A Week in Books

The lost leader of American fiction
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The Independent Culture

Tomorrow evening at the Cheltenham Festival, a panel of judges will consider an award that, since 1997 (winner, Vanity Fair), has become a fixture of the event - the historical "Booker Prize". This year's is for 1925, an undistinguished twelvemonth for homegrown fiction; so the organisers have thrown the contest open to US contenders.

Tomorrow evening at the Cheltenham Festival, a panel of judges will consider an award that, since 1997 (winner, Vanity Fair), has become a fixture of the event - the historical "Booker Prize". This year's is for 1925, an undistinguished twelvemonth for homegrown fiction; so the organisers have thrown the contest open to US contenders.

America's finest for 1925 include F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Bringing up the rear, the rankest of rank outsiders, is An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. As with other American "naturalist" writers - James T Farrell, Upton Sinclair - Dreiser's reputation has not worn well. Of his eight novels, probably only Sister Carrie (1900) is widely available. Yet 70 years ago, he was a behemoth of the literary world. When Bob, the barman of Patrick Hamilton's pub novel The Midnight Bell (1929), with his yearning to "be a writer", tries to work out whom he might emulate, Dreiser is up there with Hugo and Tolstoy.

An American Tragedy - 700 pages long and at times written in a style beyond woodenness - is one of those curious books that manage to defy their limitations through the sheer strength of the material. It is set in the America of the machine-age, where money-grubbing has been elevated into an art.

Clyde Griffiths, a sensual loner from a poor family, is taken up by his wealthy uncle and given a job in the latter's factory. Though kept at arm's length by his status-conscious relatives, the personable Clyde is able to cut something of a local figure. However, he has impregnated one of the girls he supervises. Either obvious solution - marriage or exposure - will mean the end of his social ambitions.

As ever with Dreiser, the novel hangs on a malign stroke of fate as Roberta drowns accidentally and Clyde panics. The electric chair beckons, but not before a panoramic trial scene in which Dreiser draws the motives of the parties into a mosaic of small-town politics and prejudice. Needless to say, none of this stands a chance against the jazz-age glamour of Fitzgerald and Loos, but modern American literature has produced few greater moments.

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