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Tragedy Awaits


This book has been the longest resident of my bookshelf, gathering dust and begging to be read. This is Theodore Dreiser’s 930-page realist epic of 1925. Except for Sister Carrie assigned in AP English, I have not read Dreiser. My suspicion is that Dreiser’s books are now considered too long for high-school students, too earnest for college literature classes, and too odd for many common readers. The morale reminds me of The Great Gatsby, also a portrait of life in the Roaring Twenties, but Dreiser’s is more realist. The novel is based on an incident that occurred in upstate New York in 1906, when a factory worker named Chester Gillette murdered a young woman on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks. The woman, Grace Brown, had been pregnant with Gillette’s child. In a well-publicized trial, Gillette was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. His conviction was upheld on appeal. After Governor Charles Hughes refused to grant a stay of execution, Gillette was put to death on March 31, 1908.

I devoured 92 pages this morning during breakfast. Dreiser introduces his main character, Clyde Griffth, with a modest pace. He is determined by forces beyond his control: primarily environmental and hereditary. Born in the slum, of weak parents, romanticizes the idea of wealth and success, associates it with beautiful women, and longs for a life of pleasure and wealth. The scenes of the book whet his appetite—until he is struck down by a misfortune as a result of what he desires. Interesting enough to keep me engaged.


9 Responses

  1. Persevere; it’s worth it. I still have my copy and meand to get back to it if I live long enough. By the way, what sort of breakfast lasts for 92 pages? Te,, us more!

  2. An American Tragedy was required reading in my American Novel class in college some 50-odd years ago. We had a week to read each book but got 2 weeks for Moby Dick. After reading Tragedy, I went on to seek out Dreiser’s other works, and he became one of my favorite authors.

    • Good to hear he is still relevant, although I feel people hardly have time for a tome like this. I savor his slow building up of characters and their motives. I also enjoy how his writing translate me back to the social psyche of his times.

  3. This one has been gathering dusts on my shelf for forever also. Glad to hear you are enjoying it.

    • I just decided to bite the bullet and go for it. This year I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction. I just finish Against Happiness and was craving for a hearty long novel. This one finally has its moment!

  4. Oh, Matt – we are indeed book twins! An American Tragedy is the longest resident of my tbr shelf, too, but I’m guessing I’ve had it even longer than you. From my perspective, this is a local story… I’ve had my copy since high school. The print is way too small now, but it’s on my Classics Club list and I plan to read it soon.

    • I’ve had mine since college. I remember picking it up at a bookstore on Telegraph Avenue In Berkeley shortly after I started my freshman year. It’s been through numerous moves since I graduated. Mine is a mass paperback and yes, the print is very small. The story is of an epic scale, unveils slowly but with steady build. I enjoy it thus far.

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