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Walking New York: Theodore Dreiser on St. Luke's Place

The American journalist and novelist Theodore Dreiser (August 27, 1871-December 28, 1945), known for his hard-hitting realistic fiction, lived in several apartments and houses in New York, most of them in Greenwich Village. He lived on Bleecker Street, W. 10th St, 11th St, W. 15th, and the quaint little alley known as Patchin Place. After living upstate near Big Moose Lake to research the 1906 murder trial of Chester Gillette for the murder of Grace Brown, he moved to St. Luke's Place in 1924 to begin writing his novel, An American Tragedy.

Dreiser knew most everyone and every street in the neighborhood. One writer recalled seeing him at his place on St. Luke's Place in 1924 "working with his heavy head, too heavy even for his big body, held in his hands at the open window, trying to capture a mood or a color, laboring with words, arranging and rearranging them, with seldom a respite from his labors." The same writer recalled dropping in on Dreiser from time to time but never quite sure if the visit came as a pleasant distraction or as pleasant interruption.

Writers can get cranky, especially someone like Dreiser who once suffered from a terrible case of writer's block for three or so years. In trying to decide whether it's permissable or not to interrupt a person while he or she is working, it's very hard to know how to read a writer. The interruptions in this case turned out to be OK.

The work he started while living at 16 St. Luke's Place, An American Tragedy became his most commercially successful novel. A realistic portrayal of turn-of-the-century American social classes and an indictment of American materialism and the drive for success, the work centers around the character of Clyde Griffiths, an average guy who grew up in a family of street preachers and who now works in a factory. He seduces a fellow factory worker, Roberta, but he falls for Sondra, a wealthier girl with higher status. When Roberta becomes pregnant and insists on marriage, Clyde takes her out in a rowboat into the lake in order to literally dump her. In the 1951 film A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens and inspired by the novel, Montgomery Clift plays the character, though his name is changed to George Eastman. In the film he takes Shelley Winters out into the middle of the lake for the drowning "accident" so he can eventually run off with Elizabeth Taylor.

The success of An American Tragedy allowed Dreiser to build a nice house upstate and later, to move to a more spacious apartment on W. 57th Street.

Note on postings this month: I am on vacation the rest of the month and will be posting infrequently and whimsically. I am not anywhere near a boat on the lake right now. Truth be known, I am writing this post from somewhere in the rolling hills of Virginia.

Image: No. 16 St. Luke's Place, Greenwich Village. Theodore Dreiser's residence in 1924. Part of a series of posts about the residents of a row of townhouses on St. Luke's Place.









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