Places: An American Tragedy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1925

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: 1897-1908

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Kansas City

*Kansas American Tragedy, AnCity. Northwestern Missouri city in which the novel opens when the fictional Clyde Griffiths at the age of twelve years is living an uneasy life there with his urban-missionary parents. The dingy neighborhood of his parents’ Bickel Street mission contrasts sharply with the life of luxury and excitement that Clyde craves and eventually seeks, first in employment as a bellhop in an upscale hotel, where a “fast” crowd gets him into serious trouble, and later in the small eastern city where most of the novel’s action takes place.


Lycurgus. New York town between Utica and Albany, near the actual location of Troy, where Clyde Griffiths arrives at the age of twenty, goes to work in his uncle’s collar-manufacturing factory, and takes a room in a rooming house. Nearly all of the descriptions of the fictional town match the real town of Cortland, where Chester Gillette worked at a skirt factory owned by a relative. Moreover, like the historical Grace Brown, Clyde’s lover Roberta Alden works in the same factory and lives in another rooming house nearby, occasionally returning home to the rural community of Biltz.


Biltz. New York town fifty miles from Lycurgus where Roberta grew up on a poverty-stricken farm to which she returns after working in Lycurgus. Biltz’s bleak landscape contrasts depressingly with the pleasures Roberta remembers from her time in Lycurgus, and she sends Clyde distraught letters, begging him to come and take her away. These letters, later produced at Clyde’s murder trial, form part of the narrative in the third part of the novel.

The fictional Biltz corresponds with South Otselic, in New York’s Chenango County, which was Grace Brown’s hometown.

Twelfth Lake

Twelfth Lake. Adirondack summer home of the young socialite Sondra Finchley’s friends that Clyde visits just before taking Roberta to Big Bittern Lake in the summer of 1906. The leisurely life of swimming, tennis, boating, and golf reinforces his decision to remove the penniless Roberta from his life. He returns to Twelfth Lake and Sondra after Roberta’s death and is arrested at nearby Bear Lake while camping with Sondra’s friends.


*Utica. New York town that is the first stop on Clyde and Roberta’s journey north into the Adirondacks, where Roberta hopes Clyde will propose marriage to her. Their historical counterparts also stopped in Utica, leaving behind evidence that would later help convict Chester Gillette of Grace Brown’s murder.

Big Bittern Lake

Big Bittern Lake. Lake in the Adirondacks in which Roberta drowns when the rented boat on which she and Clyde are riding overturns and Clyde abandons her. The eerie loneliness of the bay in which the drowning occurs is emphasized both in the novel and in historical accounts of Grace Brown’s drowning in the real Big Moose Lake.

Suggested ReadingsBloom, Harold, ed. Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. One of America’s leading literary critics updates Salzman’s collection (listed below).Gerber, Philip L. “Society Should Ask Forgiveness: An American Tragedy.” In Theodore Dreiser Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1992. A structural analysis that also examines Dreiser’s sources, his progression through early drafts, and the novel’s effect on his career. Annotated bibliography.Gerber, Philip L. Theodore Dreiser Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992.Lehan, Richard. “An American Tragedy.” In Theodore Dreiser: His World and His Novels. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. Discusses Dreiser’s identification with Clyde Griffiths, particularly his fundamentalist religious background and the techniques Dreiser uses to mitigate Clyde’s culpability.Lingeman, Richard. Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey, 1908-1945. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1990.Michaels, Benn Walter. “An American Tragedy: Or, The Promise of American Life.” Representations 25 (Winter, 1989): 71-98.Pizer, Donald. “American Literary Naturalism: The Example of Dreiser.” In Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Rev. ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. One of the foremost authorities on naturalism in American literature defends Dreiser against critical antagonism toward naturalism and illustrates the principles of determinism in An American Tragedy.Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976.Salzman, Jack, comp. The Merrill Studies in “An American Tragedy.” Westerville, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1971. A critical casebook on the novel, containing essays on topics such as naturalism, materialism, and Dreiser’s sources for the novel.
Categories: Places