Introduction to Theodore Dreiser’s
An American Tragedy

By Richard Lingeman

On September 6, 1920, Theodore Dreiser scrawled in his diary: “I work on ‘An American Tragedy’ till 4 P.M.” He was living anonymously in Hollywood with a woman not his wife and trying unsuccessfully to sell screenplays when he began writing the novel considered his greatest and one of the major American novels of the twentieth century. At 49, he was at a low point in his career, His last novel, The “Genius,” had appeared five years ago; it had been banned in New York state as obscene. Its publisher withdrew it from the market rather than raise a legal challenge to the ban. His earlier books were out of print. Timid magazine editors who feared that their sexual frankness would offend readers regularly rejected his short stories.

Such a backlash was nothing new; it had plagued Dreiser’s career since his first novel, Sister Carrie was condemned by its reluctant publisher as “immoral” in 1900. Reissued by a more enlightened publisher in 1907, it was hailed for its unrelenting honesty. A younger generation of writers seeking truthful expression in the arts rallied behind Dreiser and the banner of Realism. He followed Carrie with Jennie Gerhardt, The Financier and The Titan, which were championed by the younger critics, most vociferously among them H.L. Mencken, then an obscure Baltimore journalist who would become America’s most influential literary and social critic of the 1920s.

During World War I, Dreiser and Mencken, both second-generation Americans of German descent were castigated by super-patriots as pawns of the brutal Hun. Mencken’s iconoclastic commentary was silenced; Dreiser became persona non grata at the middle-class magazines. In this internal exile his mind turned to more alienated characters and psychopathology, and he wrote an unproduceable play about a child murderer.

Exploring psychopathological depths inevitably led him to the theories of Sigmund Freud. Dreiser called the Viennese doctor’s ideas “a strong, revealing light thrown on some of the darkest problems that haunted and troubled me and my work.” He sought out Dr. A.A. Brill, Freud’s American translator and a student of the criminal mind. They spent long evenings drinking beer and discussing what made murderers tick. Dreiser was now urgently meditating a novel about a murderer, the germ of An American Tragedy.

As far back as 1907 he had told friends he wanted to “get inside the skin of a murderer.” He made several attempts over the ensuing years to write such a novel, each with a different protagonist, but abandoned all of them because the characters refused to come to life. But the theme of murder for social advancement continued to obsess him, and he kept searching for a murder case that would serve as a model and also as a metaphor for an illness besetting American society.

He collected, he later claimed (with some exaggeration), nearly a dozen case histories involving this peculiarly American crime. Such murders, said Dreiser, always involved a triangle: the murderer, “Miss Poor” and “Miss Rich.” An ambitious young man falls in love with a wealthy woman and murders the poor woman with whom he has a relationship and stands in the way of his social advancement (often she is pregnant by him). Such killers were motivated by the American dream of wealth and success, Dreiser believed. Each was thus “really doing the kind of thing which Americans…would have said was the wise and moral thing for him to do had he not committed a murder,” he wrote. They were Horatio Alger heroes gone bad.

The case most snugly tailored to his specifications was the 1906 murder of Grace (Billy) Brown by Chester Gillette, her co-worker in a skirt factory in Cortland, New York. Chester had seduced Billy and made her pregnant. She demanded that he marry her but by then he was consorting with women in a higher social set. Regarding Billy as an obstacle to his rise he resolved to eliminate her. One July day he took her out in a rowboat on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks, struck her with an oar and overturned the boat, leaving her to drown.

The trial was a sensation, splashily covered by the New York tabloids. The dramatic high point came when the prosecutor read the poignant letters Grace Brown wrote to Gillette begging him to marry her; the simple, moving words stirred universal sympathy for her and revulsion against her alleged murderer. A jury of conservative farmers and shopkeepers handed down a verdict of guilty, and Gillette was duly electrocuted, despite serious irregularities in his trial. Shortly before his execution he confessed that he had indeed done in poor Billy.

Dreiser had clipped newspaper accounts of the Gillette-Brown murder and decided it was the “ideal” case he had been searching for. He felt a deeper personal bond with Chester Gillette than he had with any of the other murderers on his roster. He saw in this callow, aimless youth intimations of his own younger self, which he had described in his recently completed autobiography Newspaper Days. There he paints his career as a young newspaper reporter, learning the grim facts of life as he roams various cities, tormented by sexual desire and dreams of success. He paints a scene of himself standing on an avenue of wealthy homes in Cleveland, “envying the rich and wishing that I was famous or a member of a wealthy family, and that I might meet with one of the beautiful girls I imagined I saw there and have her fall in love with me.” Like Gillette, Dreiser had grown up in a poor family; Gillette’s parents were religious workers; Dreiser’s father was fanatically religious and had repeatedly failed in business; his pretty sisters were in and out of trouble, seduced and abandoned by small-town sports or older rakes.

As a poor boy in his native Indiana Dreiser hungrily consumed Horatio Alger stories and other self-help books and dreamed of becoming the powerful chief of a great enterprise. Unlike Chester Gillette, however, he had talent, intellect and drive. But although he climbed to the top of the literary world in a manner that exemplified the American dream, he never forgot the hurts and humiliations, the ostracism and contempt he and his family endured in small-town Indiana. His skeptical mind had early on perceived the darker side of the Alger myth. He saw that it echoed a national obsession with money and social status, which promoted greed, pride and self-indulgence. It also bred unfairness. He saw ambitious young men who rose in life as he did, but he knew of many more who had failed because proper training and education were denied them by an accident of birth. The game was rigged to favor their wealthier peers—the Gilbert Griffiths of the world.

In these emblematic American murder cases Dreiser studied illicit desire was a subterranean force driving ambition. The young man seduced “Miss Poor,” made her pregnant and killed her after “Miss Rich” came along. Dreiser regarded the contemporary religious morality that ostracized unwed mothers as harsh and unnatural, a puritanical punishment for expressing normal physical urges. And why force two young people to marry who might well have fallen out of love?

Dreiser had a personal knowledge of the hurts and cruelties of sexual passion. He was a man with a strong erotic nature who had ditched a conventional small-town wife and sought sexual freedom in Greenwich Village. He engaged in a series of intense affairs with liberated young women drawn to his fame as the author of boldly realistic novels. Most of these New Women, however, sought to possess Dreiser, as his first wife had done; and he would resist their attempts to tie him down, resulting in fierce quarrels. He formulated the theory that love was a Darwinian struggle in which the stronger one held the upper hand over the weaker. “Life is made for the strong,” he wrote in his diary. “There is no mercy in it for the weak—none.” “Such is the tragedy of desire.”

It was in that psychosexual context that Dreiser interpreted the facts of the Gillette-Brown murder, when he started writing An American Tragedy. In it he would describe the awakening sexual desire of Roberta Alden, Grace Brown’s counterpart, for Clyde Griffiths, who is Chester Gillette’s, as the “blinding, bleeding stab of love.” And when Clyde is mesmerized by the spoiled, wealthy Sondra Finchley (vaguely inspired by one of Chester’s real-life upper-class girl friends, though there was no single “Miss Rich” in his life) because she embodies his dreams of wealth and beauty, he feels the “stinging sense of what it was to want and not to have.” An American Tragedy is a tragedy of desire, as well as a tragedy of ambition.

Until he launched the Tragedy, Dreiser had been marooned in a creative backwater. He had failed to finish a previous effort another long-planned novel called The Bulwark. At this nadir of his fortunes an unlikely savior appeared, a former manufacturer of paper goods turned publisher. His name was Horace Liveright, and he would become one of the most influential and creative bookmen of the 1920s. Liveright was attuned to “advanced” literature and sought out Dreiser as the leader in the fight for American Realism. He offered Dreiser enough money to live on for a year in order to finish The Bulwark and Dreiser accepted.

Money in hand, Dreiser and his mistress, Helen Richardson, an aspiring actress, clandestinely departed for Hollywood (both of them were still married to others). In that era, the town was humming with the explosive expansion of the silent film industry, full of ambitious nobodies from nowhere. The orange-blossom-scented air was heady with sensuality and dreams of regal wealth. The studios ground out steamy fantasies of sin and luxury.

While Helen made the rounds and worked up from extra to small roles, Dreiser attempted to write screenplays. For Liveright he first tried to resuscitate The Bulwark, but his attitude toward the central character had changed, and it lay stillborn on the page. Back in New York City, Horace Liveright kept yelling, where is the new novel? Dreiser’s answer was An American Tragedy.

But it would be another five years before that novel was completed. Dreiser hit his first dead end on the book while in Hollywood. Unable to work, he returned to New York and toured upstate sites associated with the Gillette-Brown murder and pored over accounts of the trial in the files of the New York World. Then he began again. The book took hold, grew and deepened. It became “a terrible thing,” an “unholy task,” he complained.

Finally, on November 25, 1925, it was done. The result seemed almost foreign to him, “a monumental failure.” Yet deep down he knew that he had achieved something big. What the public and the critics would think was another matter, however. He had experienced too many disappointments over the erratic course of his career to set his expectations too high.

An American Tragedy is a novel about a murder but also about the society that bred the murderer. It not only illuminates the dark regions of the criminal mind, but also plays a searchlight across the American class system. Dreiser assembles a variegated yet representative gallery of American types to tell his tale—male, female, rich, poor, blue-collar and rural, urban sophisticates and magnates of industry, delinquents and officers of the law, unbelievers and sincere religious folks—all drawn with insight and deep sympathy.

If An American Tragedy has an underlying social theme it is the powerful hold of status and social ambition on Americans in all levels of society and the cruelties and injuries class can inflict. In Dreiser’s novel this system is viewed mainly from the underside, through the eyes of Clyde Griffiths, who is lifted out of lonely obscurity and almost magically given a chance to dwell in the “splendiferous” sphere of the wealthy—if he will but murder the sweet and good Roberta Alden, whom he loved.

Dreiser probes with a scalpel of irony the permutations of class distinctions in a society founded, after all, on the principle that “all men are created equal.” Clyde’s course has been determined at birth, in Dreiser’s view. Brought up in a family of penniless and unworldly religious workers, he hungers for the comforts and privileges others take as their due and finally rebels, going to work in a Kansas City hotel where he is introduced to the forbidden pleasures of sex and gains a keyhole view of the rich and near-rich off guard and at play. Clyde lacks the education that might have directed his mind to a trade or profession that would have enabled him to rise in life. Instead, he caroms from one situation to another, an aimless pinball, anonymous, soulless, pleasure-seeking, vaguely dreaming of a finer life, hoping for some boost from fortune that will enable him to rise. His wish is granted when a wealthy uncle, Samuel Griffiths, who owns a collar and shirt factory in Lycurgus, New York, befriends him.

In Lycurgus the name Griffiths gives Clyde vicarious status, but his patrons regard him as a poor relation, a potential embarrassment, and virtually ignore him. So he works in his rich uncle’s factory and drifts into his affair with Roberta, violating a company rule against fraternization with female employees.

After seducing her, he is taken up by the moneyed Sondra, who feels sorry for him and also wants revenge on Clyde’s pompous overbearing cousin Gilbert Griffiths, who has slighted her. With her backing Clyde is accepted by Lycurgus’s social set and Sondra eventually develops an infatuation for him. Yet his position remains tenuous; he must live by the standards of his new friends. He lies about his parents’ occupation, making them seem more important than they are so that he will not be seen as “a mere nobody seeking … to attach himself to his cousin’s family….”

Dreiser’s examples of the workings of class multiply through the novel. Even the collar factory where Clyde works is tied to social status. As Gilbert explains, the family business has a “social importance” because the cheap collars it turns out give “polish and manner to people who wouldn’t otherwise have them….” Collars accord status to parvenu poor boys like Clyde.

Dreiser’s narrative method is to create characters that have their counterparts or “doubles” in a lower or higher class. To Roberta Clyde is upper class. She sees rich and poor in Lycurgus as “divided by a high wall.” Clyde is to her as Sondra is to him—an emissary of the higher sphere. Gilbert resents Clyde as an upstart, yet their physical resemblance is so close they are nearly twins. Clyde is actually better looking and more charming (Sondra advises him that looks without money will not take him far). All that separates him from Gilbert, Dreiser implies, is the fate of birth, which makes Gilbert the arrogant heir to the Griffiths millions, and Clyde the outsider struggling to break in.

Sondra is the upper-class counterpart of Hortense Briggs, the mercenary tease Clyde dated in Kansas City when he was a bellhop. Clyde’s sister, Esta, resembles Roberta in that she was seduced in Kansas City by an actor. Esta returns later to her family and subsequently marries, and Clyde snobbishly wonders why Roberta, with her dirt-poor parents, should have the gall to worry about her reputation.

Mason, the district attorney who prosecutes Clyde for the murder of Roberta, harbors a resentment of the rich; he sees Clyde as an upper-class sport and attacks him on the stand with zeal fired by personal animosity melded to political ambition. Clyde’s attorney Belknap is more sympathetic to the young man, because he had gotten into a similar scrape as a young man. But he was extricated by his father’s wealth, which persuaded the family doctor to perform an abortion. Clyde, with his inexperience and lack of money, cannot avail himself of this escape route.

Belknap’s partner, Jephson, drives home Dreiser’s moral of the powerful determining force of class. “After all, you didn’t make yourself,” he tells Clyde. And it is also Jephson who articulates Clyde’s helpless attraction to the unattainable. “A case of the Arabian Nights,” he tells him on the stand, using Dreiser’s recurrent Alladinish imagery to symbolize the dream of magically attained riches. When Clyde does not understand, Jephson explains to him: “A case of being bewitched, my poor boy—by beauty, love, wealth, by things that we sometimes think we want very, very much and cannot ever have….” Dreiser sympathizes with Clyde’s dream but pitilessly exposes it as a mirage. (“Mirage” was an early working title for the novel—as was “Icarus,” after the character of Greek myth who flew too close to the sun.)

An American Tragedy is one of the greatest social novels produced in America; it paints the broadest and deepest picture of American society. It is told without moralizing—though Dreiser clearly sees religion as another mirage, which leads true believers like Clyde’s parents into useless lives of proselytizing and piety. Yet it is a profoundly moral novel, harsh in its truth telling, magnanimous in its pity for the failings and weakness of humankind. It is not an exculpation of Clyde’s crime but rather a profound meditation on the nature of guilt, viewed from all conceivable angles, psychological, legal, moral, social.

It is also a psychologically acute (and gripping) murder story—on the high level of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. Like those authors, Dreiser’s patient attentiveness to detail and his philosophical vision endow the protagonists in a sordid and tawdry murder with the dignity of tragedy (he said it was an “honor” to tell the story of ordinary people like Clyde and Roberta). Dreiser draws us slowly through an emotional wringer, leaving the reader in the end exhausted but purged.

Dreiser, of course, makes the murder itself ambiguous. Clyde backs out of his plan to kill Roberta at the last moment. He cannot snuff out this beautiful soul for the shimmering mirage of Sondra. And yet, and yet… Clyde, commanded by the voice of the Efrit, the genie that Dreiser creates to symbolize the darker side of his nature, swims away as Roberta flounders in her final throes. He is morally, if not legally, guilty; he had brought her to that watery rendezvous with malign intent. But aren’t there extenuating circumstances? An entire novel’s worth of them.

Let the reader debate Clyde’s guilt, as Dreiser does in the mind of Reverend Duncan McMillan, the minister who counsels the young man on death row and who ultimately betrays him to the governor. The latter is looking for a way to justify commuting the death sentence. McMillan’s own religious beliefs impel him to tell the governor that Clyde was culpable in his heart. The governor allows the execution to go forward. (It might be noted that for all Dreiser’s antipathy toward religion the two most devout believers—McMillan and Clyde’s mother—are among his most sympathetic characters.)

A word about Dreiser’s style; it is slow, ponderous, almost archaic at times, sprinkled with solecisms. The first part of the novel, describing Clyde’s childhood and young manhood, would benefit from cutting. Dreiser will make a point and repeat it twice over. But the novel gathers force like a hurricane, and the reader is slowly sucked into the tale’s emotional vortex. Who can deny the symbolic power of the murder scene—those ultimate moments in the rowboat on the lake that “look[s] like a huge black pearl cast by some mighty hand,” where two small figures act out under a relentless sun a drama of fate and free will? And then the trial, with its ritualized jousts between attorneys but also its fresh analysis of Clyde’s guilt or innocence from the perspective of the law. And then the surreal scenes on death row as Clyde is caught up in the Kafkaesque machinery of execution. Here Dreiser’s crude prose mimics the system’s banal inhumanity: “The ‘death house’ in this particular prison was one of those crass erections and maintenances of human insensitiveness and stupidity principally for which no one primarily was really responsible.”

Dreiser’s power originates in such raw, sincere eloquence; in his great humanity and profound sympathy with the lowly, and in his patient accretion of facts—and not only the facts themselves but also their psychological and artistic resonance. He drags the reader beneath the social surface into black depths of terror and desire where our primal fears swim like prehistoric beings. He shows us the American dream transformed into the American nightmare.

Richard Lingeman is a senior editor at The Nation. He is author of Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey and Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. This essay is adapted from the Introduction to the Signet Classic edition of An American Tragedy. © Richard Lingeman