An American Tragedy: Book 3, Chapters 13-18

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Chapter XIII

Smillie meets with Samuel Griffiths. Griffiths says he hopes Clyde is not guilty and that he will defend him if he is innocent. But he will not do anything to help him if he is guilty. Griffiths decides to send a lawyer, Mr. Catchuman, to interview Clyde. After that, based on what Catchuman reports, Griffiths will decide whether to hire a top-level defense attorney or a local Bridgeburg  lawyer who would represent Clyde fairly and keep all unnecessary references to the Griffith family out of the newspapers.

 

Chapter XIV
Catchuman gets nothing more out of Clyde than Smillie or Mason had done. Clyde still denies that he took a camera with him and says the tripod they found is not his. Catchuman decides to hire a Democratic Bridgeburg attorney and rival of Mason, Alvin Belknap and his colleague Reuben Jephson, to represent Clyde. Belknap immediately visits Clyde in jail. They talk briefly and Belknap, who is sympathetic to Clyde, returns the following day. Clyde insists Roberta’s death was an accident, but he admits that he did in fact plot to kill her. He also admits to owning the camera and the tripod. Belknap decides that no jury will believe his story and considers the possibility of modifying it or even concocting a new story.

 

Chapter XV
Belknap and Jephson discuss the case. They realize that if they use Clyde’s story, he will be considered just as guilty as if he struck Roberta deliberately. Belknap says he is not totally convinced that Clyde is guilty. He tells his colleague all he knows of Clyde’s life, and says that at the time of Roberta’s death, Clyde may not have been fully sane, given his infatuation with Sondra. The next day, they both visit Clyde in jail. After some questioning, Jephson favors an insanity defense. He asks Clyde whether there was any insanity in his family, and Clyde answers no. The attorneys discuss how to retrieve the suit Clyde threw away in the wood and have it cleaned and presented as if it had been Clyde who had sent it away for cleaning.  They also discuss the possibility of arguing that the marks on Roberta’s face were caused by the hooks and poles used to find and retrieve the body, not because of an injury inflicted by Clyde.

 

Chapter XVI
The lawyers abandon the idea of an insanity defense because they will not be able to prove that Clyde has been subject to mental instability all his life. Jephson concocts what he thinks is the best defense. He plans to argue that Clyde never contemplated murder, he is merely a “moral coward.” He had taken Roberta on a trip just to tell her that he was in love with Sondra and wanted his freedom. But after spending two nights with her he had a change of heart, and told Roberta that if she still wanted to marry him now that she knew about Sondra, he would agree to it. Roberta was so elated she jumped up in the boat, and as the boat rocked, Clyde jumped up also, the boat capsized and Clyde accidentally hit her with the camera. Clyde was slightly hit by the boat and was dizzy, and by the time he recovered, she had drowned. Then, because of what he realized would look like a suspicion situation, he fled the scene, since he is a moral coward. Belknap and Jephson agree that this is the story they will present at the trial.

 

Chapter XVII
Clyde’s lawyers attempt but fail to have the trial delayed until January. They then try for a change in venue, but fail in that too, outmaneuvered by Mason, who is eager to convict Clyde and confident that he can do so. Mason travels to Lycurgus, where he assembles more evidence against Clyde. Belknap and Jephson hammer into Clyde their version of events, and he has to memorize it. They are worried that Clyde will not be a strong witness in his own defense and also are concerned that no one in his family or the Griffiths’ family has come forward to defend his character. The lawyers discover that the Griffiths do not want Clyde’s parents involved, and his parents are not even informed of the charges against their son. However, Esta, Clyde’s sister, reads about it in a newspaper and informs their mother. Mrs. Griffiths cannot believe that Clyde could commit such a crime and resolves to get some money so she can visit him. She sends a telegram to Clyde via his lawyers and prays to God for support.

 

Chapter XVIII
Jephson tells Clyde to reply to his mother that he is well and needs no money, and that she should not visit him. Word gets out to the newspapers, and Mrs. Griffiths speaks to many reporters. Meanwhile, Clyde is troubled by the necessity of learning the lies his lawyers are asking him to present as the true story of what happened. He gets depressed, feeling that there is no hope for him. He thinks with dread of the electric chair, and fantasizes about escaping from jail.

 

Analysis
The previous section showed the prosecutors going about building a case against Clyde. This section introduces the defense lawyers, both of whom are sympathetic to Clyde, although they realize that in order to have a chance in the trial they must construct what is in effect a tissue of lies about Clyde’s actions and his motivations. The defense lawyers thus show they are as capable of trickery, although of a different kind, than Burleigh is on the prosecution side. Clyde knows of course that he never had a change of heart about Roberta; the only thing that changed was that at the vital moment he lost his nerve for killing. But Clyde, who has always been unfree in the sense that he has been a slave to his desires, is now even less free than he has ever been in his life and he must do what his lawyers request of him.

 

The selection of Belknap for Clyde’s defense presents another irony in the tale.  He has some understanding of Clyde because when he was young he was involved in a parallel situation. He was involved with two girls, one of whom became pregnant. Rather than marry the girl, Belknap had enlisted the aid of his father, and for a thousand dollars (a large sum in those days), his father had hired the services of a doctor who had performed an abortion on the girl. This had freed Belknap to marry the other girl and go on to lead a successful life. The fact that Belknap managed to escape from a situation so similar to the one that ensnared Clyde shows once more the difference between how the poor and the rich fare in American society. Had Clyde had the money and connections, he could have done the same as Belknap, and would have been free to perhaps marry Sondra, the girl of his dreams. Had Belknap not had the resources, he might have found himself in the same position as Clyde is now. Attorney and client may seem divided by a great gulf, but they have more in common than might at first appear. The difference between them is simply money, the ability to buy oneself out of trouble.

 

The actions of Samuel Griffiths show once again how Clyde is considered not really part of the family. He will be defended, but not to the hilt, especially not if Samuel’s own lawyers conclude that Clyde is likely guilty: “Not a dollar—not a penny—of my money will I devote to any one who could be guilty of such a crime, even if he is my nephew!” Even in this dire situation, Samuel Griffiths, a decent, fair-minded man, does not lose sight of the value of money. 

 

Once again, Clyde does himself no favors by failing to impress Catchuman, just as he had left Smillie convinced of his guilt. With that failure goes his chance of getting some really big-name lawyer to defend him. The lawyers he does get are clever and spirited enough, although their motivation, like that of Mason, is largely political. They are Democrats, and thus automatically opposed to the Republican Mason.  Indeed, Belknap has in the past run against Mason for district attorney. It appears that the trial is not only going to be about Clyde’s guilt or innocence. It is also a duel between ambitious men on different sides of the political spectrum.

 

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