An American Tragedy
I have this in a nice old 1st edition copy (in two volumes) that came to me from the estate of a friend's father.
We often think of the literature of fear as the stuff we find in the “horror” section of the bookstore. But horror is a feeling, not a genre, and fear is where you find it. I just finished re-reading, after a gap of some decades, Theodore Dreiser’s classic crime novel, An American Tragedy. This time around I was mostly struck by how totally the book forces us to confront an uneasy truth that many would just as soon avoid.
There’s a common misconception in America these days that the world is constructed of good guys and bad guys. These groups seem to be defined a priori and your assignment to one or the other is largely immutable (aside, perhaps, from a life-altering encounter with Jesus). There’s us and there’s them—and no real danger of migration from one group to the other.
It goes without saying that they, the criminal types out there, are frequently defined as racially or sexually or ethnically other. This is part and parcel of America’s long history of bigotry. But that’s a topic for another day. My point here is just that in the mythology of modern American, a person’s “goodness” or “badness” is treated as nearly essential and fundamentally unalterable. There’s us good people and then there are those other guys. It’s a convenient myth, bursting with social utility and a source of innumerable psychological comforts during whatever dark night of the soul that comes your way. It’s reassuring to know you’re one of the good guys, especially when you sometimes do things that aren’t so good.
Dreiser’s novel is compelling because the desires of his murderous protagonist, Clyde Griffiths, are wholly unexceptional. We see this as we watch him drift, attracted first to Roberta and then later to Sondra. His desires are the stuff of American convention—the girl, the status, the wealth. Clyde feels entitled to these things, regardless of right or wrong. He is the banality of evil incarnate. He is a horrifying, small-minded, detestable person. What is most horrifying about him, however, is that Dreiser makes it clear that he is not so very different from any of us.
Sure, Clyde’s a whiney little asshole, but we know where he’s coming from. We all know, at times, what it’s like to feel that we’re getting the shitty end of the cob. We know how it feels to want more and have considered less than honorable means of getting it. The book never lets us forget that there’s a little Clyde Griffiths in all of us.
And, yes, that’s a frightening thought.
I’m reminded of how William Dean Howells once wrote to his friend Mark Twain about "the black heart's-truth, which we all know of ourselves in our hearts…” For Howells, that truth is the hidden darkness of the self's crimes, deceptions, and evasions that underlie "the whitey-brown truth of the pericardium, or the nice, whitened truth of the shirt front." Howell’s point wasn’t that we are all secretly, irredeemably evil, but rather that we are all a complicated “mixture” (one of his favorite terms) of good and bad, of the exalted and the debased. It’s not a bad way of looking at humanity, of course. Far more realistic than what your get from American melodrama, Disney or otherwise. It's also more than a bit unsettling in Dreiser's hands, as he snuggles up with Clyde and makes us feel how his flawed character reflects on us all.