January 28, 2023

An Anatomy of American Tragedies

Roberta drowning in 1931 movie An American Tragedy based on Theodore Dreiser's novel

“What’s the matter, Clyde? Afraid of the bow-wow?”

The real culprit in American tragedies is the bow-wow. Sondra, the other woman in Clyde Griffiths’s craving for love of luxury and social status, taunted him for being unable to choose between her and the poor, religious Roberta. Sondra had everything going for her, beauty, the social circles. Roberta was almost poorer than dirt. Her house was the 1920s version of ghetto. Roberta was the 1920s definition of white trash. Roberta demanded Clyde make a decision about marrying her. But to Clyde, Roberta’s poverty and moral strictness reminded him of what he was trying to escape for he was also white trash. Sondra reminded him of what he aspired to- a love that included position and power. Roberta’s life was too similar to his own. Marrying her meant he was strangling himself.

The bow-wow tormented Clyde with sweet talk, purring in his ear,cajoling him to come to her, Sondra.

Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, based on a 1906 murder case in upstate New York, was turned into a film in 1931 and remade into the 1951 movie A Place in the Sun that won six Academy Awards.

Most murder cases don’t make the cover of People Magazine due to failing the bow-wow threshold. The real tragedy is that human life is assigned a rating based on the bow-wow for journalists aspiring to climb the social ladder.

Historian David Hebert Donald’s Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War is about the greatest American tragedy and bow-wow of all- the Civil War. Donald writes, “When Washington was inaugurated, ‘Slavery had no national flavor, existed nowhere on the national territory, beneath the national flag, but was openly condemned by Nation, Church, Colleges, and Literature of the time.'”

Slave owners and mercantile interests using “skillful tactics” eroded over time the high ideals of the Declaration of Independence and caused deep divisions in the country, culminating in the Civil War. Charles Sumner, still recuperating from the terrible flogging from Preston Brooks in the Senate chamber, met the new President and was shocked at the lack of social sophistication and culture in this man named Lincoln. Sumner felt Lincoln lacked the breadth of “bow-wow,” as one might say, especially for the President of the United States. Lincoln seemed more suited for a Roberta than a Sondra.

Sumner’s perception of the new President changed as the two of them talked. Sumner was confused by Lincoln’s droll humor but thought Lincoln displayed extraordinary flashes of insight. Sumner still had his doubts about Lincoln, this “untutored child of nature.'” Lincoln was born, after all, in circumstances similar to a Clyde Griffiths.

Lincoln admired Sumner’s height and wanted to “measure backs” to see who was taller. Sumner replied that this was “the time for uniting our fronts against the enemy and not our backs.”

Perhaps Lincoln knew the importance of a stiffened spine in maintaining a brave front.

In high school, a group of us were attacked by a group of football players from the suburbs because we were from an “(insert N word) school.” Their biggest guy was an offensive lineman recruited by Michigan and other Big Ten schools. He slugged the smallest guy in our group, a five nine member of our golf team. On paper not a good match up. But this golfer would become a Marine after beating the crap out of the lineman twice his size. Police were called to the “disturbance” and when told of the reason for the brawl, acted like hockey refs and let the small golfer give the lineman the lesson of his life. The future Marine had the knock down of his life a few years later when he fell off a skateboard, breaking his arm, and missing the bombing of his Marine barracks in Lebanon.

A trial lost in the media firestorm of the Florida shooting was the Justice Department losing its case against the Michigan militia group. The judge ruled more against the excessive bow-wow of the Justice Department lawyers than the motive of the militia group. The Huffington Post can boast of an incredible number of hits on its website but in the real world, it only takes one hit from a judge, or a five nine Marine, to change the verdict.

Bow-wowers take note.


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