The genesis and compositional history of Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy"

Date of Completion

January 1999


Literature, Modern|Literature, American




This dissertation is a study of the genesis and compositional history of An American Tragedy. The Dreiser Papers at the University of Pennsylvania library offer an extraordinary opportunity to uncover the remarkable story of the composition of this important American novel, but, for the most part, this material has gone unexamined. This scholarly gap in the study of An American Tragedy is not particularly surprising. The daunting number of surviving documents has certainly discouraged any comprehensive analysis of them. The holograph itself is over 7,000 pages in length, and the typescripts total more than 6,000 pages. In addition, there are galleys, page proofs, and revised page proofs. ^ This study begins with a re-examination of the standard reconstruction of the genesis of An American Tragedy and argues for a more encompassing account. It removes the genesis of An American Tragedy from the narrow context of the singular theme of “money-for-murder” and places it in the context of Dreiser's life-long study of the conflict between what he called the mysterious impulses and instincts, particularly the sex impulse that seemed to guide human action, and the societal conventions of morality that attempted to understand and control them. In this larger context, the novel is the natural outgrowth of the intellectual and emotional explorations of his earlier writings of fiction, autobiography, philosophy and social criticism. ^ The remainder of the study examines the extant manuscripts in an attempt to reconstruct the compositional history of the novel. In addition, it relies on other sources such as Dreiser's correspondence and interviews. It describes the scope and shape of each discrete stage in the composition of the novel and attempts to reveal Dreiser's evolving design for his story. In addition, it explores the contribution and influence that the editors and typists, (his personal typists and editorial assistants, Estelle Kubitz, Sally Kusell and Louise Campbell, and publisher, Horace Liveright's editor-in-chief, Thomas R. Smith, and his assistant, Manuel Komroff) had on the making of the novel. Finally, this study attempts throughout to show Dreiser's deliberate method and artistry. ^