If, from the century recently concluded, one year could be singled out as a banner one for American fiction, 1925 might be it: Hemingway’s “In Our Time”; Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”; Willa Cather’s “The Professor’s House” and, dwarfing them all in length, Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” Published on December 17 of that year, it would sell 13,000 copies in the next two weeks and go on to become his bestselling novel by far.
Yet almost eight decades later, the works by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Cather are taught in classrooms and read by whatever general readers there are left; Dreiser’s massive effort remains, I suspect, largely on the shelf.
After all it is easier to watch, once more, George Stevens’ 1951 version of it “A Place in the Sun” with memorable performances by Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters than to engage with all those pages. So it is good that the Library of America, resourceful as always, has brought out the novel with notes and a useful chronology provided by Thomas P. Riggio, general editor of the Dreiser Edition at the University of Pennsylvania.
The same year as Stevens’ film saw the posthumous publication of F.O. Matthiessen’s book on Dreiser, not yet in completed form when Matthiessen took his own life. In his chapter on “An American Tragedy” (“Of Crime and Punishment”), Matthiessen struggled, as in the book generally, to assert Dreiser’s greatness in the face of that infamous style which many readers found insurmountable, or at least incompatible with greatness.
This question of how much or whether “style” matters, especially to a novelist rather than a poet, has dogged criticism of Dreiser since the beginning and is not likely to go away. John Berryman’s way of putting it, in his shrewd review of Matthiessen’s book, was to say that Dreiser wrote “like a hippopotamus,” but that “An American Tragedy” was his masterpiece, a supreme achievement superior as art to the “fascinating readability” of ” “Sister Carrie” and “Jennie Gerhardt.”
Hippopotamus prose is all too easy to find in the pages of “An American Tragedy” as when, for example, in Chapter XLV of Book Two, the relationship between the hero, Clyde Griffiths, and Roberta Alden, the young woman he has gotten pregnant and with whom he is no longer in love, has frayed to the breaking-point. Stimulated by a newspaper item about a real-life murder, Clyde entertains thoughts of disposing of Roberta in a remote Adirondack lake and passing it off as a boating accident. Alas, the chapter begins with some throat-clearing on Dreiser’s part:
“There are moments when in connection with the sensitively imaginative or morbidly anachronistic the mentality assailed and the same not of any great strength and the problem confronting it of sufficient force and complexity the reason not actually toppling from its throne, still totters or is warped or shaken the mind befuddled to the extent that for the time being, at least, unreason or disorder or mistaken or erroneous counsel would appear to hold against all else.”
In its display of pseudo-profundities tuned by a very tin ear, the writing is enough to deter all but the most sympathetic reader. And frequently when Dreiser tries to get within Clyde and provide him with reflections on existence, the result is banality: “Gee, life was tough. What a rough world it was anyhow. How queer things went!” (Clyde has an especial fondness for “Gee.”)
Matthiessen’s attempt to understand and justify Dreiser’s style was to say that “the groping after words [corresponds] to a groping of the thought, but with both words and thought borne along on the diapason of a deep emotion.” That is, Dreiser writes like a hippopotamus but somehow touches the heart. This invites us to assume that his very awkwardness and prolixity of expression (so unlike Fitzgerald in “Gatsby”) testifies to something profound.
In one of the earliest and best reviews of “An American Tragedy,” T.K. Whipple noted, wryly, “Dreiser’s ability to make ten pages do the work of one,” but then forgave him his loquacity by deciding that “Somehow” he manages to give us “a sense of reality and veracity.” Yet it has been difficult for critics to fill in that “somehow,” and they often settle instead for large superlative descriptions like tremendous, powerful, massive as if the physical length of the book were unshakeable testimony to its moral and psychological depth.
It is as if one should say, “I have spent all these hours with this unbearably sad story am I not deeply stirred?” Perhaps, since the question of whether “An American Tragedy” is a great novel or a disastrous attempt to write a great novel is unlikely to be settled, the terms for appreciation might be shifted to focus rather on just how much there is in Dreiser’s surfaces to elicit our interest, indeed our fascination. One might begin with the interior of the Green-Davidson hotel in Kansas City where Clyde has his first paying job: the lobby with its “prodigal display” of “lamps, statuary, rugs, palms, chairs, divans, tete a tetes,” its “heavily draped and richly furnished alcoves,” as background for the bell-boy’s daily routine.
Or there is the shirt factory room at Clyde’s uncle Samuel Griffiths’s in Lycurgus, New York (Dreiser modeled the town on Cortland, N.Y.), with its incandescent lamps, porcelain troughs, “enormous drying racks or moving skeleton platforms,” its “hot steam pipes” and “the enormous rattle and clatter of ratchet arms which automatically shook and moved these lengths of cloth forward from east to west.”
And there is what to my mind constitutes the best, most painful sequence in the novel: those chapters in the middle of the book where Clyde inquires, nervously and awkwardly, into the possibilities for aborting the child Roberta is carrying, an inquiry that ends, of course, in failure.
Above all there is the Adirondack sequence leading up to the drowning: the profound silence on Big Bittern Lake, punctuated by “the sharp metallic cry of a blue-jay speeding in the depths of those woods,” and “the lone and ghostly tap-tap-tap of some solitary woodpecker,” even as the doomed Roberta breaks into the opening verse of “My Old Kentucky Home.” Here Dreiser finds what T.S. Eliot once called an “objective correlative” for the tumultuous thoughts within his hero that, more directly expressed, often feel awkwardly melodramatic and verbally unresourceful.
As a young novelist, pre-“Augie March,” Saul Bellow in referring to Dreiser’s years of poverty and struggle in New York City, suggested that they gave him “a knowledge that carried easily facts that were too great a burden to other writers.”
“An American Tragedy” still lives in the burden of facts it sustains and even could be said to celebrate by affording them the dignity of worth and naming. It was his knowledge of such facts, rather than his trafficking in “principles” like the “Chemism” he thought accounted for all human activity, that justify our still taking Dreiser seriously as a novelist. We may even, like Bellow, decide that what makes him so moving on occasion is also what distinguishes him from elegant contemporaries like Fitzgerald and Cather “his balkiness and sullenness, and then his admission of allegiance to life.”
William H. Pritchard is the author most recently of “Updike: America’s Man of Letters.”