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Modern Literature and the American Dream
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.