One hundred twenty-seven witnesses are called to testify for the prosecution,
carrying the case into November. When Titus Alden testifies, it’s regarding
Roberta’s move to Lycurgus and the bag she owned which was later found
at Gun Lodge, giving Mason a chance to show Roberta’s personal effects
and thus win jury sympathy. Belknap’s objections lead to a dispute when
Belknap also jokes about the political maneuverings implicit in the trial,
something Justice Oberwaltzer expressly forbids afterwards. From there,
Grace Marr, the Newtons, the Gilpins, Whiggam, Ligget, and Mrs. Peyton
all testify as to what they knew. C.B. Wilcox and his daughter Ethel,
neighbors of the Aldens in Biltz, testify to phone calls between Roberta
and a person they now believe to be Clyde. Other people also testify regarding
the mail between Roberta and Clyde, Roberta’s travels in Utica, and the
hotel in Utica where the couple stayed before heading to Big Bittern.
The cumulative effect of these witnesses is a reflection of Dreiser’s philosophy
about society being a complex matrix of relationships. Clyde foolishly
believed he could be seen by no one if he was discreet. As a point of
fact, everyone around him and Roberta noticed something and it
took the tragedy of Roberta’s death to piece together the exact circumstances.
More testimony is given against Clyde by people in Utica who saw Clyde and
Roberta. Mason counts on the camera to assure Clyde’s conviction and calls
on several people who connect Clyde with the camera found at the murder
scene, including Joseph Frazer, who sold Clyde the camera. Doctors who
examined Roberta’s body testify and show photos of her damaged face. Mrs.
Rutger Donahue, the woman who heard Roberta’s cry, gives her testimony
and is backed up by Thomas Barrett, an Adirondack guide present in the
area on that day. Mason then reads all of Roberta’s letters to Clyde,
invoking the jury’s sympathy and even crying as he reads. Mason ends the
prosecution’s case with the letters, and court ends for the day. Clyde
goes back to his jail cell, reviled by the public and holding no hope
Again, the thoroughness of Mason's prosecution reflects the thoroughness of
Dreiser's narrative, even giving Dreiser a chance to fill in some parts
that were glossed over, such as the time spent in Utica before the fatal
The next morning, the press praises Mason’s defense. Clyde is discouraged,
but his attorneys prepare their case. Belknap gives the opening statement,
taking issue with some of Mason’s statements and assumptions, including
the notion that Clyde promised to marry Roberta. He contends that Clyde
Griffiths is a mental and moral coward - which is how the situation with
Roberta and her pregnancy occurred, how she died by accident at Big Bittern,
and why he ran to Sharon after Roberta’s death. The courthouse grows excited
when Belknap promises an actual eyewitness at Roberta Alden’s death, prompting
Justice Oberwaltzer to call for order. There is further excitement when
Clyde takes the stand. Jephson asks to take over for Belknap and, under
his careful instructions, Clyde begins to recount the story of his life.
The press implicitly affirms Clyde's guilt by praising Mason's defense, showing
how the media can help influence the outcome of events where they repute
to be impartial.
Clyde continues his testimony, covering the car accident in Kansas City and fleeing the city afterwards, which Jephson uses as proof of Clyde’s cowardice. Jephson then helps Clyde discuss his relationship with Roberta Alden and his long-term intentions for Roberta before Miss X entered his life. However, Clyde contends, he never promised to marry Roberta. Clyde then continues about meeting Miss X, falling in love with her, and Roberta becoming pregnant. He testifies about trying to help Roberta but no longer loving her as he once did, offering to help her until she gave birth but promising nothing beyond that. Reasonable excuses are given for every major point of suspicion brought up by the prosecution. Clyde narrates that he never promised to Roberta he would marry her, but that he would have abided by whatever decision she made after he told her of his feelings for her and for Miss X.
On the lake, he had a change of heart towards Roberta after seeing her in
such distress over the pregnancy. Leaving his bag at the shore while they
took some pictures in the boat, Roberta stood up to embrace him and hit
herself against the camera, overturning the boat in the process. The boat
had floated away from them a good distance and Roberta was flailing around,
making it dangerous for him to approach her. She drowned, he swam ashore
to save himself and, seeing how bad the situation looked, decided to flee
to Sharon, where his friends were. In short, he had no intention to kill
her - which was a lie - and that she died through an unexpected turn of
events - which was something of a truth.
It's worth comparing the events as Clyde recounts here to the way Dreiser describes them in Book Two. Notice how truthful assertions are woven together with less truthful ones, and how it ends with a rather significant lie (Clyde had no intention to kill Roberta) wrapped in a significant truth (Clyde did not intend for Roberta to die the way she did). The key of the trial, then, becomes: which would hold greater sway, the significant lie or the significant truth?
Cite this page:
Mescallado, Ray. "TheBestNotes on An American Tragedy".
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