Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy was published the very same year as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Both novels present a portrait of what it meant to be an American in the early part of the 20th century, but in reading one can be forgiven for supposing that each takes places in entirely different countries. While Gatsby’s story is certainly one that in which some rather questionable morality and an absence of any ethical standards pass through, ultimately Fitzgerald suggests that America is truly a land of opportunity for unsurpassed wealth and fulfillment of desire for anyone willing to work hard enough (and sacrifice any qualms they may have about the kind of work that must be done) in order to get. Dreiser, by contrast, more than merely suggests that the American Dream is inescapably rigged against the overwhelming majority of those seeking to make it real.
Another element that joins these two starkly different visions of American in the first quarter of the 1900s is the introduction of reality into their fictional universes. A few characters in The Great Gatsby are based—to various levels—on actual people whom Fitzgerald either knew or knew about. That connection the world outside the Jazz Age partying at Gatsby’s mansion is tenuous at best. By contrast, An American Tragedy is very firmly grounded in the real life murder trial of Chester Gillette. Gillette was found guilty of murdering his pregnant girlfriend under murky circumstances in which her death could actually have been merely an accidental drowning just like Dreiser’s protagonist Clyde Griffiths is found guilty of murdering his pregnant girlfriend while in a rowboat on a lake. Gillette was the son of itinerant Salvation Army soldiers…and so is Clyde. In fact, Clyde shares a number of similarities with Chester, but more important is the fact that the circumstances and motivations of Chester’s crime shared a similarity with a number of others which do not make into Dreiser’s version so neat and tidily.
Those shared circumstances are social and psychological: murders committed by ambitious young men seeking to make the American Dream become reality not by killing human beings, but by clearing away intrusive obstructions on their path to enjoying unsurpassed wealth. The title of Dreiser’s epic novel hints that most of those possessing only the ambition to fulfill the American Dream will ultimately experience only a certain definitive kind of American tragedy.
The forces that forged the kind of unimaginably inequitable gap between the haves and the have-nots around the turn of the 20th century would—thanks to a series of wars, the Great Depression and various pushes for equal rights—not be experienced again until the turn of the 21st century. Those forces created an ideological certainty and acceptance as normal that Dreiser insists acts upon those like Clyde Griffiths who are essentially brainwashed into launching a pursuit of betterment in a race that has already been run and won without their even being aware of it.
Dreiser was a firm believer in the power of social welfare to assist those in need because it helped—in however minute a fashion—to narrow the gap of iniquitous inequity in which those who least needed assistance seemed to be the ones who received it with the least effort. Dreiser himself was tremendously assisted in the writing of An American Tragedy by virtue of a bank account of $4,000 upon which he could draw throughout the long process of composition. The money was the result of an advance from his publisher Horace Liveright and was offered at a time when advances from publishers to their authors was nearly unheard-of.
Upon publication, An American Tragedy was almost immediately banned in Boston. Eventually, the novel would—as seems to always be the result of these ill-advised decisions—become a far greater commercial success as a result of the controversy of its being banned than it probably would have had it not become the object 0f moralmongering suppression.
An American Tragedy was twice adapted into a motion picture, the first in a pre-code version under its original title. More memorable was the second adaptation retitled A Place in the Sun which starred an Oscar-nominated Montgomery Clift as the renamed George Eastman, Shelley Winters as his shrewish pregnant co-worker and Elizabeth Taylor as the personification the American Dream. George Stevens won an Oscar for direction, but the film—which retained all of the corrosive social commentary of Dreiser’s novel behind its far more attractive façade—managed to lose out for Best Picture during the height of the Hollywood communist witch hunt to the far more politically conservative An American in Paris. In retrospect, it was too bad that Stevens did not decide to retain the original title as then there would have been a split of the Best Director/Best Picture winners between two different movies the words “An American” in their titles.