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.
Rufus and Hannah Barnes are good Quakers, highly respected in their new community of Dukla, Pennsylvania and strictly loyal to their faith. They pass this loyalty on to their children, including Solon Barnes, who must hold on to his Quaker convictions while living in an increasingly materialistic modern society.
After falling for the lovely Benecia—a daughter of the wealthy Wallin family—Solon is given a position at her father’s bank in Philadelphia, poised to work his way up from the bottom.
Solon’s faith is challenged by his position at the bank, as his moral values cause him to butt heads with corrupt executives driven by financial gain. Meanwhile, his own children start rebelling against the strict principles they were raised with. Yet even as the weight of the world bears down on the noble foundations at the core of his principles, Solon remains a bulwark for his faith.
Book #2 in Theodore Dreiser’s Trilogy of Desire
Theodore Dreiser’s absorbing Trilogy of Desire weaves a tale of twentieth-century American capitalism through the rise and fall of aspiring mogul, Frank Cowperwood.
Finally released from prison, Frank immediately dives back into the stock market after the Panic of 1873, aiming to recover his lost fortune, and become a millionaire once more. This time, he has a new plan and sets out for Chicago with his mistress, Aileen. Using his brutal business sense to snuff out his opponents Frank has his eyes on the city’s street-railway system as his ticket back to the top.
But as Frank knows, the past cannot remain buried forever, and it’s only a matter of time before his previous misdeeds come back to find him in his new home, threatening his stability—and more importantly, his money.
Book #1 in Theodore Dreiser’s Trilogy of Desire
Frank’s story begins at an auction sale in Philadelphia, where an unassuming bid for seven cases of soap quickly makes him a large personal gain in just one day. Having grown up among the ruthlessness and glamour of the Gilded age, Frank finds he has a taste for turning a profit, no matter who gets in his way.
Embarking on a life of callous stock brokering, shady political intrigue, sordid crimes, and passionate affairs, this first chapter in Frank Cowperwood’s life highlights Theodore Dreiser’s keen ability to merge drama with sharp historical insight.
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