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An American Tragedy ()

Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century (16)

Theodore Dreiser is considered to be the leading American practitioner of Naturalism--which consists of writing about sex and violence in the lower classes in order to reveal what I gather were supposed to be shattering truths about the bleak aspects of modern industrial urban life.  To that end, Sister Carrie tells the story of a pretty small town girl who uses her feminine wiles to sleep her way from the factories and saloons of Chicago to the New York stage.  Along the way, the tavern owning married man who stole to fund their escape to Chicago, kills himself after being abandoned by Carrie and ending up in Bowery flophouses.  Meanwhile, An American Tragedy tells the story, based on a sensational true crime, of a young man who is working his way towards the American dream and refuses to let a pregnant former girlfriend stand in the way of his chance for romance with a wealthy woman.  He takes the slattern out in a boat & clobbers her, but is tried and executed for the crime.

It is an open secret that even critics who admire Dreiser, consider him to be a horrible writer technically.   American Tragedy has been called "the worst-written great novel in the world" and the otherwise loathsome Garrison Keillor has an amusing column about how bad he finds Sister Carrie on rereading it.  His books have all the literary grace of the phone book.

Thus, his reputation rests solely on the agreement of Left wing critics with his hatred of American capitalism.  Well, 100 years on, I think we can safely say that the American system has served us pretty well and the Sister Carrie's of the world are not simply insignificant but, worse for a writer, uninteresting.


Grade: (F)


Theodore Dreiser has never been read a great deal in the UK partly because his work is not generally available. I asked for An American Tragedy in my local library Liverpool } and had to wait 3 months before they borrowed it from a library in Perth can you believe. Most of the comments here from Americans are extremely defensive of Capitalism as portrayed in the novel but Dreiser was never condemnatory about Capitalism per se ---he simply portrayed one man's reaction to entering the world of Capitalism as an immigrant and that reaction was extreme and ugly. The American Dream emanates from the immigrant work ethic and just because one man kills to become a part of it does not mean the whole structure is rotten.

- John Hussey

- Jan-19-2006, 10:24


The book is an unnessary read, being forced to read it by a bunch or niave adminstrators in schools who think that because someone gave a good review of it once and that they couldn't understand it its obviosly good.

The fact of the matter is that this book sucks, I should never have had to have touched this, let alone read it.

It is just like Jane Eyre; it over dramatizes everthing and the few morals or attempts at allowing you to better understand life, are better illustrated in newer books that actually make the reader feel like they had to be under a whip to complete this book. If An American Tragedy was actually released today it would not sell simple because of how cliche it is, along with many other "CLASSICS"

- Cryllic Cyril

- Sep-06-2005, 14:33



No, it's that the book is inane and reads like the phone book.

- oj

- May-31-2005, 18:32


Is this a comments page based on Dreiser, or is it simply a place for bitchy, almost racist comments such as 'you people' in reference to the 'Brits'? Isn't the main point we should be making be the fact that Dreiser was making a social comment, based on the shallow, selfish nature of Capitalism, whether it be in the USA, Britain, or anywhere? I would be very interested to see if someone like Judith could produce a better piece of literature, particularly as she doesn't even seem to be able to spell.

- Human

- May-31-2005, 17:29


I may only be 16, but I recognize quality when I see it. An American Tragedy has quality. I have a recommendation to Darrenn: read Jerry Dennis' Fishing with Hemmingway as a Guide, his attitude is like yours

- Ashra

- Mar-02-2005, 16:46


I don't know what all you people are talkign baout, if you actually read An American Tragedy through you would see that the theme of the book is timeless... not to mention it's based on an actual murder case...

- Dresier Fan

- May-07-2004, 11:31


Correction: Last comment was meant for DARREN of the UK.

- Judith

- May-05-2004, 19:39


Comment to Orrin of the UK: You have the typical attitude of most uneducated Brits. It surprises me that you don't applaud Dreiser's work, as most of the Brits I've met (educated and un)like Dreiser and Steinbeck. It seems your people rather enjoy stories that illustrate the evils of American capitlaism. Perhaps you Brits long for your own glory days where the sun never set on The British Empire, and you secretly bemoan your socialistic status. By the way, drinking (as in pubs)does not a slender Brit make!

- Judith

- May-05-2004, 19:38


The official motto of the Dreiser fan: "Who cares if they're good!"

- oj

- Apr-23-2004, 11:06


Dreiser's words are long and drawn out, but they do hold a fixed purpose which influences society everyday. Especially when the youths of today read Dreiser's works and apply it to their own life. His books are important, who cares if they are good, they should be read anyway.

- Zelphany

- Apr-23-2004, 10:33


What a load of total crap!!!!

Sister Carrie and American Tragedy pee all over the novels of James, Hawthorne, Melville, and the rest of the supposed greats. Americans wouldnt be able to spot the great American Novel even if it kicked them in their oversized guts. And Capitalism has just helped the US to turn into the abhorrent dump that it is today. You are a cretin who is abusing the web as a stage for your dullard views...

- Darren (UK)

- Jan-09-2004, 08:44