An American Tragedy

An American Tragedy (1925) is a novel by the American writer Theodore Dreiser.

An American Tragedy
An American Tragedy Theodore Dreiser dust jacket.jpeg
Dust jacket of early edition of An American Tragedy, published by Boni & Liveright, 1926
AuthorTheodore Dreiser
GenreCrime fiction
PublisherBoni & Liveright
Publication date
December 17, 1925

Plot summary

Ambitious, handsome, but ill-educated, naïve, and immature, Clyde Griffiths is raised by poor and devoutly religious parents to help in their street missionary work. As a young adult, Clyde must, to help support his family, take menial jobs as a soda jerk, then a bellhop at a prestigious Kansas City hotel. There, his more sophisticated colleagues introduce him to bouts of social drinking and sex with prostitutes.

Enjoying his new lifestyle, Clyde becomes infatuated with manipulative Hortense Briggs, who persuades Clyde to buy her expensive gifts. When Clyde learns Hortense goes out with other men, he becomes jealous. Still Clyde would rather spend money on Hortense than to help his sister who had eloped only to end up pregnant and abandoned.

Clyde's life changes dramatically when his friend Sparser, driving Clyde, Hortense, and other friends back from a secluded rendezvous in the country in his boss' car, used without permission, hits a little girl and kills her. Fleeing from the police at high speed, Sparser crashes the car. Everyone but Sparser and his partner flee the scene of the crime. Clyde leaves Kansas City, fearing prosecution as an accessory to Sparser's crimes. This pattern of personal irresponsibility and panicked decision-making in Clyde's life recurs in the story, culminating in the central tragedy of the novel.

While working as a bellboy at an exclusive club in Chicago, he meets his wealthy uncle Samuel Griffiths, the owner of a shirt-collar factory in the fictional city of Lycurgus, New York. Feeling guilt for neglecting his poor relations, offers Clyde a menial job at the factory. After that, Samuel Griffiths promotes him to a minor supervisory role.

Samuel Griffiths' son Gilbert, Clyde's immediate supervisor, warns Clyde that as a manager, he should not consort with women working under his supervision. At the same time the Griffiths pay Clyde little attention socially. As Clyde has no close friends in Lycurgus, he becomes lonely. Emotionally vulnerable, Clyde is drawn to Roberta Alden, a poor and innocent farm girl working in his shop, who falls in love with him. Clyde secretly courts Roberta, ultimately persuading her to have sex with him rather than lose him, and makes her pregnant.

At the same time this is happening, elegant young socialite Sondra Finchley, daughter of another Lycurgus factory owner, takes an interest in Clyde, despite his cousin Gilbert's efforts to keep them apart. Clyde's engaging manner makes him popular among the young smart set of Lycurgus; he and Sondra become close, and he courts her while neglecting Roberta. Roberta expects Clyde to marry her to avert the shame of an unwed pregnancy, but Clyde now dreams instead of marrying Sondra.

Having failed to procure an abortion for Roberta, Clyde doesn't give her more than desultory help with living expenses, while his relationship with Sondra matures. When Roberta threatens to reveal her relationship with Clyde, unless he marries her, he plans to murder her by drowning while they go boating, having read a local newspaper report of a boating accident.

Clyde takes Roberta out in a canoe on Big Moose Lake in upstate New York, and rows to a secluded bay. He doesn't have the nerve to go through with the plan and freezes. Sensing something wrong, Roberta moves towards him, and he unintentionally strikes her in the face with a camera, stunning her and accidentally capsizing the boat. Roberta, unable to swim, drowns, while Clyde, unwilling to save her, swims to shore. The narrative implies that the blow was accidental, but the trail of circumstantial evidence left by the panicky and guilt-ridden Clyde points to murder.

The local authorities are eager to convict Clyde, to the point of manufacturing additional evidence against him, although he repeatedly incriminates himself with his confused and contradictory testimony. Clyde has a sensational trial before an unsympathetic and prejudiced jury of mostly religious conservative farmers. Despite a vigorous (and untruthful) defense by two lawyers hired by his uncle, Clyde is convicted, sentenced to death, and, after an appeal is denied, executed by electric chair. The jailhouse scenes and correspondence between Clyde and his mother are exemplars of pathos in modern literature.

Influences and characteristics

Dreiser based the book on a notorious criminal case. On July 11, 1906, resort owners found an overturned boat and the body of Grace Brown at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. Chester Gillette was put on trial, and convicted of killing Brown, though he claimed that her death was a suicide. Gillette was executed by electric chair on March 30, 1908.[1] The murder trial drew international attention when Brown's love letters to Gillette were read in court. Dreiser saved newspaper clippings about the case for several years before writing his novel, during which he studied the case closely. He based Clyde Griffiths on Chester Gillette, deliberately giving him the same initials.

The historical location of most of the central events was Cortland, NY, a city situated in Cortland County in a region replete with place-names resonant of Greco-Roman history. Townships include Homer, Solon, Virgil, Marathon, and Cincinnatus. Lycurgus, the pseudonym given to Cortland, was the legendary law-giver of ancient Sparta. Grace Brown, a farm girl from the small town of South Otselic in adjacent Chenango County, was the factory girl who was Gillette's lover. The place where Grace was killed, Big Moose Lake, an actual place in the Adirondacks, was called Big Bittern Lake in Dreiser's novel. The identity of the "rich girl" in the love triangle (Sondra Finchley in the novel) has apparently never been clearly established.

A strikingly similar murder took place in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1934, when Robert Edwards clubbed Freda McKechnie, one of his two lovers, and placed her body in a lake. The cases were so similar that the press at the time dubbed the Edwards/McKechnie murder "The American Tragedy". Edwards was eventually found guilty, and also executed by electric chair.[2]

The novel is a tragedy in the strict sense, Clyde's destruction being the consequence of his innate weaknesses: moral and physical cowardice, lack of scruple and self-discipline, muddled intellect, and unfocused ambition; additionally, the effect of his ingratiating (Dreiser uses the word "soft") social manner places temptation in his way which he cannot resist.

This novel is full of symbolism, ranging from Clyde's grotesque description of the high gloomy walls of the factory as an opportunity for success, symbolizing how it is all a mirage, to the description of girls as "electrifying" to foreshadow Clyde's destination to the electric chair; Dreiser transforms everyday mundane objects to symbols.

Dreiser sustains readers' interest in the lengthy novel (over 800 pages) by the accumulation of detail, and by continually varying the "emotional distance" of his writing from Clyde and other characters, from detailed examination of their thoughts and motivations to dispassionate reportage.[3]


The novel has been adapted several times into other forms, and the storyline has been used, not always unattributed, as the basis for other works:

  • A first stage adaptation written by Patrick Kearney for Broadway premiered at the Longacre Theatre in New York on October 11, 1926.
  • Sergei Eisenstein prepared a screenplay in the late 1920s which he hoped to have produced by Paramount or by Charlie Chaplin during Eisenstein's stay in Hollywood in 1930.
  • In April 1929, Dreiser agreed that German director Erwin Piscator should produce a stage version of An American Tragedy. Piscator's stage adaptation supposedly premiered in Vienna in April 1932, and made its US debut in April 1935 at the Hedgerow Theatre, Rose Valley. The play was produced as well by Lee Strasberg at the Group Theatre in March 1936, and again in a revised version by the Hedgerow Theatre in September 2010 (where the original adaptation was wrongly credited to Piscator's wife Maria Ley).
  • Dreiser strongly disapproved of a 1931 film version directed by Josef von Sternberg and also released by Paramount. (The film is later mentioned in the Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers, where Groucho is seen in a small boat with Thelma Todd: "Do you realize this is the first time I've been on a boat since I saw 'The American Tragedy'?")
  • In the 1940s, the novel inspired an episode of the award-winning old-time radio comedy Our Miss Brooks, an episode known as "Weekend at Crystal Lake" and sometimes known as "An American Tragedy". The episode revolved around the characters' misinterpreting the intentions of biology teacher Philip Boyton (played by Jeff Chandler), Connie Brooks's (Eve Arden) high school colleague and love interest. The characters fear that Boynton plans to kill Miss Brooks during a leisurely weekend at their boss's lakeside retreat. The episode was broadcast twice, on September 19, 1948, and - with very minor changes - on August 21, 1949. The episode was also repeated in 1955, at a time when the show was a hit on both radio and television.[4]
  • The 1951 Paramount Pictures film A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens and starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters, is strongly based on the novel.
  • Further television or film adaptations of An American Tragedy have been produced in Brazil (Um Lugar ao Sol, TV series, 1959, director: Dionísio Azevedo), Italy ("it:Una tragedia americana", Rai 1, 1962, regista: Anton Giulio Majano), Czechoslovakia (Americká tragédia, TV series, 1976, director: Stanislav Párnicky), Philippines (Nakaw na pag-ibig, film, 1980, director: Lino Brocka), USSR (Американская трагедия, 4 parts, Lithuanian Film Studio, 1981, director: Marijonas Giedrys), and Japan (Hi no ataru basho, TV series, 1982, director: Masami Ryuji).
  • It was transformed into an opera by composer Tobias Picker. It premiered at the Metropolitan Opera starring Nathan Gunn in New York on December 2, 2005.
  • Critics and commentators have compared elements of Woody Allen's film, Match Point (2005), to the central plot of the novel.[5][6]
  • The novel has also been adapted into a musical of the same title by three-time Tony Award winning composer and lyricist Charles Strouse. It had its premiere at Muhlenberg College, located in Allentown, Pennsylvania, United States, on March 24, 2010.
  • In Cuba, the novel has been adapted and broadcast by Radio Progreso national broadcasting twice: in 1977 and 2001. The first of the versions was starred by greatest Cuban actors as Raul Selis (as Clyde), Martha del Rio (Roberta), Miriam Mier (Sondra), Julio Alberto Casanova (Gilbert) and Maggie Castro (Bertine).
  • A 2003 young adult novel “A Northern Light” by Jennifer Donnelly is a retelling of the story from the narrative viewpoint of and young woman working at the local camp.


In 2005, the book was placed on Time Magazine's list of the top 100 novels written in English since 1923.[7]


  1. ^ Nelson, Randy F. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981: 195-196. ISBN 0-86576-008-X
  2. ^ Elizabeth Skrapits (2009-10-04). "The 'American Tragedy' murder". Retrieved 2017-06-14.
  3. ^ Howe, Irving (1964). Afterword to Signet edition. Signet.
  4. ^ "Our Miss Brooks". Archived from the original on 2007-11-24.
  5. ^ French, Philip (2006-01-07). "Match Point." Film review. Retrieved 2016-03-13.
  6. ^ Denby, David (2006-01-09). "Game Playing: 'Match Point', 'Casanova', and 'The Matador'." The New Yorker ( Retrieved 2016-03-13.
  7. ^ Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo (2005-10-16). TIME Specials: ALL TIME 100 Novels, Time. Retrieved 2011-10-23.

Further reading

A Place in the Sun (film)

A Place in the Sun is a 1951 American drama film based on the 1925 novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser and the 1926 play, also titled An American Tragedy. It tells the story of a working-class young man who is entangled with two women: one who works in his wealthy uncle's factory, and the other a beautiful socialite. Another adaptation of the novel had been filmed once before, as An American Tragedy, in 1931.

A Place in the Sun was directed by George Stevens from a screenplay by Harry Brown and Michael Wilson, and stars Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters; its supporting actors included Anne Revere, and Raymond Burr.The film was a critical and commercial success, winning six Academy Awards and the first-ever Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama. In 1991, A Place in the Sun was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

American Experience (season 13)

Season thirteen of the television program American Experience originally aired on the PBS network in the United States on October 16, 2000 and concluded on April 23, 2001. The season contained 12 new episodes and began with the first part of the film The Rockefellers.

An American Tragedy (film)

An American Tragedy is a 1931 Pre-Code drama film, produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures, and directed by Josef von Sternberg. The film is based on Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy, which itself alludes to the real-life 1906 murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette.The film performed well at the box office.Before this film was made, a play version debuted on Broadway in 1926. In the cast was a then-unknown actress named Miriam Hopkins.Paramount Pictures made a very loose adaptation of the same story again in 1951, titled A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens, and starring Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters, and Elizabeth Taylor. The 1951 film version of the novel changed the names of the characters from those of the novel and the earlier film version.

An American Tragedy (musical)

An American Tragedy is a 1995 musical with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams and Mark St. Germain , and a libretto by David Shaber and Mark St. Germain.

An American Tragedy (opera)

An American Tragedy is an opera in two acts composed by Tobias Picker, with a libretto by Gene Scheer. This was Picker's fourth opera, written four years after the debut of Thérèse Raquin (also composed with Scheer). Based on the Theodore Dreiser novel, An American Tragedy, the opera was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, and premiered in New York City on December 2, 2005.

Avana Ivan

Avana Ivan (English: Is that him?) is a 1962 Indian Tamil-language thriller film directed by S. Balachander. The film was an adaptation of the 1951 American film A Place in the Sun, itself adapted from the novel An American Tragedy written by Theodore Dreiser. The novel was based on the Gillette murder case that shook America in the early 20th century.

Chester Gillette

Chester Ellsworth Gillette (August 9, 1883 – March 30, 1908), an American convicted murderer, became the basis for the fictional character Clyde Griffiths in Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy, which was the basis of the 1931 film An American Tragedy and the 1951 film A Place in the Sun.

Frances Dee

Frances Marion Dee (November 26, 1909 – March 6, 2004) was an American actress. She starred opposite Maurice Chevalier in the early talkie musical, Playboy of Paris (1930). She starred in the film An American Tragedy (1931) in a role later recreated by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1951 retitled remake, A Place in the Sun. She also had a prominent role in the classic 1943 Val Lewton psychological horror film I Walked With a Zombie.

Lindsay Perigo

Lindsay Perigo (born 14 December 1951) is a former New Zealand television and radio broadcasting personality, founding member and first leader of the Libertarianz political party and an Objectivist organisation called Sense of Life Objectivists (SOLO).

In 1993 he quit television work, in the process denouncing TVNZ news and current affairs as "brain dead". Thereafter he returned to radio for several years, with a libertarian show on Radio Pacific and on the now defunct Radio Liberty.Perigo is former editor of the Free Radical, a libertarian/Objectivist magazine founded by him with backing from David Henderson in 1994. Deborah Coddington, former Free Radical assistant editor, wrote a biography of Perigo entitled Politically Incorrect in 1999, which was published by Radio Pacific.He is a noted fan of singer Mario Lanza, and in August 2013 a collection of his writings on Lanza's life and work was released called The One Tenor. He also wrote the foreword for Armando Cesari's Lanza biography, Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy. He has interviewed José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti, and appeared with Dame Malvina Major in a television tribute to Pavarotti in September 2007.A collection of his cultural and political commentaries was released in September 2012 titled The Total Passion for the Total Height.

Mario Lanza

Mario Lanza (born Alfredo Arnold Cocozza; January 31, 1921 – October 7, 1959) was an American tenor of Italian ancestry, and an actor and Hollywood film star of the late 1940s and the 1950s.

Lanza began studying to be a professional singer at the age of 16. After appearing at the Hollywood Bowl in 1947, Lanza signed a seven-year film contract with Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who saw his performance and was impressed by his singing. Prior to that, the adult Lanza had sung only two performances of an opera. The following year (1948), however, he sang the role of Pinkerton in Puccini's Madame Butterfly in New Orleans.His film début for MGM was in That Midnight Kiss (1949) with Kathryn Grayson and Ethel Barrymore. A year later, in The Toast of New Orleans, his featured popular song "Be My Love" became his first million-selling hit. In 1951, he played the role of tenor Enrico Caruso, his idol, in the biopic The Great Caruso, which produced another million-seller with "The Loveliest Night of the Year" (a song which used the melody of Sobre las Olas). The Great Caruso was the top-grossing film that year.The title song of his next film, Because You're Mine, was his final million-selling hit song. The song went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. After recording the soundtrack for his next film, The Student Prince, he embarked upon a protracted battle with studio head Dore Schary arising from artistic differences with director Curtis Bernhardt, and was eventually dismissed by MGM.Lanza was known to be "rebellious, tough, and ambitious." During most of his film career, he suffered from addictions to overeating and alcohol which had a serious effect on his health and his relationships with directors, producers and, occasionally, other cast members. Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper writes that "his smile, which was as big as his voice, was matched with the habits of a tiger cub, impossible to housebreak." She adds that he was the "last of the great romantic performers". He made three more films before dying of an apparent pulmonary embolism at the age of 38. At the time of his death in 1959 he was still "the most famous tenor in the world". Author Eleonora Kimmel concludes that Lanza "blazed like a meteor whose light lasts a brief moment in time".

Murder of Grace Brown

Grace Mae Brown (March 20, 1886 – July 12, 1906) was an American skirt factory worker whose murder caused a nationwide sensation, and whose life inspired the fictional character Roberta Alden in Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy as well as Jennifer Donnelly's novel A Northern Light. The facts of the real murder are laid out in the two non-fiction books, both published in 1986: Adirondack Tragedy: The Gillette Murder Case of 1906, written by Joseph W. Brownell and Patricia A. Wawrzaszek, and Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited, by Craig Brandon.

Nuremberg and Vietnam

Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy is a book written by Telford Taylor, the Chief Counsel Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials.

Patrick Kearney (playwright)

Patrick Kearney (October 9, 1893, Columbus, Ohio – March 28, 1933, New York City) was an American playwright.

Kearney started in the theatre as an actor. His first Broadway play as a playwright was the comedy A Man's Man which was moderately successful, opening on October 12, 1925 and running into January of the next year, with 120 performances.

It was made into a 1929 silent film of the same name, now lost.

Theodore Dreiser and Horace Liveright chose Kearney to write the stage adaption of Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy and Kearney did so. The play (of the same title), featuring Morgan Farley and Miriam Hopkins, had a successful run on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre in the 1926–1927 season. In 1927, the play initiated Los Angeles's legitimate theatre scene as the premier production of Wilkes' Vine Street Theatre (now the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre). An American Tragedy had a Broadway revival in 1931 at the Waldorf Theatre.Kearney's play of An American Tragedy was adapted into the 1951 film A Place in the Sun starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, according to a screen credit acknowledging the play as a source. Elizabeth Coons and Deirdre Kearney Rose, Patrick Kearney's widow and daughter, filed a 1959 lawsuit against Paramount Pictures requesting an injunction restraining the distribution of the film. Paramount countered that, the onscreen credit notwithstanding, the film was based solely on Dreiser's novel. The film won the 1951 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Kearney's next Broadway play was also an adaption, Elmer Gantry. It opened at the Playhouse Theatre in 1928 starring Edward Pawley and was not a success. His next Broadway production was the original comedy Old Man Murphy which he wrote with Harry Wagstaff Gribble. It played at the Royale, then the Fulton, then after a hiatus at the Hudson; it ran for 112 performances and was later adapted into the 1935 film His Family Tree. Kearney's final Broadway play was also an original comedy, A Regular Guy, which opened off-season at the Hudson, and which he also directed. It flopped.Kearney also did some film screenwriting, working (with other writers) on the films Darkened Rooms (1929), Fast Company (also 1929), and Doomed Battalion (1932).

The Siege at Ruby Ridge

The Siege at Ruby Ridge is a 1996 docudrama television film directed by Roger Young and written by Lionel Chetwynd about the confrontation between the family of Randy Weaver and the US federal government at Ruby Ridge in 1992. It was based on the book Every Knee Shall Bow by reporter Jess Walter. It originally aired as a two-part CBS miniseries entitled Ruby Ridge: An American Tragedy on May 19 and May 21, 1996. The miniseries was edited together to become the film The Siege at Ruby Ridge.

Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser (; August 27, 1871 – December 28, 1945) was an American novelist and journalist of the naturalist school. His novels often featured main characters who succeeded at their objectives despite a lack of a firm moral code, and literary situations that more closely resemble studies of nature than tales of choice and agency. Dreiser's best known novels include Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925).

Tobias Picker

Tobias Picker (born July 18, 1954) is an American composer noted for his numerous works for the stage, including several operas, in addition to works for orchestra and chamber orchestra.

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