Modern Literature and the American Dream

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman
Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald

I don’t believe anyone goes to work in America without some kind of dream. It’s our incentive. To paraphrase Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People (quoting Freud) we all have a desire to be great and to have our basic needs met. If we didn’t have some kind of goal, dream, or aspiration, we wouldn’t take ourselves away from our families and spend time working and making a living. The American dream is a general, broad idea and it’s different for everyone. For some, it may be fame, fortune, and the pursuit of pleasure and happiness. For others, it may be something simple as keeping up with the Joneses, maybe buying some land, taking the occasional vacation and putting some money away for a rainy day and retirement.

Dreams and values can also change with experience and time. Let’s look at Charlie Wales in Babylon Revisted. Much like his creator, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wales spent his younger years pursuing hedonistic pleasures. Debauchery and fortune were his bedfellows. He lost his family as a result and, eventually, lost also the vast majority of his money. His goals and values changed. Now that he didn’t have money and all of its wonderful trappings, he saw the value in his family and sought companionship with his daughter. This became the driving force in his life; his ideal of the American dream. His values changed as his circumstances changed.

In contrast, in much of Whitman’s work we see the American dream expressed as a desire for equality in America, expressed mostly through the idea of slavery. He speaks often of slavery and its inhumanity, especially in I Sing the Body Electric. The first stanza of section eight is especially eloquent in this idea:



“A woman’s body at auction,
She too is not only herself, she is the teeming mother of mothers,
She is the bearer of them that shall grow and be mates to the mothers.
Have you ever loved the body of a woman?
Have you ever loved the body of a man?
Do you not see that these are exactly the same to all in all nations and times all over the earth?”



Here we see Whitman’s desire for all men to be free, to be equal, and to keep the spoils of their labor. This was Whitman’s idea of the American dream.

Later, in the works of Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman we see the American dream expressed as a desire for equality, this one, amongst the sexes. The American dream for these two authors, whom were already well to-do and successful, was to be seen as equal with men, to have the same rights and (certainly in the case of Gilman as The Yellow Wallpaper concludes) even a dominance over men.

Finally, the Gilded Six-Bits, we see the American Dream in all its messed up glory. In this story, we see a character (Slemmons) whom brags about his fame and fortune, drawing the envy of the townsfolk, and, specifically, Joe and Missie May. Both of these characters decide they want this treasure at all costs. Likewise, Slemmons sees Missie May and becomes desirous of her. Missie May, in turn, sleeps with Slemmons in an effort to gain his treasure. Joe and Missie May, once happy, have now been torn apart by greed and envy. In the end, they discover that this treasure they sought from Slemmons was actually fraudulent which perhaps begs the question as to whether or not the American dream itself is a fraudulent ideal.

Missie May gives birth to a child that may or may not be Joe’s and things return to the way they were. The American dream came and went and left a wake of destruction in its path, yet, our main characters, who are once again of simple and modest means, have returned to happiness.



Thanks for Reading.

A FREELANCE WRITER, HONORS STUDENT AND GOVER PRIZE FINALIST, JUSTIN W. PRICE (AKA, PDXKARAOKEGUY)is a POET, SHORT STORY, BIOGRAphy AND HUMOR WRITER. HIS POETRY COLLECTION, DIGGING TO CHINA, WAS RELEASED FEBRUARY 2ND, 2013 BY SWEATSHOPPE PUBLICATIONS AND IS AVAILABLE ON AMAZON.com, Barnes and Noble and through YOUR LOCAL BOOKSELLER.

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Comments 14 comments

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks John. Glad I could help!


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PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thank you, Audrey. Each of us different, so why wouldn't our definition of the American dream also be different? hanks for reading and commenting.


John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 3 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Nice article. Thanks for giving me new insight into these 'greats of American literature'.


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 3 years ago from California

So interesting Justin. The American dream is indeed different for different people


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks Suzette. I'm glad you agree.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Avian, I agree. Thanks for stopping by.


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PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks MsDora


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Lady, thanks for your comments. Although it's generally dangerous to do so, I think much of Great Gatsby is autobiographical. Fitzgerald lived a life of excess before living a more subdued life in his later years... much like Gatsby.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Jim, thanks so much. I'm glad you enjoyed this!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM

Very interesting article. I enjoyed reading this. The works and authors you cite do speak to the American Dream.


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

Basic rights should be the American Dream and to live in peace and harmony with one another. I salute your thoughts.


MsDora profile image

MsDora 3 years ago from The Caribbean

Thanks for the literature lesson. I agree with you that everyone is motivated by a dream. Maybe the American dream is not fraudulent; perhaps it is possible to have new dreams when the old one does not materialize.


ladydeonne profile image

ladydeonne 3 years ago from Florence, SC

Thanks for reminding us that the American dream means different things to different people and at different times in their lives. My favorite American dream book and movie is The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald explores the American dream as it is existed in the 1920's which was a time of decadence and a decline in moral values. The American dream was about accumulating, buying, and showing off "things." How one came about those "things" was personal and often illegal. The American dream has not changed in it's meaning since the first pilgrims landed on it's shores. We all still want freedom,equality of opportunity, a good life and happiness. Those concepts differ from one individual to another. Voted up and sharing.


xstatic profile image

xstatic 3 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

This is an interesting survey of the American dream as seen through literature. I am sure it has been the subject of many dissertations, but you have done well with this hub-sized version.

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