- Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and 1920s Flapper Culture
Throughout the great length of An American Tragedy Theodore Dreiser does not mention a specific year in which its action occurs. It is nevertheless clear from many incidental details in the setting, especially the prominence of the automobile, that he wishes his readers to understand that they are encountering contemporary events of roughly the early to mid-1920s. (The novel was written during 1923–25 and published in late 1925.) One of the significant characteristics of this post-war period was the rise and prominence of the liberated young woman, commonly known as the flapper. In this essay I will examine Dreiser’s use of the flapper figure in An American Tragedy in relation both to his attempt to authenticate the contemporaneousness of the “American tragedy” theme at the center of the novel and to dramatize a striking cultural irony present in the centrality of the type during this period.
An American Tragedy is based on the Grace Brown-Chester Gillette murder case of 1906–08.1 Grace Brown, a resident of the upstate New York town of Cortland, was found pregnant, bruised, and drowned in an Adirondack lake in July 1906. Her lover, Chester Gillette, was convicted of murdering her after a sensational and widely reported trial in Herkimer in late 1906 and was executed at Auburn prison in March 1908. Dreiser was in his late thirties during the period of Grace Brown’s murder and the trial and execution of Chester Gillette. He had grown up in small Indiana towns and had by 1906 worked as a newspaperman in several major Midwestern cities and had lived as well in Chicago and New York. In addition to this personal familiarity with turn-of-the-century America, Dreiser’s documentary sources for the crime, principally the New York World reports of the trial, were of course also those of 1906–08. Yet he chose to set the novel not in that period but in the mid-1920s. [End Page 123]
Dreiser’s decision had its roots in his conviction that the conditions underlying the Gillette case were not unique to the first decade of the twentieth century but rather characterized the entire period from the late nineteenth century to the 1920s. Little had changed in American society during this period, he believed, except the public misconception that the present was distinguished by a lessening of older social restrictions. Dreiser wrote bluntly on this subject in 1921, just as the notion of the 1920s as a distinctive new epoch was beginning to take shape:
I can truthfully say that I can not detect, in the post-war activities or interests, social, intellectual, or otherwise, of the younger or other generations of Americans, poor, rich, or middle class, any least indication of the breaking of hampering shackles of any kind—intellectual, social, monetary or what you will. The American as I encounter him, young or old, is the same old American, thin lipped, narrow-minded, money-centred, 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.(Dreiser, “Americans” 230)
Dreiser placed a similar emphasis on the cultural continuity of American culture since the Civil War in his frequent discourses on the pernicious effect of the Dream of Success on American youth. In account after account in which he explained the sources and inspiration for An American Tragedy, Dreiser emphasized that the Gillette-Brown case was only one of a long series of crimes with a similar configuration. For example, in a late 1926 interview, he stated that
[The novel depicts] a typical American tragedy. There have been scores of cases like it. … It happens time and again in America. I considered this case and the other but the one I chose seemed to me to embody most clearly the elements which made these crimes typically American.
A young man starts out after a career, untrained, unqualified, uneducated—with a high school education or even less. He is filled with the common dope of success that is injected into all...