An American Tragedy
|An American Tragedy|
1st edition, published in two volumes
|Publisher||Boni & Liveright|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|ISBN||NA (first edition)
ISBN 0-451-52465-9 (reissue)
An American Tragedy (1925) is a novel by the American writer Theodore Dreiser.
Plot summary 
The ambitious but immature Clyde Griffiths, raised by poor and devoutly religious parents who force him to participate in their street missionary work, is anxious to achieve better things. His troubles begin when he takes a job as a bellboy at a local hotel. The boys he meets are much more sophisticated than he, and they introduce Clyde to the world of alcohol and prostitution. Clyde enjoys his new lifestyle and does everything in his power to win the affections of the flirtatious Hortense Briggs. But Clyde's life is forever changed when a stolen car in which he's traveling kills a young child. Clyde flees Kansas City, and after a brief stay in Chicago, he reestablishes himself as a foreman at the shirt-collar factory of his wealthy long-lost uncle in Lycurgus, New York, who meets Clyde through a stroke of fortune. While remaining aloof from him as a kinsman and doing nothing to embrace him personally or advance him socially, the uncle does give Clyde a job and ultimately advances him to a position of relative importance within the factory.
Although Clyde vows not to consort with women in the way that caused his Kansas City downfall, he is swiftly attracted to Roberta Alden, a poor and innocent farm girl working under his supervision at the factory. Roberta falls in love with him. Clyde initially enjoys the secretive relationship (forbidden by factory rules) and ultimately persuades Roberta to have sex with him rather than lose him, but Clyde's ambition precludes marriage to the penniless Roberta. He dreams instead of the elegant Sondra Finchley, the daughter of a wealthy Lycurgus man and a family friend of his uncle's.
Having unsuccessfully attempted to procure an abortion for Roberta, who expects him to marry her, Clyde procrastinates while his relationship with Sondra continues to mature. When he realizes that he has a genuine chance to marry Sondra, and after Roberta threatens to reveal their relationship unless he marries her, Clyde hatches a plan to murder Roberta in a fashion that will seem accidental.
Clyde takes Roberta on a row boat on Big Bittern Lake in upstate New York and rows to a remote area. As he speaks to her regarding the end of their relationship, Roberta moves towards him, and he strikes her in the face with his camera, stunning her and capsizing the boat. Unable to swim, Roberta drowns while Clyde, who is unwilling to save her, swims to shore. The narrative is deliberately unclear as to whether he acted with malice and intent to murder, or if he struck her merely instinctively. However, the trail of circumstantial evidence points to murder, and the local authorities are only too eager to convict Clyde, to the point of manufacturing additional evidence against him. Following a sensational trial before an unsympathetic audience, and despite a vigorous defense mounted by two lawyers hired by his uncle, Clyde is convicted, sentenced to death, and executed. The jailhouse scenes and the correspondence between Clyde and his mother stand out as exemplars of pathos in modern literature.
Dreiser based the book on a notorious criminal case. On July 11, 1906, resort owners found an overturned boat and the body of 20-year-old Grace Brown at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. Chester Gillette was put on trial and convicted of killing Brown, though he claimed that her death was an accident. Gillette was executed by electric chair on March 30, 1908. The murder trial drew international attention when Brown's love letters to Gillette were read in court. Dreiser saved newspaper clippings about the case for several years before writing his novel, during which he studied the case closely. He based Clyde Griffiths on Chester Gillette, deliberately giving him the same initials.
In popular culture 
The novel has been remarked about in commentaries, adapted several times into other forms and the basic formula has been lifted as the basis for other works:
- A first stage adaptation written by Patrick Kearney for Broadway premiered at the Longacre Theatre in New York on October 11, 1926.
- Sergei Eisenstein prepared a screenplay in the late 1920s which he hoped to have produced by Paramount or by Charlie Chaplin during Eisenstein's stay in Hollywood in 1930.
- In April 1929 Dreiser agreed that German director Erwin Piscator should produce a stage version of An American Tragedy. Piscator's stage adaptation premiered in Vienna in April 1932 and made its US debut in April 1935 at the Hedgerow Theatre, Rose Valley. The play was produced as well by Lee Strasberg at the Group Theatre in March 1936 and again by the Hedgerow Theatre in September 2010 (where it was wrongly credited to Piscator's wife Maria Ley).
- Dreiser strongly disapproved of a 1931 film version directed by Josef von Sternberg and also released by Paramount.
- In the 1932 Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers, Groucho Marx, riding in a boat with a woman, remarks, "You know, this is the first time I've been in a canoe since I saw the American Tragedy."
- In the 1940s the novel inspired an episode of the award-winning old-time radio comedy Our Miss Brooks, an episode known as "Weekend at Crystal Lake" and sometimes known as "An American Tragedy." The episode revolved around the characters' misinterpreting the intentions of biology teacher Philip Boyton (played by Jeff Chandler), Connie Brooks's (Eve Arden) high school colleague and love interest. The characters fear that Boynton plans to kill Miss Brooks during a leisurely weekend at their boss's lakeside retreat. The episode was broadcast twice, on September 19, 1948, and — with very minor changes — on August 21, 1949. The episode was also repeated in 1955, at a time when the show was a hit on both radio and television.
- The 1951 Paramount Pictures film A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, is strongly based on the novel, and is considered one of the finest dramatic films made in the 1950s.
- Further television or film adaptations of An American Tragedy have been produced in Brazil (Um Lugar ao Sol, TV series, 1959, director: Dionísio Azevedo), Italy ("it:Una tragedia americana", Rai 1, 1962, regista: Anton Giulio Majano), Czechoslovakia (Americká tragédia, TV series, 1976, director: Stanislav Párnicky), Philippines (Nakaw na pag-ibig, film, 1980, director: Lino Brocka) and Japan (Hi no ataru basho, TV series, 1982, director: Masami Ryuji).
- It was transformed into an opera by composer Tobias Picker. It premiered at the Metropolitan Opera starring Nathan Gunn in New York on December 2, 2005.
- Several critics and commentators have compared elements of Woody Allen's film, Match Point (2005) to the central plot of the novel.
- In 2007 the band Divine Reich released an album entitled An American Tragedy on the record label Kheperi Global Media. The album's theme and lyrical content was inspired by the subject matter of the novel.
- The novel has also been adapted into a musical of the same title by three-time Tony Award winning composer and lyricist Charles Strouse. It had its premiere at Muhlenberg College, located in Allentown, Pennsylvania, United States on March 24, 2010.
- In 2008 a Russian film company released a modern cover version of Dreiser's novel entitled 'A life that was not meant to be' ("Жизнь, которой не было ...") with a talented young actor Vladimir Zherebtsov playing the principal part ...
Further reading 
- An American Tragedy: A Study Guide
- Theodore Dreiser: An American Tragedy The Library of America. Accessed on October 28, 2005.
- "Double Exposure," an article about differences between the two film versions of An American Tragedy, in Opera News, December 2005, pp. 24–31.
- Nelson, Randy F. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981: 195–196. ISBN 0-86576-008-X
- TIME Specials: ALL TIME 100 Novels, Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo, Time, 16 October 2005. Accessed 2011-10-23.