Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Kansas City. Northwestern Missouri city in which the novel opens when the fictional Clyde Griffiths at the age of twelve years is living an uneasy life there with his urban-missionary parents. The dingy neighborhood of his parents’ Bickel Street mission contrasts sharply with the life of luxury and excitement that Clyde craves and eventually seeks, first in employment as a bellhop in an upscale hotel, where a “fast” crowd gets him into serious trouble, and later in the small eastern city where most of the novel’s action takes place.
Lycurgus. New York town between Utica and Albany, near the actual location of Troy, where Clyde Griffiths arrives at the age of twenty, goes to work in his uncle’s collar-manufacturing factory, and takes a room in a rooming house. Nearly all of the descriptions of the fictional town match the real town of Cortland, where Chester Gillette worked at a skirt factory owned by a relative. Moreover, like the historical Grace Brown, Clyde’s lover Roberta Alden works in the same factory and lives in another rooming house nearby, occasionally returning home to the rural community of Biltz.
Biltz. New York town fifty miles from Lycurgus where Roberta grew up on a poverty-stricken farm to which she returns after working in Lycurgus. Biltz’s bleak landscape contrasts depressingly with the pleasures Roberta remembers from her...
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The Roaring Twenties
The 1920s are variously known as the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, and the Dance Age. They were a time of both success and excess. More Americans were rich than ever before, thanks to a booming stock market, rising land values, new inventions, and new ways of producing goods that made things affordable to more Americans. Even average-income Americans began to acquire conveniences that had been either unavailable or unaffordable just a few years before: cars, radios, indoor plumbing, electric refrigerators and washing machines, and more.
With so much money around and so many things to buy, many Americans focused on getting rich and having fun. Young women called flappers flouted traditional restrictions. They wore short skirts and short hair, and they spent their time dancing, going to movies, and drinking liquor. The use of illicit drugs and alcohol, illegal during Prohibition (1920-1933), surged along with the stock market.
The America of the 1920s produced countless young men like Clyde Griffiths, who found themselves excited by and obsessed with a world that glittered with a thousand new pleasures. Some of these young men—even some who, like Clyde, were born poor—did get rich, through some combination of intelligence, ambition, resourcefulness, hard work, and luck. Many others did not. Some who did not become fabulously wealthy nevertheless did well. The arts and sports thrived along with industry;...
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The story begins on the streets of Kansas City, moves to Chicago, and then shifts to Lycurgus, New York. It is set in the early twentieth century, a time when industrialism characterized American cities and when large factories and giant machinery formed the backdrop for the day-to-day grind of city workers. Dreiser's descriptions of the city illustrate his belief that industrial cities offer allure and promise but never deliver.
Throughout the novel, Dreiser places Clyde in settings that reveal a sharp contrast between the world of the rich and the world of the poor. Wherever Clyde travels, he feels out of place in his environment. First, Clyde is uncomfortable as a young boy traveling unwillingly with his family through the streets of Kansas City to bring the word of the Lord to the people. This Kansas City world is one Clyde considers beneath him, a world of hopeless poverty. Clyde's drive toward fame and fortune surfaces early in the novel, as he moves into flashier and more artificial settings. Once he is free from his parents' influence, the flashy Green-Davidson Hotel, a place that hints of the superficial world looming before him as he travels to the big cities to make his fortune, quickly entrances him.
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Many scholars consider An American Tragedy the defining work of American naturalism, and the novel does incorporate all the hallmarks of the naturalist movement.
Naturalism emerged in France in the 1870s and 1880s in response to new philosophical and scientific ideas, especially Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Émile Zola defined the movement in France. It flowered in the United States from the final years of the nineteenth century through World War I and into the 1920s. The standard-bearers of American naturalism, in addition to Dreiser, are Stephen Crane, Jack London, Frank Norris, O. Henry, and poet Edgar Lee Masters.
At the core of naturalism is determinism, the idea that an individual's course in life is wholly determined by some combination of animal instinct, heredity, and environment. The individual will is said to be incapable of operating outside the influence of these powerful forces. As in Darwin's theory, only those who are genetically suited to their environment will survive and prosper—a principle most often expressed as "the survival of the fittest."
Naturalist writers portray these principles by creating ordinary characters, placing them in extraordinary or challenging circumstances, and narrating their reactions in a dispassionate, reportorial style. Thus, Dreiser draws Clyde as an Everyman who is motivated by animal instincts (the drive for sex and for a desirable mate, for...
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The title of the novel reveals the author's belief that this story is not a personal tragedy but a national one. Dreiser presents a tragic view of America, and the tragedy of Clyde Griffiths is that he falls prey to what Dreiser considered the fallacy of the American Dream. The American economic system failed Clyde Griffiths; it promised him wealth and opportunity but offered him no possibility of achieving it. Dreiser delivers this message by reversing the plot structure of the typical nineteenth-century Horatio Alger stories of poor heroes who rise quickly to wealth. In Dreiser's novel, the poor cannot achieve happiness through wealth. At the same time, Clyde has no choice but to desire it.
Dreiser's style is considered progressive; that is, Clyde's destruction results from a series of events that lead him further and further into moral decline. What turns the son of religious missionaries into a murderer? In Clyde's case, it is simply a national obsession with materialism. This appetite forces him to want more and more, attempt to acquire more and more, and forsake his values in the process. This progression that characterizes Dreiser's work reflects his belief in man's instinctive nature.
Dreiser was highly influenced by the ideas of Herbert Spencer, a nineteenthcentury sociologist and philosopher who advocated the theory of evolution and coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," and whose sociological theories focused on the contrasts...
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Dreiser was clearly disillusioned with the American Dream, and his concern with the conflict between morality and the pursuit of success is especially evident in An American Tragedy. Both An American Tragedy and his first—and perhaps most controversial— novel, Sister Carrie, focus on people who feel driven to conform to social class pressures and forsake morality in order to get ahead in society. As two of Dreiser's better-known works, An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie are noted for their social criticism. They present a bleak look at American industrialism as they reduce man's drive for success to a ruthless struggle to survive.
Dreiser's Darwinist views led him to believe that life is permeated by chance and that human beings go through life by making a series of blind decisions. The fatalistic view that humans have no control over their own lives makes Dreiser's story a tragedy. An American Tragedy delivers its tragic message by presenting a world of social inequality and by introducing a cast of characters who fall victim to social injustice. To outsiders, the morality of Clyde Griffiths is clearly questionable, but in the world of the novel Clyde's choices are predetermined. Clyde is depicted as a perpetrator of injustice as much as he is a victim of it. By implication, then, in Dreiser's world moral action is not possible: forces determine the chain of events, not human judgments about right and...
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Compare and Contrast
1920s: Pregnancy outside of marriage carries a heavy social stigma for the woman, the child, and, to a lesser extent, the man involved. The woman is often labeled a "tramp" for life and discriminated against socially and economically. The child is tagged a "bastard" and subjected to similar discrimination and humiliation.
Today: In most elements of American society, pregnancy outside of marriage carries no social stigma. In fact, a few women, including some high-profile celebrities, choose to have and rear children on their own, without the involvement of a partner.
1920s: Most states have strict anti-abortion laws that make it extremely difficult for a woman to obtain an abortion from a qualified physician. As a result, some women entrust themselves to abortionists who do not have medical training, or some even attempt to end their own pregnancies, as Roberta does in the novel.
Today: Abortion has been legal in the United States since the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. While abortion is still politically controversial, and while many states have passed restrictions on the circumstances under which abortion may be performed legally, abortions performed by qualified physicians are still available.
1920s: The United States is experiencing an economic boom in which industrialists and the capitalists who back them are amassing great wealth. The boom ends abruptly with the stock...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Do you think Clyde truly loved Sondra Finchley? Do you think he was capable of love?
2. Ambition implies a strong sense of personal motivation. Do you consider Clyde to be ambitious? Why or why not?
3. Is Clyde in any way responsible for Roberta's death?
4. Do you think that Clyde intentionally struck Roberta with the camera? 5. What is the significance of the man in the hat who appears near the end of the book?
6. What do we learn about Clyde when we read how he handled his sister Esta's unwanted pregnancy?
7. Viewing Clyde's actions from a Spencerian standpoint, do you consider Clyde to be prey or predator?
8. Discuss the significance of the preacher who appears at the end of the novel.
9. Consider the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, the character who always keeps running, only to stay in the same place. There is a Red Queen theory of evolutionary biology that was named after the character in Lewis Carroll's book. Consider Dreiser's message in An American Tragedy. Based on what you understand his message to be, can you explain the Red Queen theory?
10. Consider Dreiser's progressive plot structure. How does this help carry his themes and deliver his message?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Read Sister Carrie, Dreiser's first and most controversial novel. Discuss the conflict between morality and the pursuit of the American Dream as presented in both novels.
2. Choose a giant machine and describe how the workings of that machine parallels Dreiser's idea of American society.
3. Compare and contrast Roberta and Sondra and discuss how their differences fit into Dreiser's theme of opposition. In what ways are these two characters similar? What do these characters symbolize?
4. Write a persuasive paper arguing that either Clyde is a cold-blooded murderer or that he is a victim of circumstances and natural drives.
5. Discuss the nature of Clyde's relationship with Roberta in regard to Dreiser's notion that impulse overrides reason.
6. Define irony and then discuss the use of it in the novel, particularly in the scene of Roberta Alden's drowning.
7. Define tragedy and then explore Clyde's story is an "American" tragedy.
8. Discuss the theme of isolation in the novel. Consider Clyde's relationships with other people and explore how these relationships convey the sense of isolation Clyde feels.
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Topics for Further Study
At one point during the writing of An American Tragedy, Dreiser thought of entitling it Mirage. Why do you think he considered this title? Which of the two titles do you think better suits the book, and why?
Do you agree with the jury that convicted Clyde of first-degree murder? Why or why not? If you disagree, what crime, if any, was Clyde guilty of, and what punishment did he deserve?
Do some research to learn about the crime on which Dreiser based his book. Discuss similarities and differences between the true story and the fictional one, and speculate about why Dreiser made the changes he did.
Do some research to learn about life in the United States in the early 1900s. Compare what you learn to Dreiser's portrayal. Does the author provide an accurate, balanced portrayal of this period of history?
Learn about the writer Horatio Alger and read one or more of his stories. Write an essay explaining how Alger's view of American life differs from Dreiser's. Tell which author's view is more like your own, and explain why you share this view.
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An American Tragedy was adapted into a motion picture called A Place in the Sun (1951), which, like Dreiser's book, was based on the Chester Gillette 1906 murder case. The movie stars Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters, and it presents the story of a poor boy who chases after riches, falls in love with a wealthy society girl, and contemplates killing his lower-class girlfriend in order to have the life he desires.
The Gillette murder trial was highly controversial because Gillette was sentenced to die based on circumstantial evidence. Legends and mysteries have continued to surround the case, which local people followed with cult-like interest. In Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited, Craig Brandon presents evidence of the Gillette case and traces its history as an Adirondack legend. Brandon's book may be of interest to readers of Dreiser's An American Tragedy, and it should help shed light on the model Dreiser used in shaping Clyde Griffiths's character.
Dreiser appreciated the work of Frank Norris. An American Tragedy has some points in common with Norris's McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (Norton Critical Edition, 1978, edited by Donald Pizer). McTeague, originally published in 1899, is based on a crime that occurred at the turn of the century. Other relevant books by Norris are The Octopus: A Story of California and The Pit: A Story of...
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An American Tragedy was first adapted to film in a 1931 production with the same title directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Phillips Holmes as Clyde. The 1951 film A Place in the Sun is also an adaptation of Dreiser's novel, although the characters' names have been changed. The film stars Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor and also features appearances by Shelley Winters and Raymond Burr.
The novel also has been adapted in play form as An American Tragedy, by Patrick Kearney, in 1927, and as An American Tragedy: The Trial of Clyde Griffiths, by Erwin Piscator, in the 1920s.
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What Do I Read Next?
Murder in the Adirondacks (1986), by Craig Brandon, is a nonfiction account of the murder around which Dreiser built his novel. Brandon includes more than one hundred photographs in his detailed account.
Although Dreiser is best known as a novelist, he also wrote short fiction. Editor Howard Fast collected some of Dreiser's best short works in The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser (1989).
Dreiser also wrote two volumes of autobiography, A Book about Myself (1922, published in 1931 as Newspaper Days) and Dawn (1931). These books detail the early experiences that shaped Dreiser's fiction and his view of life.
Dreiser's niece, psychologist Vera Dreiser, wrote My Uncle Theodore (1976) with Brett Howard. For her biography, Vera Dreiser had access to family sources.
Jack London is another American naturalist writer, and his short novel The Call of the Wild (1903) is widely acclaimed as an important text of the movement. Its wilderness setting makes it a stark contrast to An American Tragedy, demonstrating how the same ideas of determinism and survival of the fittest play out in a very different environment.
The Red Badge of Courage (1895), by Stephen Crane, is still another important example of American naturalism. It relates the battlefield experiences of a young Civil War soldier.
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For Further Reference
Pizer, Donald. Critical Essays on Theodore Dreiser. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1981. Pizer, a noted Dreiser scholar, presents this collection of critiques on Dreiser and his work. It includes general essays on Dreiser's naturalism, transcendentalism, and forms of his philosophy and literary style, as well as essays specific to certain titles. Six essays are devoted to discussions of An American Tragedy.
——. The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976. This book discusses in length the themes in An American Tragedy and other novels. Pizer also discusses Dreiser's creation of the work and the influences, both literary and personal, which compelled him to write it.
"Theodore Dreiser." In Dictionary of Literary Biography, vols. 9 and 12. Detroit: Gale, 1981, 1982. This series of reference books presents in-depth discussions of authors and their works. Volume 9 of this series discusses Dreiser as an American realist and naturalist and presents an analysis of his works in this context; volume 12 presents a more general view of Dreiser as an American novelist.
"Theodore (Herman Albert) Dreiser." In Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, vols. 10 and 18, Detroit: Gale, 1983, 1985. The entries on Dreiser present a profile of the author and an in-depth analysis of his works. They give a full list of Dreiser's published works and offer...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Duffus, Robert L., "Too Big to Write Smaller," in New York Times, January 10, 1926, p. 24.
Gerber, Philip L., "Chapter Six: 'Society Should Ask Forgiveness': An American Tragedy," in Theodore Dreiser, Twayne's United States Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.
----, “Theodore Dreiser," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9: American Novelists, 1910—1945, edited by James J. Martine, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 236—57.
Kazin, Alfred, Introduction, in The Stature of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Survey of the Man and His Work, edited by Alfred Kazin and Charles Shapiro, Indiana University Press, 1955, pp. 3-12.
Lydon, Michael, "Justice to Theodore Dreiser," in the Atlantic, Vol. 272, No. 2, August 1993, pp. 98-101.
Elias, Robert H., Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature, 1948, amended edition, Cornell University Press, 1970.
Elias's biography, though written more than fifty years ago, is still considered perhaps the best scholarly treatment of the author and his work.
Gogol, Miriam, ed., Theodore Dreiser: Beyond Naturalism, New York University Press, 1995.
The ten writers in Gogol's collection each take a different approach to Dreiser's work, analyzing elements from his female characters to film versions of his novels. This collection is rare in that it offers...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. One of America’s leading literary critics updates Salzman’s collection (listed below).
Gerber, Philip L. “Society Should Ask Forgiveness: An American Tragedy.” In Theodore Dreiser Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1992. A structural analysis that also examines Dreiser’s sources, his progression through early drafts, and the novel’s effect on his career. Annotated bibliography.
Gerber, Philip L. Theodore Dreiser Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Lehan, Richard. “An American Tragedy.” In Theodore Dreiser: His World and His Novels. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. Discusses Dreiser’s identification with Clyde Griffiths, particularly his fundamentalist religious background and the techniques Dreiser uses to mitigate Clyde’s culpability.
Lingeman, Richard. Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey, 1908-1945. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1990.
Michaels, Benn Walter. “An American Tragedy: Or, The Promise of American Life.” Representations 25 (Winter, 1989): 71-98.
Pizer, Donald. “American Literary Naturalism: The...
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