A new edition of Dreiser’s massive 1925 masterpiece, a thrillingly detailed social panorama onto which a vivid, sobering tale of ambition and murder and their consequences is painstakingly grafted. The tragedy is an “American” one because of its central action: the drowning of pregnant Roberta Alden by her lover Clyde Griffiths (based on a real 1905 murder case), ensuing from the latter’s seduction by “the American dream” of rising from humble origins to wealth and social success. The lengthy account of Clyde’s Kansas City boyhood (shaped by his impoverished parents’ dulling religiosity) exhibits all of Dreiser’s stylistic infelicities and monotonous redundancy. But it works sensationally as foreshadowing—and the payoff, especially in superbly dramatic trial scenes, is nothing short of monumental. The characters of resentful, meanly self-absorbed Clyde, petulant Roberta, and (Clyde’s dream girl) vacuous socialite Sondra Finchley take on enormous solidity and presence as Dreiser’s patient explorations of what seem to be their every thought and deed nail the reader’s eye and mind to the page.
There’s really nothing like it. It’s America’s Crime and Punishment.