Saturday, April 30, 2011

Misguided Ambition

An American Tragedy (Signet Classics)
An American Tragedy 

"Indeed, it was now as though from the depths of some lower or higher world never before guessed or plumbed by him... a region other where than in life or death and peopled by creatures otherwise than himself... there had now suddenly appeared, as the genie at the accidental rubbing of Aladdin’s lamp - as the spirit emerging as smoke from the mystic jar in the net of the fisherman - the very substance of some leering and diabolic wish or wisdom concealed in his own nature, and that now abhorrent and yet compelling, leering and yet intriguing, friendly and yet cruel, offered him a choice between an evil which threatened to destroy him (and against his deepest opposition) and a second evil which, however it might disgust or sear or terrify, still provided for freedom and success and love." (482-483)

- Clyde Griffiths is a young man with ambition. From the start of this novel when he is a young boy from a poor but devout family he is both on the run and doomed. In over his head with problems that stick to him like  honey he leaves Kansas City and arrives in New York, and before long he is in love with a rich girl, but it's a poor girl he has gotten pregnant, Roberta Alden, who works with him at his uncle's factory. One day he takes Roberta canoeing on a lake with the intention of killing her. From there his fate is sealed and doom is once again on the horizon. But by then Dreiser has made plain that Clyde's fate was long before sealed by a brutal and cynical society.

- The usual criticism of Dreiser is that, line for line, he's the weakest of the great American novelists. And it's true that he takes a journalist's approach to writing, joining workmanlike sentences one to the other. His prose is repetitive at times, but he slowly builds a powerful network of words, sentences and paragraphs with a natural vitality flowing through them. The first time I read this novel I was still in high school during my Dreiser and Hardy phase. Hardy wears better over the years, but both remain powerful for the attentive reader.

It was only later that I saw the famous film made from the novel.  There's nothing quite like young, tragic love. And George Stevens' "A Place in the Sun" understands this perfectly. By adapting Theodore Dreiser's masterful novel "An American Tragedy" with two of the most heart-stoppingly beautiful people in cinema (Montgomery Clift and Taylor), Stevens immediately puts the viewer in the lovers' corner, no matter what they do. But it isn't just their looks that make you swoon; it's the chemistry and fragile performances. The film is pure Hollywood romance with the rough edges of doom softened a bit, but still present.

A GoodReads Update

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