An American Tragedy And The Futility Of The Americ Essay

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An American Tragedy And The Futility Of The American Dream

An American Tragedy is an intriguing, frighteningly realistic journey into the mind of a
murderer. It is a biography of its era. And, it is also historical fiction. But what makes
this novel a classic? While society has changed dramatically since 1925, Dreiser's novel,
which shows the futility of "The American Dream" and the tragedies that trying to live it
can cause, accurately summarizes social mores of this and any time period.

Before Theodore Dreiser was born, his father, a devout German immigrant, lost everything
when his large wool mill burned down ( 1). After a beam hit his head,
Dreiser's father was subject to dramatic mood swings; this brain damage caused him to
became an evangelist (Survey of American Literature 571). Theodore Dreiser, the twelfth of
13 children, was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1871. By this time, his parents were
poor, nomadic preachers. Their nomadic lifestyle meant that Dreiser did not have any
companions outside his family. While travelling, his mother taught him to avoid degrading
and destructive experiences (Hart 236). Certain that his parents were failures because of
their strong morals and their constant preaching, he rebelled. Dreiser had no friends,
money, social status, or sex life, which he craved. For most Americans, these were
collectively "The American Dream." For Dreiser and his most famous character, Clyde
Griffiths, living the American Dream -- the evasive pinnacle of success -- became an

That obsession led 13-year old Dreiser to Indiana University, which he flunked out of.
Instead of preaching, he instantly abandoned his unsuccessful family for the promise of
riches and women in industrial Chicago. After living in abject poverty for years (Parker
203), he worked as a journalist for both Chicago Globe and St. Louis's Globe-Democrat,
which gave him a glimpse of high society. There, he married Sara White. Within months, the
two separated permanently, and Dreiser became a nomad. While wandering, he studied the
writings of Balzac, Darwin, Freud, Hawthorne, Huxley ( 1), Poe, and Spenser,
from which he created two philosophical theories: social Darwinism governs society (Parker
203), and man's greatest appetite is sexual ( 1). Dreiser followed his
philosophy; he typically had several affairs at once.

In New York, Dreiser started Sister Carrie, a brilliant naturalistic piece. The book was
sold only 500 copies; it was so "scandalous" that its owned publishers censored its
printing in 1900 (Bucco 5). Dreiser was nearly suicidal ( However, the
novel's 1907 reissue was a best seller. (When the book was banned from Massachusetts, its
publisher sold a copy to the police chief; Dreiser rode the national scandal and made tens
of thousands of dollars.)

After publishing Sister Carrie, Dreiser resigned from New York's music journal, Every
Week. He then worked for an eclectic group of magazines, including three women's
magazines, until 1910, when his in-office love affair went public. During the next six
years, he gained recognition for his writing and published Jennie Gerhardt and the
"Trilogy of Desire" (Bucco 6), stories based on transportation mogul Charles T. Jerkes's
life. The series won him numerous acclaims.

After eight abysmal novels, Dreiser published his best selling novel An American Tragedy.
The novel, later adapted to Broadway and the screen, netted him hundreds of thousands of
dollars. Soon, he turned to the glittering promises of communism to escape his feelings of
inadequacy. When his wife died, he married his cousin, Helen Richardson, his "companion"
of five years. He died in Hollywood, California on December 28, 1948.

Since his death, Dreiser's critics have diminished his writing; his plot structure is
imperfect, his style sometimes dreadful. For more than 75 years, critics have cited his
greatest butcheries, "uncertainty and fear that now transformation-wise played over his
countenance" (Dreiser 448) and "coward-wise" (453). They also note his annoying tendency
to fragment complete sentences by adding the "-ing" suffix. Most critics fail to realize
that his style adds realism to and makes consistent his naturalist theme. As Bucco of
Cliffs Notes wisely said, "...Dreiser is one of the world's best worst writers[.] He is an
impurist with nothing but genius" (8).

Dreiser's eccentric writing method may explain his strange plot structure and nonstandard
style. Each day, he wrote 3,000 words during a six-hour hypnotic session, then walked to
his local library to verify details. (He never edited his work, however.) At night, he
held open discussions and poetry sessions in his home; during this time, he wrote
critiques of local authors' work for free. His visitors became characters in his novels.
Dreiser, said H.L. Mencken, remembered everything: "When he described a street in Chicago
[or] New York it was always a street that he knew as intimately as the policeman on the
beat, and he never omitted any detail that had stuck in his mind..." (8). Every meal he
ate, every conversation he heard, every useless fact, became part of the rich texture of
his novels. To add detail to Book Three of An American Tragedy, he visited Sing-Sing
prison's death row and the courthouse where Gillette was tried, and even discussed the
psychology of murder with renowned psychiatrist Dr. Jacques Lobe. However, his most
effective method of immersion was writing from his own experiences. Similarities between
Dreiser and his most famous character, Clyde Griffiths, are shocking. Both spent their
adolescent lives searching for the American Dream, had in-office love affairs with
underlings, struggled to gain footing in the elusive high society, and lost everything
because of their greed.

An American Tragedy was based on the infamous Chester Gillette case. Chester abandoned his
missionary parents and wandered, working anywhere he could, until he met Grace Brown. They
had an affair. When she became pregnant, she moved into her parents' house. After she
begged him to marry her, he took her on a "honeymoon" to the Adirondacks, where he planned
to murder her. He caught before he began; he left her trunk and hat -- valuable evidence
in public places. After registering under an obvious alias, they went boating, and he
drowned her. He fled and stayed at the Arrowhead Hotel until his arrest three days later.
During his trial, Chester said his girlfriend had committed suicide to escape public
humiliation. The DA proved that he hit her with a tennis racket (which numerous people saw
him carry). Chester was found guilty of first degree murder and electrocuted
( 1). Gillette's trial and An American Tragedy have surprising
similarities. Chester's attorneys, girls, rich uncle, and settings were identical to
Clyde's, albeit with minor name changes ( 1). Both Clyde and Chester had
poor parents, fell in love with a garment-factory employees and a good-looking upper-class
girls, botched their girlfriends' drownings, and were electrocuted. So, while Dreiser's
theme was not original, his flair for using details to create involving, vivid novels is

Dresser's most famous character is Clyde Griffiths. Clyde, the main character in An
American Tragedy, is an attractive, morally weak, stupid 20-year old in the 1920s. His
parents, a source of constant humiliation, are destitute preachers who force him to sing
gospel hymns. Clyde knows that he has poor clothes, little education, and a blacklisted
family, and is determined not to live his life in squalor, as his parents have. To do
this, he must reject their beliefs and morals, which are certain to make him a failure. He
begins his downward spiral while working in a malt shop. When girls are not attracted to
him, Clyde, longing for companionship, decides he must buy better clothes. To buy better
clothes, he finds work at the prestigious Greene-Davidson Hotel. (Only, Clyde's naive
mother, Elvira is unsure of whether the Hotel is a safe atmosphere.) Exposed to wealth and
high society, he becomes corrupted.

Clyde's hopes are shattered after a run-in with the law. He flees to Kansas and works odd
jobs until he is hired into the regarded Union League Club. At the Union League, he meets
his rich uncle, who gives him a job in his collar factory. Clyde moves to Lycurgus and,
because of his last name, good looks, and charm, he soon enters the upper echelons of
Lycurgus's society. Less than two years later, he is abandoned by that society. He dies in
the electric chair with little respect and no possessions.

Until his last months, Clyde has no morals. He wastes 20 years chasing windmills. Then, in
jail, with less than one year to live, he is forced to give up his chase. When the caring,
friendly Reverend McMillan befriends Clyde, both of them discover God. Confession, Clyde
feels, will save his soul. (Ironically, it takes his life.) He instantly has morals; when
he reads the Bible and prays, he accepts and copes with his failure and guilt.

From an early age, Clyde is a social and economic outcast. He blames his parents for his
failure and vows not to live his life with them. After working in a malt shop for several
months, Clyde finds a job at the Greene-Davidson Hotel. There, he makes more than $40 a
week there, not including room and board. Finally, he is able to dress well, enter a
higher social class, meet females, and escape his family. His plans are never realized:
his friend runs over a little girl during a joyride in a stolen Packard.

Clyde flees to Kansas, but he is too poor to live immorally until he works at the Union
League Club, where he meets his rich uncle, Sam Griffiths. Sam employs Clyde in his shirt
factory, and Clyde quickly succumbs to sexual temptation. In months, his lower-class
girlfriend is pregnant. This does not phase Clyde, who is now a prominent member of
Lycurgus. He falls in love with a beautiful, respected, rich girl, and rejects his old
girlfriend, who he promised to love forever.

His pregnant girlfriend is in despair; she will be fired for her relations with Clyde, and
society will reject her for not being married. Her only way out is to threaten to expose
his libido to everyone unless he marries her. Clyde is intelligent enough to realize that
if she reveals his secret, he will never have his beautiful girlfriend. So, he plans his
pregnant girlfriend's murder. Under the guise of a honeymoon, he takes her to a deserted
lake and drowns her. His crime backfires; it is so poorly planned that police have a
warrant for his arrest less than one day later. He is arrested, tried, and sentenced to

Truly unconscious, Clyde does not contemplates his crime or his guilt for more than a
year. With the help of a benevolent pastor, he finds God. Clyde accepts his guilt and
fate, and is reconciled. Finally, he thinks about someone other than himself. He prays
that other people will understand his follies and save themselves, and for a time he
believes they will. But he is too late: his "friends" are ruined, and he is going to die.
Less than one week later, he is electrocuted, ending his moral conflict. His moral
conflict continues: he is reincarnated into Russell, and the novel abruptly restart.
Clyde's reincarnation proves Dresser's contention that all humans are seeking the same
empty promises.

Constantly at odds with is environment, it appears that Clyde must adapt. For example,
when he moves to Kansas, he seems mellower and more meditative. In reality, however, he
just does not have the opportunity to screw up his life. Clyde is a stock character until
his last days; he is greed. Regardless of the consequences, he wants more -- more money,
more social contacts, more sex, and more happiness (the one thing he will never have). His
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