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. Here is the flip-side of the American Dream, a book that retains all its force and intensity almost a century later.

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.


Author Description

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).

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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ROSETTABOOKS BY THEODORE DREISER