An American Tragedy: Birth Control and Abortion Protest Novel?

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I recently read Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) and I was struck by the fact that it read like a protest novel–not against the oppressive nature of capitalism and its attendant poverty and class-based social alienation–but as a protest novel about the deadly results of limited access to birth control and abortion. Of course, the murder that Clyde Griffiths commits in the novel is inexcusable. Clyde is obviously the main character of Dreiser’s novel, but one could argue that the book is equally about the plight of Roberta Alden. Roberta is really the tragic figure in the text. Thus, it leads the reader to question what the social context that leads to her demise?  How many murders, cases of manslaughter, or suicides have been committed with an unwanted pregnancy as the precipitating cause? Dreiser forces us to ask: how many women die because they are pregnant?

In 1906 Grace Brown was the victim of murder at the hands of Chester Gillette. That’s one. Dreiser based An American Tragedy on the real-life story of Gillette and Brown. Gillette died in the electric chair in 1908 for the murder of the pregnant Grace Brown.

Chester Gillette and Grace Brown. (From Herkimer County Historical Society)

A quick survey of newspaper articles from the period of the Gillette-Brown case turns up many articles in which restricted access to birth control or dangerous, illegal abortions appear to be a key factor in the death of a young woman. For instance, this story from 1871, when Alice Augusta Bowlsby died during an abortion in New York City. The “doctor” hid her dead body in a trunk and tried to send it to Chicago on a train.

Or this sad story from 1896 of a young Nanette Archibald who took her own life in New Jersey. While the cause for her distress was not officially determined, the suicide note sounds suspiciously like that of a pregnant girl with nowhere to turn: “I find out my terrible mistake and attempt to take my life by ending all my miseries. I have troubles that no one save one knows anything about”. Or this 1895 story about the murder trial of David Hannigan who is accused of killing Solomon Mann, his sister’s boyfriend. Mann, according to the New York Times article, “betrayed” Hannigan’s sister and counseled her to get a “criminal operation” from which she died. Mr. Hannigan first attempted to kill Mr. Mann two months earlier, when he was with Mr. Mann and his dying sister in her room. In March of 1895, Mr. Hannigan succeeded when he shot Mr. Mann dead on Forty-second Street.

When I conducted a cursory examination of literary scholarship on An American Tragedy and protest novels, I didn’t find anything. Obviously, I will continue to look for scholarship on this topic, but regardless, I think Dreiser’s novel might be an interesting addition to a course on the protest novel. If I were to teach it, I would want to contextualize An American Tragedy in the world of the 1920s when it was written, as opposed to the turn of the century when Chester Gillette murdered Grace Brown. While I don’t know a lot about the accessibility of birth control and abortions during that time, I know that my grandmother scared me straight with stories from her youth in the 1920s. In Nana’s tales from her youth plenty of high school girls (some of those girls were the “old ladies” who figured prominently in my childhood) became pregnant and had back-alley abortions that left them sterile. Or they married men they didn’t love and lived unhappily, or were thrown out of high school and then sent away by their parents, only to return with a new baby “brother” or “sister” that their parents raised as their own.

I just found a book that I hope to begin reading soon entitled: Making Marriage Modern: Women’s Sexuality from the Progressive Era to World War II (2009) by Christina Simmons. Perhaps this book will shed some light on the topic for me.

Sadly, one of the things that my rifling through newspapers and the internet turned up is that murder is one of, if not the, leading cause of death for pregnant women in this very day. As in the Gillette-Brown case, it is still perpetrated most commonly by the men who are responsible for the pregnancy.

We haven’t come very far.

A Question to the Reader: calling this novel a birth control and abortion protest novel just doesn’t seem right. It suggests a position in protest to birth control and abortion. What would be the correct description for this novel, if one were to frame it as a protest novel in the way that I am discussing?

4 thoughts on “An American Tragedy: Birth Control and Abortion Protest Novel?

  1. From what you’ve said, it’s almost unbelievable that the literature on the book hasn’t dealt with this issue. (But then, one mark of a great scholar is that they can find ideas and interpretations that in retrospect seem so obvious that it’s incredible that no one thought of it before.)

    Can we call it an “advocacy novel” rather than a “protest novel”? Or how about, “reproductive discrimination protest novel”?

  2. Matt, interesting suggestion to call it an “advocacy novel”. I don’t think that genre has been named already – it certainly positions a book differently in terms of its relation to social forces. Perhaps “advocacy novel” shifts the focus from social problems to social possibilities in a manner that seems dangerously well-behaved by those of us who are interested in social reform.

    Lastly, I would be more able to take your “great scholar” comment to heart if you weren’t already so biased. But, thanks just the same.

  3. As you know, I believe this to be the greatest American novel. (published in 1925, btw). I don’t have an answer to the protest/advocacy novel question (but I’ll definitely think more on it). You should look at a couple of things: 1. Dreiser’s own essay, “I Find the Real American Tragedy” (Mystery Magazine 1925). 2. An American Tragedy: the Perils of “Success” by Paul Orlov (around p.60 he talks about abortion and access to it) 3. Re: women, birth control, etc., if you haven’t read Caroll Smith Rosenberg’s amazing Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America, you should do so immediately. She has a whole chapter on the abortion movement (I talked about 1920s attitudes toward birth control and reproduction in class today and stressed out a few undergrads!).

  4. Thanks Corinne. I’ll look at those sources.

    The (unnatural) death of pregnant women during this time seems to be an interesting, yet morbid, topic for examination. Something to think about for the future.

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