As with the other two books, Book Three begins with a new setting and new
characters, marking a different phase in Clyde's life.
In the county seat of Bridgeburg, Fred Heit, the coroner for Cataraqui County,
receives a phone call about a drowned couple at Big Bittern. As he listens
to the details, he dictates them to his assistant, Earl Newcomb: the wife's
body was found, she left her coat and hat at the inn, her coat pocket
had a letter addressed to Mrs. Titus Alden of Biltz in Mimico County.
Heit and Newcomb head off to Big Bittern, but Newcomb first stops at Zillah
Saunders to tell her what happened and to tell his mother that he'll be
out of town and home late.
Readers immediately get a sense of political stakes: Newcomb is described
as a "politically active youth"; Heit tells Newcomb to inform
the two local newspapers, the Democrat and the Republican; and Zaunders'
boss, District Attorney Orville Mason, is doing work for the County Republican
Convention. Dreiser is clearly foreshadowing the politicized nature of
The disappearance of a rental boat and the happy couple using it resulted in a search party at Big Bittern the morning after. When a veil and hat was found at Moon Cove, more of the local populace became involved in dredging the water. Everyone agreed that it was odd for such an accident to happen on a day as calm as yesterday. Finally, John Pole and Joe Rainer discover Roberta's body. Immediately, the marks on Roberta's faces are noticed, as is the absence of a second body. When Heit arrives, suspicions are expressed to him about the following: the drowned girl left her bag at the inn while her companion, Clifford Golden, took his on the boat; comparing notes with the innkeeper at Grass Lake, the same Clifford Golden had apparently signed in as Carl Graham the night before; this person asked the guide if the lake would be crowded. Heit is given a letter found in the girl's coat, addressed to "Mama" and signed Bert. Heit could tell this was a situation involving a wayward girl in trouble --and also sensed that the situation can be used to the favor of the Republicans in the county, if a trial was to take place. The district attorney, a Republican, had served the two-term limit and a high-profile case can get him elected to a judgeship. Heit decides to hold back the letter, as it would solve the case too quickly if publicly revealed.
As he prepares to investigate the letter to Biltz, two men and a boy speak
to Heit about a mysterious man they encountered last night, dressed well
and heading to Three Mile Bay. Following up this lead, Heit calls Three
Mile Bay and later finds out a well-dressed man had taken the steamer
ferry Cygnus to Sharon this very morning. All are convinced that something
rotten has occurred, as news spreads through the various papers in the
Heit is less interested in solving the case quickly than in having the case
benefit the local Republican party.
Coroner Heit has to decide what to do next, including how to approach contacting
Mrs. Alden in Biltz. Returning to Bridgeburg, he speaks with the district
attorney, Orville Mason. Mason already heard early details from Zillah
Saunders, but Heit confirmed to him that the case is definitely murder.
Heit offers to go to Mrs. Alden to inform her of Roberta's death but points
out that it would be politically advantageous for Mason if he takes the
initiative. Mason expresses his gratitude and asks if anybody besides
Heit knows of the letter; Heit says only Hubbard, the innkeeper, is aware
of it. Heit mentions that Hubbard was afraid something was wrong based
on the missing young man's nervous behavior; further, there were the marks
on the drowned girl's face, as well as the group near Three Mile Bay who
ran into a mysterious young man. Earl Newcomb is following up leads both
there and at Sharon, but there is little doubt that this is a case of
murder. Mason tells his secretary Zillah Saunders to look up a Titus Alden
in Biltz and to have his legal assistant, Burton Burleigh, come back early
from his weekend vacation. Mason thanks Heit for this much-needed boost
to his political career.
We are given a brief biographical sketch of Mason, who grew up under poverty-stricken
neglect and suffered permanent facial injury in his teens. Despite such
a background and disfigurement, he climbed up the local political ladder
and began a family.
Orville Mason drives from Bridgeburg to Biltz, where he first meets Titus at the Alden farm. He confirms that Titus has a daughter whose nickname is Bert, Roberta, and that Titus has never heard of a Clifford Golden or Carl Graham. Mason asks more questions about Roberta and her recent activities before showing the envelope with her handwriting. Titus suspects that she's been harmed or is dead, which Mason confirms. Titus becomes hysterical but Mason calms him down for the sake of Roberta's mother, who must also hear this news. Titus vows righteous vengeance on the person who violated and murdered his daughter, then breaks the news to his wife. Mrs. Alden faints when told and Mason thinks quickly, asking Titus where he can phone a doctor; Titus directs him to the Wilcoxes next door, the same phone that Roberta used to speak with Clyde, and there Mason dials up Dr. Crane in Biltz.
Upon recovering, Mrs. Alden tells Mason that the only person Roberta had mentioned
to her was her employer, Clyde Griffiths. This third example of the initials
C.G. is too much to be coincidence, Mason decides. Mason and Titus speak
to the Aldens' mailman, who confirms numerous letters sent out to a Clyde
Griffiths. Orville Mason and Titus Alden then go to Bridgeburg: at the
Lutz Brothers funeral parlor, Titus confirms that the drowned girl is
his daughter. Dramatically, he asks for Mason's help in prosecuting the
person responsible. Mason is emotionally moved and promises to do exactly
that, impressing those who hear him. Newcomb then reminds Mason of the
bag Roberta left at Gun Lodge, evidence that must be investigated.
Dreiser's stylistic emphasis on details pays off in an unexpected fashion in this Book, as it is reinforced by the importance of evidence in finding and prosecuting Clyde.
Cite this page:
Mescallado, Ray. "TheBestNotes on An American Tragedy".
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