Clyde Griffiths is dead, and it’s about freaking time already. It took Theodore Dreiser over eight hundred pages to tell a story that could have been told in under half that. An American Tragedy is an acknowledged classic, present on four of the top 100 lists I use as reading guides*, but I found it dull, thin, internally implausible (even though it’s based heavily on a true story), and populated by characters who were lucky to receive a second dimension.
*It’s #16 on the Modern Library 100, #88 on the Radcliffe 100, and on the unranked TIME 100, all of which are limited to English-language novels of the 20th century. It’s also #46 on The Novel 100, which covers all novels and is now back in print.
The story, in brief: Clyde Griffiths is raised in poverty by a pair of non-denominational missionary parents, and rejects their lifestyle and religion to strike out on his own. At every turn, his attempts to move himself forward socially and economically are stymied by his attraction to and obsession with the fairer sex. Eventually, he’s taken in by his wealthy uncle and given work in that man’s collar factory, where he meets and seduces a simple country girl, Roberta Allen. When Clyde finds that society girl Sondra Finchley is interested in him, he ditches Roberta to pursue Sondra, only to find out that Roberta is pregnant with his child and (after failed attempts to abort the baby) insists that he marry her. So he hatches a plan to kill Roberta, and Roberta ends up dead even though Clyde may have had a change of heart at the last second. He’s quickly caught, tried at great literary length, and executed. Fin.
It could easily have been a story of great drama, but it’s not. For one thing, most readers of the book know the ending, which was true when it came out because the case on which Dreiser based the novel was a national sensation, the O.J. Simpson trial of its day (except that the defendant was found guilty and executed).
It could also have been a brilliant character study, but poor Clyde is as narrow as Doug Fieger’s tie and has so little nderstanding of his own actions that it’s hard for me to make any convincing case as to his motives. The closest I could come is to label him a narcissist, since he tends to think of everything bad as happening “to him,” notably Roberta’s pregnancy which was most certainly not happening to Clyde in any physical sense.
It doesn’t even work as a polemic. At first it looks like an indictment of religion, or of Puritanism, but that falls by the wayside when Clyde leaves his parents. It could be a criticism of misspent youth, of alcohol, or of venal behavior by “loose” women, but none of those themes sticks around long either. The longest single theme is that of the caste system found in the upstate New York town where Clyde’s uncle and family live, a system that finds Clyde caught in between as the part-owner of a surname associated with success, status, and wealth but himself poor, uneducated, and socially awkward. But then Clyde kills Roberta, gets arrested, and the rich/poor issue is mostly forgotten.
If there’s anything worth pondering in An American Tragedy, it’s whether Clyde was legally guilty of the murder. Clyde sets up the entire crime, then at the last second has some sort of mental apoplexy and doesn’t quite go through with it … but Roberta falls out of the boat, Clyde probably knocks her in the head, and he definitely doesn’t bother to save her as she drowns. Is it murder if he meant it but he didn’t mean it but he meant it anyway? I sure as hell thought so, which made the trial – on which Dreiser spends the better part of 300 pages – as dull as pitcher fielding practice.
And as for the prose, well, Dryser might have been a more appropriate moniker, for the author was no magician with our language, a view to which my friends at TIME also subscribe. The prose wasn’t leaden; it was eka-leaden. To wit:
But in the interim, in connection with his relations with Roberta no least reference to Sondra, although, even when near her in the factory or her room, he could not keep his thoughts from wandering away to where Sondra in her imaginary high social world might be. The while Roberta, at moments only sensing a drift and remoteness in his thought and attitude which had nothing to do with her, was wondering what it was that of late was beginning to occupy him so completely. And he, in his turn, when she was not looking was thinking – supposing? – supposing – (since she had troubled to recall herself to him), that he could interest a girl like Sondra in him?
The whole book is like this, all 353,014 words of it. Another typical Dreiser move is the extended double negative:
Nevertheless she was not at all convinced that a girl of Roberta’s looks and practicality would not be able to negotiate an association of the sort without harm to herself.
You parse that sucker, and get back to me in a week when you’re done.
So … why did I stick it out? For one thing, because it’s on four of those book lists, and while I may not reach 100 on any of them, it pushed me one closer. But it also stood as the last unread novel from my years in school: It was originally assigned to me in my senior year of high school, in the fall of 1989. I got to page 25, hated it, bought the Cliffs Notes, and wrote the paper off that. That’s the same class for which I didn’t read Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a book I went back and read in 2005 and loved. I simply can’t say the same for this paperweight.
Next up: Dr. Michael Guillen’s Five Equations That Changed the World: The Power and Poetry of Mathematics.