A widely acknowledged (but by whom, exactly?) classic of American literature and one of the hundreds of books on the litterateur's shopping list at the back of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy is also among the worst-written of canonical novels. As a writer, Dreiser is deaf to sentence rhythm and tone, and lyricism remains an undiscovered country--as does metaphor, except for the occasional teeth-grindingly hoary cliche. And speaking of cliches, it has become one to mention that American Tragedy and The Great Gatsby were published the same year. Aside from dramatically exemplifying the difference between modernity and Modernism (Dreiser being an example of the former and Fitzgerald of the latter), the comparison between these oddly similar novels emphasizes the vast aesthetic gulf between the two writers' styles (if, that is, we decide to call Dreiser's bizarre cornpone turgidity a 'style'). If Fitzgerald's prose slides and shimmers along like a limpid mountain stream, Dreiser's spreads slowly across the page like stale molasses. Clotted and cliched, prolix and pretentious, Dreiser's prose is a burden that renders An American Tragedy almost unreadable. I could quote an example from any of the book's 800+ pages, but to sledgehammer my point home, I'll give you a paragraph of Tone Deaf Ted at his very worst:
The "death house" in this particular prison was one of those crass erections and maintenances of human insensitiveness and stupidity principally for which no one primarily was really responsible. Indeed, its total plan and procedure were the results of a series of primary legislative enactments, followed by decisions and compulsions as devised by the temperaments and seeming necessities of various wardens, until at last--by degrees and without anything worthy of the name of thinking on anyone's part--there had been gathered and was now being enforced all that could possibly be imagined in the way of unnecessary and really unauthorized cruelty or stupid and destructive torture. And to the end that a man, once condemned by a jury, would be compelled to suffer not alone the death for which his sentence called, but a thousand others before that. For the very room by its arrangement, as well as the rules governing the lives and actions of the inmates, was sufficient to bring about this torture, willy-nilly.
Whew. As Dreiser might say, this is horrible and really bad prose. It's so bad it's almost funny--Dreiser as a literary Ed Wood. I especially appreciate the entirely unnecessary "willy-nilly" he tacks onto the end, presumably because this ass of a paragraph deserves an appropriate tail. And that "unnecessary and really unauthorized" always makes me smile.
Hardcore Dreiserians (if any still exist) might argue that the flat, bland mediocrity of Dreiser's style accurately reflects the ugliness of his characters' milieu, but I'm not buying that argument at any price. Dreiser isn't Flaubert or Joyce or Nathanael West or Pynchon, writers who specialize in parodying the dreadful discourses of their days. Nor is he Emile Zola, the writer Dreiser most resembles in both his journalistic realism (the best aspect of this book) and his undercooked scientism (one of the worst). It was briefly fashionable during the 1960s-70s heyday of the "nonfiction novel" (In Cold Blood, The Executioner's Song) to credit Dreiser as an American precursor of Capote and Mailer. And while it's undeniable that Dreiser, more than any other writer, was responsible for the importation of Zolaesque Naturalism into American literature (Dreiser is thus more important to literary history than to literature, an important distinction), he accomplished this almost by default: if Stephen Crane had lived, Dreiser's career would've been unnecessary ("and really unauthorized"). Crane would have given America a naturalist literature written in beautifully impressionistic prose (think of Zola's prose in La Bete Humaine). Dreiser's prose, on the other hand, is simply bad and nothing more. Well, actually, it is something more: it's bloody awful.