An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
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Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (1925) is nothing less than what the title holds it to be; it is the story of a weak-willed young man who is both villain and victim (the victim of a valueless, materialistic society) and someone who ultimately destroys himself. Dreiser modeled the story of Clyde Griffiths on a real-life murder that took place in 1906; a young social climber of considerable charm murdered his pregnant girlfriend to get her out of the way so that he could instead play to the affections of a rich girl who had begun to notice him.

But An American Tragedy is more than simply a powerful murder story. Dreiser pours his own dark yearnings into his character, Clyde Griffiths, as he details the young man's course through his ambitions of wealth, power, and satisfaction.

The Indiana-born Dreiser (1871-1945) has never cut a dashing or romantic swath through American literature. He has no Pulitzer or Nobel Prize to signify his importance. Yet he remains for myriad reasons: his novels are often larger than life, rugged, and defy the norms of conventional morality and organized religion. They are unapologetic in their sexual candor--in fact, outrightly frank--and challenge even modern readers. The brooding force of Dreiser's writing casts a dark shadow across American letters.

Here in An American Tragedy, Dreiser shows us the flip side of The American Dream in a gathering storm that echoes with all of the power and force of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Inspired by the writings of Balzac and the ideas of Spenser and Freud, Dreiser went on to become one of America's best naturalist writers. An American Tragedy is testimony to the strength of Dreiser's work: it retains all of its original intensity and force.


Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser (1871-1945) was an American novelist and journalist best known for his pioneer work in the naturalist school. His writing often portrays characters whose strength lies not in their moral code or ethics, but instead in their absolute persistence as they are confronted by all obstacles; their unwillingness to yield. These are situations that more closely resemble studies of nature than tales of choice and agency.

Dreiser's first commercial success was An American Tragedy (1925), which was made into a film in 1931 and again in 1951 (as A Place in the Sun). An opera was also commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in 2005.

Literary critic Irving Howe said of Dreiser that he was, "among the American giants, one of the very few American giants we have had," and one of Dreiser's chief advocates during his lifetime was H.L. Mencken who said, "that he is a great artist, and that no other American of his generation left so wide and handsome a mark upon the national letters."


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About Theodore Dreiser

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Theodore Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, the twelfth of 13 children. His childhood was spent in poverty, or near poverty, and his family moved often. In spite of the constant relocations, Dreiser managed to attend school, and, with the financial aid of a sympathetic high school teacher, he was able to attend Indiana University. However, the need for income forced him to leave college after one year and take a job as a reporter in Chicago. Over the next 10 years, Dreiser held a variety of newspaper jobs in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and finally New York. He published his first novel, Sister Carrie in 1900, but because the publisher's wife considered its language and subject matter too "strong", it was barely advertised and went almost unnoticed. Today it is regarded as one of Dreiser's best works. It is the story of Carrie, a young woman from the Midwest, who manages to rise to fame and fortune on the strength of her personality and ambition, through her acting talent, and via her relationships with various men. Much of the book's controversy came from the fact that it portrayed a young woman who engages in sexual relationships without suffering the poverty and social downfall that were supposed to be the "punishment" for such "sin." Dreiser's reputation has generally risen over the years. His best book and first popular success, An American Tragedy (1925), is now considered a major American novel, and his other works are widely taught in college courses. Like Sister Carrie, American Tragedy also tells the story of an ambitious young person from the Midwest. In this case, however, the novel's hero is a man who is brought to ruin because of a horrible action he commits - he murders a poor young woman whom he has gotten pregnant, but whom he wants to discard in favor of a wealthy young woman who represents luxury and social advancement. As Dreiser portrays him, the young man is a victim of an economic system that torments so many with their lack of privilege and power and temps them to unspeakable acts. Dreiser is also known for the Coperwood trilogy - The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and the posthumously published The Store (1947). Collectively the three books paint the portrait of a brilliant and ruthless "financial buccaneer." Dreiser is associated with Naturalism, a writing style that also includes French novelist Emile Zola. Naturalism seeks to portray all the social forces that shape the lives of the characters, usually conveying a sense of the inevitable doom that these forces must eventually bring about. Despite this apparent pessimism, Dreiser had faith in socialism as a solution to what he saw as the economic injustices of American capitalism. His socialist views were reinforced by a trip to the newly socialist Soviet Union, and in fact, Dreiser is still widely read in that country. There, as here, he is seen as a powerful chronicler of the injustices and ambitions of his time.
Published January 14, 2014 by RosettaBooks. 556 pages
Genres: Mystery, Thriller & Suspense, Literature & Fiction, Biographies & Memoirs, Education & Reference, History, Crime, Science & Math, Arts & Photography. Non-fiction

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Kirkus Reviews

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A new edition of Dreiser’s massive 1925 masterpiece, a thrillingly detailed social panorama onto which a vivid, sobering tale of ambition and murder and their consequences is painstakingly grafted.

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Time Out New York

Faced with Sternberg's distillation of his undeniably great but unreadably turgid novel - about a social climber who murders a factory girl when her pregnancy threatens his romance with a wealthy socialite - Dreiser sued Paramount.

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New York Magazine

The Lit 101 school of American opera continues to proliferate.

Dec 18 2005 | Read Full Review of An American Tragedy (RosettaB...

Project MUSE

Stevens has Elizabeth Taylor come visit Clyde on death row, whereas, in the novel, no such meeting with Sondra, the rich girl, takes place, and when Clyde is marched off to the death chamber, Elizabeth Taylor's face is superimposed behind Montgomery Clift, and Clift's expression can only be read ...

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Project MUSE

With all these extended activities, one would think that there would be Dreiser heirs abounding today, but according to Helen Richardson, his second wife, Dreiser was sterile.

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Slant Magazine

Josef Von Sternberg's rock solid adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy has been long overshadowed for a number of reasons.

Mar 12 2004 | Read Full Review of An American Tragedy (RosettaB...

News Review.

Some people do seem to think they can dispense with other people when it is convenient—and yes, we do call them sociopaths—but my experience tells me that those types are not nearly as common as we’ve been led to believe by television and the movies.

Jan 21 2011 | Read Full Review of An American Tragedy (RosettaB...

The Copperfield Review

capital in its classic Marxian formulation and as it would appear in U.S.A., for example, could only serve this purpose of standing for the whole in a particular period of American history and literature, namely the period of the classic American novel, from the end of the 19th century to the end...

Apr 28 2012 | Read Full Review of An American Tragedy (RosettaB...

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Michael Manley 20 Aug 2013

Rated the book as 4.5 out of 5