On July 11, 1906, Grace Brown, a skirt factory worker, was killed after she was evicted from a boat and fell into a lake in upstate New York. Her body was found the next day, and her lover was targeted as the chief suspect in a homicide. Grace had been pregnant, and letters to Gillette proved that their relationship had been covert and tempestuous. Gillette was convicted of her murder and later executed after an appeal and appeal to the governor failed. Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy is based on this true story.
The novel is psychologically well-executed, for it develops the upbringing and passions of the criminal, named Clyde Griffiths in the novel. He is the child of itinerant preachers, hating the restrictions and ascetic lifestyle required by his parents, and he shows fascination with the secular world outside. His sister Esta runs away, and he convinces his parents to get a job, first at a soda shop and then at a hotel. There, he meets the selfish Hortense Briggs, tries to woo her haphazardly, and becomes involved in a scandal that requires him to flee Kansas City.
In Chicago, Clyde becomes acquainted with his uncle Samuel, a wealthy shirt-collar factory owner in Lycurgus, New York. Clyde moves to Lycurgus, works his way up to management and meets worker Roberta Alden. Lonely and desolate, he seeks and reciprocates Roberta’s attentions until the wealthy Sondra Finchley and regrets his entanglement with Roberta. Dreiser pulls all these elements together to bring them to their tragic conclusion.
The novel is very long, but well-crafted and compelling. Dreiser characterizes Clyde in a way that makes him simultaneously an object of pity and revulsion. It took me a long time to read, but it was well worth it. I read Jennifer Donnelly’s young adult adaptation A Northern Light in college, and I meant to read An American Tragedy long before now. I highly recommend it.