Carl Milton Hughes
Motley's Knock on Any Door is similar in many ways to Dreiser's An American Tragedy. This is especially true of the materials selected and the style in which the two books are written. Both novels deal with sensitive boys who desired to be different, but the warping influence of environment changed the course of their development. Instead of becoming upright, honest, and useful citizens, they became criminals. Society in both cases imposes on them the extreme penalty for its own preservation of law and order. The moral pointed in both instances is a paradox. Society must assume the responsibility for the crimes perpetrated by each boy; yet the same society must take the lives of the boys in order to protect itself.
Both writers use the technique of accumulation of details, and they insist on interpolations. At times the writing fascinates the reader by its clarity. Motley has some economy in his novel. Neither Willard Motley nor Theodore Dreiser is subtle, but Dreiser has more subtlety than Motley. Both authors impress the reader with their humaneness and the sense of compassion. Both men seem to admire the central character and display unquestioned honesty and integrity in reporting their cruel yet realistic fables. Both are naturalists and obey their compulsion to render the situation as truthfully and faithfully as their observational powers will permit. Dreiser's naturalism has more of the seemingly cosmic sweep than Motley's, but the latter has massiveness. Like James Farrell, Motley employs the shock technique, and in the deftness with which he handles his theme he recalls both Theodore Dreiser and James Farrell…. Simply stated, Motley advances the thesis that society, by providing unwholesome environment, corrupts the youth and is, therefore, responsible for the crimes they commit.
In its own terms, Knock on Any Door posits the sociological case study of Nick Romano. (pp. 178-79)
The picture in...
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