The Resolution Project Book Four: An American Tragedy (1925)

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books / the resolution project

The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned.

“For in some blind, dualistic way both she and Asa insisted, as do all religionists, in disassociating God from harm and error and misery, while granting Him nevertheless supreme control. They would seek for something else — some malign, treacherous, deceiving power which, in the face of God’s omniscience and omnipotence, still beguiles and betrays — and find it eventually in the error and perverseness of the human heart, which God has made, yet he does not control, because He does not want to control it.” (p 22)

An American Tragedy cover

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

I’m going to come out and say it right here. I had a pretty tough time plowing through this entry on the Time Magazine list. At some points, it was absolutely brilliant – others, insanely boring. In my opinion, An American Tragedy is probably about 200 pages too long. But I’m getting ahead of myself here, so here’s the plot summary. Clyde Griffiths comes on the scene as a young man saddled with a pretty terrible situation. His immediate family are penniless street preachers and mission operators who live a transient lifestyle in the early days of the 20th Century. His first attempt to break out of this (to him) unfulfilling lifestyle is to wangle his way into a job as a bellhop at the prestigious Green-Davidson Kansas City hotel, earning what feels to him the princely sum of fifteen dollars a month, plus tips. His indulgent lifestyle is cut short by a traumatic car accident, however, and he then makes his way to New York State, to plead with his wealthy uncle for a job in the shirt-collar factory run by the family’s Eastern half. Once he ingratiates himself in the town of Lycurgus and its high society, he soon falls down a path that will lead him into the greatest crime of all, murder.

This is, as I noted above, a long-ass book. It’s split into three smaller books that follow Clyde from 1. Kansas City to 2. Lycurgus, New York to 3. his eventual destiny in the hands of the American justice system. As such, it reminds me of many books that came after it chronologically and did, in my mind anyway, a much better job of distilling similar moods, themes and situations. It’s always difficult for me to read books from different eras one after the other without comparing them in my head. As I briefly noted in my review of book number one on this list, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, in this case I would have preferred a book written long after the fact without the cultural mores of the day dictating content and language and so on. An American Tragedy is definitely a book of its time, a huge bestseller in the late 1920s, with all of the silly lingo that entails, “gee whizzes” and “golly gees” aplenty, with none of the rich vulgarity that must have been present then, as it always has been throughout human history. It feels disingenuous sometimes to read books that deal with mature subject matter without the corresponding roughness you would have found at the time.

For all that though, I did enjoy the bildungsroman qualities of Book One, as the accounts of how Clyde gets some upper mobility going in his life, makes money and friends and tries to understand women are entertaining, especially taking into account the book’s use of a third person omniscient narrator, who’s able to look at events from everyone’s (often conflicting) points of view. It’s Books 2-3 that started to get on my nerves. While I’m not always inclined to be bored by the comings and goings of upper crust types, nor do I find illicit romances offensive for any reason, the melding of the two throughout Book 2 was almost too much for me. I found myself wishing Clyde would get caught in his game, as my sympathy for him waned considerably as time and pages wore on. I’m all for characters hiding huge secrets from their friends and family, after all, I love the idea of secret identities in comic books, but a little of that goes a long way.

Once Clyde sets about solving one of these situations permanently, the book started to pick up for me, but here, Dreiser’s narration of the inner monologue of a murderer started to get on my nerves. In my mind, it started to reach H.P. Lovecraft levels of histrionic intensity, which, when away from the hyper-exaggerated milieu of the “weird tale” horror story, gets old really fast. If there’s anything to be gained from reading An American Tragedy, it is the absolutely horrible implications of what can be wrought by having abstinence-only sex education on a large scale. Long story short, once the factory girl he’s been seeing on the downlow gets pregnant, he feels he’s given no other alternative but to murder her by drowning her in a lake, as he doesn’t have enough money to pay for an abortion, nor does he have much of a clue as to how one would acquire such a service in the first place. Dreiser even comments on his ignorance, saying: “The truth was that in this crisis he was as interesting an illustration of the enormous handicaps imposed by ignorance, youth, poverty and fear as one could have found. Technically he did not even know the meaning of the word “midwife,” or the nature of the services performed by her.” (p 443).

While I didn’t care for Clyde’s preparations and agonizing over ever little detail of his murder scenario, I did really like how all of this was for naught and country detective-types solve the case in about two days. It’s even interesting to see how they outright manufacture some evidence (shades of L.A. Confidential here, probably my second favorite movie of all time) in order to secure his death warrant. But then Dreiser deems it necessary to detail every bit of the murder trial with the same attention to detail that he lent to Clyde’s inner thoughts on hiding his poor roots for society types and also to the murder. It’s a bit wearing.

The religious themes present throughout the text were also really grating to me, especially as I felt (as the quotation that started this review states), that Dreiser wasn’t terribly religious himself, or at least the narrator of the book wasn’t. His depictions of Clyde’s parents’ absolute blind faith in a divine plan in the face of continual awful occurrences, as well as their seemingly complete ignorance of cause and effect, got very tiresome very quickly. So obviously, once Clyde is sentenced to death by electric chair, not only does his mother come back, but also a priest, who both spend many pages just straight up throwing out Biblical quotations all over the place. Not cool, Dreiser.

An American Tragedy is a book that wants to look at everything: the everyday hypocrisy of American life, the absolute yearning that poor people have to become part of the upper class, the fickleness of love, the way politics and the legal system often intertwine to bad ends, and the poor treatment of prisoners on death row, among many others. The problem is, though is that it tries to do everything all at the same time, and, in my mind anyway, not doing a fantastic job at any of them, at least compared to its successors.

Total pages read since January 1st: 3987 pp

Next up on the Resolution Project: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1946)

The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: The Resolution Project: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) | this nerding life

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