An American Tragedy
"Scene by scene, he's a great storyteller, like Dickens before him and like, God help us, Stephen King in our own day."
An American Tragedy is based on an incident that occurred in upstate New York in 1906, when a factory worker named Chester Gillette murdered a young woman on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks. The woman, Grace Brown, had been pregnant with Gillette's child. In a well-publicized trial, Gillette was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. His conviction was upheld on appeal. After Governor Charles Hughes refused to grant a stay of execution, Gillette was put to death on March 31, 1908. He is mentioned in passing in Dreiser's essay "Neurotic America and the Sex Impulse," written sometime around 1917 and included in Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub (1920).
In the summer of 1920, while living in Los Angeles, Dreiser began writing An American Tragedy. He worked steadily through the fall and felt confident enough about the novel's progress in December 1920 to tell his publisher, Horace Liveright, that he hoped to finish it by the following spring. But in June 1921 he stopped work on An American Tragedy and put it aside for two years. His early version, comprising 21 chapters, exists in two forms in the Theodore Dreiser Papers at the University of Pennsylvania Library: a 604-page manuscript and a 188-page carbon typescript typed by Estelle Kubitz. Dreiser revised the manuscript draft for the typescript, which included some changes suggested by Kubitz.
Dreiser resumed working on An American Tragedy in 1923. Now living in New York City, he researched the Gillette case extensively. In late June and early July 1923 he and his companion Helen Richardson traveled to upstate New York and visited key sites pertaining to the case, such as Big Moose Lake and the courthouse where the trial had taken place. Soon afterward he began rewriting Book One of An American Tragedy from the beginning, salvaging little from the 1920-version. He completed a manuscript draft of Book One in January 1924. Sally Kusell began typing this draft in the late summer or early fall of 1923; the following March, Louise Campbell began typing sections of the manuscript as well. Boni & Liveright received a complete typescript of Book One in June 1924 . Although this document does not survive, a final revised typescript, presently in the Dreiser Papers at the University of Pennsylvania, includes revisions by Dreiser and Kusell. The other surviving documents for Book Onethe typesetter's copy, the author's galleys, and the revised page proofsalso contain alterations by the author and his typists. Boni & Liveright editor Thomas R. Smith and his assistant Emanuel Komroff made extensive changes of their own, as well as suggesting further revisions and cuts. Dreiser revised the galley proofs and the page proofs of Book One while working on Book Two and Book Three of An American Tragedy; the novel assumed its final form in the summer or early fall of 1925 .
Dreiser began Book Two in January 1924 and finished a draft either in December 1924 or in January 1925. Kusell and Campbell continued to work as his typists, a role that also included editorial duties. Receiving the typescript in sections, Boni & Liveright were in possession of a complete draft of Book Two by March 1925. As with Book One, Liveright's editors Smith and Komroff revised passages and recommended changes that might be made for publication. The changes in the first set of page proofs were extensive enough to require the printing of a second set, which in turn were further revised by Dreiser. The revision of Book Two was completed in the fall of 1925 .
Although Dreiser began writing Book Three with renewed vigor at the beginning of 1925, the book's progress was slowed by an attack of bronchitis in March and his continued work on Book One and Book Two. Dreiser's manuscript and typescript drafts were edited, cut, and retyped by Sally Kusell (until the late summer or early fall of 1925, when her relations with Dreiser were too strained for her to continue) and by Louise Campbell; Helen Richardson served as one of Dreiser's typists as well for Book Three, although it appears that she did not edit his work. By mid-August, Boni & Liveright, hoping to bring out An American Tragedy in October, was pressuring Dreiser to finish the novel. After submitting his complete typescript of Book Three at the end of September or in early October 1925, he made further revisions as it was prepared for publication. His final alterations were made on the page proofs on November 25, 1925. A few days later he toured Sing Sing prison with the intention of making additional changes to the book's final three chapters; after the visit, however, he decided that the novel was finished.
An American Tragedy was published in a two-volume set by Boni & Liveright on December 17, 1925. Dreiser made no changes in subsequent printings of the novel. The present volume prints the text of the 1925 Boni & Liveright edition of An American Tragedy.
This volume presents the text of the original printing chosen for inclusion here, but it does not attempt to reproduce features of its typographic design, such as display capitalization of chapter openings. The text is presented without change, except for the correction of typographical errors. Spelling, punctuation, and capitalization are often expressive features and are not altered, even when inconsistent or irregular.
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