Friday, July 30, 2010

"Tell Mama. Tell Mama All."

I’m halfway through Theodore Dreiser’s 800-page “An American Tragedy.” (Thank you, Kindle!) I’d never read it before and it’s been years since I saw A Place In the Sun which is based on it. It’s a great read, although I think the same story could have been told in 500 pages. That Dreiser does go on and on saying the same thing over and over again.

The story takes place in the Adirondacks about an hour north of where I live now. Two of the main characters work in a factory that produces detachable collars, a ubiquitous product in that part of the state at that time. (Troy, NY’s nickname is still “The Collar City.”)

That alone is enough to hold my attention, but what I’m finding most interesting is the social/historical detail woven into the text. Since the story hinges on class differences in early 20th century America it was necessary for Dreiser to be specific about his character’s daily activities.

So, mundane (to Dreiser) things such as the proper way to address a new lady friend, or the fact that every little town had a movie theater, or how one would buy a ticket for each dance at a fun fair the same way one would buy a ticket for a carousel ride are presented matter-of-factly, while I’m finding them exotic and fascinating. Or the notion of being able to travel from town to town on convenient “interurban trolleys” (E.L. Doctorow explored this a bit in “Ragtime”, too) or the fact that one could not speak freely and confidentially on the telephone because there were very likely other people listening in on the conversation. Meanwhile, the description of upper-class summer life on the Adirondack lakes is making my mouth water.

I already know how the story ends so there’s no real suspense for me, but it’s a fun trip Mr. Dreiser is taking me on.

I’ll rent the movie when I finish the book, but I’ve already decided Shelley Winters was miscast. I think the character is more of a Janet Gaynor type—truly sweet and sincere and doe-like. I mean, who wouldn’t want to push Shelley Winters out of a canoe after spending too much time with her? The book provides good character background, too, as the movie version starts a couple of hundred pages into the novel. We’re first introduced to the Montgomery Clift character as a 12-year-old and meet his evangelical parents who are only referred to in passing in the movie.

While researching the story online I found there was an adaptation of the book on Broadway in the 1930s by The Group Theater and directed by Lee Strasberg. The unbelievable cast (and a HUAC wet dream) included: Luther Adler, Morris Carnovsky, John Garfield, Elia Kazan, Bobby Lewis, Sanford Meisner, Ruth Nelson and Paula Miller (who would later terrorize Hollywood directors under her married name, Paula Strasberg, as Marilyn Monroe’s acting coach.)


  1. While you're at it, check out the 1931 film with Sylvia Sidney and Frances Dee. Von Sternberg did an excellent job of capturing the monotony of factory work. Or maybe I'm just partial to any film with Frances Dee since she was married to Joel McCrea (woof) and mother of Jody McCrea (double woof).

  2. The only exposure I have had to Theodore Dreiser was Sister Carrie. It was a book I didn't think I'd enjoy, but I did, and still do!