The American Dream: Overview
In 1965, "The Impossible Dream," theme song from Man of La Mancha, a Broadway musical based on the novel The Adventures of Don Quixote (1604) by Miguel de Cervantes, reflected not only the undying optimism of protagonist Don Quixote, but also an ideology shared by its American audience. At a time when the fight for civil rights knocked down both social and political boundaries and the war in Vietnam was escalating, the lyrics, "To dream the impossible dream," written by Joe Darion, spoke to an individual quest and a united hope.
The notion that every man and woman in America, amid national and international chaos, could still persevere, achieve, and become successful was more important than ever. As protesters called for peace, and African Americans and women demanded equality, America was literally and figuratively reaching for the moon. As promised with the birth of the nation, Americans were entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. "The Impossible Dream" illustrates that deep-seated sense of entitlement and ownership of certain unalienable, constitutional rights, particularly the rights to pursue any and all opportunity, even those that seem impossible.
American history demonstrates that the reasons behind the pilgrims' escape to the New World differ from the reasons behind suffrage, Page 4 | Top of Articleor even the robber barons' controversial business practices. However, social and political motivations aside, the same American dream connected them all: the opportunity to create something from virtually nothing, to "right the unrightable wrong," to follow whatever "star" they chose. This loose interpretation of the American dream allowed a variety of manifestations, and over the centuries, though born from a group of white forefathers, the American dream has taken a multicultural, multidimensional shape. With native, ethnic, female, young, and old voices added to the mix, the American dream was challenged and ultimately began to change.
As a result, the idea of the "impossible dream" became, in some ways, exposed as the American nightmare. The myth of "equal opportunity for all" no longer held up. Once a melting pot, America seemed to be harkening back to its late nineteenth and early twentieth century history and questioning immigration practices. Women in business still kept an eye toward the glass ceiling. America's super-power came at the expense of other countries around the world. But these cracks in the American dream dogma allowed room for amendment and revolutionary action as Americans realized that more than one version of the dream, of happiness, of liberty, exists. American literature tracks the American dream's historical and ideological arc from sanctuary and settlement to rights and respect. This essay follows that trajectory, focusing on the birth of the American dream, the dream united "under God," the dream as icon, those barred from the dream, those who revolutionized the dream, the high cost of the dream, a new definition of the dream, and finally, the dream's future.
Birth of the American Dream
William Bradford, American forefather and one of the first Puritans to arrive in the New World, signed the Mayflower Compact in November 1620, a contract that established a government determined by the settlers. The Compact, a response to near mutiny on the ship among disgruntled Church of England members, united these "Strangers" and "Separatists," or pilgrims, in a binding pact. No one could simply do their own will or, as Bradford writes in chapter 11 in Of Plymouth Plantation, "use their own liberty." Instead, they would come together as a "Civil Body Politic," for "better ordering and preservation." This act would be for the "general good of the colony," and the American dream became a joint hope and quest for survival. John Carver, who had been appointed governor, guided the group in building homes and establishing laws, and as Bradford observes,
In these hard and difficult beginnings they found some discontents and murmurings arise amongst some, and mutinous speeches and carriages in others; but they were soon quelled and overcome by the wisdom, patience, and just and equal carriage of things, by the Governor and better part, which clave faithfully together in the main.
More than a century later, in 1776, "discontents and murmurings" arose after the British imposed new taxes and laws on the colonies. While some demanded independence from England, the Tories, or Loyalists, resisted. The Tories did not believe separating from the motherland would be beneficial. However, revolutionaries, or Patriots, rallied much of the "national" community and battled the British for their rights and territory. On July 4, 1776, after the colonists abolished the royal governments and formed locally elected legislative assemblies, the Declaration of Independence was written by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, and then signed by the members of the Second Continental Congress. This document, like the Mayflower Compact, ensured the government to be controlled by those governed yet, more importantly, established the foundation for the individual American dream:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Benjamin Franklin not only helped establish the foundation for the individual American dream but also was a model, a living example, of how to achieve the American dream. Born one of seventeen children, Franklin completed only two years of education by age ten. By age twenty-two, however, he had opened his first printing office. Through his curiosity, love of learning, and hard work, he would become a brilliant statesman, printer, scientist, inventor, and diplomat. But in his role as author, Franklin shared his views on how to achieve the American dream. In his famous Poor Richard's Almanack, Franklin dispensed such pearls of wisdom as this:
In short, the way to wealth, if you desire it, is as plain as the way to market. It depends chiefly on two words, industry and frugality; that is, waste neither time nor money, but make the best use of both. Without industry and frugality nothing will do, and with them everything. He that gets all he can honestly and saves all he gets (necessary expenses excepted), will certainly become rich.
Franklin's notion that the only true way to wealth was through hard work became the soul of the "American dream," which naturally fed the idea that each person has the same opportunity to achieve success.
As the colonies cemented their right to personal pursuits and powers, some explorers headed west to live the dream. The legendary Daniel Boone was the epitome of an adventuresome woodsman, particularly after his bold experiences were published in 1784 in Daniel Boone: His Own Story. Known for settling Kentucky and surviving both on his wits and off the land, Boone was a lieutenant colonel in the Revolutionary War and a representative elected to the Virginia General Assembly. Boone's life was the perfect example of living the American dream, as the man made his own way across unexplored land and helped build a new nation. In fact, Boone became a symbol of the future "manifest destiny," a term made popular in the 1840s to describe the territorial expansion of the United States.
On the surface, Daniel Boone and Walt Whitman appear dissimilar, one a beloved national hero, the other a beloved national poet. Though Whitman was born in 1819, the year before Boone died, Boone's free spirit and passion for America echoes in Whitman's work. Whitman writes in the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass,
The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem…. Here are the roughs and the beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves…. One sees it must indeed own the riches of the summer and winter, and need never be bankrupt while corn grows from the ground or the orchards drop apples or the bays contain fish or men beget children upon women.
He goes on to say that as a poet, "his spirit responds to his country's spirit," but although "he incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes," ordinary people like "hunters, woodmen, early risers, cultivators of gardens and orchards and fields" acknowledge nature's power just as well. Whitman respects and honors men and women like Boone as shown in one of the last lines of his preface, "An individual is as superb as a nation when he has the qualities which make a superb nation."
Robert Frost, like Whitman, is one of America's most revered poets, known for celebrating nature and humanity in an ordinary fashion. Frost's signature, colloquial tone characterizes the quintessential language of the American dream: Through his poetry, the common man offers his simple yet profound view of the world. In 1942, Frost wrote "The Gift Outright," a poem that echoes Whitman's idea that the "United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem." "The Gift Outright" not only recognizes the beginning of America's history, but also acknowledges "our" growing relationship to America. The first three lines, "The land was ours before we were the land's. / She was our land more than a hundred years / Before we were her people," emphasize that the American dream began a century before "we" officially became Americans. We began to claim the land in the Virginia and Plymouth colonies, growing settlements, villages, and communities. But because we still lived under English rule and were "still colonials," we existed in a limbo world, not quite "unpossessed by," "possessed by," or even possessing the land; the land was not ours until we stopped "withholding from our land of living." We "found salvation in surrender[ing]" to the land, which unfortunately meant fighting, for our "deed of gift" required many "deeds of war." We charged to our manifest destiny, "to the land vaguely realizing westward," a land untouched, "unenhanced." With the last line, Frost muses at the cost of the birth of the American dream: Though we would finally possess the land from coast to coast, she would not be "storied," made artful, or improved. In a sense, our "salvation" would be born from her "surrender."
Emma Lazarus's sonnet, "The New Colossus," embraces those who grew the nation. In 1883, Lazarus donated "The New Colossus" to a fundraising auction for the Statue of Liberty's pedestal. Like Boone's autobiography and Whitman's poetic epic, Lazarus's poem symbolized the strength, promise, and beauty of America, in addition to the people responsible for growing the new nation. The Statue of Liberty speaks and "Glows world-wide welcome" to those fulfilling their dreams by reaching American shores. "Give me your tired, your poor, / Page 6 | Top of ArticleYour huddled masses yearning to breathe free," she says to "ancient lands." Named "Mother of Exiles," she offers a new chance for those immigrants who seek liberty, those who appreciate the boundlessness of a new land. Emma Lazar-us's words are etched onto a plaque mounted in the base of the Statue of Liberty, commemorating the place where dreams simultaneously came true and were shattered. For some newcomers to America, the quintessential American dream would never be within reach, but Lazarus's sonnet would forever offer hope.
One American Dream Under God
In both the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence, the American dream is determined by God. Specifically, the signers of both documents sheltered the individual and communal rights of citizens, "with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence" and "by the grace of God." In other words, only God's will could alter the pact, because no person had more power than God. Those of the Plymouth Plantation had "undertaken" their journey "for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith," and this commitment would continue to appear throughout the rhetoric of the American dream.
In 1630, at age eighteen, Puritan Anne Bradstreet sailed for the New World with her family. At first, Bradstreet was taken aback by the customs of the New World, but she saw the differences as "the way of God," as she would tell her children years later. Though books were rare and female authors rarer still, Bradstreet recorded her feelings about this godly "New England" in poetry and was the first American woman to have her works published. "A Dialogue Between Old England and New, Concerning their Present Troubles, Anno 1642" extols the virtues of "New England" as compared to "Old"; "New England" tells "Old" that she will soon become as worthy as her young daughter, because "the day of [her] redemption's nigh / The scales shall fall from [her] long-blinded eyes / And Him [she] shall adore who now despise." Old England has lost her way with God and country, and New England, as her virtuous daughter, will heal her because, of course, New England is rich in spirituality. New England promises, "So shall thy happy Nation ever flourish, / When truth and righteousness they thus shall nourish." Bradstreet instructs that righteousness is the key to salvation.
Cotton Mather, as a third-generation Puritan minister, certainly adhered to that belief. Mather published over 450 books and pamphlets, with which he influenced the new nation's morality. With the idea that people were drifting away from their faith, Mather called for a return to the theological roots of Puritanism and used the language of the Bible to persuade his readership. To achieve the ultimate dream of meeting God, Mather suggests life on Earth must be lived in a righteous way in his text, What Must I Do to Be Saved?: "Briefly, You must Deny all Ungodliness and Worldly Lusts and Live godily and soberly and righteously in the World. This is that Holiness without which no man shall see the Lord." The American dream was earthly preparation for the hereafter.
Phyllis Wheatley looked to the same spiritual guide. Wheatley was brought to America from Africa as a slave in 1761. As a house servant, she was given her name, as well as lessons in reading, writing, astronomy, geography, history, and Latin. Incredibly, at the age of thirteen, she wrote verse, and in 1773, her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published—the first book published by an African American. Wheatley took her inspiration from the Bible and felt blessed to be brought into the Christian fold from pagan beginnings. Her poem, "On Being Brought from Africa to America," clearly illustrates this gratitude in the opening lines: "'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, / Taught my benighted soul to understand / That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too." Wheatley, like Bradstreet and Mather, thought earthly virtue and goodness could lead her into "endless life and bliss," as demonstrated in this excerpt from her poem, "On Virtue":
Attend me, Virtue, thro' my youthful years!
O leave me not to the false joys of time!
But guide my steps to endless life and bliss.
Greatness, or Goodness, say what I shall call thee.
Wheatley believed that life in America had been her first step heavenward.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, descendant of Puritan settlers, wrote the short story "Young Goodman Brown" in 1835 to challenge the old religious ways. Haunted, in a sense, by his ancestors' religious tenets, Hawthorne uses the story to question the Puritans' strict moral code and show how believing in the sinfulness of humanity creates distrust. In the woods, confronted by a devil Page 7 | Top of Articlefigure and townsfolk turned evil, Goodman Brown realizes that even good, respected people can become sinful, and he subsequently loses his faith in others:
Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting? Be it so if you will; but alas! It was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, sad, darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream.
In the end, Goodman Brown obviously dies miserable. New England's righteousness, as in Bradstreet's poem, is not his salvation. In showing that one man's virtue is another man's sin, Hawthorne demonstrates that perhaps religion does not always direct what is right and wrong; thus, how can one live "by the grace of God" or rely on the "protection of divine Providence"? At the same time, man cannot live suspicious of others or devoid of faith; if so, he will lead an empty, unproductive life, in essence, the anti-American dream.
In 1892, nearly 120 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Francis Bellamy was commissioned by The Youth's Companion magazine, circulated to schools nationwide, to write a patriotic saying for students to recite on Columbus Day. At first, this "Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag" did not contain religious reference, but simply reflected nationalism: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands—one nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all." However, decades later, in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed off on an amendment adding the words, "under God," to "reaffir[m] the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future … [and] strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war."
In 1995, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins launched the first of a series of books echoing not only the notion to "reaffirm faith in America's heritage and future," but also the idea that humanity should be one "under God." Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days plays into evangelical beliefs as a story about the Rapture of the Saints, when those who are faithful to Jesus are taken to Heaven. At the same time, as punishment for their non-belief, sinners remain on Earth, essentially "left behind." The response to the "Left Behind"
series was overwhelming; the books have sold more than 50 million copies and have inspired spin-offs into different genres, including graphic novels, music albums, nonfiction, and several other fiction series. Sales fairly skyrocketed after the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001, even among more secular Americans. "Apocalypse Now," an article by Nancy Gibbs in a Time magazine devoted to "The Bible and the Apocalypse," provides the results of a Time/CNN poll: "more than one-third of Americans say they are paying more attention now to how the news might relate to the end of the world, and have talked about what the Bible has to say on the subject. Fully 59 percent say they believe the events in Revelation are going to come true."
Interestingly, the "Left Behind" series was not the first spiritual bestseller to affect American society at large. In 1662, Michael Wigglesworth, Puritan minister, wrote America's first bestseller, The Day of Doom, which circulated nearly two thousand copies in its first year of publication. Like the "Left Behind" series, this long poem Page 8 | Top of Articlecompelled readers to embrace religion by pointing out the dire consequences of their neglect. In stanzas 1-25, sinners are awakened from sleeping off a night of "sloth," "song," and "cups" by the "son of God" who has come to judge them. They run and hide in fear but cannot escape the "Judge's" wrath. His angels scour the land, looking for the sinners. The faithful stand by Christ's side, "in long white Robes yclad [sic], / Their countenance full of pleasance, / appearing wondrous glad." But the sinners have a different fate in store:
Ye sinful wights, and cursed sprights, that work Iniquity,
Depart together from me for ever to endless Misery;
Your portion take in yonder Lake, where Fire and Brimstone flameth:
Suffer the smart, which your desert as it's due wages claimeth.
The sinners are forever doomed to hell and "flames of Burning Fire," not "to be released, or to be eased, not after years, but Never." This poem was recited doctrine for over 200 years, essentially a guide to living on Earth and reaching the hereafter. Wigglesworth, like LaHaye, was attempting to unite his readers by prophecy and to illustrate the penalty for their religious indifference. The American dream was, in a way, simply preparation for another "new world."
The Iconic American Dream
Like the "Pledge of Allegiance," the "Star-Spangled Banner" was written innocuously, without the intent of becoming a national lyric. In 1814, Francis Scott Key wrote the poem after watching the British attack Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. Originally called "The Defence of Fort McHenry," the poem was published, circulated, and performed widely; in 1916, President Wilson even ordered the song be played during formal military events. The first stanza of the poem became the national anthem in 1931, and still stands as a monument to the nation's patriotism and is used to commemorate sporting, military, and other public occasions.
The "Star-Spangled Banner" represents pride, nationalism, and the idea that all Americans are united through Key's unique and moving experience. Laura Ingalls Wilder is as much an American icon as the national anthem, as her books are read by children all over the world and her experiences are vivid enough to be real. Wilder shaped the American dream with her first book published in 1931, the same year the anthem became official. The novel, Little House in the Big Woods, began the eight-book autobiographical chronicle of Wilder's journey west in the late nineteenth century. Her adventures and tales of everyday life on the prairie show that young America reliedon the gumption, commitment, and tenacity of families and communities, of individual dreams coming together for common goals: settlement and survival. Wilder exemplifies the free-spirited, hard-working pioneer and has become a role model for young girls, though she did have her bold, tomboyish tendencies, as shown in this scene when she meets Mr. Edwards in Little House on the Prairie:
He was lean and tall and brown. He bowed to Ma and called her "Ma'am," politely. But he told Laura he was a wildcat from Tennessee. He wore tall boots and a ragged jumper, and a coonskin cap, and he could spit tobacco juice. He could hit anything he spit at, too. Laura tried and tried, but she could never spit so far or so well as Mr. Edwards could.
Another free-spirited representative of the American dream is Huckleberry Finn, protagonist of Mark Twain's classic, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884. Young Huck is Everyboy, or at least a boy every boy wants to be. Bold, reckless, and confined by civilized life, Huck escapes from his drunken father and, in the company of Jim, a runaway slave, heads down the Mississippi River to freedom. "We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all," Huck says. "Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft." In contrast to Daniel Boone's purposeful trek into the wilderness, Huck's devil-may-care expedition offers another version of what the American dream looks like. Huck, unlike Boone, does not care to help build America, but instead seeks to break free of imposed boundaries. In addition, through Huck and Jim's escapades, Twain challenges American "civilization" with regard to slavery, portraying it as morally inferior.
As Mark Twain's contemporary, Horatio Alger also contributed to the iconic definition of the American dream, but with his narrative style rather than specific characters. Most of his 135 dime novels, written in the late nineteenth century, follow a rags-to-riches plot, essentially a formula for young male readers to achieve success in the form of a modest income and security; Page 9 | Top of Articlewith hard work, pluck, and compassion, the young men in the novels set themselves up with a solid future. This image of the self-made man combines the determination and courage of Daniel Boone with the energy and daring of Huck Finn and presents a man willing to chisel his own space in the business world. But, in connection with the devout American dream of Bradstreet, Wheatley, and Mather, these men must also have goodliness and godliness to succeed. As Rychard Fink suggests in the introduction to a two-novel set, Ragged Dick and Mark the Match Boy,
Alger's image of the self-made man demanded more than the chance to be just lucky or shrewd. A self-made man also had to be deserving of good fortune, to be the kind of man whom the Lord could favor. If he were not on His side, he could still succeed, but the flaw in his manhood would be there for all to see.
In Ragged Dick (1867), one of Alger's most popular novels, Richard Hunter, a poor orphaned bootblack from New York City, learns that honesty, integrity, hard work, and even luck, lead to personal triumph when he comes to the aid of those more fortunate than himself. At first, Dick doubts he will succeed, but his friend Frank assures him, through a rags-to-riches story about wealthy businessman Mr. A. T. Stewart who changed his direction, that his dream can be achieved:
When he first came to New York as a young man he was a teacher, and teachers are not generally very rich. At last he went into business, starting in a small way, and worked his way up by degrees. But there was one thing he determined in the beginning; that he would be strictly honorable in all his dealings, and never overreach any one for the sake of making money. If there was a chance for him, Dick, there is a chance for you.
Alger's rags-to-riches stories mark a turning point as the definition of the American dream began to expand. As America was parceled, claimed, and legalized into the vast United States, man could no longer find his freedom in the woods or on rafts. Resources belonged to someone, and those resources were being used to develop a new nation. With industrialization and mass transportation came cities, and to cities people flocked for new opportunities. Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1938) also indicates this turning point. Set between 1899 and 1913, the play emphasizes the need to value heritage and family, particularly in the face of industrialization, which brings with it social decline and personal separation. Grover's Corners appears to be the last of a certain kind of idyllic small town in America, and its isolated, protected world is becoming infiltrated by progress. The outside world, depicted by war, automobiles, and even baseball, offers the strong potential for tragedy. In the middle of act 1, the audience of the play interrogates the characters while the Stage Manager mediates. A "Man at Back of Auditorium" asks, "Is there no one in town aware of social injustice and industrial inequality?" His question, plus references throughout the play to the town's forefathers and history, shows that this town remains a romantic symbol; in reflecting the ideals of the seventeenth century, Grover's Corners demonstrates how community is truly the center of life and how love and appreciation make people rich. In addition, at the end of act 1, when Rebecca mentions a friend's letter to George, she describes Jane Crofut's ultimate address as in "the Universe; the Mind of God." The minister who sent the letter represents the church-going people of Grover's Corners as a whole, and like Wheatley and Bradstreet, sees the town in relation to a higher power. Our Town, in this way, serves as a testament to a place that once existed, and at the same time, a dream of what might exist if people stopped acting solely for personal gain and material wealth.
Unlike Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller turned the decay of the American dream into a national emblem through two of his plays, The Crucible and Death of a Salesman. Published in 1953, The Crucible provides a commentary on the 1950s-era McCarthy hearings, veiled by the metaphorical retelling of the famous Salem witch trials in Massachusetts. Much like the Salem trials, the modern-day Senator Joe McCarthy held hearings through the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) to uncover suspected Communists. This unjustified prosecution was completely against the American ideals of democracy, or equality for all. Based on hearsay and neighbors bearing false witness against neighbors, testimonies stripped the American dream from those suspected as Communists as their basic rights were taken away; specifically, those accused were blacklisted and could no longer make a decent living because their reputations lie in ruin. Arthur Miller himself was called to testify in front of the HUAC. Beforehand, he made an agreement Page 10 | Top of Articlewith the committee, which agreed to not pressure him to reveal names. However, once Arthur Miller appeared on the stand, he was forced to relinquish names of suspected Communists. But Miller refused, much like John Proctor in the Crucible. Proctor finally concedes defeat and confesses to witchcraft but spares others of his fate: "I speak my own sins; I cannot judge another. Crying out, with hatred: I have no tongue for it." For his refusal to implicate others, Miller was found guilty of contempt, fined, sentenced to prison, blacklisted, and denied a U.S. passport. The McCarthy hearings show how fragile the American dream truly is and how quickly our "unalienable rights" can be forcibly removed by a government gone awry.
Through his portrayal of Willy Loman in the play, Death of a Salesman, written in 1949, Miller makes a statement about the social and economic corruption of morality, exposing the reality of capitalism and free enterprise. America is not the land of easy opportunity, and affability does not automatically determine social position. The play focuses on Willy Loman, a hopeless, struggling salesman, who still sees the American dream within easy reach. Willy has worked all his life to become a respected, successful businessman, but his quest for popularity has only led him to failure, proving an interesting comparison to the lives of Alger's various protagonists. Despite his shortcomings, Willy still blindly believes in the rags-to-riches notion and tells his sons they can achieve everything he did not. But Happy and Biff will share their father's fate, as they wish for opportunity to drop into their laps instead of making their futures happen. "All I can do now is wait for the merchandise manager to die," Happy says with regard to his prospects, while Biff looks for money, with no strings attached, to bankroll his dream: "If I could get ten thousand or even seven or eight thousand dollars I could buy a beautiful ranch." Through the Loman family, Miller also predicts the effect consumerism and technological inventions will have in the 1950s, offering commentary on how the more modern America becomes, the more obsolete and expendable humanity becomes. As a traveling salesman, Willy belongs to a breed of men slowly falling from existence.
Herman Melville, in "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853), also positions his protagonist as a man gradually losing his identity because of his occupation. Bartleby has become the example of what might happen when a person does not rise against America's capitalist society or does not strive for individuality. Bartleby works in a law office on Wall Street copying legal documents. He is a human copier, his spirit deadened by repetitive work on the white collar assembly line. He practically lives at his desk, where he keeps "a tin basin, with soap and a ragged towel; in a newspaper a few crumbs of gingernuts and a morsel of cheese." The narrator, Bartleby's boss, upon realizing Bartleby resides in the office, sympathizes; "His poverty is great," he muses about his employee, "but his solitude, how horrible!" Melville also emphasizes Bartleby's meager existence by setting the story on Wall Street, a canyon of buildings where no sun can reach; for example, the narrator's office has a view of "a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade." Despite these conditions, however, Bartleby resists in his own passive fashion, and each time the narrator asks him to do something, Bartleby refuses quietly by saying, "I would prefer not to." The narrator cannot understand this mild rebellion, but is intrigued, for they have "the bond of common humanity" as "the sons of Adam." When Bartleby decides he will no longer copy documents, the narrator fires him, but Bartleby will not leave. In time, the narrator, irritated by Bartleby's presence, decides if Bartleby will not "quit" him, then he must "quit" Bartleby. "Bartleby the Scrivener" is a modern story about alienation from the outside world as well as from the person within. Nature cannot exist in a world where the horizon is made of "dead brick walls." Both the narrator, a successful businessman, and Bartleby are victims of progress and cannot connect with each other.
Barred From the American Dream
The tragic ruin of Bartleby and Willy Loman notwithstanding, they were not physically excluded from pursuing the American dream. But since the beginning of the nation, certain groups have been denied the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of laws demanding the contrary. In the 1850s, Isaac Stevens, governor and commissioner of Indian Affairs of the Washington territory, worked hard to encourage Native Americans, through treaty and violence, to relinquish their lands to the federal government. In 1854, he asked for a large tract of land in the Washington territory and promised to relocate the people to a reservation. Chief Page 11 | Top of ArticleSeattle, head of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes and a converted Catholic, had previously compromised with the "white man" over property and takes Stevens's offer, but not before expressing his disappointment, disapproval, and disgust. Chief Seattle addresses the proposal with an understatement:
The great, and I presume also good, white chief sends us word that he wants to buy our lands but is willing to allow us to reserve enough to live on comfortably. This indeed appears generous, for the red man no longer has rights that he need respect, and the offer may be wise, also, for we are no longer in need of a great country.
The "red man" neither had "rights" nor "need" for space because the members of their race had been run off or killed by the white man. Chief Seattle said,
The Indian's night promises to be dark. No bright star hovers above the horizon. Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance. Some grim Nemesis of our race is on the red man's trail, and wherever he goes he will still hear the sure approaching footsteps of the fell destroyer and prepare to meet his doom, as does the wounded doe that hears the approaching footsteps of the hunter. A few more moons, a few more winters, and not one of all the mighty hosts that once filled this broad land or that now roam in fragmentary bands through these vast solitudes will remain to weep over the tombs of a people once as powerful and as hopeful as your own.
The speech, translated years later in the October 29, 1887, edition of the Seattle Sunday Star, keenly illustrates that the Native Americans were not treated as Americans; Chief Seattle used religious rhetoric to emphasize that point:
Your God seems to us to be partial. He came to the white man. We never saw Him; never even heard His voice; He gave the white man laws but He had no word for His red children whose teeming millions filled this vast continent as the stars fill the firmament.
Because the Native Americans had their own religious belief system, they could not possibly partake of anything in the "great country." They were not godly or goodly, in thinking back to the Puritanical faith of Wheatley, Mather, and Bradstreet, particularly because they "could never remember nor comprehend it." Thus, the Native American dream of liberty, "gather[ed] around them like a dense fog floating inward from a midnight sea."
A decade later, in November 1863, the nation continued to establish itself "under God" as President Abraham Lincoln, in the "Gettysburg Address," reaffirmed the government's commitment to the idea that "all men are created equal." In a speech dedicating the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where the Union army had won the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln declared that this nation "under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Lincoln does not directly use the word slavery in his proclamation or even mention the South, but the references to the Declaration directly address anti-slavery proponents who adopted the Declaration of Independence as evidence to support their argument, though more than likely slaves had not been considered part of "all men" when the document was originally written.
Though the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves went into full effect in early 1863 and the "Gettysburg Address" underscored the individual right to American liberty, African Americans would fight for civil rights and equality for more than a century. In 1932, Langston Hughes wrote "I, Too," a poem in which the speaker rejects socially imposed restrictions to develop and declare his worth, not to mention claim his entitlement to an American identity: "I, too, sing America." At first, the speaker is relegated to the kitchen "when company comes." He cannot be seen or heard; he cannot exist. But the speaker resists invisibility by "eat[ing] well" and "grow[ing] strong." In the near future—tomorrow—he will be confident enough in himself to "be at the table / When company comes"; he will be seen as a human being and no one will "dare" tell him to "Eat in the kitchen." In the near future, others will recognize him for the "beautiful" person he is and will regret the way they treated him. He, like everyone else, is part of America.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, suffragette and spokesperson for the women's movement in the middle of the nineteenth century, addressed the New York State Legislature in 1860. She, along with other members of the movement, made abolition a priority as they actively campaigned for women's rights. However, during this particular speech, Stanton used the "black man's [newly won] right to suffrage" to shine light on women's limitation in that regard. "Certain rights and immunities, such and such privileges Page 12 | Top of Articleare to be secured to white male citizens," Stanton put forth this argument:
What have women and Negroes to do with rights? What know they of government, war, or glory? The prejudice against color, of which we hear so much, is no stronger than that against sex. It is produced by the same cause, and manifested very much in the same way.
Stanton goes on to claim that both "Negroes" and women "were intended to be in subjection to the white Saxon man," yet with the black man given the right to vote, "it is evident that the prejudice against sex is more deeply rooted and more unreasonably maintained than that against color." Stanton calls for society to allow women to take care of themselves and declares, "We do not ask man to represent us." Stanton continued for decades to push for women's suffrage, but women did not receive the vote until 1920.
In 1911, Charlotte Perkins Gilman published "Women Do Not Want It," a poem included in the collection Suffrage Songs and Verses, to draw attention to women's own confinement:
Did we ask for veils and harems in the Oriental races?
Did we beseech to be "unclean," shut out of sacred places?
Did we beg for scolding bridles and ducking stools to come?
And clamour for the beating stick no thicker than your thumb?
Did we ask to be forbidden from all the trades that pay?
Did we claim the lower wages for a man's full work today?
Have we petitioned for the laws wherein our shame is shown:
That not a woman's child—nor her own body—is her own?
What women want has never been a strongly acting cause,
When woman has been wronged by man in churches, customs, laws;
Why should he find this preference so largely in his way,
When he himself admits the right of what we ask today?
Though Gilman fought for suffrage for American women, she uses the plight of women across the world to illustrate her point. To her, women are extremely limited, living behind veils, inside harems, outside sanctuary. With the "ducking stool," she references women being dunked in water to determine if they were witches, and with the "beating stick," she draws attention to those women trapped in situations of domestic abuse. She attacks women's unfair salaries, challenges the limitation of menial, dead-end jobs, and even addresses abortion in asking if a woman's body is not "her own." Women, Gilman announces, have rights that have been ignored or dismissed—wronged.
Native Americans, African Americans, and women represent only part of a large, multicultural, multiracial community that fought individually and collectively to claim their civil liberties. Immigrants from all over the world landed on American shores in search of better lives. Unfortunately, although the Statue of Liberty offered her "world-wide welcome," newcomers to the United States would often find prejudice, fear, and hatred waiting for them.
In 1882, for example, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, restricting immigration and naturalization for the next sixty years. The strong Chinese work ethic fueled jealousy and subsequently inspired anti-Chinese sentiment—a "Yellow Peril" that virtually threatened American economy. For the same reason, the Tydings-McDuffie Act passed in 1935, limiting the annual number of Filipino immigrants to fifty. Eight years later, in 1943, Filipino poet Carlos Bulosan describes his difficult journey from the Philippines to America in his book, America is in the Heart. Though classified as an autobiography, Bulosan's novel combines his first-hand experiences with stories he was told, providing a history recounted more from the voices of the Filipino American community than from his own. A poor boy in his homeland, Bulosan becomes a migrant worker in the United States with virtually no rights; stereotyped as criminals or animals, Filipinos were often exploited by employers and exposed to violent manifestations of racism and prejudice, as shown when he tries to get a job and is "beaten upon several occasions by restaurant and hotel proprietors." Bulosan opens chapter 29 by offhandedly explaining the situation: "It was now the year of the great hatred: the lives of Filipinos were cheaper than dogs. They were forcibly shoved off the streets when they showed resistance." Through hard-fought battles for daily survival, Bulosan champions reform for Filipino Americans and holds tight to his brother Macario's inspiring words about the American dream, words that remind a reader of Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes:
America is the illiterate immigrant who is ashamed that the world of books and intellectual opportunities is closed to him. We are all that nameless foreigner, that homeless refugee, that hungry boy, that illiterate immigrant and that lynched black body. All of us, from the first Adams to the last Filipino, native born or alien, educated or illiterate—We are America! The old world is dying, but a new world is being born. It generates inspiration from the chaos that beats upon us all.
At the turn of the century, despite the fact that Irish immigrants were not physically distinct from America's majority-white society, Irish were also denied employment opportunities in major cities such as New York and Boston because of their heritage. This cold reception makes these sincere lyrics from Helen Selina's "Lament of the Irish Emigrant" (circa 1848), though written in sentimental folk style, highly ironic:
I'm biddin' you a long farewell,
My Mary—kind and true!
But I'll not forget you, darling!
In the land I'm goin' to;
They say there's bread and work for all,
And the sun shines always there—
But I'll not forget old Ireland,
Were it fifty times as fair!
In 1893, Stephen Crane self-published Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, a novel about the dark and hopeless existence for those Irish immigrants who fled the potato famine and ended up in the Bowery district of New York. The book was condemned in its time, perhaps for its realistic portrayal. The second section of the novel describes the Bowery conditions without censor:
A wind of early autumn raised yellow dust from cobbles and swirled it against a hundred windows. Long streamers of garments fluttered from fire-escapes. In all unhandy places there Page 14 | Top of Articlewere buckets, brooms, rags, and bottles. In the street infants played or fought with other infants or sat stupidly in the way of vehicles. Formidable women, with uncombed hair and disordered dress, gossiped while leaning on railings, or screamed in frantic quarrels. Withered persons, in curious postures of submission to something, sat smoking pipes in obscure corners…. The building quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about in its bowels.
Crane's story, combining the style of a mock epic with naturalism, is often compared to Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891); saintly Maggie, whose name was a socially accepted synonym for Irish prostitute, desperately tries to care for her younger siblings when her parents take to drinking, but her mother, violently and emotionally abusive, casts her out on the streets. In a world of poverty, sweatshops, and over a million people crowded into tenements, Maggie falls into prostitution, accepting the occupation that her name implies to survive. In the end, Crane keeps her death murky, either murder or suicide. The community calls the death "an affliction" and blames Maggie for being sinful, a "disobed'ent chile."
But even people whose families had settled in America for generations could not escape racial and/or cultural bias. During World War II, Japanese Americans were torn from their homes and jobs and placed in internment camps across the United States. John Okada's No-No Boy (1978), tells the story of Americanborn Ichiro who refused to serve in the U.S. Army and was placed in a camp for two years. The story does not focus on his internment but rather on his personal struggle to put his life back together following his release. Ichiro must deal with his status as a no-no boy, those young Japanese American men who answered no to two questions: "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?" and
Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?
Ichiro cannot come to terms with his heritage and his birthright and finds himself trapped between two worlds, both a part of him: "But it is not enough to be American only in the eyes of the law and it is not enough to be only half an American and know it is an empty half…. I wish with all my heart that I were Japanese or that I were American." Unfortunately, Ichiro is forced to choose in order to lead a normal life.
Revolutionizing the American Dream
In some ways, Ichiro practiced what Henry David Thoreau preached in his essay, "Civil Disobedience" (1849). "Under a government which imprisons unjustly," Thoreau states,
the true place for a just man is also a prison…. It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race should find them; on that separate, but more free and honorable, ground, where the State places those who are not with her, but against her.
Thoreau also suggests that "action from principle, the perception and performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary." "Civil Disobedience" became the touchstone for future efforts of passive resistance, advocating for people to let their conscience, and not the government, dictate their actions. Thoreau saw the American government as doing more harm than good and calls for Americans to be "men first, and subjects afterward." He also believed that "the character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way." Thoreau wanted a better government, one run by "just men" acting on their "just ideals"; to him, that was the ultimate dream.
Over one hundred years later, Martin Luther King Jr. employed Thoreau's rhetorical, social, and political strategies to gain momentum and attention for the civil rights movement. In 1963, on his quest for racial equality, King and his followers protested in Birmingham, Alabama, where local officials attacked the peaceful marchers. King was arrested, but he managed to organize a march to be held in Washington, D.C., on August 28. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King gave the infamous "I Have a Dream" speech, which galvanized even more supporters and led to the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964. King, as Thoreau suggests of his readers, calls his audience to action with his "just" ideology. He considers the government defaulting on their "sacred obligation" to allow all Americans the equal pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of Page 15 | Top of Articlehappiness. He encourages people to act, to join forces with each other, to rise up for what they believe in:
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
King's dream is a truly unified nation "under God"; he says,
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
The same year King made the speech that mobilized a movement to succeed, Betty Friedan rallied women with The Feminine Mystique. The book challenged social constructs by attacking women's prescribed roles and exposing women's inner conflicts and true desires. She introduces the book with the central issue:
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States…. [S]he was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—"Is this all?"
The Feminine Mystique sparked the second wave of feminism and called for a new feminine belief system: one in which women did not have to define themselves by their husbands, home, and children. Friedan encouraged women to be independent, emotionally and financially. She ends the book with a powerful, compelling question of her reader: "Who knows what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves?"
Freidan's female empowerment reveals itself in a novel that created waves in 1973: Fear of Flying. Erica Jong's first novel was considered revolutionary, even shocking, as heroine Isadora Wing owns and delights in her independence and sexuality. Freethinking and free-spirited, Isadora searches for creative freedom, personal validation, and life's answers through one erotic affair after another. After decades of women fighting to acknowledge their inner selves and genuine aspirations, Jong's book provided a symbolic shedding of social trappings, traditions, and taboos. At fourteen, when Isadora visits a psychiatrist, she thinks to herself, "I don't want to be a woman. Because it's too confusing. Because Shaw says you can't be a woman and an artist. Having babies uses you up, he says. And I want to be an artist. That's all I ever wanted." As an adult, she still wrestles with her identity as a woman and resists the expected mold:
I was already a hostage. The hostage of my fantasies. The hostage of my fears. The hostage of my false definitions. What did it mean to be a woman, anyway?… If it meant seething resentment and giving lectures on the joys of childbearing, then I didn't want it. Far better to be an intellectual nun than that.
Through Isadora, Jong was providing a physical manifestation of Friedan's feminist doctrine.
Lucille Clifton's poem, "My Dream About Being White" (1987), celebrates pride in both a female and an African American identity, showing the power gained from the efforts of bold activists in the decades following King and Friedan.
Though the speaker of the poem imagines a white identity, a "perfect line of a nose," she ends up owning her true self, her true history. She does not see a "future" in "those clothes" belonging to a white past, to a white someone else; she is no longer inferior. She has the power to succeed, shown through the final image of her dancing, without false, put-on whiteness. The speaker exemplifies the American dream of acceptance, both by self and society. Her "dream" is more than "about being white"; it is about finally being seen for who she is.
The High Cost of the American Dream
But the American dream, whether it meant a battle for land, freedom, identity, or human rights, came at a high price, often demanding more than an individual, society, or the nation could sacrifice. In addition, the pursuit of the dream frequently led to moral, ethical, and socioeconomic corruption, all in the name of progress. Page 16 | Top of ArticleMany authors exposed this dark side, shining a light on the pitfalls and poisons of personal and professional evolution. Rebecca Harding Davis wrote "Life in the Iron-Mills" (1861), tackling the beasts of industrialization: poverty, labor abuse, and environmental pollution. Though Davis published the work anonymously, the short story in the Atlantic Monthly drew attention from important literary newsmakers such as Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson because of its realistic naturalism. Through her fiction, Davis sympathizes with the exploited industrial workers at a metal foundry, but does not shy away from depicting them as they are. "Life in the Iron Mills" confronted its readers with its raw portrayal of mill life and shows the hopelessness and impossibility of ever rising above an impoverished existence, both in body and soul. Davis writes,
I look on the slow stream of human life creeping past, night and morning, to the great mills. Masses of men, with dull, besotted faces bent to the ground, sharpened here and there by pain or cunning; skin and muscle and flesh begrimed with smoke and ashes; stooping all night over boiling cauldrons of metal, laired by day in dens of drunkenness and infamy; breathing from infancy to death an air saturated with fog and grease and soot, vileness for soul and body. What do you make of a case like that …?
In the "Iron-Mills," Davis creates a world where "money has spoken," where the cost of America's growth is a "reality of soul-starvation, of living death, that meets you every day under the besotted faces on the street."
In 1897, Edwin Arlington Robinson, a poet with an impoverished background, wrote "Richard Cory," a poem from the point of view of one of the "people on the pavement." The object of their frequent attention is "gentleman" Richard Cory, "clean favored and imperially slim." At first, the speaker's admiration for Cory is unmistakable: "And he was always quietly arrayed, / And he was always human when he talked; / But still he fluttered pulses when he said / 'Good-morning,' and he glittered when he walked." The speaker believes Cory's life is "richer than a king" as he was "schooled in every grace"; in fact, the speaker sees Cory as everything he, and the others on the street, wish to be. But life for the impeccable Cory is not the happy fantasy they surmise, and the final verse of the poem shows that despite the speaker's less-than-opportune existence, he is better off than a "gentleman from sole to crown":
So on we worked and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
"Richard Cory" shows that prosperity demands something from everyone, and the American dream may not be as enticing or rewarding as promised, for any of society, from the "masses of men" to those "fine" and "clean favored."
Three decades later, John Dos Passos also comments on the rise and fall of the "Richard Cory"-type in his "U.S.A. Trilogy." In The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936), Dos Passos employs newspaper clippings, biographical material, and autobiographical experiences to accurately portray contemporary American society, culture, and politics. Dos Passos criticizes the political and economic direction of the United States, and few of the characters—rich, poor, male, female, immigrant—manage to hold onto their ideals through World War I. All of the novels, but particularly The Big Money, represent the American dream as corrupt. Dos Passos uses stories about real American businessmen to frame the novel, including the biography of Samuel Insull, who worked for Thomas Edison as an assistant. Not long after Insull grew the company's reputation in electricity, he took on gas; "when politicians got in his way, he bought them, when laborleaders got in his way he bought them." Eventually, he controlled the light and power companies, "coalmines and tractioncompanies" and owned "a twelfth of the power output of America"; however, with the stock market crash, he crawled "on his knees to the bankers" and had no choice but to surrender his power. Insull fled to Canada, Europe, and Greece, but was extradited to the United States where he stood trial. Insull played to the jury's compassion with his Horatio Alger story and received a "not guilty" verdict. Though Insull does not kill himself like Cory, his track from apprentice to utilities mogul shows good intentions and young ambition leading to greed and unethical practices, which ultimately pave the way for Insull's financial ruin and court case. Insull is only one "character" among many in the trilogy who begins with the simple dream of success and ends up sacrificing everything he so carefully built. Most characters tragically end up dead.
In the 1930s, John Steinbeck also used his novels to comment on social and economic ills. With a resume of jobs ranging from laborer and seaman to newspaper reporter and bricklayer, he based his stories on first-hand experiences. One of his most popular books, Of Mice and Men (1937), tells the story of two itinerant ranch hands and their shattered dream of owning a small farm. Eager to become independent, George Milton and Lennie Small find work and start a nest egg, but when simple, strong Lennie is provoked into breaking the ranch foreman's arm and accidentally kills the ranch owner's daughter-in-law, their dream becomes impossible to reach. In the end, George shoots Lennie before he can fall into the hands of a posse bent on revenge. "Let's do it now," Lennie urges before he dies. "Let's get that place now." But for George and Lennie, as for many men and women affected by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, the fantasy of being your own boss and purchasing a piece of land was an impossible dream, and the socioeconomic reality an unbeatable foe. The plains and prairies emptied as the drought continued for several years, and those with once prospering farms and secure employment jockeyed for pennies or even biscuits. The American dream, for a time, blew away in the dry, Midwest wind, leaving thousands of people jobless, homeless, and hopeless.
In the years following Of Mice and Men, the national economic outlook improved tremendously, but achieving the American dream still is not easy. In "Cannery Town in August," poetactivist Lorna Dee Cervantes, a Californian of Mexican andNative American descent, writes about exile in society and the workplace, and about how the American dream leaves women laborers like walking ghosts.
Published in 1981, this poem captures an intimate moment between speaker and cannery workers leaving for the night, a moment that probably occurs regularly, at the end of each day. The women are "bodyless uniforms," zombie-like as they "drift" down streets that are violently "moon-possessed." They do not speak in the "clamor" of the cannery; their voices are lost. These women "walk like a dream," but a dream of emptiness, disconnection, even death. Unlike Steinbeck, whose 1945 novel Cannery Row told the story of a worker community during the Great Depression, Cervantes joins these women in numbness—"dumbness"—but provides no other bond. These women need to be "palm[ed] back to living" from a job that has left them walking alone.
Joy Harjo captures the isolation and anesthetization of the Native American population in her short prose poem, "Autobiography," published in 1990 as part of In Mad Love and War. A member of the Creek, or Muscogree, nation, Harjo begins by connecting recent events to history: "We lived next door to the bootlegger, and were lucky. The bootlegger reigned. We were a stolen people in a stolen land. Oklahoma meant defeat. But the sacred lands have their own plans, seep through fingers of the alcohol spirit. Nothing can be forgotten, only left behind." In the sixteenth century, the Creek nation's agrarian populace spread across most of what are now the southeastern states. Ultimately, the Cherokee and European settlers pushed them west to Oklahoma, or "Indian Territory." This displacement and essentially "defeat" led people to let the "bootlegger reign" and alcohol rule their lives. Though alcohol was used to numb the pain, the "sacred lands" could not be "forgotten."
Harjo goes on to weave together past, present, and future, commenting on the state of dreams:
Last week I saw the river where the hickory stood; this homeland doesn't predict a legacy of malls and hotels. Dreams aren't glass and steel but made from the hearts of the deer, the blazing eye of a circling panther. Translating them was to understand the death count from Alabama, the destruction of grandchildren, famine of stories. I didn't think I could stand it. My father couldn't. He searched out his death with the vengeance of a warrior who has been the hunted. It's in our blood.
In a world of progress and consumerism, Harjo holds on to the America of Walt Whitman, the "river," the "hickory," the "deer," and "panther." She defines her dream with nature, future generations, and tales to tell. Yet she identifies herself and her father, her people, as "the hunted." She, like her people, has paid for her future by sacrificing her innocence and childhood; she writes, "At five I was designated to string beads in kindergarten. At seven I knew how to play chicken and win. And at fourteen I was drinking." Yet Harjo ends the poem with promise, suggesting that she has begun to physically and spiritually recoup her losses:
Yesterday there was rain traveling east to home. A hummingbird spoke. She was a shining piece of invisible memory, inside the raw cortex of songs. I knew then this was the Muscogee season of forgiveness, time of new corn, the spiraling dance.
The marginalized and oft-ignored lower class of America is not always so fortunate to recover, spiritually, physically, or emotionally. In 2001, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich decided to investigate how the lower class makes ends meet by living as a low-paid, low-skilled worker. Ehrenreich, with $1,000 in seed money, a car, and her laptop computer, took a variety of jobs across the country over a two-year period, from waitressing in Florida and serving as a nursing home aide in Maine, to working as a Wal-Mart associate in Minnesota. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America details her experiences; in the book, Ehrenreich comes to this conclusion:
Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don't need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.
Through her personal study, Ehrenreich sees the futility of the American dream as her various co-workers desperately attempt to break through their social strata and leave the life of the "working poor" behind. But housing and transportation costs, medical bills, and the price of basic needs create obstacles that are often insurmountable. Though Ehrenreich still sees hope and a strong drive to succeed within this community, she fears a future uprising as people "are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they're worth. There'll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption."
Redefining the American Dream
Exploring the origins, limits, promises, and worth of the American dream ultimately leads to a conversation about what problems the myth evokes, and about how that dialogue leads to change. Authors such as e. e. cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Allen Ginsburg, and Sandra Cisneros, among others, make their readers question the quintessential image of America by showing history in a new context, offering emotional liberation from the trap of tradition, shining new light on both material resources and consumerism, and providing new representations of what the American dream looks like.
In 1925, e. e. cummings wrote "next to of course god america i," a sonnet that uses the nation's pilgrim heritage to jumpstart a stream-of-consciousness speech to America, as witnessed in this excerpt:
why talk of beauty what could be more beautiful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water
The poem's lack of punctuation, purposeful line breaks, and fragmented language splinters the speaker's patriotic intentions and emphasizes the fact that the speaker is not really saying anything profound at all. Instead, he is merely regurgitating bits and pieces from various nationalistic lyrics, clichés, and famous quotations. Brian Docherty, in "e. e. cummings," suggests that "while anyone who dared to criticise any of these concepts would be labelled un-American and a commie subversive, [cummings believed] it is politicians like this who have muted the voice of liberty." The last line of the sonnet, set apart from the rest, shows the speaker downing "rapidly a glass of water," possibly trying to wash away the bad taste in his mouth, left from meaningless jibberish and erroneous images emphasizing glory and honor in war. Rather than "rush[ing] like lions to the roaring slaughter," cummings says that Americans should think about the message they are conveying; is America simply acting on impulse, out of some past custom or because of some ancient belief system? Does America know what it is fighting for and why? Cummings's satire, written after his experiences as an ambulance driver overseas during World War I, inspires an assessment of American participation in and motivation for war, not to mention a serious contemplation of what liberty means to a twentieth century nation.
Edna St. Vincent Millay also used satire in her poem, "Apostrophe to Man," published in 1934, to reflect on the possibility of a second world war. She also uses a sonnet to directly address her readers, this time the public at large, starting with the line, "Detestable race, continue to expunge yourself, die out." Unlike cummings, Millay does not mince words and unabashedly points to man's flaws and foibles Page 19
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as the cause of his fetid future. Though not framed specifically for Americans, Millay certainly was active in social and political causes, advocating for labor rights and championing democracy. The sonnet does more than wag a finger at humanity; it blasts humanity. But the poem also directly aims its punch at the growing pains of America. Dos Passos's fictional trilogy comes to mind, with its images of crowded American cities, people encroaching on each other's territory, and "hopeful bodies of the young." Charley Anderson, in Dos Passos's The Big Money, builds airplanes, while Valentino and Margo Dowling get photographed and are "all but overcome" by life in the fast lane. Millay could be addressing American society, as it expunges itself with its furious pace and disconnection to each other. In the end, if humans continue to act as they are, they will expand far too much and "die out."
Poet Allen Ginsberg is also famous for his controversial rhetoric as part of the Beat Generation, a term introduced in 1948 by Jack Kerouac to describe an anti-conformist counterculture. His social and political commentary is immediately obvious in poems such as "America" and "Howl," both published in 1956. The first line of "America" is undeniably angry and defeated: "America I've given you all and now I'm nothing," while the first line of "Howl" rings with a bitter poignancy: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked." Ginsberg, through his poetry, acts as the voice of America and Americans, together and solitary.
In a 1996 interview, Ginsberg declared that "the national soul, the national spirit … has been violated by our government's actions. I think we, as a nation, need to apologize." Ginsberg also told the interviewer,
[S]ince the government's going into a tailspin, morally and economically, with the elimination of the safety net for the poor in health, money and housing, the majority of people are restless and their restlessness isn't lucidly communicated through the government or media; but it is lucidly communicated through the poetry. Poets are presenting their restlessness, their sense of justice and injustice, their sense of beauty and their sense of environmental ugliness … government is manipulative and full of Page 20 | Top of Articlehypocrites who are avoiding the real issues of ecology, overpopulation, underclass suffering, medical bankruptcy, homelessness, malnutrition, race divisions, the issue of drugs…. [P]oetry can stand out as the one beacon of sanity: a beacon of individual clarity, and lucidity in every direction—whether on the Internet or in coffee houses or university forums or classrooms. Poetry, along with its old companion, music, becomes one means of communication that is not controlled by the establishment.
In "America," Ginsburg interrogates and charges the nation, "America why are your libraries full of tears?" and concludes, "Your machinery is too much for me."
The poem's rhythm turns on rhetorical questions, as if the speaker expects an answer. Yet as the speaker bombards America with one statement, one contest after another, America cannot get a word in edgewise. America is silenced by the issues raised; there are too many to solve. America is overwhelmed by its to-do list, its responsibilities. This is not Whitman's America.
Edward Albee, in 1961, produced The American Dream, a one-act absurdist play that is critical of the American middle class. "The American Dream," Albee said in an article in South Coast Repertory Play Insights, "is the substitution of artificial values for real values, the acceptance of appearance for content, the slow drift of accommodation. People try so hard to escape being touched by unpleasantness that they wind up being unable to feel anything or to communicate anything." Albee believes a playwright "has a responsibility in his society, not to aid it, or comfort it, but to comment and criticize." Through his satire, Albee shows the American dream as empty, immoral, violent, meaningless. The cast offers an interesting, dark portrayal of the American family, with the controlling Mommy, ineffectual Daddy, and wry Grandma. Mommy and Daddy adopted a son many years before but tortured and murdered the child because of its deformed appearance. A "cleancut, midwest farm boy type, almost insultingly good-looking … typically American" Young Man, arriving at the house in search of work, turns out to be the child's twin and is dubbed "The American Dream" by Grandma. After vicariously experiencing the pain of his brother's torture, he remains an emotional husk who will "do almost anything for money." This muscular Young Man is "perfect" for Mommy and Daddy, unlike their first "bumble of joy." In the preface to the play, Albee calls the work "a picture of our time," helping to define American life more accurately, but many critics disagreed, thinking the play too defeatist and nihilist. Albee's play forces readers to examine the American quest for "perfection," not to mention to question a society founded on appearance, acquisition, excess, and disposability.
Sandra Cisneros, first-generation Mexican American, centers the American dream in bicultural America, divining a life that is not one thing or another. Just as Ichiro's conflict came from standing on the edge of two cultures in No-No Boy, Cisneros offers the borderland where Mexico and the United States meet as a frame for plot and character to develop. In a chapter called "Mericans" included in the novel Woman Hollering Creek (1991), three children play outside a church as they wait for their "awful grandmother." Two strangers, a woman and a man, wander by and ask, in garbled Spanish, to take the older boy's picture. The woman offers gum and he accepts, then calls to his siblings:
"Hey, Michele, Keeks. You guys want gum?"
"But you speak English!"
"Yeah," my brother says, "we're Mericans."
We're Mericans, we're Mericans, and inside the awful grandmother prays.
Through this short, simple vignette narrated by the girl, Cisneros acknowledges the prevalent problem of racial and cultural stereotyping, as well as the conflict of social identity. Despite the brother proclaiming their nationality, the girl's repetition of "We're Mericans" juxtaposed with the image of the grandmother praying to La Virgen de Guadalupe shows she is torn between two worlds. But in writing stories where the protagonists represent a non-white side of America, Cisneros positions America in between different cultures as well. The American dream is speaking two languages, praying, and chewing gum at the same time.
Conclusion: The Future of the American Dream
The American dream began to evolve as the myth was reassessed and revolutionized. The promise of second chances still glimmers, but the shine is a bit tarnished and perhaps a bit more realistic. Margaret Atwood, in her 2003 "Letter to America," published in the newspaper the Nation, wants America to wake up to its Page 21 | Top of Articleflaws and return to its ideals. She sees America as straying from its origins but believes it can regain its integrity, as framed by this excerpt:
You're gutting the Constitution. Already your home can be entered without your knowledge or permission, you can be snatched away and incarcerated without cause, your mail can be spied on, your private records searched. Why isn't this a recipe for widespread business theft, political intimidation, and fraud? I know you've been told all this is for your own safety and protection, but think about it for a minute. Anyway, when did you get so scared? You didn't used to be easily frightened.
You're running up a record level of debt. Keep spending at this rate and pretty soon you won't be able to afford any big military adventures. Either that or you'll go the way of the USSR: lots of tanks, but no air conditioning. That will make folks very cross. They'll be even crosser when they can't take a shower because your short-sighted bulldozing of environmental protections has dirtied most of the water and dried up the rest. Then things will get hot and dirty indeed…. If you proceed much further down the slippery slope, people around the world will stop admiring the good things about you. They'll decide that your city upon the hill is a slum and your democracy is a sham, and therefore you have no business trying to impose your sullied vision on them…. The British used to have a myth about King Arthur. He wasn't dead, but sleeping in a cave, it was said; in the country's hour of greatest peril, he would return. You, too, have great spirits of the past you may call upon: men and women of courage, of conscience, of prescience. Summon them now, to stand with you, to inspire you, to defend the best in you. You need them.
According to Atwood, America has a chance, if it turns to its noble origins, if it looks to its "great spirits of the past" and resurrects its "courage and conscience." America can once again be a new world.
The American dream, since the first settlers arrived in the New World, has remained fundamentally the same. A "new" world presented the chance to start over, spiritually, economically, personally. It offered a chance to create a new government, with new laws, new freedoms, new limits. This world was unclaimed, leaving ample room for newcomers to make their mark, however they desired. Some sought a different identity, others an adventure. Still others looked toward heaven. But all had equal opportunity to set forth on the quest, no matter where they were from, what language they spoke, or the amount of money they saved. At least that was the prevailing philosophy signed by American forefathers. Unfortunately, the words were not in stone.
A land so vast and beautiful, honored by Boone, Whitman, Thoreau, and Frost, was gradually parceled, pieced, bordered, "possessed." It was traversed by wagons, bloodied by prejudice and greed, and industrialized in the name of material success. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness all came with amendments and demands. "One Nation under God" turned into "Every Man for Himself." The strong American work ethic was replaced by the mantra "Get Rich Quick." Equality had a definite color, as did entitlement. As Chief Seattle illuminated the criminal loss of "red man's rights," Langston Hughes dared take pride in his racial identity, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton demanded national representation for women, icons such as Huck Finn, Horatio Alger's protagonists, and Grover's Corners were moved aside to reveal the secreted symbols of America. Irish prostitutes such as Crane's Maggie and Japanese American "no-no boys," together with the workers in the iron-mills and the marchers who followed Dr. King, chose not to be silent.
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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2895300013