An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser, Illustrations by Reginald Marsh, Limited Editions Club (1954)

Last October Books and Vines published a review on Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser, which was my first experience with Dreiser’s work. I was very pleasantly surprised with that novel, and so was excited to jump into his magnum opus, An American Tragedy.  Published in 1925, An American Tragedy was based on an actual criminal case that had occurred in 1906 where a young man, Chester Gillette, was put on trial, found guilty and executed for the murder of 20-year-old Grace Brown at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York.

Dreiser’s main character, Clyde Griffiths is based on Gillette, just as Roberta Alden is based on Brown. Clyde is raised by devout, extremely poor, missionaries. Dreiser sums up Clyde’s situation:

Clyde was as vain and proud as he was poor…What a wretched thing it was to be born poor and not to have any one too do anything for you and not to be able to do so very much for yourself.

Clyde eventually takes a job as a bellboy at a local hotel, where his more worldly co-workers introduce him to a faster lifestyle, with alcohol, women and parties. Clyde enjoys this lifestyle, though struggles in awkwardness is trying to win the affections of the opposite sex. Clyde goes for a joyride in a car ‘borrowed’ by one of his friends, when they hit and kill a young girl. Clyde flees town, works for a while in Chicago, and then eventually meets a rich uncle which results in an opportunity with his uncle’s company in New York. Finally, Clyde feels his luck has changed and now is in the midst of:

…the hope and zest and youth that is at the bottom of all the constructive energy of the world everywhere.

After an initial bout of excitement due to his perceived opportunities ahead, Clyde finds himself lonely.  He strikes up a relationship with a poor girl named Roberta Alden who works in his uncle’s factory. Despite such relationships being strictly prohibited, Clyde proceeds, keeping it secret.

His was a disposition easily and often intensely inflamed by the chemistry of sex and the formula of beauty. He could not easily withstand the appeal, let alone the call, of sex.

Roberta falls deeply in love with Clyde, and he, smitten himself, pressures her to satisfy his longings.

…she realized that unless she found bring herself to yield to him–at some time of other offer him the definite reward which she knew he craved –she could not hold him indefinitely.

She succumbs, yet Clyde’s love proves elusive as his heart quickly moves on to Sondra Finchley, a wealthy and well connected local girl.

She was, in her small, intense way, a seeking Aphrodite, eager to prove to any who were sufficiently attractive the destroying power of her charm, while at the same time retaining her own personality and individuality free of any entangling alliance or compromise.

Roberta ends up pregnant, Clyde tries to arrange an abortion, which he is not able to do as the doctor:

…was more or less irritated by these young scamps of boys and girls who were so free to exercise the normal functions of their natures in the first instance, but so ready to refuse the social obligations which went with them– marriage afterwards.

Roberta pressures him to marry her, at the same time Clyde starts to realize that he actually has a real chance to marry Sondra, which would cement the type of life he has been dreaming of for years. When Roberta threatens to go public, Clyde begins to ponder her murder.

What was it about his life that made things like this happen to him? Was this what his life was to be like? Running away from one situation and another just to start all over somewhere else — perhaps only being compelled to flee from something worse. No, he could not run away again. He must face it and solve it in some way. He must!

Under the guise of agreeing to Roberta’s demands, Clyde takes her to remote, upstate New York, and takes her on a small rowboat on Big Bittern Lake. Roberta cannot swim, so Clyde figures he can arrange what would look like an accidental drowning. At the last minute Clyde starts to have a change of heart, yet fate intervenes when he accidentally knocks her in the head with his camera, knocking her off the boat. He swims ashore and takes off, while Roberta drowns. It does not take long for local authorities to discover the relationship and a large amount of circumstantial evidence that points to Clyde. There is a sensational trial, and Clyde is ultimately convicted.

Tortured by the need of some mental if not material support in the face of his great danger, Clyde was now doing what every other human in related circumstances invariably does–seeking, and yet in the most indirect and involute and all but unconscious way, the presence of existence at least of some superhuman or supernatural personality or power that would aid him in some way…

Despite efforts of his mother, Clyde is executed.

This is a long book, but reads quickly as Dreiser is a master storyteller. Dreiser’s characters are not judged by him, he just presents them as they are. Without overstating things (i.e., Clyde choice are never shown as him directly being a helpless victim of society or circumstance), Dreiser manages to elicit sympathy for Clyde, giving the the reader a degree of understanding of how Clyde got into the position he did; how small character flaws and poor decision making can ultimately result in significant wrongs and moral shortcomings. Clyde’s death at the hands of the executioner is tragic, but just. Is there some blame in society, due to our culture’s focus on wealth and glamour, which ingrains into some the quest for such ‘success’ regardless of the price? Sure. However, it is Clyde who hatches the plan to murder and who creates the circumstance from which Roberta’s death occurs.

Dreiser sprinkles bits of wisdom throughout the book. Here are two examples to give you a further flavor of his writing and thinking.

For in some blind, dualistic way {they} insisted, as do all religionists, in dissociating  God from harm and error and misery, while granting Him nonetheless supreme control.

…in the mater of social favor and love — two objectives which, without beauty or charm, were about as difficult as the attaining to extreme wealth by a beggar.

An American Tragedy was the basis of a famous film named A Place in the Sun, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.  Directed by George Stevens it is considered one of the finest dramatic films made in the 1950s, having won six Academy Awards and the first ever Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture. I re-watched it after reading the book and what struck me was……how poor of a film adaptation it was.  Yes, everyone always says “the book is better than the movie’, but in this case it is not even close. There is just so much psychological depth to the characters in the book, without which the film simply lacks meaning, presenting instead shallow persona’s that try to skate by on the strength of the plot. Yet, the impact of plot itself, therefore on the raison d’être of the work itself, depends on associating with the deeply complex thought processes and interactions between a trio of souls, none of which the movie provides anything but a mere glimpse of.

Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) was an acclaimed, controversial and famous novelist in the early twentieth century. He has remained influential, and his works Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy continue to be popular and ensure his place in the Western Canon. Dreiser was an early founder of what is called the naturalist school, the style of which can best be described as a type of realism, avoiding romantic or surrealist influences. The naturalist school was often perceived as pessimistic, painting an often glum picture of life. Dreiser often focused conflicts between a desired life and social mores. His characters are real with human frailties, and can frighteningly seem eerily familiar when looking in the mirror.

As with Sister Carrie, this Limited Editions Club (LEC) publication comes with illustrations by Reginald Marsh (1898-1954). Marsh was one of the top American artists of the first half of the last century. He rejected modern art, preferring the influences of more classical styles. His work was a perfect match for Dreiser, as Marsh’s style could also be classified as social realism. An American Tragedy was the last work of Marsh, who died soon after completing these illustrations.

Externally, this LEC is rather plain, bound in light reddish/brown canvas, with the title stamped on the spine in red with gold blocking. The page edges are colored to match the canvas. The paper has a nice texture, and the type and spacing allows a more comfortable reading of the two column format than I normally find. March’s illustrations are many, and run throughout the book. All in all a classically styled book, all about function. It is well worth having.

About the Edition

  • Illustrations by Reginald Marsh, this being his last work
  • Introduction by Harry Hansen
  • Setting of the text done by John Stone at The Stone Typesetting Company in Brattleboro, Vermont
  • Text is composed in the Janson types, embellished with “Original Old Style” and “Commercial Script” and “Thorne Shaded”
  • Printing by The George Grady Press on paper especially made for this edition at The Mohawk Paper Mills of Cohoes N.Y.
  • Bound in heavy imported canvas, with the cover stamped with colored ink and colored leaf and genuine gold leaf
  • 7 1/2″ x 10 3/4″, 576 pages
  • Limited to 1500 copies, mine is #697


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An American Tragedy, Limited Editions Club, Slipcase Spine
An American Tragedy, Limited Editions Club, Book in Slipcase
An American Tragedy, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Spine Label
An American Tragedy, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
An American Tragedy, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
An American Tragedy, Limited Editions Club, Copyright Page
An American Tragedy, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 and Text
An American Tragedy, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2 and Half-Title
An American Tragedy, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #3 and Text
An American Tragedy, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Text
An American Tragedy, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
An American Tragedy, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #5 with Text
An American Tragedy, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #6 with Text
An American Tragedy, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #7 with Text
An American Tragedy, Limited Editions Club, Colophon
An American Tragedy, Limited Editions Club, Monthly Letter

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