Robert Warshow’s Essay – “The Gangster as Tragic Hero”

I was pretty bummed that we didn’t discuss Warshow’s essay last class so I figured now would be a good time to give my two cents!

I thought it was very interesting that Warshow began the essay by stating that “America… is committed to a cheerful view of life” (I especially love the end note describing None But the Lonely Heart as un-american because it was gloomy) and continues to expand upon that notion until we reach his thesis statement, “But… this optimism is fundamentally satisfying to no one…”and explains from there that there will always be this need for people to seek out the “desperation and inevitable failure which optimism itself helps to create.” And thus, this is why Americans have always been enthralled by the gangster films.

At one point, about halfway into the short essay, Robert Warshow points out that the gangter “speaks for us” in ways that we do not easily define. It’s as if the gangster character is a dormant part of every American’s inner psyche. My favorite line in the whole piece would have to be when Warshow writes, “the gangster.. is primarily a creature of the imagination. The real city… produces only criminals; the imaginary city produces the gangster: he is what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become.

I thought this line was especially thought provoking. Why is it that we see these thugs committing crimes yet we are almost always on their side? But when we hear of these things happening on the nightly news we just think, “oh another criminal.” We never want t0 be that guy on the nightly news. However when we see a gangster film we are fascinated by their lifestyle. I just find it interesting that  these gangster films are much more well perceived than say a happy-go-lucky comedy film (some would say that would be more American because it doesn’t focus on ‘gloomy’ aspects). Maybe this is a research topic in the making? Who knows!

-Melanie Conn

3 thoughts on “Robert Warshow’s Essay – “The Gangster as Tragic Hero”

  1. npcasanas says:

    It would make a great research topic! Gangster films are usually more well-perceived than comedies, I think, because of how audeinces respond to ‘seriousness’ and automatically equate it with ‘importance’ and therefore ‘quality’ (I put ‘ ‘ around these words because they are relativistic terms). As far as Warshow’s essay I thought he was perceptive in equating the American dream of success with the gangster’s rise to power.


  2. […] American character. Puritan zeal for order clashes with its equal, the frenzied quest for wealth. Robert Warshow writes that the gangster is “what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become.”  For more on […]

  3. […] all moral codes, he is exciting and frankly attractive. Americans have always admired outlaws. Robert Warshow writes that the gangster is “what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become.” The […]

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