An American Tragedy was published in December 1925, and issued in two volumes. Dreiser created a poignant yet powerful novel of youthful loneliness in industrial society and of the American mirage that beckons some of the young to disaster.
For years Dreiser had been collecting news accounts about desperate young men who had tried to rid themselves of passing love affairs by violence. The case of Chester Gillette particularly fascinated him. In Herkimer County, New York, in 1906, Gillette lured his pregnant sweetheart, Grace Brown, to Big Moose Lake and drowned her. Discovered and apprehended almost immediately, Gillette was electrocuted at Auburn Penitentiary in March 1908.
In voluminous detail, Dreiser tells the bewildering story of Clyde Griffiths, a son of evangelists, who takes a job as a bellhop, is involved in an automobile accident, escapes to another city, finds work in his uncle's factory, divides his affection between a factory girl and a socialite, entices the pregnant factory girl to a lake, lets her drown, and is himself tried, sentenced, and electrocuted.
For this story, Dreiser scrutinized the official court records and the many newspaper reports of the Gillette-Brown case, explored Herkimer County, and inspected Sing Sing, gathering thousands of impressions and details.
The chief tenet of such literary naturalists as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser is that man is a helpless pawn of his heredity and his environment, a creature caught in the web of causation and chance. Although Clyde has seemingly successful moments, his life is basically one of suffering. Because of his deficient thought and weak will, Clyde is the protagonist-victim not of a "tragic" but of a "pathetic" plot, and in keeping with the naturalistic-pathetic plot, human frailty and futility pervade An American Tragedy.
Both the "pathetic" individual and the "tragic" civilization loom large in this novel. In Kansas City, Denver, and San Francisco, we see the Griffithses in a society whose organic community has declined. Clyde's class snobbery is an outgrowth of individualism and urbanization. And we see in Clyde the decline of belief, the growth of the secular ethic, and the fragmentation of his personality.
Although its classic one hundred chapters are divided into three disproportionate books of nineteen, forty-seven, and thirty-four chapters, the ponderous whole is tensely unified. Dreiser's fictional cosmos of indifference toward puny, struggling man reveals the contrast between the weak, the poor, and the ugly and between the relatively strong, rich, and beautiful. Again, he contrasts the photographic world-as-it-is with the visionary world-as-it-might-be. Because of Dreiser's bold contrasts, systematic ambiguity, and uneasy mixture of scientific notions and compassionate feelings, critics often argue whether or not Dreiser was a "naturalist," a "realist," or an old-fashioned "romantic." Indeed, his descriptions of subjective states compel as much attention as do his documentaries of material surfaces — and both penetrate beneath simple appearance. Aesthetically, his vast network of dramatic contrast makes for fascinating ironies, foreshadowings, and parallels, all of which contribute to the book's unity.
From time to time the reader will note in Dreiser's prose certain crudities and repetitions. Our literary sensibilities might even be offended when, for example, we see Clyde Griffiths "beat a hasty retreat . . ." or when the omniscient narrator informs us that certain emotions "now transformation-wise played over his countenance . . ." or when a young girl wears "two small garnet earrings in her ears" or when a chapter begins: "Yet a thought such as that of the lake, connected as it was with the predicament by which he was being faced, and shrink from it though he might, was not to be dismissed as easily as he desired."
To be sure, most of Dreiser's sentences do not conform to the ideal set forth in, say, Strunk and White's Elements of Style. Yet Dreiser's prose on the whole renders the illusion of the ordinary world with extraordinary fidelity. Significantly, claims have been advanced that Theodore Dreiser is one of the world's best worst writers, and that he is an impurist with nothing but genius.