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Theodore Dreiser: An American Tragedy

Dreiser’s classic and long novel, based on a true story, may not be as powerful as it was when first published in 1925 but it is still an excellent realist novel. Sadly, it is little read today, even though it was in Time Magazine’s 100 best English-language novels since 1923.

Clyde Griffiths is the son of a preacher couple, who go out on the streets of the Kansas City in the early part of the twentieth century with their four children, Clyde, his older sister, Hester (called Esta) and his younger brother and sister, Frank and Julia, to preach and sing on street corners. However, they are as unsuccessful at preaching as they are at parenting. Esta runs off with a man who, as we later learn, abandons her when she is pregnant. She sneaks back to Kansas City, where her mother helps her unbeknownst to the rest of the family, though Clyde does find out. Clyde is soon bored of the religious life and gets various jobs to get money to enjoy himself, finally landing a good job as a bellboy in the Greene-Davison hotel where, with tips, he can earn up to forty dollars a week and go out drinking with the other bell boys, and have a girlfriend. But it goes wrong when the boys borrow a car from the employer of one of their friends and the driver runs over and kills an eleven-year old girl. The boys, including Clive, flee, leaving the driver, who has been knocked unconscious, to his fate. Clyde leaves Kansas City and drifts around under an assumed name, till he finds another job as a bellboy in Chicago, where, by chance, he meets his uncle Samuel (his father’s brother), who is a client at the hotel. Samuel Griffiths is far more successful than his younger brother and owns a very successful collar factory in upstate New York. When Clyde asks if there is a job he can have in the Griffiths factory, Uncle Samuel, feeling somewhat guilty about how his younger brother was treated, agrees to give him one.

The factory is run by Griffiths Senior but his son, Gilbert, is number two and he is somewhat jealous of Clyde. The two look alike but Clyde seems to be the better-looking. Moreover, Gilbert feels that his father is paying too much attention to his cousin. Accordingly, Clyde is put to work in the shrinking room and neglected both socially and professionally. Only when Griffiths Senior happens to see him there is he moved out and put in charge of the stamping room, where the staff are all women, with strict instructions that management cannot have any close relations with the women working there. But, neglected by the Griffiths and unable to make friends, he soon takes to Roberta Alden, who works in the stamping room, and they start a surreptitious affair. While the affair develops, the Griffiths continue to neglect him, though he does receive one invitation to their home where he meets and soon falls in love with the rich Sondra Finchley. No further invitations follow. However, when Clyde bumps into Sondra, she decides to take him up, not least to spite the Griffiths, whom she considers stand-offish, and she soon becomes more than interested in Clyde, having him invited to many social occasions. Clyde, of course, loves this new social whirl and loses interest in Roberta, only to learn that she is pregnant. Clearly, he cannot marry her – he loves Sondra and it would probably lead to his dismissal from the Griffiths factory – and he is unable to procure her an abortion, either self-induced or through a friendly doctor. When Roberta threatens to reveal all, if he doesn’t marry her, he concocts a plan to kill her, based on a story of a drowning accident, reported in a local paper. The rest – and last third of the novel – is taken up with Clyde’s plot to kill Roberta and how he plans and carries it out, his apparent change of heart, Roberta’s death, the investigation into the death and Clyde’s arrest, conviction and trial.

The novel is very long – 863 pages in the edition I have – and Dreiser spares no detail. The trial itself takes a good one hundred pages. Dreiser aims to show a detailed portrait of Clyde Griffiths, a man who went wrong but, at least as far as Dreiser is concerned, may not be totally to blame. Dreiser implies that his upbringing with his religious parents is clearly at fault, not only because of how he and his sister go astray but because, at the end, Dreiser leaves us thinking that Clyde’s nephew will follow the same path as his uncle. It may be said that instant gratification is a late twentieth century trait but this novel shows that it clearly existed well before and that, indeed, is the key theme of this work. For Dreiser, however, it is not just a psychological fault but a social one, with the disparity between rich and poor clearly to blame. As in his earlier works, Dreiser clearly shows this disparity, comparing the Griffiths and their well-to-do friends, many of whom are simply spoilt brats, with the ordinary factory workers. But psychological and social analysis apart, Dreiser tells a first-class story of a young man’s slow but steady fall down the slippery road to perdition, against the background of the early twentieth century.

Publishing history

First published 1925 by Boni and Liveright