Wednesday, May 02, 2007
5/2/07- Man With A Vision
In 1906, the Chester Gillette murder trial captured the imagination of people all across the nation. It was the topic of conversation among many people at that time to the point where the story of the young man who murdered his pregnant girlfriend in the Adirondacks overshadowed the other major murder trial that was occurring at the same time: The Harry Thaw case.
Among those who were entranced by the story was a 35-year-old novelist and magazine editor named Theodore Dreiser. He became interested in the case because he was looking for a certain type of crime that reflected the dark side of the pursuit of the American Dream to put into his next novel. He had researched dozens of murder cases before deciding that he was going to use the Gillette Case as the basis for the novel.
Dreiser was born in 1871 in Indiana. Like Chester, Dreiser came from an excessively- religious family and clearly had the same feelings for young women, especially upper-class women, that Chester had. He wrote many short stories before publishing his first novel "Sister Carrie" in 1900. It was pretty much a cutting-edge novel for its era and caused quite a bit of controversy because of the sexual content that was in its pages. It took years for the book to sell partly because of the changing attitudes of the era.
By 1920, after writing several other books, Dreiser was ready to create what was going to be his great masterpiece. He decided that he was going to base his novel on the Gillette case and he was going to call the novel "An American Tragedy." He viewed Chester as a "Horatio Alger gone wrong" character and realized that he and Chester shared a similar background which was essential in the creation of the main character, Clyde Griffiths.
In the novel, Clyde is forced to choose between his poor pregnant factory girlfriend, who was modeled after Chester's lover/victim Grace Brown, and a society girl, who was modeled after one of Chester's upper-class girlfriends, Harriet Benedict. In the book, Clyde planned to kill his poor girlfriend so he could marry his rich girlfriend. At the last minute, he chickened out and the poor girlfriend's death ended up being an accident and he simply did not save her. However, Clyde was still charged with murder and executed in the electric chair.
To prepare for his novel, Dreiser requested a copy of the trial transcript and researched clippings from the New York Sun, which was one of the "yellow journal" papers that covered the trial. Then in 1923, he and then-mistress Helen Richardson took a road trip to tour the sites that related to the case, including Grace's home in South Otselic; the sites in Cortland where Chester and Grace met and worked; Herkimer where the trial took place; and Big Moose Lake where the murder took place.
During their trip to Big Moose Lake, Dreiser and Helen rented a rowboat at the Glenmore Hotel where Chester and Grace also rented their boat and went out on the lake. When they approached the murder scene, Helen noticed that Dreiser had a strange look on his face and she suddenly became frightened. She had a feeling that Dreiser was going to kill her and put that in his book. However, at that moment, she realized that she had cast herself as Grace in that moment.
Also during their tour, they stopped off at the home of District Attorney George Ward, who lived in Dolgeville. Ward had died a few years earlier during the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918. His daughter allowed him to view Grace's letters which he kept after the trial and he later put the letters into his novel almost word for word.
When he returned from his tour, Dreiser began taking what he had learned about the case and molded it into what he hoped would be the greatest novel he ever wrote. It would be another two years before it would be published, but when it was published it would become one of the greatest classic novels of all time and it would turn the Gillette case into an immortal legend.