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Book #44: An American Tragedy

Historically, men have done stupid things because of their lady friends.

I think it’s just a fact of life. It’s not that women—at least most of them—intentionally turn guys into idiots. But, somehow, dudes turn into blubbering fools who make horrible decisions when a woman smiles at them.

Clyde Griffiths, our unbelievably stupid male protagonist in An American Tragedy, is no exception. In fact, when it comes to stupid dudes, Clyde may very well take the proverbial cake.

Here’s the setup. So Clyde grows up the son of poor street preachers in Kansas City. He hates that life and, as a teenager, breaks free and begins working in a fancy hotel as a bellboy.

After a while, he gets into the wrong crowd and is an accident that causes him to flee Kansas City. While working at hotel in Chicago, Clyde runs into his rich uncle from New York who offers Clyde a job at his collar factory—yes, a factory that makes shirt collars.

He’s an outcast. But he works his way to a managerial position at the factory. In this position, he’s told by his cousin—Clyde’s boss—that the company prohibits relationships between managers and their employees.

As luck would have it, Clyde manages a department full of vibrant, twenty-year-old women. And as luck would have it, he begins a relationship with one of these women, young Roberta Aldin.

The secret relationship turns sexual, and Roberta gets pregnant. But not after Clyde has fallen for a rich high-society girl named Sondra Finchley. Tension builds as Clyde begins to distance himself from the poor factory worker, Roberta, and falls deeper in love with Sondra.

But Roberta is pregnant! And no one knows except Clyde and Roberta! What should he do?

Therein lies the tension of the story. The manner in which Clyde ultimately resolves this problem reveals his unbelievable stupidity. But if you’ve read anything about this book or any of my prior posts, you know how he resolves the problem.

But that’s what makes this story so good. For my money, An American Tragedy has one of the best stories of the first 44 books. I couldn’t put this novel down.

Clyde Griffiths is manipulative and deceptive—yet he’s a charming and, at times, likeable character. But the lies! Oh, the lies. He lies to himself almost as much as he lies to the people around him. For instance:

I didn’t think at the time I met Miss Alden that I would ever get into such a scrape as this. But I didn’t kill her, and that’s the God’s truth. I never even wanted to kill her or take her up to that lake in the first place. And that’s the truth, and that’s what I told the district attorney.

As you probably know by now, this novel is based on a true story—the case of Chester Gillete in 1906. Theodore Dreiser did a crapload of research on the case, crafting a strong protagonist in Clyde Griffiths, and a heart-breaking story.

I’m such a fan of plot, and I just loved this novel. The story itself is extremely reminiscent of Richard Wright’s Native Son. Wright’s story is just an African-American version of Dreiser’s story.

That’s not to say An American Tragedy doesn’t have flaws. It does.

Dreiser’s style is mechanical and stiff. Sometimes, I felt like he could use more dialogue instead of just telling the reader about an event or what a character is thinking. He can beat you over the head with a point, and I thought his editor could’ve done a little more editing.

I love what the Encyclopedia Britannica had to say about the novel.

The book was called by one influential critic “the worst-written great novel in the world,” but its questionable grammar and style are transcended by its narrative power.

And that sums it up. This is a creative writing teacher’s nightmare. It’s an antiquated style, but the story is what pulled me through the stiff writing. And the exclamation points…oh, the exclamation points!!! They are everywhere. I’m guessing F. Scott Fitzgerald would’ve hated this novel. He famously said, “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

For example:

But the mere thinking of such a thing in connection with Roberta at this time…was terrible, and he must not, he must not, allow such a thought to enter his mind. Never, never, never! He must not. Terrible! A thought of murder, no less! Murder?!!!

Yep, that’s not a typo. Dreiser actually followed up a question mark with three exclamation points. Good Lord, that’s bad.

Another weak spot: The novel could’ve been shortened. It felt around 200 pages too long. Dreiser’s research on the real-life story shines through here, but it seemed he tried to include everything from that story in the novel, and it doesn’t always work.

Just because Clyde works at a collar factory, that doesn’t mean we have to know all the precise, exact details of how said collar factory functions and operates.

Also, there’s probably a few hundred pages that elaborately detail the period between Clyde finding out Roberta is pregnant and his attempt to solve that problem. Dreiser or his editor could’ve whittled down this section by a few dozen pages at least.

Theodore Dreiser

Dreiser’s style and wordiness, though, didn’t bother me like I thought it might when I started the novel. The plot overcame all of that in my opinion.

It’s one of those rare instances, for me, in which I can fully recognize several flaws in a book but absolutely love it anyway—love it enough to put it extremely high in my meaningless rankings.

As one of the oldest novels on the list, published in 1925, just two years after Time Magazine’s cutoff, I didn’t expect much from An American Tragedy, especially considering its length—more than 900 pages.

But those 900 pages flew by. This is one of my favorite novels so far. It’s not surprising that this story translated into a star-studded film that won six Academy Awards. It’s that good.

I know many people will likely disagree—maybe because of Dreiser’s style, which is indeed stiff.

But like I, Claudius, An American Tragedy is a novel that has all the elements of the classic story—romance, deception, murder, courtroom drama. I’m a fan, a big fan of this novel. Give it a try.

If you can’t get used to Dreiser’s style in the first 200 pages, put it down. But if you can make that adjustment, this novel will be well worth your time. Excellent read.

Other Thoughts

The Opening Line: “Dusk–of a summer night. And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants—such walls as in time may linger as mere fable.”

The Meaning: This isn’t a book that seems to have a ton of underlying symbolism. I do believe An American Tragedy makes a strong statement on issues of class in America in the early 20th Century. It also shows the dangers of narcissism and self-deception.

Highlights: Outstanding story based on a real-life event. This story sucked me in and never let me go. An American Tragedy was published nearly 90 years ago, and it still feels relatable.

Lowlights: The novel would’ve been just fine at 700 pages. It felt too long. Dreiser’s style is stiff and mechanical, which takes getting used to. And he loves exclamation marks!

Memorable Line: “And then Clyde . . . swimming heavily, gloomily and darkly to shore. And the thought that, after all, he had not really killed her. No, no. Thank God for that. He had not. And yet . . . had he? Or,  had he not?”

Final Thoughts: Loved it. If you like reading about crime, court drama, and love triangles, you’ll like this book. This incredible story overcomes the length of the novel and Dreiser’s wordy style.

33 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nel #

    That Fitzgerald quote beautifully sums up my attitude towards exclamation points. They strike me as authorial laziness. If you really want to underscore the importance of what you are trying to say, do it with words, please. The irony is that I pepper my emails with the silly things. (Some weird compulsion to sound perky, perhaps?) Also, I need to read this book now. But not before I read I, Claudius. (I just suggested I, Claudius for my book club’s historical fiction month.)


    July 11, 2012
  2. Native Son is sitting on my bookshelf, and I am going to read it soon now because of your comparison to An American Tragedy. I love Dreiser, especially this novel. He belongs to the school of American realists, particularly the naturalist branch. I love realist novels, because what is life if not real? In naturalism, authors let the characters play out their stupid decisions in a natural way, suffering from the consequences of their own actions. This novel perfectly illustrates that. Great review! I particularly like your critique of exclamation marks. And I am glad that after letting this novel fill you with dread, that you ended up really liking it.


    July 11, 2012
    • His writing still feels me with dread, but I’m somehow able to overlook that. But such a good story!


      July 11, 2012
  3. Some writers simply have a knack for engaging fiction. They can make even a dull story interesting, and style takes a back seat to delivery. Dreiser certainly can write. Write well? Perhaps that’s questionable, but for me, An American Tragedy was also at the top of my list.


    July 11, 2012
    • I’m with you. It’s a top 10 book. I really think it would be top 2 or 3 if not for his writing style.


      July 11, 2012
  4. So despite the fact it has Tragedy in the title– it’s not totally depressing like those OTHER books you’ve been reading?


    July 11, 2012
    • It’s depressing, but not as hopeless feeling as some of the others. It doesn’t end well for Clyde, but I think he eventually finds some redemption.


      July 11, 2012
  5. Reblogged this on Mahmoud Draz.


    July 23, 2012
  6. Ceri R #

    I also happen to be reading through the Time list! I just found your blog. I’m only on book 15 though (counting ones I’ve already read heh). I just finished An American Tragedy, I also thoroughly enjoyed it. I agree with the length. Though having just finished Midnight’s Children probably helped because anything feels light compared to THAT. Dreiser’s style did plod along at times. I found it had it’s moments though. Particularly when Clyde was in Kansas. I started the book knowing nothing about the real-life story or even what the book was about. I thought he had excellent foreshadowing, very early on I had an inkling Clyde was headed for no good.


    September 16, 2012
  7. Prashant Raghaw #

    Muje ek best institute ki jrurt hi, jo ki muje achi trike se American English sika ske


    December 31, 2014

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