This Library of America volume contains the novel that is the culmination of Theodore Dreiser’s elementally powerful fictional art. A tremendous bestseller when it was first published in 1925, An American Tragedy takes as point of departure a notorious murder case of 1906—one among many that Dreiser studied in preparation. He immersed himself in the social background of the crime to produce a book that is a remarkable work of reportage, a monumental study of character, and a stunning jeremiad against the delusions and inequities of American society.
Few novels have undertaken to track so relentlessly the process by which an ordinary young man becomes capable of committing a ruthless murder and the further process by which social and political forces come into play after his arrest. In Clyde Griffiths, the impoverished, restless offspring of a family of street preachers, Dreiser created an unforgettable portrait of a man whose social insecurities and naive dreams of self-betterment conspire to pull him toward act of unforgivable violence. The murder that he commits on a quiet lake in the Adirondacks is an extended scene of overwhelming impact, and it is followed by equally gripping episodes of his arrest and trial. Throughout, Dreiser elevates the most mundane aspects of what he observes into emotionally charged, often harrowing symbols.
Around Clyde, Dreiser builds an extraordinarily detailed portrait of early twentieth-century America, its religious and sexual hypocrisies, its economic pressures, its political corruption and journalistic exploitation. The sheer prophetic amplitude of his bitter truth-telling, in idiosyncratic prose of uncanny expressiveness, continues to mark Dreiser as a crucially important American writer. An American Tragedy, the great achievement of his later years, is a work of mythic force, at once brutal and heartbreaking.