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‘An American Tragedy’ is ‘detailed, epic’

“An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser

For several years, “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser has been on my bucket list of books to read. But at almost 900 pages and with a beginning that depicts a family of intolerant religious mission workers, I started and stopped multiple times and ultimately began to wonder why it was on my list in the first place. Finally, this spring I pulled it out again and determined to muscle through. It took several chapters, only a fraction of the work, but I was hooked.

Dreiser’s work is separated into three “books,” each following a portion of the life of Clyde Griffiths, a son of the previously mentioned mission workers, a young man determined to have a better life than what his parents have had. Clyde starts in Kansas City and ends up in New York state, then finally is deep in the heart of the Adirondacks on an isolated lake. He’s canoeing with a woman who is pregnant with his child. As the title of the book suggests, Clyde never achieves his goal of a better life.

If the book limited itself to the social aspirations of a young man and the trouble he encounters when he aspires to marry a rich debutante while trapped by a pregnant factory worker, it might be interesting enough. But the richness of the story is found in how Dreiser describes American life. The separation of social classes, the machinations of those in the political system and the manipulation of the justice system by the ones charged to protect it could be considered the real tragedy.

The book is based on a true murder that was carried out by Chester Gillette and any familiarity with that case will let the reader know the outcome of Clyde’s life. But the way Dreiser tells the story and the character portraits he creates are mesmerizing and even knowing the outcome doesn’t make it less compelling. Clyde is weak and pitiful while at the same time he is manipulating and vaguely ambitious. He is a murderer and yet a victim. While waiting to confirm his fate, I found myself abhorring his weak morality and hoping at the same time he might escape the penalty for his crime. In fact, I was still uncertain at the end of the book if he really committed a crime or was just himself a moral vacuum. He was used as a tool for political gain, a distraction for the vapidly wealthy and a salve for the conscience of his rich relatives. His life could have flickered out without notice, just like the lives of the immigrants in the factories and the mission workers on the streets and the pregnant women who had no hope for a life unless they could obtain an illegal abortion. But his case and the death of his girlfriend were noticed by individuals with political aspirations, ones who felt a prosecution would assure their next election as DA and other attorneys who aspired to higher offices and felt a strong defense would help their own careers. His life became front page news.

Dreiser tells a story that is both microscopically detailed and epic in scope. He could have gone on for another thousand pages and I would have kept reading.

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