Thursday, March 31, 2022

Notes on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Karamazov Brothers and Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy

The names of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Theodore Dreiser do not seem to be spoken together very often and it is easy to understand why given the immense differences of period, country, political and social perspective, prose style--Dostoyevsky a nineteenth century Russian who, for most of his career, was Christian (specifically, Orthodox Christian) and Slavophile and inclined to a particular blend of romantic realism, while Dreiser was a twentieth century American of leftist, eventually Communist, politics who as a storyteller favored Zolaesque naturalism. Still, I often find myself comparing what seem to be generally accounted their greatest works, The Karamazov Brothers (1880) and An American Tragedy (1925).

In those two books those two authors each take a murder case in a small provincial town and ultimately produce from it a thousand-page epic about everything. I can think of nothing like them since, with that pop cultural supernova of the '90s, John Berendt's "nonfiction novel" Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, negatively demonstrating the magnitude of those other authors' achievement. Characteristic of a decade that reveled in "quirkiness" for its own sake (we see it in shows like Northern Exposure and Picket Fences, in the indie films of the time), Berendt's book is in the end small-time, shallow, unilluminating (in a word, postmodern) stuff entirely unworthy of its grandiose title.

By contrast "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" would fit as the title of Dostoyevsky's book perfectly, his Karamazov Brothers seeing in that one provincial murder the struggle over the future of Russia, humanity and even the universe. (Don't forget--Dostoyevsky was personally acquainted with, and apparently influenced by, Nikolai Fedorov, and yes, it mattered in this book.)

But, as one might guess, it would not fit Dreiser's, for whom gardens of good and evil would not really be a relevant, helpful concept, which is a reminder of the compelling differences as well as the similarities. The social science-minded, naturalistic perspective of Dreiser had him bringing the entirety of America's social reality (class and work and economics and prejudice and sexual attitudes and the urban-rural divide, the realities and the illusions, everything) in the murder at the heart of An American Tragedy--his book about everything reflecting a different understanding of what everything happened to consist.

However, the differences hardly end in that distinction between the mystical religious author and the materialist socialist, with one that I find myself thinking about often the cast of characters, and in particular the position of the central figure in relation to the rest. In The Karamazov Brothers the tragedy is distinctly a family tragedy, where four brothers (of which Alyosha is presented as the protagonist) whose lives are closely interconnected with those of each other and their father are all, if only through inaction, only in thought, implicated in the murder of the father in some way. By contrast Dreiser's Clyde Griffiths is alone, adrift, throughout the story--alienated from father and mother and siblings in the early part of the book, forced to leave his family behind entirely after involvement in a deadly hit-and-run, and then after a longshot encounter with his rich uncle in Chicago and going to Lycurgus, New York to try his chances with him, being kept at more than arm's length by that uncle and his family even as they bar him from association with anyone else, with that alienation and isolation and loneliness at every turn playing its part in the disaster that ultimately befalls all concerned--the infamous atomization of American life ("emotional destitutes, as poor in their family connections as Afghans or Sudanese are in money," none other than Edward Luttwak was to write) making it entirely fitting that such atomization plays so great a part in Clyde's story.

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