Wednesday, September 30, 2009

13. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

I picked An American Tragedy for my first classic because I've always wanted to read it. The basic story seems to be repeated frequently in works of pop culture (Woody Allen's Match Point comes to mind), and I always thought it would be interesting to go to the source, so to speak. Had I known about the 870+ page length, I might not have been so eager.

An American Tragedy is the story of Clyde Griffiths. Raised by poor and devoutly religious parents, who force him to participate in their street missionary work, the ambitious but immature Clyde 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 collar factory of his wealthy long-lost uncle in Lycurgus, New York, who meets Clyde through a stroke of fortune. The uncle does his best to help Clyde and 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 very innocent farm girl working under him at the factory. Clyde initially enjoys the secretive relationship (forbidden by factory rules) and virtually coerces Roberta into sex, but his ambition forces him to realize that he could never marry her. He dreams of the elegant Sondra Finchley, the daughter of a wealthy Lycurgus man and a family friend of his uncle's. As developments between he and Sondra begin to look promising, Roberta discovers that she is pregnant. 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 for a canoe ride 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 trail of circumstantial evidence points to murder, and the local authorities are only too eager to convict Clyde. 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.

(In the interest of fairness, I admit that most of that plot summary came from Wikipedia. I'm sorry, but how do you sum up 870+ pages without ripping your hair out in frustration?)

I think I was prone to sympathize with Clyde based on his humble beginnings. His parents prized faith and good works for others over comfort for their family, to the point of denying Clyde and his siblings proper shelter, food and even education. You can't necessarily blame him for feeling somewhat detached emotionally from them and prone to jealousy of those who have what he doesn't. But his overwhelming self interest prevents whole-hearted sympathy. When Clyde begins work as a bellboy and starts to earn decent money, he saves it all for himself rather than contributing to his family's needs. I can understand not giving the money to his parents; after all, they chose this life and seem happy to exist in poverty. But what about his younger siblings? How can he justify denying them what he has been denied? From very early on in the book it's apparent that Clyde has a strong sense of self preservation over caring for the needs of others. He's so consumed by his own struggles that he simply does not consider how his actions affect other people. After a child was killed by the car that Clyde and his friends were joy-riding in, there's not one mention in his internal dialogue of the child, her family or the pain that was caused to them. His only focus is escaping the authorities and saving himself. When Clyde discovered that his unmarried sister, Esta, was pregnant and had been abandoned by the father of her child, he was outraged. He wondered what kind of man would behave so despicably. But later, when Roberta is forcing his hand and he can see no way out of marrying her, he is outraged again -- but this time on his own behalf. Esta didn't blackmail the father of her child into marrying her, and everything turned out fine for her. Now he wonders how Roberta can do such a thing to him, conveniently ignoring the bleak reality facing Roberta as an unwed mother. Clyde is the hero of his own story, and accordingly casts himself in the best possible light in every situation. Although he knows that he plotted to murder Roberta in cold blood, after the fact he is desperate to justify his actions. This leaves him vulnerable to the months of testimony coaching from his lawyers, who have managed to put a positive spin on Clyde's story.

I read some reviews online when preparing to write this response, many of which claim that this work is Dreiser's indictment of the American Dream. As one writer from put it, "The idea of the American Dream is that all Americans have the opportunity to improve themselves economically and socially. In America, it is said, a person's circumstances at birth place no limit on his or her potential; people can make of themselves whatever they choose and rise as high as they are willing to climb. If Dreiser's message in An American Tragedy can be summed up in a sentence, it is: the American Dream is a lie." I think this may be overstating it a bit. Does this analysis assume that Clyde is meant to be an everyman? That is to say, in the same situation, anyone would have acted in the same manner and met the same end? If so, why did Dreiser set much of the action in the world of Clyde's uncle, Samuel Griffiths? The elder Griffiths is a solid example of working one's way up, economically and socially, to the top of the caste system of the time. To me, it seemed like readers were shown two conclusions of the American Dream, one successful and one spectacularly unsuccessful, to demonstrate that it is possible to achieve if one does not give in to temptations or weakness. Clyde is ultimately one of the weakest characters I have ever encountered. He showed no willpower to resist the lures of sex, money or power. He showed very little willingness to actually work his way up. His tendency was to take the the shortcut to success; for example, instead of concentrating on performing well at his job in order to advance, he was confident that marrying the socialite Sondra would give him financial and social security and command the respect of his family. That is Clyde's concept of success.

This story is surprisingly relevant today. As I said above, these themes seem to repeat in current pop culture constantly. The infamous case of Scott Peterson comes to mind; an unfaithful man murders his young wife and unborn child, and the attention of the nation is caught and held captive. The media interest in Clyde's trial feels very familiar as Dreiser is describing it; journalists track down Clyde's family for background information, print Roberta's pathetic letters verbatim, pepper Clyde's mother with insensitive questions. Sondra's family uses their considerable money and power to keep her name out of the proceedings altogether. In a way, it feels like a modern work. But make no mistake, this book is work. I read that it was called by one influential critic "the worst-written great novel in the world." I can see that. The prose is extremely dense, and Dreiser's relentless detail bogs down the narrative. While I was invested in the story, it was difficult to stay invested because the action moved so slowly. Unless you are well prepared to put in the effort, I can't recommend this book to you. But if you're ready, willing and able to be patient with Dreiser and with Clyde, you may not regret giving this one a chance.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The breakdown.

As you may have noticed, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser has been in the Currently Reading tab for quite some time now. I think about a month. It's seriously taking forever. I'm closing in on it, though -- I have less than 100 pages left! I plan on finishing up tonight, and hopefully posting a response tomorrow.

I've been thinking about the breakdown of books to read that I outlined in my original post. I had planned to read 17 so-called classics, but that now seems ill-suited for this project for a few different reasons.

An American Tragedy, like many classics, takes a long time to read -- as it should. It's not meant to be read in one or two sittings.

The point of the project is to read many books and different types of books. I can't achieve the goal of 100 (which I still really want to hit) if I'm spending weeks with one book at a time.

Thinking about the average person, how many classics do they read in a year?

So I've revised the breakdown as follows:

25 suggestions
I am now still taking suggestions! You can leave a comment on this post or e-mail me. I will read 20 25 books that have been suggested, no matter what. I reserve some veto power, though. If a suggestion really and truly sounds like something I would not enjoy or get anything out of reading, I will strike it from the list. I will limit the vetoing based on the number of suggestions that I receive, and will try to keep it to three. I upped the number of suggestions from 20 because the suggestions that I have received thus far are so varied, and reading more of them will only help me branch out and try new things.

5 "classics"
I realize the term "classic" is subjective. I will be using Time's The Complete List and Random House's Modern Library to base my selections on. I didn't want to do away with this category simply because reading classics can be time-consuming. I tried to decrease the number to something that I thought I could reasonably get through. Fingers crossed!

10 books that have been adapted into movies
This just sounds like fun. I may or may not have seen the movie, but this will be the first time reading each book. No change.

10 biographies and/or autobiographies
I will try to read about a variety of people, but I won't plan ahead so much as to break it down here. No change.

10 other non-fiction
While biographies and autobiographies are non-fiction, I'd like to try and read 10 other non-fiction books as well. Again, varying topics. No change.

5 mysteries
I enjoy mysteries, always have. It's tempting to read the last page of the book first but I will try not to for this challenge! No change.

5 science fiction/fantasy
If you know me at all, you know that I am not a sci fi fan. I'm going to try and give this genre a fair chance, though. I decided to increase the number from 3 to 5 because my sister advised to break this into two categories, science fiction and fantasy. She knows more about these genres, so I'm taking her advice and will try to read a couple of each.

2 graphic novels
I have never read a graphic novel, and figure it's about time. No change.

1 romance
Just because. No change.

1 Oprah's book club pick
I'm not really an Oprah person, and any book club picks that I've read previously weren't on purpose. No change.

1 Colin's pick
Colin gets one pick that I have to read no matter what. I have no idea what he'll come up with, and I can't wait to see. No change. I think I will save his pick, Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, for last.

And the remaining 20 25 will be made up of books that I hear about or that catch my eye at the library. Because a lot of books catch my eye.

Yesterday, I was thinking about my list of categories and wondering if there was any other category or type of book that I was interested in adding. I had an idea after seeing a blog post about Banned Books Week -- why not add a category for banned books? As I looked through the list of frequently challenged books, I realized that I already had one! Did you know that An American Tragedy is on the list of frequently challenged classics? Apparently it was burned by the Nazis in Germany (1933) because it "deals with low love affairs."