Free Study Guide for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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Theodore Dreiser - BIOGRAPHY

Theodore Dreiserís most ambitious and critically acclaimed novel is strongly autobiographical in nature, reflecting his own upbringing though not the eventual trajectory of success his life took. Herman Theodore Dreiser was born on August 27, 1871 in Terre Haute, Indiana, the son of fiercely dogmatic German Catholic father and a German-Moravian Mennonite mother. His childhood was poverty-stricken as the family wandered the Midwest, his father often in search of employment. Dreiser left home at sixteen and managed to attend Indiana University for one year. In 1892, Dreiser began a career in journalism, moving around the Midwest and eventually settling in New York.

His first novel, Sister Carrie, was based partly on his own sister, who had run away with a man whoíd committed a robbery, and the scandalous nature of the story led to a small print run that went unpromoted by the publisher. Returning to journalism and magazine editing,

Dreiser followed Sister Carrie with Jennie Gerhardt in 1911, which earned favorable attention and led to a reprinting of his first novel - this time to great acclaim. Dreiser became the American champion of naturalism, a style of writing interested in not only depicting the realities of society, but to trace methodically the roots of social ills in the matrix of circumstances - social, political, psychological - that influence people. Often, his books were excoriated for their depiction of sexuality and the sordid aspects of American life. A writer who often relied on both journalism and his own life for his fiction, his writing also garnered attention for its liberal use of real life inspiration, with his use of sources and even charges of plagiarism surfacing on occasion. Dreiser followed his initial success with the first two of the planned Cowperwood trilogy - named after the protagonist, Frank Cowperwood, a fictionalized version of American entrepreneur Charles Yerkes - The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914). The "Genius" was published in 1915, again gaining Dreiser controversial attention for its frank depiction of sexuality.

1925's An American Tragedy cemented Dreiserís reputation as an important American author, but this would be the last new major work of fiction he would attempt. In his remaining years, Dreiser finished two novels that were started many years before, including the last of his Cowperwood Trilogy with 1945ís The Stoic. However, as his interest in socialism grew, he would turn his attention to more politically oriented writings, including Dreiser Looks at Russia in 1928 and America is Worth Saving in 1941. He also wrote in a wide variety of other genres throughout his career, including poetry collections, dramas, short stories, travelogues, essays, and autobiographies.

In his personal life, Dreiser was less than morally resolute. He married Sara Osborne White in 1892, and she played a key role in the development and writing of Sister Carrie. However, he was notorious for his infidelities - the sexual voracity of the men in his work were inspired in no small part by his own yearnings - but eventually settled with another woman, his cousin Helen Richardson. They married after Sara White's death in 1942. Theodore Dreiser died on December 28, 1945, in Hollywood, California, where he resided since the 1920s.

Dreiser was a major literary figure in the first part of the twentieth century, with prominent friends in literary, artistic and politically active circles. As the century progressed his body of work has since been mostly forgotten by the public, with only his major novels read with any frequency - and often highly criticized for the turgid writing style and mechanistic view of humanity. However, a resurgence of interest has led to a rehabilitation of Dreiser's reputation and a renewed appreciation for the importance - both literary and social - of his finest work.


The novel was inspired by two personal histories: Dreiserís own early life, recounted above, and the murder trial of Chester Gillette. Like Dreiser, Gillette's immediate family was involved in charity and spiritual work - in their case, the Salvation Army - and move frequently. Also like Dreiser, Gillette was given a chance to pursue a better education than his early life permitted, but did not stick with it. Leaving school, Gillette went to work for his uncle, the owner of the Gillette Skirt Factory in Cortland, New York.

Grace Brown escaped the tedium of farm life by following her sister to Cortland, working in the Gillette factory. The two become involved in 1905 and by 1906 Grace became pregnant. She demanded Chester do something about their situation, temporarily moving back with her parents but writing to Chester frequently. Chester reputedly had never been faithful to Grace, enjoying some social prestige due to his relations, and continued to see other women even in this crisis. After threatening to expose him in her letters, he finally agreed to meet her. With Gillette using different aliases throughout (though Grace used her real name), the two traveled through Utica and other towns before arriving at Big Moose Lake on July 11, 1906. They rented a boat but had not returned by evening; a search took place, and the body of Grace was found in the water, her face mutilated. Chester was quickly found and arrested; Grace's letters were discovered and it was believed the tennis racket Chester carried on their boat trip was used to strike her.

Chester was abandoned by his uncle Noah and relied on a court appointed lawyer. The trial led to a great media sensation at the time. There were rumors of "another woman", forcing a Harriet Benedict to formally state she wasn't this person. The prosecution strung together a compelling case based on circumstantial evidence, while the defense offered that Grace Brown committed suicide. Gillette gave testimony claiming Grace stepping out of the boat in a panic when he told her he wanted to tell her family of the pregnancy. The jury found Gillette guilty, sentencing him to death. Chester's mother, Louise, was living in Denver at the time and, convinced by Chester of his innocence, sought for an appeal to the case. The Denver Times paid for Louise to go to New York; she did so and tried to raise money for Chester's appeal, but eventually was forced to return to Denver. The appeal was denied, leading to another visit to New York by Louise, who fruitlessly spoke with the governor. Chester Gillette was electrocuted on March 30, 1908.

Dreiser's novel inspired great debate on how faithfully it depicted the real life events, but became the basis for other re-tellings of the events. An American Tragedy led to a stage adaptation, followed by a movie adaptation released in 1931, over the initial protests of both Dreiser and Grace Brown's mother. Another film version, A Place in the Sun, was released in 1951 and earned six Academy Awards.


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