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An American Tragedy ~ A Capsule Book Review

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An American Tragedy ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The great American novel of the twentieth century—or at least one of them—is Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. First published in 1925, it is a very ambitious novel of monumental length (856 pages, originally in two volumes). It’s about one man’s misguided quest for the American dream. The title tells us it’s not an uplifting or a happy story.

It’s the 1920s or thereabouts, but the time doesn’t matter because it could be any time. Young Clyde Griffiths has a disadvantaged childhood. His parents are un-ordained “ministers” of the gospel. They travel around from city to city, saving souls and ministering to the needy by setting up “missions.” Clyde has two sisters and one brother. The family is poor and never has enough money to provide properly for Clyde and his brother and sisters. They don’t even go to school because the family moves around so much.

When Clyde is about sixteen or seventeen, he gets a job as a bellboy in a ritzy Kansas City hotel. With this job, Clyde is able to witness the world of wealth and glamor that he has never seen before. He makes more money through tips than he ever imagined possible. His friends, other bellboys, introduce him to the world of booze and loose women. Clyde realizes what a sheltered life he has been leading. His glimpse into this new world makes him know, for the first time, the kind of life he desires for himself.

A traffic accident killing a young girl in Kansas City causes Clyde to run away. He drifts from place to place alone for a couple of years, until he lands a job as bellboy in a Chicago hotel. There he meets his rich uncle, a manufacturer from Lycurgus, New York. The uncle agrees to give Clyde a tryout in his collar and shirt factory. Clyde arrives in Lycurgus and goes to work for his uncle in a menial job at first and feels neglected by his uncle’s family because they fail to “take him up” socially.

Eventually Clyde is given a better job in the factory and finds himself head of a department that employs young girls. He meets there one Roberta Alden, a poor farm girl who has taken a job in the city to help her family. Roberta is pretty and pleasing in her way and soon she and Clyde begin spending time together, keeping it a secret because of a factory rule that forbids any kind of socializing between employees and department heads.

After a few months of “dating,” Clyde induces Roberta to become “intimate” with him, which she agrees to do because she loves him and believes he loves her and will eventually marry her. Being innocent and not knowing the ways of the world, Roberta soon becomes pregnant.

While Clyde has been secretly dating Roberta, he has also been moving up in Lycurgus society, having been “taken up” by a sympathetic female cousin named Bella Griffiths. Through his good looks and gentlemanly manner, he soon becomes popular with the smart, young, society set and specifically with a girl named Sondra Finchley, beautiful, rich and accomplished. When she and Clyde fall in love, he can’t believe his good fortune. He is on the verge of having everything he ever dreamed of: wealth, comfort, ease, and a beautiful wife. He has a terrible problem, though: a pregnant girlfriend for whom he no longer cares. This situation can ruin everything he’s hoped for and aspired to. If Roberta “exposes” him to his rich relatives and his society friends, it will bring his world crashing down.

Short of marring Roberta, which Clyde doesn’t want to do, he tries to get her to abort the fetus, which she believes is morally wrong but which she is willing to do to get herself out of trouble. She can’t find a doctor willing to perform the operation and a medicine that Clyde gets from a druggist that is supposed to cause the fetus to abort on its own doesn’t work. She then demands that Clyde marry her to salvage her reputation and to give the baby a name.

With Clyde’s world being threatened in this way, he resorts to desperate measures to try to extricate himself. He hears about an accident on a lake whereby two people in a rowboat are drowned when the boat overturns. The body of the woman is found; the man is never found. Clyde believes that if he can get Roberta out on a deserted lake in a rowboat, he can cause the boat to overturn, drowning her. Clyde himself will get away, but people will believe that he also drowned, even if his body is never recovered.

Out on the lake with Roberta in the rowboat, Clyde has a “change of heart” (or so the defense wants the jury to believe). He can’t kill her; he feels sorry for her and begins to rediscover some of the old feeling that he had for her in the beginning. He decides he will go through with marrying her, thereby giving up his dreams of Sondra Finchley and her world of wealth and glamor.

Something happens in the rowboat, though. In an agitated state, Roberta stands up in the boat and attempts to move toward Clyde. He also stands and attempts to catch her. The boat capsizes and Clyde and Roberta both go into the water. Roberta drowns. Without attempting to rescue Roberta, Clyde swims to shore and walks all night to get to his society friends, encamped at a resort nearby.

Clyde isn’t fooling anybody, though. There are abundant witnesses to testify to his activities on the fateful day that he and Roberta go rowing, although no actual witnesses to Roberta’s drowning come forward. Clyde is arrested within a few days while he is cavorting with his society friends (not, however, with a clear conscience), and there begins a lengthy section of the novel that details his incarceration and trial for murder. He has two slick defense lawyers to try to get him off, but are the men of the jury really going to believe that Clyde, with all the damning evidence against him, didn’t mean to kill Roberta at all?

An American Tragedy is a minutely detailed story of a murder, the circumstances of a man’s life that led to murder, how it formed in his mind, the desperation that he felt before and after, how it was executed, what followed, etc. We see the murderer (if that’s what he is) from his own point of view. We gather from this story that just about anybody might commit murder if circumstances warrant it. Clyde is not a foul, dark-hearted killer as he is portrayed during his trial. He is confused, conflicted, and, as his defense paints him, a “moral and mental” coward. Not a bad person but pushed to do a bad deed.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

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