Theodore Dreiseróa familiar and rather dusty icon, to many perhaps only a nameóhas been ill served by his historic stature. The Mount Rushmore effect of being canonized as the Father of American Realism tends to obscure the peculiar and unsettling qualities of his work. Perhaps a new edition of An American Tragedy will provide an occasion for appreciating the idiosyncratic oddness of this writer. Realism, that convenient but ultimately unhelpful literary category, suggests an objectivity belied by the hallucinatory edge and multiple levels of Dreiser's greatest writing.
An American Tragedy can be read simultaneously as a documentary on common patterns of social and sexual behavior in early-twentieth-century United States, with special reference to the workings of the judiciary and penal systems; as an immense gothic fever dream along the lines of George Lippard's nineteenth- century thriller The Monks of Monk Hall; as a symbolic autobiography; and as a prophetic poem in which American placesótowns, lakes, factories, roadhouses, railroad stations, courtrooms, prisonsótake on the archetypal force of ancient palaces, islands, and underworlds.
The rudimentary framework of Dreiser's plot is well known, if only from George Stevens's movie version, A Place in the Sun: Clyde Griffiths, offspring of a family of street preachers, yearns for better things and, by going to work for a more prosperous branch of his family, comes near to realizing his dream of marrying a beautiful socialite; but in the meantime he has impregnated a working girl and can imagine no way out of his dilemma than to murder her. The last third of the book is a relentlessly detailed account of Clyde's trial, imprisonment, and execution. In preparation for the novel Dreiser spent years researching American murder cases, and many details of the one he settled onóincluding the exact wording of the victim's lettersóare made part of the text.
But the information Dreiser uses has been internalized to such a degree that found data become autobiography. A number of details that turn up in his memoirsóa father afflicted with stern religiosity, children painfully aware of their lack of social status, a neighbor's son standing trial for murder, a pregnant girl desperately looking for a way out, an oppressive small-town atmosphere in which everyone knows everyone else's secretsóresonate with the case of Griffiths, Dreiser's object lesson in how an average-enough person becomes a murderer.
To read Dreiser is to become aware of a flat declamatory tone apparently unconcerned with niceties of style. The author's self-invented dialect would be easy enough to mistake for a crude and groping form of expression. He has been described as the kind of great writer who triumphs over his own deficiencies of style, much as has been said about Balzac, one of his literary heroes. The sentence fragments left dangling or polished off with an "etcetera" or "and so on," as if he couldn't be bothered to finish one thought before rushing on with the next; his ungainly, often pulpish authorial interjections ("The horror of this effort!"); his piling on of details when the situation is clear enough: Dreiser creates a barbaric surface that constantly interrupts itself, hauling pieces of scenes and conversations toward the reader's attention. Nothing can be allowed to go by without being seized hold of and clawed at until it yields up its secrets. He rummages through his characters' thoughts with the impatient thoroughness of a child left alone to explore the contents of an attic. A moment of consciousness can become, in his hands, a thicket of many pages of prose, as if to embody the difficulty for his characters of getting from one idea to the next.
Yet what we might think we are getting at despite Dreiser's language is finally nothing but that language itself: a prose that must incorporate everything into itself, as if nothing in the world could truly be said to exist until Dreiser has put it in his book. One could tag isolated elements of his prose as emanating from a lecture on psychology, a sensational piece of magazine fiction, a letter home to the folks, a down-to-earth business report, a Nietzschean prose poem, a diary (much like Dreiser's own) charting sexual compulsions with clinical exactness; but how persuasively he forces the unlike elements together to serve his purpose.
Like a prose Whitmanóbut in a mode so much more discordant and disabusedóDreiser must complete his catalogue of every remembered sensation, every observed creature, every personal and social circumstance. His omnivorous realism is obsessive and formalistic: He aims not to stand outside the world and photograph it but to confirm that all of it is contained within him. The deeper effect of his prose style is to impart a sense of unwavering certainty; he is persuaded that what he says is true, and the force of that persuasion overrides any quibbles about how he goes about saying it.
The details Dreiser so compulsively amasses in An American Tragedy are for him all of equal importance. Any incidentóa boy taking his first drink of liquor, a girl looking at a beaver jacket in a fur-store window, a worker demonstrating the industrial process for manufacturing shirt collarsóbecomes for its moment the center of the world.
Everything that happens in his fiction becomes a parable, but these are the parables of someone who remembers how much he suffered in childhood from the German Catholicism imposed on him. He is a prophet who brings not transcendence but brutal confrontation with what is unescapably there. In his 1938 memoir Dawn, Dreiser writes (in one of a hundred comparable asides): "I am haunted by the truth that life is built upon murder and lust, and nothing less! Sweet, tender, flawless universe, indeed!" (The occasion for the outburst is a childhood visit to a slaughterhouse.) Materiality is pure terror for which the only consolation is materiality itself, in its more benign aspects of color and contour and fleshly pleasure. A powerful celebratory currentóthe praise of desire for its own sakeósustains the work and keeps it from becoming an exercise in deterministic pessimism, even if, as he counts down each fatal move in which Clyde descends closer to his death, Dreiser keeps his eye on ultimate annihilation. The unrelieved intensity of Dreiser's writing has to do with his never being at rest, even in the parallel world of the book. The unresolved restlessness of his characters coincides exactly with the tremor of sentences that seek not so much to describe as to bring into being.
Dreiser's omniscient narration, a holdover from the nineteenth-century novels that he loved, resembles the drone of the seer or shaman who, with eyes closed, imparts news of the places he visits on his spirit journey. His very cadence seems designed to induce trance, as if it were by digging into the implications of a certain verbal rhythm that Dreiser gains access to the scenes he transcribes: "For the thought of the police and their certain pursuit was strong upon him. . . . For already the wife of the suburbanite, on hearing the crash and the cries in the distance, had telephoned the police that an accident had occurred here. . . . And in addition, looking across the fields one could see the lights of these approaching machines." It is the tone of someone who, crouched in a hiding place, relays word of the portentous events he is spying on.
Surveillance, in fact, is one of Dreiser's great themes: In An American Tragedy the inhabitants of small towns live in fear of what the neighbors can see, and illicit lovers must act like resistance fighters under enemy occupation, seeking out places where they cannot be observed. Dreiser is himself the all-seeing eye keeping Griffiths's consciousness under surveillance, monitoring every flicker of lust, fear, and cunning calculation. He describes the movements of his characters in the manner of a military tactician assessing feints and sorties. Every human occasion is dangerous, every outcome potentially catastrophic. A drunken party at a roadhouse is no less doom-laden than a murder on an Adirondack lake. He conducts us through the spaces of an altogether typical small American city as if it were the spook house at an abandoned amusement park. The past he makes accessible to usóa past devoid of any nostalgic auraóis a place whose rough-hewn solidity and primeval terrors show no sign of dissipating: a place of myth that survives because Dreiser was, after all and above all, a true poet disguised as a writer of ramshackle prose.
Geoffrey O'Brien is the author of The Browser's Ecstasy: A Meditation on Reading, published recently in paperback by Counterpoint.