Thursday, October 9, 2014
Thoughts on Reading An American Tragedy
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser has inhabited my TBR (to be read) shelf longer than any other book I own. Its occupancy dates back to the 1970s when a favorite English teacher, Mrs. Perretta, placed it in my hands one June afternoon prior to graduation. She said it was a book I would surely appreciate.
After reading The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck in her class the previous year, I figured you could actually learn quite a bit about life and how to live it from a good novel. So I'd been one of a handful of high school seniors to sign up for her elective American Novels class that year. We read Tender is the Night, The Grapes of Wrath, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Look Homeward, Angel, and a few others. She probably gave each of us a book for graduation.
All 900 pages of An American Tragedy traveled with me to college, then on to my first apartment, and my second, and to the condo we lived in after getting married, to our first house, etc. This spring, some 35 years later, I made a resolution to read it before the end of the year. I was delighted when its number came up for the Classics Club spin.
BUT when I opened the book in August, it was immediately obvious that I could not comfortably read the tiny print of that mass market paperback edition. After decades on my shelf, An American Tragedy ended up in my book sale donation box. I bought the e-book for my kindle and, for good measure, the audio version too and finally began to read.
So about the book...
Written in 1925 and based upon a notorious 1906 murder in the Adirondack Mountains of northern NY (practically a local setting for me), An American Tragedy "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. "
To me, this novel is the quintessential character study. Clyde Griffiths, the son of street missionaries, aspires to a better life, but how far will he go in pursuit of the American Dream? From a fine hotel in Kansas City, to a Chicago club, and finally to his rich uncle's factory along the Mohawk River in upstate New York, Clyde strives toward a better station in life. He makes some progress financially, but ascending the social ladder proves even trickier. What circumstances could provoke thoughts of murder in such an earnest young man?
Courtroom drama comprises the last third of the novel. It was riveting.
The audio version, read by Dan John Miller (a favorite narrator), enabled me to keep reading in the car, on my walks, and while doing chores around the house. I just wish he'd checked pronunciations - Raquette Lake is actually "racket" around here. Whispersync is really a life saver when switching back and forth from e-book to audio. Have you tried it?
Overall, I loved An American Tragedy. It was a little too long and some parts were repetitive, but the story more than made up for it. You were right, Mrs. Perretta.