Now onto An American Tragedy.
In general, I don’t read exciting books. I don’t think about this too often, but every now and then I come across a book that actually is exciting – or, you know, has a real plot, a real climax that the whole novel is working towards – and I realize that I don’t read page turners. Personally, excitement isn’t a quality that I require for a novel to be good or enjoyable, and (for the most part) I wouldn’t say the books that I enjoy that are also lacking in excitement are boring. They just aren’t exciting. An American Tragedy is exciting, and it did make me think – briefly – that perhaps I should pick up some John Grisham novels or something. But then I look at the Calvino books on my shelf and rethink that.
An American Tragedy started out at a slow pace. We first encounter Clyde Griffith as a teenager with his family, who are street preachers in Kansas City. He hates this. He hates the poverty of his family, and the humiliation he feels at having to stand on the corner and sing hymns. Clyde gets a job at a hotel as a bell hop, makes friends with the other bell hops, visits a prostitute and meets Hortense. I described her briefly here. She’s a low-rung gold digger. Clyde is head-over-heals with her, but she couldn’t care less about him – she likes the money he spends on her in his attempts to get her to sleep with him. Hortense keeps leading him on, making him believe that if he just buys her this one item more, she’ll go to bed with him. But she never does.
In the crescendo of their relationship, Hortense asks Clyde to buy her an expensive fur coat. She – again – leads him to believe that if he purchases the coat for her, she will definitely, finally sleep with him. It’s more than he can afford, but he intends to buy it for her anyway.
Up until this point, we know that Clyde is a moron for fawning over Hortense in this manner. You just want to yell at Clyde to give it up. (1) She doesn’t like you; (2) she only wants you to buy her things; (3) she is not going to have sex with you; (4) You are aware of all of this. Find someone who is (1) cheaper; and (2) easier. But no, he is her pathetic lap dog. But it’s at this point that Clyde’s real personality starts to come out. Clyde’s sister, Esta, (who he seemed to have genuine affection for) had run away with a traveling actor who left her (pregnant) in Pittsburgh. Clyde had been giving his mother some money out of his earnings and part of that money had been going to Esta, and Clyde knew this – though his mother thought it was a secret. Esta was about to give birth, and his mother needed $50. As his mother is asking for this, Clyde HAS THE $50 IN HIS POCKET, that he was going to use as a down payment on Hortense’s coat. And what does Clyde do? He lies to his mother – he doesn’t have $50 and he couldn’t get it for her.
I understand that Clyde’s a teenager, and he’s having his first love affair – of sorts – and wants to have a good time. And maybe my perception of this situation is colored by the fact that I now have a son, and can better see the point of view of his mother. She is embarrassed that she has to ask her son for money in the first place. And he knows that the money is going to support his destitute and very-pregnant sister who again he seemed to have real affection for. And he lies flat out about not having the money, and he intends to use this money to buy that whore Hortense a friggin’ fur coat.
A little while later, Clyde and some of his friends go for a ride with a car that does not belong to them – one of the boys “borrowed” it from the owner, and intended to return it before the man knew it was gone. Nothing good could ever come of this scenario. They get late returning and in their haste run over a little girl, then try to escape from the pursuing police and crash the car. Clyde escapes and skips town before the police arrive on the accident scene.
Clyde wanders around a bit and ends up in Chicago, working again as a bell hop in a hotel. One day, he encounters his uncle, whom he never met. Uncle Samuel Griffith owns a successful collar manufacturing business in New York. Clyde approaches Samuel, who ends up offering him a job. Clyde is then on his way to New York.
The Lygurgus Griffiths consist of Mr. and Mrs. Griffith, the privileged, jerky son Gilbert, and a few daughters (I don’t remember if there were two or three – or maybe one – it doesn’t matter). Gilbert essentially runs the factory and is resentful of Clyde from the start. The Gilberts give Clyde the lowest level job they can and then ignore him. Eventually they feel enough duty towards him to invite him to dinner, where he meets some of the Lycurgus young set, including Sondra Finchley, the daughter of another factory owner. The Griffiths promote Clyde, putting him in charge of a sub-department, and soon thereafter meets one of his workers, Roberta. After encountering her one day at a park, they quickly strike up together.
Roberta and Clyde have to keep everything a secret because of a policy against department heads dating employees, but also Clyde is worried that one of the Griffiths will see him with Roberta, just a working class girl, and think twice about him, both socially and professionally. It isn’t long before Clyde starts pressuring Roberta to take the relationship to the next level. When she expresses that she doesn’t want to do that – despite being working class, she is “respectable” in that sense – Clyde becomes a royal ass until Roberta finally gives in.
All is well and good (in a sense), until Sondra Finchley decides – mostly as a joke against Gilbert Griffith – to start inviting Clyde to parties and dinners. Clyde falls head over heals for Sondra – mostly because of her position in Lycurgus society and what a pass into that society would mean for him. Not that he doesn’t like Sondra personally – I just think a lot of his feelings are wrapped up in her social position.
Of course, Clyde starts to be mean to Roberta – cancelling dates with her, ignoring her mostly, except when he wants from her what he couldn’t get from Hortense. He lets Roberta know he’s going out socially with the Griffith crowd, but leaves Sondra out of it. Roberta starts to get down about it and frustrated. Clyde, because he clearly is a sociopath or clinical narcissist gets mad at Roberta for this, believing that she should be happy that he is being adopted, so to speak, by the upper crust.
And then Roberta becomes pregnant. This is when the plot really picks up the pace. Clyde tries to find a way to end the pregnancy. He seeks some drugs to cause her to miscarry, which fail, and he tries to find a doctor to perform an abortion, but fails at that too. Roberta was fine with all of this. But when everything failed, she started to let Clyde know that she expected him to marry her, as he had led her to believe he would do one day anyway.
Clyde DOES NOT want to marry Roberta, because his position with Sondra is pretty good and he expects to be able to marry her within a year. Obviously he cannot have this scandal, or go away or anything. Around this time, he comes across a newspaper article that describes an accident scene: two people (unidentified man and woman) take a boat out onto a lake. The boat overturns, the woman is found drowned, but no trace of the man. Clyde begins to hatch a plot: kill Roberta by drowning her in a lake and then escaping.
I won’t go into all the details now, because they get really intricate. But I probably needn’t tell you that Clyde absolutely botches the whole thing. Like most clinical narcissists (I say “clinical” to distinguish narcissistic personality disorder from the popular terms narcissism meaning people who like to look at themselves in the mirror), he believes he is SOOOO smart in setting this whole thing up, which the local sheriff takes apart in a matter of a hours. Dreiser throws in one other interesting – yet small – twist. In the moment, Clyde cannot act. And then something happens – one of those physical things which leads to an accident that afterwards you cannot quite recall the details of how exactly it happened – and he hits Roberta with his camera. Not deliberately, but not entirely accidentally. And she falls, tipping the boat over, and Clyde with it. She cannot swim, and he decidedly doesn’t try to help. It didn’t happen as he had planned – which was to actively kill her. It was more of an accident – he plotted to kill her, and then it all sort of happens by accident. He is responsible for her death, but not in the exact way he had intended to be.
The whole trial and denouement with the minister was anti-climactic, and made up more than 100 pages. But of course we had to know all that information. Which is something that I thought about throughout the entire novel: it is SO detailed, so intricately plotted. I kept wondering if Dreiser could have left any of it out and still had the novel, and I don’t know what the answer to that question is. Perhaps a more *technically skilled* novelist could have done something different with it, been more nontraditional with it, but if you are going from point A in Clyde’s life to the very end of it, yes – all of it had to be included. Because as with “real” life, every detail matters.
One thing that bothered me was about Roberta and nobody seemed to be able to tell that she was pregnant. She was obviously slight of frame (when they pulled her body out of the water they said she weighed about 100 lbs.) so it should have been obvious – to the dress maker and to the police at least. But it wasn’t until the coroner thought to check that anyone realized she was. I know everyone is different, but I am only a little bit bigger than Roberta’s size (<10 lbs), and by 5 months (how far along Roberta was when she was murdered), it was getting fairly obvious that I had a decent size bump. I didn’t expect everyone to know, but like I said, some people should have guessed by then (like when the pulled her wet body from the lake). What was surprising to me was the nonchalantness with which abortion was approached. We as a culture would be shocked to be told of someone who treated abortion with such flippancy, and yet here it is, almost 100 years ago.
Dreiser’s works, which really are bleak pictures of American life, wouldn’t really be the stuff of scandal – or at least you wouldn’t think so. They seem so “conventional.” But Dreiser was constantly having to make his works suitable for the public, dialing it down to something we could stand. After the publication of An American Tradegy, a publisher – Donald Friede, set up a censorship case, which he lost. He appealed and lost again. From Time Magazine, 1929:
Obscene: Publisher Donald Friede, president of Covici-Friede Corp., formerly of the late Boni & Liveright, was convicted in Boston last week for violation of the Massachusetts statute forbidding distribution of objectionable literature. The book: Author Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. The book's theme: how U. S. conventions and his own limitations caused a young man to murder his sweetheart.
Not Obscene: Publisher Friede (see above) rushed from Boston to Manhattan to appear before a Court of Special Sessions. There his company's novel, The Well of Loneliness by Authoress Radclyffe Hall of England, was being attacked by the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Three judges decided this book was not obscene. The book's theme: Lesbianism.
The confusion inherent in this is humorous. I wonder what the outcome would be today? Which is worse: how US conventions and personal limitations caused a young man to murder his girlfriend, or lesbianism. I think the answer might be lesbianism. Especially the Well of Loneliness kind….you know, not the Tila Tequila kind.
Dreiser also has a reputation of being rather clumsy with his prose, and that definitely shone through much more in this novel than in Sister Carrie, which I read two years ago. I ran across an article by Garrison Keiler about that other novel in which he asked why everyone had gotten so upset about a novel that was so bad. His writing is clunky. Time Magazine called it “a pipe fitter's approach to writing” but in the end, he is able to weave a story together unlike what most of his contemporaries were doing. And though it’s almost laughable that it would be censored, there is still stuff there to surprise, and to shock, and to disturb.
I see a pattern with Dreiser. His characters are often amoral – and though their actions are their “fault,” they are all also the product of their environment. They are the victims as well as the victimizer. He is part Dostoevsky, part Of Human Bondage, part Balzac. Somewhere I read that they are the flip side of the American Dream. Don’t come to Dreiser expecting a happy ending. Even when their characters get everything they want, they are still lacking. But if you want an American Dostoevskian view of the world, Dreiser beckons to you.