- Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy: A Documentary Volume ed. by Donald Pizer
Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) was a watershed book. It inspired the creation of a number of American tragedies—Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979), for example. It was a comeback book for Dreiser, who hadn’t issued a novel in over ten years. The “Genius, “ published in 1915 to the horror of its would-be censors, had been composed years earlier. Essentially, the Father of Realism (read: naturalism) brooded over the story of Clyde Griffiths for many years, studying crimes birthed by the American Dream, and even writing six chapters of another “tragedy” before settling on the so-called “crime of the century” (there were several more such crimes in the twentieth century)—the 1906 “accidental” murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette. An American Tragedy was placed sixteenth among the Modern Library’s list of the “100 Best Novels” of the twentieth century.
This is one of the many facts in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy: A Documentary Volume, edited by Donald Pizer. The mammoth book is divided into five sections: 1) The “American Tragedy” Archetype; 2) The Social Background; 3) Composition, Publication, and Reception; 4) Stage and Film Adaptations; and 5) Criticism and Later History. These sections, filled with marvelous illustrations, are preceded by a brief biography and chronology for the featured novel. The bio may err by accepting without qualification Dreiser’s story in Dawn (1931) that Mildred Fielding, Dreiser’s high school teacher in Warsaw, Indiana, paid for his first and only year at Indiana University. In The Last Titan: A Life of Theodore Dreiser, I quote from a letter to Dreiser’s close friend Richard Duffy in 1890 that makes no mention of his teacher, saying only “I discovered I could go to college for $200, and made an arrangement with a friend of mine to advance me half of this. The rest I earned and in 1889 adjourned to Bloomington.” Biographers [End Page 276] should always beware of memoirs, the subject’s only chance to preempt his or her biographer. Another possible error in this documentary volume states that Chester Gillette had been a student at Oberlin College, whereas he had been a student at its prep school.
Nevertheless, Chester—as we learn in the “Social Background” part of this scholar’s treasure trove—had many more advantages than Clyde, who is in this deterministic tale a much more facile lamb led to the slaughter. The more socially nimble Chester might have gone with the social tide that washes over Clyde, who, as much of a victim as Grace Brown (who couldn’t swim), ultimately drowns in the rigidly moralistic and hypocritical sea of American society between the turn of the century and the heady 1920s. “The American as I encounter him, young or old,” Dreiser wrote in 1921, “is the same old American, thin lipped, narrow-minded, money centered, interested in the Ten Commandments as they apply to the other fellow, and absolutely blind to everything that would tend to enlarge, let alone vastly extend his world outlook. … His librarian locks up every decent book relating to politics, economics, and life, and then urges him to inform himself. Lastly, in face of it all, he himself insists upon subscribing to a conservative newspaper wherefrom he comes to favor a blue Sunday and the censoring of the already brainless movies and the stage, to say nothing of his one refuge, a decent book. … The less one knows of life and the more of Heaven, the better. In God we trust.”
This is very Menckenesque, though by the time of the publication of An American Tragedy in 1925, their friendship had collapsed, ostensibly because Dreiser had ignored Mencken’s suggestions to clean up The “Genius” for the critics, but actually because Mencken realized that his journalistic talent was inferior to Dreiser’s novelistic...