An American Tragedy and the futility of the American Dream

Tony Zarembski

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 (kirjasto.sci.fi 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 obsession.


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 (wwnorton.com 1), Poe, and Spenser, from which he created two philosophical theories: social Darwinism governs society (Parker 203), and man's greatest appetite is sexual (kirjasto.sci.fi 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 (kirjasto.sci.fi). 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