Years after, Chester Gillette clubbed Grace Brown with a tennis racquet and left her to drown in Moose Lake, New York, Theodore Dreiser came upon the story and recreated it as An American Tragedy. The real murder had no picnic but Dreiser’s unacknowledged fictional source Thérèse Raquin did . [The Emil Zola story of how Thérèse and her lover Laurent contrive to murder her husband Camille is posted elsewhere on PicnicWit]
Dreiser challenges and then destroys expectations that a picnic must be happy. His dark view of humanity proposes that when people succumb to the “fatalities of their flesh,” they are human brutes. A sordid picnic with human brutes, then, is the “cataclysmic” center of An American Tragedy.
The picnic murder happens on a perfect day in July. Roberta Alden is cheerful because she is pregnant, and Clyde has agreed to marry her. But it’s an awful day for Clyde because he debating killing her. So while Roberta cheerfully sings, “Oh, the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home,” he thinks “Death! Murder! The murder of Roberta!”
As Roberta looks for a perfect picnic landing, Clyde rows aimlessly. When she asks, “Have you any spot in mind, dear, where we could stop and eat?” He stops to placate her. They spread sandwiches on newspaper, but what they eat is not disclosed. It’s Roberta’s last meal.
Again on the lake, Clyde tries to muster the savagery necessary to smash Roberta with his camera and hurl her from the boat. At last, sensing his agitation, Roberta reaches out to comfort him, but as she does so, he mechanically flings the camera at her, with “so much vehemence as not only to strike her lips and nose and chin with it, but to throw her back sidewise toward the left wale which caused the boat to careen to the very water’s edge.” When the boat capsizes, he swims to shore listening to her cries as she drowns. “And there is your own hat upon the water–as you wished,” he thinks. “And upon the boat, clinging to that rowlock a veil belonging to her. Leave it. Will it not show that this was an accident?” And apart from that, nothing–a few ripples–the peace and solemnity of this wondrous scene.”
The picnic is over, but so is Clyde’s peace of mind, and as he swims ashore he hears reverberating in his head, the voice of a “weird, contemptuous, mocking, lonely bird. Kit, kit, kit, Ca-a-a-ah! Kit, kit, kit, Ca-a-a-ah! Kit, kit, kit, Ca-a-a-ah!”
Featured Image: Roberta Alden (Sylvia Sidney) realizes that Claude Griffiths (Phillips Holmes) is about to murder her. Joseph Von Sternberg. An American Tragedy (1931). Screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel (1925). Paramount Pictures
See: Theodore Dreiser. An American Tragedy (1925). New York: The Library of America, 2003; Emile Zola. Thérèse Raquin. 1867. Paris: Librairie Internationale, 1867; Emile Zola. Therese Raquin, a Drama in Four Acts. Translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos. London: 1891; Shelley Fisher Fishkin. From Fact to Fiction: Journalism & Imaginative Writing in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Fishkin’s fine analysis of Dreiser’s reworking of the real murder trial makes no mention of Zola as his literary inspiration.