The plot of the novel concerned an ambitious young man, Clyde Griffiths. Clyde gets his working class lover, Roberta Alden, pregnant but he does not want to marry her, because he hopes for a marriage that would advance his career. When he is unable to obtain an abortion for Roberta, he plots to kill her. Telling her that they should run away to get married, they travel to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. Clyde takes Roberta out in a small boat on a secluded lake, planning to capsize the boat and swim to shore - knowing that she could not swim. While in the boat he got cold feet about the plan and realised that he could not follow through on it. However, there is an accident and the boat in fact capsizes; Clyde swims to shore and Roberta is drowned. When Roberta's body is found, Clyde is arrested and charged with capital murder - and eventually executed.
The novel sold well (over 50,000 copies by the end of 1926), in spite of critical reviews, and in order to boost publicity yet further the publishers came up with idea of a prize essay contest: the topic "Was Clyde Griffiths guilty of murder in the first degree?". So far so ordinary, but what makes this unusual is that the contest was won by a law professor, Albert Levitt, of Washington and Lee University, who had previously written to Dreiser praising the construction of his 'beautiful legal problem'. He was an unusual character, trained in theology and law, and linked to a circle of progressive academics, and he had recently written a series of papers on the question of mens rea in the criminal law.
It might seem like cheating for a law professor to enter and win the contest - he at least seems to have some advantage over the ordinary reader. But the essay offers much more than just an analysis of legal doctrine. It is a fascinating snapshot of progressive views about criminal law from the early part of the century and as such it deserves to be better known.
[The essay was rediscovered and reprinted in 1991 in a journal called Papers on Language and Literature with a short introduction by Philip Gerber. Unfortunately this is not freely available online. Those with access to a university library might want to check it out, though.]