the story of Clyde Griffiths, born into an impoverished family of missionaries whose straightlaced fundamentalism he rebels against when he begins to get a taste of what life can offer, first as a bellhop in a leading Kansas City hotel where he is dazzled by the wealthy clientele and afterwards in his infatuation with a “fast” girl, a certain Hortense, who plays him along. The first part of the novel ends with an outing in which a child is tragically run over by the car Clyde and his friends have borrowed.

This structure of four large blocks of material – family, work, romance, and a tragic denouement – is repeated in the second part of the novel, at a higher level and for higher stakes. The scene shifts to Lycurgus, New York, where the wealthy branch of the Griffiths family is now introduced. Clyde, on the run after the accident and working as a bellhop in a Chicago hotel under an assumed name, runs into his uncle there and is invited east to manage a department in his collar and shirt factory. There he falls in love with one of the girls working under him, the sweet Roberta Alden, contrasted with the vulgar Hortense in Kansas City, but then he becomes infatuated with one of the socialites in the moneyed crowd he has been permitted to join as a Griffiths relation and begins to entertain hopes of marrying her. Roberta becomes pregnant and now seems to stand in the way of his attaining all the great prizes that Lycurgus society has to offer. Clyde takes Roberta out on a lake planning to kill her and she drowns.

The first part of the novel also contains elements that foreshadow the events of the second part and serve to establish Clyde’s character. His unwillingness to help his pregnant and abandoned sister with the $50 with which he was going to help Hortense get her fur coat foreshadows his unwillingness to stand by Roberta after getting her pregnant. His flight after the child is run over foreshadows his flight from his own crime, and from responsibility in general, in the second part of the novel, and Roberta’s seemingly accidental death echoes the accidental death of the child. Even the frozen river that plays a part in the denouement of the first part can be seen as foreshadowing the lake where Roberta drowns. These parallels almost seem to suggest that Clyde is fated to act in a particular way, according to the dictates of his character, though Dreiser points to something deeper, a biological, or “chemic,” force. Biology sets the stage for the struggle for survival in which the strongest – or the most well born – must prevail. Biology makes Clyde physically resemble his wealthy cousin and biology – his low birth – keeps him in a lower social station.

The third part of the novel concerns the flight, apprehension, trial and execution of Clyde Griffiths.

All this is based on the case of Chester E. Gillette, who drowned a girl named Grace Brown in 1906 and was subsequently electrocuted, though Dreiser had similar cases in mind as well, a spate of cases that led him to believe that this was a motif unique to American society. An American Tragedy was published in 1925. Sister Carrie, Dreiser’s first novel, had been published in 1900, when he was 29, and between them came Jennie Gerhardt (1911), The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914) and The “Genius” (1915). He also published stories, sketches, essays, poems and autobiographical works, a substantial ouevre in fact. The Bulwark and The Stoic, weaker novels which he had struggled to complete for a great many years, appeared after his death, as did his voluminous correspondence and his diaries.

Dreiser has been much maligned for his style, which did not trouble me at all when I first read An American Tragedy, and does not trouble me now as I read it again. There are some clumsy sentences, to be sure, but not so clumsy really, and also some sentences that can only be called wonderful (“Physically, she was of a pale, emasculate and unimportant structure …”), but on the whole the style is serviceable, and occasionally it is nice:

Clyde, being not a little overawed by her [Hortense’s] spirit and mannerisms, was at a loss what else to say for the moment, but he need not have worried – her chief interest in life was herself

Her quick eyes clicked and she tossed her head defiantly.

Her [Roberta’s] pretty mouth, her lovely big eyes, her radiant and yet so often shy and evasive smile.

She [Sondra] saw that he was nervous and bashful and decidedly unresourceful in her presence and it pleased her to think that she could thus befuddle and embarrass him so much.

It is also less than just to represent Dreiser as a compiler of menus and street directories with a few newspaper clippings thrown in to spice things up, as Robert Benchley did in one of his parodies. Whenever there was condescension among critics toward an American novelist, one could generally find H.L. Mencken in the neighborhood too; but Mencken, his friend and early champion, it should be said, was not a very astute reader of novels and clearly did not recognize the greatness of An American Tragedy. Such condescension and misguided reading is evident in his Introduction to the World Publishing edition of 1948. Mencken liked Dreiser best as the “adept and persuasive reporter,” characterizing him as “the most matter-of-fact novelist ever known on earth,” but conceded that he was a “predominantly viscous” writer and would have had him rein the “viscosity” in. Dreiser was of course very far from being a reporter in his novels and actually showed very little interest in the kind of gratuitous or impressionistic detail that abounds in novelists of the era for whom fiction was an extension of journalism and who therefore felt it their duty to describe or characterize everything in sight. As the novel opens, Dreiser gives you very little that is specific in the immediate surroundings. His focus is almost entirely on “the little group” that “seemed unconscious of anything save a set purpose to make its way between the contending lines of traffic and pedestrians which flowed by them.”

This group is headed by the parents of Clyde Griffiths, dragging the children out to sing hymns in the street, and Dreiser positions himself inside it, but most often inside the mind of Clyde, whose thoughts and feelings he will relentlessly follow for the space of nearly 900 closely printed pages. “Sprawling” and “clumsy” are indeed two of the adjectives frequently misapplied to An American Tragedy. But An American Tragedy is in fact a novel of tremendous narrative force and a profound level of observation. Barely a sentence concerning Clyde is written without the specific aim of elucidating the impulses that will lead him to commit murder. For it is an enormous distance to travel for someone like Clyde Griffiths, who is neither of a violent nor criminal disposition, from loving a girl like Roberta Alden to murdering her because she stands in the way of his ambition. While such occurrences are commonplace in the popular novel, where writers treat extreme modes of behavior as a given in telling their stories, without feeling the need to explain too much – men kill because they are evil or weak or greedy or jealous – Dreiser feels obliged to elucidate the frame of mind that causes Clyde to act as he does – in the space of hundreds and hundreds of pages.

Dreiser is tireless. Not every writer would be willing or capable of devoting so much time and effort to setting the stage and establishing the plausibility of an act such as is committed by Clyde Griffiths. His diligence is commendable. There is nothing of sensationalism in his writing. He is the ultimate realist. He writes forcefully about strong sexual and romantic feeling. It is easy to write extravagantly about love, to the point that words become meaningless. This is not the case with Dreiser.

But it is not pure love that induces Clyde to pursue Roberta and break down her resistance: it is lust and vanity too – for he knows he will not marry her. Here Dreiser makes a leap of sorts, from describing a character buffeted by social forces and therefore worthy of our sympathy to describing one that now strikes us as somewhat callow. The tragedy for the moment becomes the tragedy of Roberta, who innocently trusts Clyde and acts against her better judgment, believing that he will be true to her, and so our sympathy momentarily shifts to her. But Dreiser does not sustain this mood, for it would undermine his story, which is the story of Clyde.

It is true that a writer like Georges Simenon might have told this story in 150-or-so uncrowded pages, and he would have achieved an effect, no doubt, and he would have gotten the point across – but it is doubtful if he would have done justice to its momentousness. Momentous stories require momentous edifices to bear them. An American Tragedy is momentous because it is nothing less than the story of America. In a society as vast and as complex as America, with so many conflicts and cross currents and social groups – young and old, black and white, east and west, north and south, town and country, conservative and liberal, religious and free-thinking – a novel that purports to tell the whole story can either dissipate itself in an extremely broad narrative or choose a single theme or conflict that contains the essence of the whole. Dreiser chose to tell the story of America by writing about the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots; and like no other theme, it suffices to reveal what America is, because the story of America is not only the story of what people achieve but also, and more so, of what people fail to achieve, for the great fortunes and the great names belong to the few, not the many. The American tragedy is the tragedy of wanting and failing to be rich and having everything that is perceived as part of being rich, for like a whore who has only her body to offer, America has only its wealth to give.

Very few American writers have had anything good to say about America. America is after all very hard on Americans. The central theme of nearly all American fiction that examines its social fabric has been its rottenness. This rottenness, paradoxically, resides in precisely what Americans view as the country’s chief virtue: its unlimited opportunity. For while Americans extol the fact that anyone can become rich, the rich are rarely viewed sympathetically, not in popular or serious literature and not in Hollywood films, which more than any medium reflects the underlying assumptions of American life. The underlying assumption of films that portray the rich is that they are heartless, dishonest, corrupt, dissolute, rapacious. The only conclusion that can be reached is that as a rule wealth is bad – and yet, as a desideratum, wealth is viewed in the American dream as good, adding still another twist to the schizophrenic psyche of the American people.

The theme of rich and poor, or labor vs. capital in its classic Marxian formulation and as it would appear in U.S.A., for example, could only serve this purpose of standing for the whole in a particular period of American history and literature, namely the period of the classic American novel, from the end of the 19th century to the end of the 1930s, and this explains why novels like An American Tragedy, U.S.A. and Studs Lonigan have been recognized as masterpieces. Before that time such novels could not yet be written because the novelistic temperament needed to write realistically had not yet been formed, and the process of industrialization that would produce such acute dissonances in American society was just beginning to take shape. After World War II such novels could no longer be written because American life was becoming so diffuse, so disconnected and directionless, that no single theme could capture its essence or driving force. America no longer had an essence in fact; it had an image, or many images, engineered by the makers of images. To be sure, poverty existed in abundance, but it could no longer be ranged against wealth as a defining theme of American life. If anything, poverty might be ranged against indifference; its drama was private, its victims were excised more and more from the American consciousness despite periodic expressions of regret, and in no way could the conflict be said to stand for American life as a whole, nor could any other traditional pair of conflicting social realities. No theme, no conflict, no cross section of American society could any longer tell the story of America.

For me, An American Tragedy, together with U.S.A. and Studs Lonigan, stands at the pinnacle of twentieth century American literature. Many of course choose The Great Gatsby, a novel very similar to the others in its own way, and certainly incomparably elegant, but I would not settle for it as definitive in getting at the essence of American life in the first decades of the twentieth century. It is perhaps Mozartian where one seeks the weight of Beethoven. Such weight is achieved by An American Tragedy. To the extent that books change lives, I can say that it changed mine, for it helped create in me the will to write. I confess, however, that when I read An American Tragedy today I find myself reading it cerebrally. Certainly I no longer find myself in it, nor are old dreams reawakened by it. I have moved on. Novels are for the young, when all is said and done. They alone live most fully in hope and respond most deeply to the tragic dimension of life. But such novels as An American Tragedy will not be written again in America. They belongs to a lost time. They close a chapter in America’s history.

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Fred Skolnik was born in New York City and has lived in Israel since 1963, working mostly as an editor and translator. He is best known as the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal and hailed as a landmark achievement by the Library Journal. Other award-winning projects with which he has been associated include The New Encyclopedia of Judaism (co-editor, 2002) and the 3-volume Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust (senior editor, 2001). Now writing full time, he has published dozens of stories in the past few years (in TriQuarterly, Gargoyle, The MacGuffin, Minnetonka Review, Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Words & Images, Literary House Review, Underground Voices, Third Coast, Polluto, etc.). His novel The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 2011), set in Israel in the 1980s, is an epic work depicting Israeli society at a critical juncture in its recent history.

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