Clyde and Roberta and Sondra and Clyde

At the halfway point of An American Tragedy (Book 2, Chapter XXXVII) and bleakness sets in firmly; Clyde is moving fast onto Sondra while leaving Roberta in the dust. But Roberta’s pregnant, so Clyde travels to out-of-town pharmacies looking for medicine that might end it. The meds fail, so Clyde shops for an abortion doctor and finds one. Off the happy couple goes to meet him.

This is all very bleak, very repetitive, as the base childlike thoughts of Clyde and Roberta, who are both poor and unsophisticated and far removed from leisure, have abandoned whatever fairy tale qualities they had of romantic love–dread and horror have replaced love.

And Dreiser’s language is the hardest thing to pin down in all of this, as he is writing the thoughts and voices of common unworldly people. Clyde has the upper hand as he’s been in and out of trouble before, escaping his scrape in Kansas City and landing on his feet in Chicago. But he’s a schemer and dreamer and wise as a fire hydrant. Roberta is sinking, and there’s nobody to help her. The setting is claustrophobic and dark; Lycurgus isn’t a metropolis, it’s a small town blown big by the hot air of capitalism. There is nowhere to go for either of them.


Clyde Griffiths, supervisor

When Clyde gets a job supervising a couple-dozen women, it serves two purposes; one, it gives Clyde’s wealthy Lycurgus relatives a chance to lord over their poor cousin, and secondly, it lets Clyde’s basic revelations about people come to the fore. Here’s Clyde on the women he oversees:

Up to this time, apart from the girls to whom he was so definitely drawn, Clyde was not so very favorably impressed with the type of girl who was working here. For the most part, as he saw them, they were of a heavy and rather unintelligent company, and he had been thinking that smarter-looking girls might possibly be secured. Why not? Were there none in Lycurgus in the factory world? So many of these had fat hands, broad faces, heavy legs and ankles. Some of them even spoke with an accent, being Poles or the children of Poles, living in that slum north of the mill. And they were all concerned with catching a “feller,” going to some dancing place with him afterwards, and little more. Also, Clyde had noticed that the American types who were here were of a decidedly different texture, thinner, more nervous and for the most part more angular, and with a general reserve due to prejudices, racial, moral and religious, which would not permit them to mingle with these others or with any men, apparently.

from Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, book 2, chapter 12 

What Clyde Griffiths Sees

One of the stranger aspects of An American Tragedy is that Clyde Griffiths, in every scene in the book he is featured, measures himself and his worth against every person in proximity. Clyde lacks confidence and fortitude, and his primal instinct is to know who can help or hurt him. It’s a disturbing trait and it gets more frightening the more it happens, and it happens all the time. Madness! I’m 25% done with An American Tragedy and Clyde’s personality is going to do him in; I know enough about the book without having read it, but I’m glad to be reading this now, for despite its flaws it is a terrifying novel.

On reading two novels at once

I don’t recommend reading two novels at once, but it can be done if the novels are drastically different from one another, separated by what normally separates books; tone, style, setting and characters. The two novels I’m reading at the moment both feature young men on the make who commit murder, and that’s the only thing they have in common.

I’m a third done with Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, and I’m reading a chapter a day in the morning. The Richard Howard translation is flawless, and it’s a novel I could complete over a long weekend if I wanted to–it reads easy and smartly and moves fast as a book with 200,000 words can move.

In the evening I’m reading Dreiser’s 300,000 word novel An American Tragedy, an American novel, written in a not-smooth style of the 1920s. The novel concerns the fate of young Clyde Griffiths, a child of wayward preachers who looks to get past penury and make a place for himself in the glamorous set, a set he sees up close in hotel and club rooms where he is a bellboy, an outsider. Tragedy’s prose is clunky but it’s not badly written, and I’m getting through it quickly.