Monday, July 19, 2010
An American Tragedy (Theodore Dreiser) (8.7/10.0)
No one, and I mean no one, is better at painting a straightforward tale of the evil influences of American capitalism than Theodore Dreiser. He’s like the Brothers Grimm of the American working classes or like the Dr. Suess of anti-capitalist ideology—except that the Cat in the Hat wears a bushy mustache and carries a hammer and sickle. Though 25 years separate them, Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925) are almost mirror images of each other as they treat the effect of unbridled American ambition on first women and then men, who grow up in Darwinistic America devoid (individually or collectively) of any strong moral compass. The fact that Dreiser’s novels continue to be relevant in the twenty-first century is a testament to his ability to find universal and enduring themes.
An American Tragedy was based upon well-publicized actual events in upstate New York in 1906. Here’s the short, short version of the story: upwardly-mobile boy from a solid family takes advantage of country girl; aristocratic third-party female then expresses interest in boy; boy dumps country girl for a chance at the good life; but country girl is pregnant; boy thinks, “what to do ... I know ... murder,” or is it? Maybe it was just an accident. I will say that in the actual events, the boy was convicted of murder and executed by electric chair. But you’ll have to read the book itself to find out what happens to his on-page persona, Clyde Griffiths.
This is one of a very few books that I have re-read over the course of my life. And usually I find that my understanding of the story has changed in the interim. Not so here. Dreiser is forever an idealist and an advocate for the redemptive power of empathy. Though his dream seems further away now than ever, it is still undeniably enjoyable to inhabit that world for a week or two. Give it a shot ...