Thursday, April 4, 2019

Interesting Dreiser - its ouphe and barghest cry - the weirdness of it

Two pro-Dreiser notes.

First: roughly the first third of An American Tragedy is our hero Clyde as a rootless teen from an odd background, rooting around. In the second third, he becomes more settled, meets a nice girl, and begins to think hard about how to murder her.  The last third is briefly a detective novel, then a courtroom novel, then a prison novel – Death Row.  Dreiser, in a surprising bow to good taste, does not show us Clyde in the electric chair, but he gets as close as he dares.

Dreiser is working through a complex performance of novelistic sympathy, a fundamental task of the novel as a form.  Can I sympathize with Clyde’s various early troubles – presumably not with the idea of murder – and also with at least certain aspects of his time in prison?  Do I forget his victim?  Can I sympathize with this but not with that?  What if, more strongly, I spent the first part of the novel identifying with Clyde, whatever that means?  How shocked am I when his sociopathy emerges?  I hope I am shocked.

That first third has, by my standard, the most bad sentences per page, and is in some sense mostly background, and I wish Dreiser had cut a lot of it.  The last third, the trial and prison and so on, are presented in a strong plain style but are extremely detailed.  The entire prosecution is presented, for example.  A faithful film adaptation just of Clyde’s trial would take many hours.  A friendly commenter yesterday wanted much of this stuff to be cut – “he could not stop belaboring the point.”

But we are both wrong in that Dreiser can’t start with the crime if he wants to work on the possibility of sympathy.  I have to live with Clyde for a while to even to lose sympathy.  And then I have to grind through the tedium of his encounter with the courts and prison to build it back.  It is the difference between watching a two-hour film of the story, in one sitting, or a 22-episode season of television spread over nine months.

On the other hand, we are both right.  If we can’t stand the prose or the tedium, we are not reading with the intensity of the reader who is really gripped by poor dumb Clyde.

Here’s where I started reading with more intensity – I’m moving to my second point.  Look at this beauty (Clyde is in the woods in upstate New York, with murder on his mind):

And at one point it was that a weir weir, one of the solitary water-birds of this region, uttered its ouphe and barghest cry, flying from somewhere near into some darker recess within the woods.  (II.44)

Every word in that sentence is a legitimate English word, but this time the weird ones are not fussy Latinates but good Germanic antiques, known mostly to readers who owned the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual II (1983).  Now we’re right in the murder chapter:

[The lake] was black or dark like tar, and sentineled to the east and north by tall, dark pines – the serried spears of armed and watchful giants, as they now seemed to him – ogres almost – so gloomy, suspicious and fantastically erratic was his own mood in regard to all this.  But still there were too many people – as many as ten on the lake.

The weirdness of it.

The difficulty.  (II.47)

It’s those little floating sentences that I find especially weird.

Dreiser, looking for an expert on criminal psychology, has turned to Edgar Allan Poe and his Imp of the Perverse, which Dreiser turns into the clumsier “Efrit of his own darker self.”  I was tipped off by the word “tarn” for lake, since the most famous tarn in American literature is the one the House of Usher falls into.  It’s not just Poe’s psychology, but Poe’s language that is borrowed, as if the one is tangled in the other.

These elements –  the weir-weir bird and the Efrit and dark tarns and trees like spears – recur often and add some strange colors to the novel that are at least interesting if not good.  Maybe good is overrated.


  1. I read An American Tragedy last year, and I was thrumming along fine, and especially liked the Clive-on-the-run bits, until that final third. The prosecution for murder nearly murdered *me*, it's such a tedious, torturous, endless expanse of turgid rehearsal of everything we already know. I met the outer limits of my capacity for sympathetic attention in those pages. I genuinely felt somehow defeated as a reader afterward. I read every sentence in the book, to the end, but I can't say I was spiritually present after about the tenth page of that prosecution.

  2. The prosecution is at least the third time that Dreiser runs through "everything we already know." It is a lot to ask of a reader. It is asking the reader to suffer.

    I have some doubts about the long-term survival of An American Tragedy as a classic in part because there has been so much subsequent crime fiction, legal fiction ,and prison fiction that effectively works through ethical problems of sympathy and does so a lot more efficiently.

  3. The level of detail during the trial is overwhelming. Somewhere in a box in the back of a closet I have a detailed sketch I made of the courtroom when I read the novel. You could almost walk through the book blind-folded and still find your way without bumping into anything.

  4. If you walked through An American Tragedy blind-folded you would drown in the tarn!

  5. Every word in that sentence is a legitimate English word

    I have never read the novel and can say with some confidence that I never will, so I can't add anything to the general discussion, but I have to say I can find no evidence that there's such a thing as a weir-weir bird. It's not in the OED, and googling turns up only references to this novel. Or maybe it's Dreiser's deformation of some other term I'm not familiar with?

  6. Fair point, since it's not a real bird, maybe not even "real" in the novel - it might be a hallucination. The word "weir" is borrowed from Poe's "Ulalume," but it is a place-name in the poem, "the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir," which is full of strange lakes and tarns.