Sunday, June 21, 2015

An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser

Read, reviewed, and released in January, 2010

About halfway through, I've gotten very disgusted with the main character, Clyde Griffiths. For awhile, I felt a little sorry for him, trying to overcome poverty, loneliness, and a poor education in childhood. But the way he's treating Roberta is despicable! Being toyed with by the upper crust crowd serves him right.

I've finished it now, and I was really surprised. I won't give it away, but I really didn't see that coming until he started thinking and thinking about that newspaper story. I read more about it, and discovered that it was based on a notorious case of a few years before in the same region. I wonder if the newspaper article Clyde saw was meant to be the real life case.

All the things Clyde could have done right, all the better choices he could have made, but yet he continued on the wrong path at every turn. I read in Devil in the White City that Dreiser himself, as a young reporter in his early 20s met and fell in love with a prim-and-proper straight-laced school marm. I wondered if his description of Roberta was based on his wife, and if he himself, as he was in his youth, was the model for some of Clyde's characteristics. Erik Larson wrote about Dreiser that he was unfaithful to his wife, and Clyde was a skirt-chaser.

Dreiser seemed to be making fun of people serious about their Christian faith, such as Clyde's family, but near the end, the young minister Duncan McPhillips represented true Christian faith in an attractive, appealing way. The plan of salvation was plainly given: "Repent, confess your sins, and accept God's forgiveness through Jesus Christ."

Dreiser's work is very laborious to read; sometimes I felt like I was trudging through thick mud, he was so detailed and repetitious (almost as hard as Tolstoy!). Some of his sentences were so long, I had to reread them two or three times to remember what he was talking about. Other times I found his frequent use of phrases instead of full sentences annoying. A little for emphasis is acceptable, but I don't like three or four paragraphs of it!

3/17/2017 Edited to add:
The “tragedy of desire” in An American Tragedy and A Place in the Sun, an article in Library of America, a review of two movies based on this novel.

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