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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Dreiser’s ‘An American Tragedy’– The Tragic Consequences Of Mediocrity

Irving Howe writes in his afterward to American Tragedy:
We have then in Clyde a powerful representation of our unacknowledged values, powerful especially since Dreiser keeps a majestic balance between sympathy and criticism. He sees Clyde as a characteristic reflex of ‘the vast skepticism and apathy of life’, as a characteristic insistence of the futility of misplaced desire in a society that offers little ennobling sense of human potentiality. 
Yet he nevertheless manages to make the consequences of Clyde’s mediocrity, if not the mediocrity itself, seem tragic.  For in this youth there is concentrated the tragedy of human waste: energies, talents, affections all unused – and at least in our time the idea of human waste comprises an essential meaning of tragedy.
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It is an idea to which Dreiser kept returning both in his fiction and his essays as this excerpt demonstrates:
When one was dead one was dead for all time.  Hence the reason for heartbreak over failure here and now; the awful tragedy of love lost, a youth never properly enjoyed.  Think of living and yet not living in so thrashing a world such as this, the best of one’s hours passing unused or not properly used.  Think of seeing the tinkling phantasmagoria of pain and pleasure, beauty and all its sweets, go by, and yet being compelled to be a bystander, a mere onlooker, enhungered and never satisfied.
The tragedy of Clyde Griffiths, then, comes because he is ‘mediocre’ – a man with bourgeois ambitions but no education or social instruction to offer him any perspective on them. He is captivated by impossible but very American dreams of success, wealth, and beauty, but so unschooled in either the individual expressions of human nature, or the ways of a collective, demanding, and amoral society that he can navigate within this wider world.

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He is doomed to failure and tragedy from childhood.  He has an instinctive and immediate revulsion for what he sees as the petty vulgarity of his parents and their street-corner preaching.  He cannot appreciate their honesty, faith, and commitment; and can only see the shabbiness of their clothes, their home, and their life.

He has a similar and instinctive admiration for all that is wealthy, beautiful, charming, and seductive – a painful counterpoint to his own spare and disaffected life.

Dreiser offers no explanation for Clyde’s moral distortion, but implies that it must be common in a society so divided by class, economic, and social distinction.  There is no way that any one of intelligence, regardless of training or instruction, can fail to see the best that America represented and the consequences of a failure to attain it or worse, never appreciating its value.

So Clyde’s trajectory is set. He is intelligent, observant, and ambitious; but because of what he considers his shameful, disreputable, and marginal existence, an erratic moral compass with no due north; and an overweening, absolute desire to live beyond his means, he cannot but lose his way.

The book is one of shifting sympathies.  At first we empathize and sympathize with the embarrassment of a young boy laughed at by his peers, considered a commodity exploited by his eccentric and self parents, a social cipher, and one of thousands of unsocialized, poor, and marginal Americans worth little notice.

We admire his social and economic ambition, his careful study of the ways of employment, and how to maneuver and plan for a better future.  We applaud his initiative in approaching his uncle, and recognize his patience as he spends months in the lowest tier of the collar factor.

We wonder why he so easily deviates from his plan to rise in the factory, the social world of his uncle, and Lycurgus society; and how he could be so besotted by a young, attractive, admiring, but ordinary factory worker under his charge.  Yet we sympathize with him.  His sexuality is just as robust and American as his social intentions.  Why shouldn’t he have both?

When he meets Sondra Finchley, a wealthy young socialite of Lycurgus and finds that she can be not only his ticket of admission to society but a possible mate and heir to a vast fortune, he completely loses his moral way.  He is besotted by Sondra’s beauty, confidence, and social superiority; and leaves Roberta, the factory girl, alone and disconsolate, with no explanation, no honesty, and no regard.

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Yet, we still have some sympathy for Clyde.  Why shouldn’t he be free to love Sondra, to defy the Procrustean mentality of upper Lycurgus and the bourgeois sexual mores of the lower middle class? Isn’t there some moral legitimacy in his social aspirations?

All sympathy is lost when he begins to plot the murder of the pregnant Roberta; for in the words used by his lawyers at his trial, he is exposed as ‘a mental and moral coward’, lacking any rectitude or principle. 

Our sympathies then shift to the poor factory girl, innocent of wrongdoing, loving, attentive, and hurt at Clyde’s summary dismissal of her.  She, despite his growing diffidence, continues to love him and his treatment of her is cruel, officious, and hateful.

Yet as Clyde’s mother reflects during his trial, the girl is not blameless.  She could have resisted his advances but did not because she saw in Clyde, the nephew of the most important family in Lycurgus, her own way out of poverty and isolation. Murder can never be forgiven, but Roberta’s actions should also be considered as mitigating evidence.

At Clyde’s trial we shift allegiances again and cannot manage unmitigated criticism of a boy now finally confronting the moral dilemma at the heart of his actions.  We appreciate the subtle legal and moral distinctions between premeditation and accidental death.  He has convinced us that there must always be room for doubt.  While he did plot her murder, his striking her in the boat was done more out of anger and frustration at his own inability to act than out of a real desire to see her dead; and couldn’t his dereliction – letting Roberta drown with no attempt to save her – be as the lawyers contended, an act of mental and moral cowardice, but no more?

If nothing else, Clyde has finally faced the essential nature of moral action. While he cannot square his intentions with his actions and denies responsibility until the very end, he has quickly matured.  Is it too much to ask of a young, naïve, ignorant morally deficient coward to maturely face facts, the horror of crime and sin he committed? Is it not enough that even when his fate has been sealed he still tries to sort out his confusion?

This is why Clyde’s tragedy is one of mediocrity.  It would be easy to hate and dismiss someone of superior intellect, experience, and social savvy who should have known better.  We have no sympathy, regardless of the mitigating circumstances, of Bernie Madoff who bilked his friends and associates of billions in an elaborate Ponzi scheme.  There is no tragedy in Madoff’s rise and fall, but there is in that of Clyde who had been seduced by America, misunderstood by his parents, and the inheritor of just enough intelligence to see his way out of penury and social ridicule. 

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Just enough intelligence.  Just enough fortuitous encounters.  Just enough favor by well-meaning but naïve relatives.  Just enough natural charm to win his way where he did not belong.

Dreiser’s tragedy is not classic tragedy where great men because of tragic flaw, fall precipitously from grace; but a modern one with its caveats, presumptions, and legal and moral conundrums.  No one is clean or exonerated in the fall of a mediocre man.  Such tragic heroism is rightfully told in myth and legend.

American Tragedy is a long, often windy, overwritten book; but it deserves more attention than it has received by literary critics who have challenged its doggedly narrative style, its indifference to psycho-social first causes and their influence on behavior; and the related but abrupt changes of tone, venue, and purpose.

Yet it is a compelling book.  It has elements of the crime-and-guilt genre popular from Dostoevsky to Woody Allen (Crime and Punishment, Crimes and Misdemeanors); reminiscences of thousands of complicated psycho-legal thrillers; similarities to the long cradle-to-grave melodramas of Dickens.  It is a novel on the cusp of modernism, staying narrative but venturing outside it.

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Most importantly, it is important because Clyde’s tragedy is our own.  We are mediocre, imperfect, ambitious, and flawed; perhaps with more concern for social consequences and less risk-taking, but still morally uncertain and morally challenged.  We might like to think that we are different from or better than Clyde, but we are not.

Irving Howe concludes his Afterword in this way:
Dreiser is marvelous in his devotion to whatever portion of life a man can have; marvelous in his conviction that something sacred resides even in the transience of our days; marvelous in his feeling that the grimmest of lives retain the possibility of “a mystic something of beauty that perennially transfigures the world”.  Transfigures – that is the key word, and not the catch-phrases of mechanistic determinism he furnished his detractors (Irving Howe).

In other words, Clyde in the end, mediocre as he might be, at least had intimations of transfiguration, “a mystic something of beauty”.  Overreaching, overstepping, and unreasoned ambition are the ways mediocre men try to achieve this beauty but never do.

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