Class and the Consumption Ethic: Dreiser’s An American Tragedy

  • Michael Spindler


An American Tragedy is Dreiser’s finest work. Sergei Eisenstein wrote that it was ‘as broad and shoreless as the Hudson… as immense as life itself’, and that it could allow ‘almost any point of view of itself’. Its rare quality of multifaceted massiveness has fathered a large number of critical studies which all acknowledge Clyde Griffiths’s representative stature but make only vague gestures towards its origins. This imprecision is due to an individualist emphasis upon the character and fate of the protagonist and a corresponding lack of specificity in describing the given social structure and ideological framework with which that character interacts. Eisenstein regarded Clyde’s crime as ‘the sum total of those social relations, the influence of which he was subjected to at every stage of his unfolding biography and character’, and from our adopted sociological perspective it becomes evident that the social relation of class and the emergence, particularly among the young, of a consumption ethic condition Clyde’s character and fate to a large extent. A full understanding of the social context imaged in the novel is a prerequisite to a more exact identification of Clyde’s representativeness and leads to a definite locating of An A merican Tragedy within that conflict of values characteristic of twenties America.1


Defence Lawyer Social Image Consumption Ethic Youth Culture Protestant Ethic 
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  1. 1.
    Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form, edited and translated by Jay Leyda (London: 1951) p. 96. Eisenstein prepared a scenario of the novel for Paramount during his stay in the United States, but unfortunately it was turned down; see Irving Howe, ‘Afterword’ to the Signet edition of An American Tragedy (New York: 1964); F. O. Matthiessen, Theodore Dreiser (New York: 1956); Richard Lehan, Theodore Dreiser: His World and His Novels (Edwardsville: 1969); Ellen Moers, Two Dreisers: The Man and the Novelist (London: 1970); and Donald Pizer, The Novels of Theodore Dreiser (Minneapolis: 1976).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy (New York: 1964) p. 48.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Robert S. and Helen M. Lynd, Middletown: A Study in American Culture (New York: 1929) p. 134.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    See Paula S. Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s (New York: 1977) for a discussion of the importance of the youth culture in the 1920s and its main elements of peer-group conformity, consumerism and changing sexual mores.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (London: 1970) p. 207.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Trigant Burrow, ‘Social Images versus Reality’, Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Social Psychology, 19 (1924) 230–5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 9.
    See Lauriat Lane Jr, ‘The Double in An American Tragedy. Modern Fiction Studies, 12 (1966) 213–20, for a discussion of the physical similarity between Clyde and Gilbert.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    See Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (London: 1976) pp. 71–2 and p. 78: The new capitalism was primarily responsible for transforming the society, and in the process undermined the Puritan temper, but it was never able to develop successfully a new ideology congruent with the change, and it used — and often was trapped by — the older language of Protestant values.’Google Scholar

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© Michael Spindler 1983

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  • Michael Spindler

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