Why you should read: 100 Years of the American Dream

“Thanks for the American Dream To vulgarize and falsify until The bare lies shine through”
–William S. Burroughs, “Thanksgiving Prayer”

Vulgarized, falsified, lionized, satirized, vilified, glorified and on and on, the American Dream is many things to many people.  But just what is it? We Americans (excuse me, United Statesians) are known for loving quick and easy answers, and there are none to be found in 100 Years of the American Dream: Representations and Conceptions in American Literature, 1919-2019.  What is to be found, however, is a wealth and variety of reflection on this frequently overworked concept.

Editor Michael Kearney has assembled intellectual voices from both within and without the USA to examine various aspects of the Dream as represented in various literary works and a few from forms of popular entertainment.

Those of us who grew up “American” (and there’s considerable discussion of what this word itself means) are familiar with the most accessible image:  a decent job, a better life, a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and two cars in the garage.  There are also the less tangible aspirations for the opportunity and freedom to be who one is or desires to be and to live the life one imagines optimal.

We are also painfully aware that dreams don’t always come to fruition, or if they do, they’re often not what we expected. Someone once said, “There are no great love stories about happily married couples”.  They wouldn’t be all that interesting, would they?  No, it’s tales of tragic, thwarted or forbidden love that fascinate, as all literature requires conflict.  Of course, in the literature of the American Dream, romantic love is usually a mere sidenote to the traditional narrative of professional and material success.

Most literature considered to be about the American Dream tackles its dark side, or its unforeseen disappointments and corruptions.  Works like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt and many of Theodore Dreiser’s works spring to mind.  These are absent from this collection, but rest assured, traditionalists, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is here, albeit given a fresh spin by Setsuko Adachi, who focuses not so much on how money doesn’t buy happiness, or even the frustrated love story, but on something we in the USA like to think we left behind in 1776:  the notion of aristocracy. 

Adachi does this by examining not only Jay Gatsby’s failure to achieve respect from his Old Money neighbors, despite his vast wealth, but also the fall of Nick Carraway’s family from the social register of his home city in the Midwest. To this she adds A Daughter of the Samurai by Etsu Sugimoto, the autobiographical journey of a descendant of Japanese nobility who is married off to a wealthy, but non-aristocratic Japanese immigrant in Cincinnati. Sugimoto easily makes her way into the city’s social elite and achieves her American Dream, acquiring both money and prominence.

Kind of like a fairy tale, isn’t it?  Adachi further addresses the American love affair with aristocracy with a mention of the fascination with the Disneyland castles, based on real ones in Germany. She doesn’t even have to include the celebrity status many Americans accord the British royal family. These things are exotic treats here, not just ambiguous baggage from centuries past.

Before reading Adachi’s chapter, I’d never quite realized that Nick Carraway, as befit his social position, looked down on Gatsby with disapproval. Perhaps this has something to do with all the cinematic adaptations of Fitzgerald’s novel, which tend to unabashedly make Gatsby a hero and Carraway kind of an awe-struck sidekick, while of course giving us plenty of Hollywood eye candy in the form of opulent Long Island mansions and lavish production-number parties featuring hordes of flappers tipsy on bathtub gin doing the Charleston.

Another aspect of foreign culture frequently exoticized in the US is Eastern religion. Spirituality of any kind is usually absent from the American Dream, which is all about material success and happiness.  Kei Saito gives us an Easterner’s perspective in his examination of Beat Generation writers and their dalliances with Buddhism and other forms of Asian spirituality. Buddhism in its official teachings eschews attachment to material things (as does Christianity) and as a “new” ideology had great appeal to those critical of the 1950’s status quo. Traditionally, the West is the seat of rationality and progress, while the East is backwards and saddled by superstition. In the new dualism, the West is overly “rigid,” hung up on numbers and statistics, while the East is spiritual and unbound.  Both stereotypes are vast oversimplifications and, when synthesized by actual lived experience, may have produced an American-style Buddhism, whereby enlightenment is achieved with minimal pain, suffering and time commitment.  (Quick and easy!)   

But that’s just good old American cynicism, as much a part of our cultural DNA as its counterpoint, optimism; they frequently coexist side by side, often within the same individual. And in fact, the Beats, for all their disillusionment, saw their society as salvageable, with the right form of awakening and if we all pull together in a combination of the individual and the collective, also a big part of our have-it-all ethos.

The expensiveness continues with Michael Kearney’s meditation on Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a close affiliate of the Beat Generation, though he didn’t count himself as a Beat poet. Through Ferlinghetti, Kearney examines the question of what makes the American Dream particularly American. Like songs sung at a wake, many of Ferlinghetti’s works combine an awareness of the tragedy of existence with an air of pleasantry and hope.

The poems discussed are largely from Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, Americus Book I and Time of Useful Consciousness. Ferlinghetti, while well aware of the imperfect past of the United States, also seems to consider it “the last, best hope of humankind” in a universalist way. What if the US is “Everycountry” and the idea of countries and nationalisms is doomed to extinction as human consciousness evolves (providing, of course, that it does)? Kurt Vonnegut and the universally expanded mindfulness of the planet Tralfamadore are brought in, to profound effect.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in 1919 and died 1n 2021, so he lived the entire span that this book covers. I note that this period is also that of the apex of US power—the “American Century.” If we’re to be the “light unto the nations” we imagine ourselves to be, we must first jettison the notion that we’re somehow any more special than anyone else. How Zen is that?

Of course, not all visions included here are expansive, all-embracing or utopian.  Some even seek destruction of what most consider major components the American Dream, built as it allegedly is upon individualism and free enterprise, not to forget “Whiteness.” Case in point is Michael S. Begnal’s account of Amiri Baraka’s journey from radical Black nationalism/separatism, demanding a physically separate country for African Americans (the Republic of New Afrika), to a more nuanced view of the Black American community as a country of the mind, somewhat echoing Ferlinghetti.

Ever since the Pilgrims, there have been negative American Dreams of excluding people, things and ideas we’d rather not co-exist with.  Racism, nativism, homophobia, not to mention nationalism, the Red Scares and various Prohibition movements, have all constituted someone’s visions of ideal states to be achieved.

Let us not forget our culture’s Original Sin of exclusion, the displacement of the First Nations peoples. Movement and rootlessness, both voluntary and not, are ongoing motifs in US history and modes of expression. Could it be otherwise in a society with a history of colonialism and immigration? Even many of the Native American groups were nomadic pre-contact. From there through expansion and settlement, the Middle Passage, the Trail of Tears, all the communal experiments from the 19th century religious groups to the hippie communes, the railroads, the urbanization and subsequent suburbanization of the nation, the growth of highways and the car culture, the Beats and On the Road, air and international travel, the linking and shrinking of the world through computers and social media—both the possibilities and attendant neuroses are always present.

In “Between Water and Land: Writing at Home,” Gisele Giandoni Wolkoff examines the “country of the mind” as regards two poets, Elizabeth Bishop and Eavan Boland. Both lived in several countries (Bishop in the US, Canada and Brazil and Boland in Ireland, England and the US) and their works reflect the multiplicity of consciousness inherent in such a life, as well as the feeling of not belonging to any one place and the transcendence of being bound to one place or nation.

It’s no accident that Bishop and Boland are also both women writers confronting patriarchal norms and struggling to establish female space in the literary world. As a United Statesian, Bishop follows in the footsteps of other literary figures and finds inspiration abroad, not unlike the “Lost Generation” of the 1920’s. As an immigrant to the US, Boland discovers, as have many immigrants, that the increased economic and material benefits on offer in the Land of Opportunity do not necessarily translate into greater happiness or satisfaction. Many native-born United Statesians also make this discovery.

Similarly, T.S Eliot was born to a “Boston Brahmin” family – über-WASPs descended from the Mayflower, fiercely proud of their Englishness – in St. Louis and moved to England at age 25, to become “more English than the English.”  His writing, too, reflects the contradictory relationship of individual to place. On the one hand, the places we live in and their history can provide a sense of identity and community. They can also be restrictive and deadening to the spirit. Very often, they can be both at once.  Brian Coates’ examination of Eliot and his work drives home this interplay. 

Though by definition future-oriented, many aspects of the Dream revolve around nostalgia.  Eliot’s evocation of rural tradition and a simpler, more harmonious past, a past largely re-imagined, is one more false lead in the never-ending quest for the most elusive of prey, satisfaction.

I could not help but notice the absence of any sort of “speculative” fiction among the literary offerings discussed.  Our culture long ago abandoned the idea that science and technology would usher in any sort of better world that didn’t also bring with it new and perhaps worse problems. I guess it goes back to the prototype, Frankenstein, wherein the good doctor’s dream of scientific advancement and the renown it brings turns to nightmare in short order. Consider the sci-fi oeuvre of Ira Levin, most famous for Rosemary’s Baby (in which the titular character’s dream of married life is waylaid by her husband’s dream of professional success; he’s willing to sell HER soul – or at least body – to the devil).  Levin’s This Perfect Day is a typical utopia-gone-bad tale, but The Stepford Wives and The Boys from Brazil are American Dreams come true for unreconstructed sexists and Nazis, respectively.

But I digress. Back in the world of real-life disappointments, I was surprised to discover that there is a sub-genre of “college novels.”  There exists an entire universe of Young Adult Fiction, but it seems mainly devoted to the more baroque and dramatic period of early adolescence and high school. I do not believe I have ever read or even heard of a “college novel” and when I began to read Jeffrey Markovitz’ essay, my thoughts immediately flew to Animal House. Yes, I know it’s not a novel, but it is perhaps the most salient cultural product addressing college life. After a few moments’ reflection, I was able to divorce my mind from the party-till-you-puke tradition and conjure David Mamet’s Oleanna and Neena Beber’s Misreadings, both dramas featuring dysfunctional student/professor relationships. Another seminal college film, The Paper Chase, is based on a novel by John J. Osborn, Jr, also pays more attention to the classroom than the kegger.   These works also present professors as antagonistic to students, a major point in the article.

Markovitz provides a historical/sociological/economic perspective by dividing the 20th century college experience into three eras:  a Pre-Golden Age in which only the wealthy are educated, a Golden Age in which higher education is expanded, democratized, and accorded a central position in US cultural life as hope for the future, and finally, a post-Golden Age of budget cuts, skyrocketing tuition and student debt, and  the paradox of college becoming thought of as lot more necessary but less relevant to a middle-class professional life (and the American Dream that goes with it). 

The various literary examples for these epochs reflect privilege and its lack, especially the experiences, of women and people of color as their aspirations are (not) achieved. College is not the magic bullet (for there are no magic bullets) that will automatically propel one into financial or social success and it will not provide instant advancement on either the individual or the collective level. 

 A huge focus of Markovitz’ essay concerns the corporatization and commodification of higher education and offers not much in the way of hope.  We who work in colleges are very used to hearing from the right wing that universities are full of “tenured radicals,” brainwashing the youth of America into Marxists and “woke,” fanatical social justice warriors. It’s a pleasant change of pace to hear that the academy is instead perpetuating capitalism and Eurocentric hegemony, though these criticisms have been around for a while, albeit less publicized. Both sides are angry with us. Could it be that underneath it all, we’re doing something right?

Another ubiquitous institution that both purveys the American Dream and is frequently under attack across the political spectrum is Hollywood. Film is often not counted as literature, though it is an offshoot of drama and incorporates literary elements. Maria Kranidis writes on how the dream of women’s equality was embodied by three major actresses in the film industry of the 1920’s. Kranidis traces the social, political and economic advances of women with the success of Women’s Suffrage in 1920, the growing presence of women in the workforce and the new cultural freedom for women, and connects these to the cultural representations of the new femininity being portrayed by the silent film stars Alla Nazimova, Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow.

Each woman is examined for her own particular style. Nazimova, in addition to being a woman, was a Russian Jewish immigrant and a lesbian, an outsider on many levels and ushered in a sensibility of the exotic. She was a stage star before breaking into cinema and she wrote, produced, and directed films in addition to acting.  Swanson portrayed a more recognizable American Dream, one of materialism and shopping as empowerment for the married woman, as opposed to the relative enthrallment to home and family of the passé Victorian matriarch. Swanson herself is best remembered for her portrayal of Norma Desmond, a has-been film star unable to let go of her (curdled?) dreams in the classic Hollywood noir Sunset Boulevard. The “new woman” was able to both experience pleasure and use her sexuality to manipulate her way in the world. No one better exemplified this than Clara Bow, the “It Girl”: the girl next door, suddenly allowed to be sexual, archetype of the paradoxical flapper, simultaneously innocent and experienced.

 Of course, the film industry, like the rest of society, was (and to a considerable extent still is) a patriarchy, and, despite the new freedom, the films of all three actresses eventually end in their finding the right man or a happy marriage. The chicken-or-egg question is also raised of whether they were representing what women truly desire or (more commodification!) merely selling them a new brand of femininity.

Male archetypes are no different. And what’s more manly than professional wrestling? Or more American (the “art form,” if you will, was invented in the US) and drenched in fantasy? I’ve saved the most esoteric for last; Jeremy Fernando’s my dream is yours is not analytical as are the others.  In his forward, Kearney himself wonders if it fits.   

It not only fits; it exemplifies. After providing an abstract to get him through the academic door, Fernando proceeds to a surreal tour-de-force, a drama divided into five acts, mirroring on one level the “soap opera for men” that is pro wrestling.  The framing device is of a WWE performer in the process of demolishing his opponent and winning his match and thus the worship and adoration of the crowd. Along the way we get a glimpse into the US cultural psyche that does indeed revel in the cult of personality and the open yet unspoken knowledge that the fix is indeed in, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

United Statesians’ love of larger-than-life, trash-talking con artists is here in spades, with some pungent commentary on contemporary political figures (one in particular) and the whole thing is interspersed with quotes from wrestlers and French philosophers and snatches of song lyrics from Lana del Rey to the Carpenters. It’s a pop culture cage match, an intellectual battle royale.

So there you have it.  Whatever your literary bent or kink, there’s something here for you. There are almost as many versions of the Dream as there are US citizens, maybe even more, given the billions of aspiring United Statesians all over the planet. Some are frustrated, broken or disappointed dreams.  Some are out-and-out nightmares.  But life without dreams and visions is mere existence.  Elevate your mere existence with a copy of 100 Years of the American Dream. God alone knows what the next 100 years will foist upon us.

Michael Kearney, editor. 100 Years of the American Dream: Representations and Conceptions in American Literature, 1919-2019. Cambridge Scholars, 2022.

Chris Sorochin is an adjunct professor in English and Humanities at Farmingdale State College in Long Island, New York. He mainly teaches composition and literature, though most of his career has been focused on English as a Second Language. Chris hosts If This Be Treason, a talk show on political and cultural affairs, on WUSB (wusb.fm) every Thursday at 1:00 pm, New York time.

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