Saturday, February 27, 2010


American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser published in 1925

Oh, Clyde, what did you do?
If you’re familiar with Theodore Dreiser’s work (Sister Carrie), you may have noticed the foreboding, lurking menace that follows around his characters.  Dreiser‘s novels necessitate  peeking through your fingers while reading; you just know it isn’t going to end well. That being said, tragedy sometimes being clichéd and predictable, Dreiser’s stories are very real, almost inspired from news paper articles that give us that lil’  spark….”this would make a good book!”
American Tragedy is the story of Clyde Griffiths, a wretched young man who from an early age is  schlepped around by his destitute missionary parents to sing and preach  on the street corners of Kansas City.  These  experiences  inspire Clyde to desire a different life and to visions of grandeur that eventually lead to his demise.
As soon as age allows, Clyde escapes the life of religious servitude and becomes a bell-hop at the Green-Davidson, a swanky hotel in Kansas City. As one can surmise, Clyde swan dives into debauchery with his new found freedom, gets drunk, gets laid, chases girls and gets into a serious scrape that requires his leaving Kansas City amid scandal.

After drifting for a couple of years, Clyde finds himself employed at another hotel where he inadvertently meets his wealthy Uncle.  Wealthy Uncle listens to Clyde’s woes and makes provisions for him to move to Lycurgus, New York to be employed at his collar factory. But, alas this is no free ride and upon arrival Clyde is met by his anal cousin Gilbert Griffiths (who incidentally Clyde resembles to a disturbing degree … but of course better looking) who puts Clyde to work at the bottom.  Eventually Clyde crawls out of the basement and is given a department to run.  Here enters poor, sweet, never been kissed, bound for tragedy Roberta Alden who is caught in a magnetic maelstrom with her immediate supervisor Clyde Griffiths.  Needless to say, this is a huge factory/family NO! NO! So, the clandestine lovers meet on the sly and eventually get horizontal despite Roberta’s best efforts to stay upright. The two are genuinely in love, but Clyde’s monster social ladder appetite leads him to Queen Bee Sondra Finchley. 
Now at this juncture, even if not familiar with this novel or “A Place In The Sun”….the foreboding starts to creep in, does it not?  Oh Gee, what’s going to happen to poor ol’ down trodden Roberta? Breaking up would just be too simple because…..yup, she’s pregnant! And going further into the story (if you haven’t read it) would ruin the whole ending….but keep in mind, the novel is entitled “American Tragedy”.

Coincidentally, it is Turner Classic Movie Oscar month and “A Place In The Sun” was featured about a week ago (when I was ¾ of the way through this almost 900 page leviathan).  I had seen it years back and am a Montgomery Clift fan (Clift being Clyde) so I decided since I had already seen the film I wouldn’t be ruining the ending.  However, “A Place In The Sun” (also starring Shelly Winters and Elizabeth Taylor) is an adaptation by Patrick Kearney which came out in 1951, while the novel was set in the 1920s. Besides the basic premise of “troubled poor boy meets troubled poor girl, becomes successful and overreaches which ends in tragedy” , I found the movie and the book to have distinctly different flavors, to me it just isn’t the same story at all.  The biggest discrepancy being the character of Roberta Alden, who in the book is a fully developed central character.  In the movie, she is reduced to a sniveling, fleshy,  simple pilot fish. So, I ended up shutting the movie off when Clift and Winters were in the canoe, knowing the forgone conclusion.
The other aspect of this book was… “hmmm, what kind of lessons can be taken away from this tragedy?”
  • Don’t raise your children in a religious militant fashion because they’ll turn into heathens.
  • If you ever meet a wayward poor relative, whatever you do, don’t extend a helping hand. Your name will be disgraced and you’ll have to leave town.
  • Avoid office romances with your superior or prepare to grow gills
  • Use reliable birth control (always a sound move)
  • If you are poor and uneducated, stay that way, striving for something else is just going land you in hot water
  • If your relationship is on the rocks, avoid canoes and romantic lake trips
Hmmmm, not sure. I don’t think there are any lessons. That is part of the attraction of this novel.  It is extremely contemporary and if you turn on CNN there is probably something similar airing right now.  I can hear Nancy Grace berating Clyde Griffiths and recapping the details ad-nauseam.

Lastly, I love recasting movies, so for the new release of “American Tragedy” Clyde is Christian Bale, Roberta Alden is Rachel McAdams (Not a Shelly Winters type….total miscast), and Sondra is Scarlett Johansson (or Megan Fox would be a dead ringer, but I have no idea if she can act or not…????) Anyway, that’s my vote. What’s yours???


Greg Zimmerman said...

I'd vote for Leonardo DiCaprio as Clyde, but great call on McAdams as Roberta!

Great review, too - I loved this book!

Kris said...

oh, I agree w/ DiCaprio.... Just saw Shutter Island and he do sweating and brooding really well!

Sophie said...

Never read the book, but its funny the way people respond to their lives. I think I would have taken a totally different idea as far as the chance to travel the world, vs feeling as if I was being dragged around.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know that A Place in the Sun was an adaptation of this! You know, now that you mention Scarlett Johansson, her Woody Allen movie, Match Point is very similar to this. Only in that one, she does the Roberta, i.e. gets pregnant by a no-good social climber.

Kris said...

I did see Match Point actually....totally forgot about it!! I wonder if that is partially based on American Tragedy....but in England. It certainly has many similarties.