Continental Drift by Russell Banks: The Downside of the American Dream
In a country as complex as 20th and 21st century America, it can be difficult to pin down a concrete idea of what actually makes up a distinctly "American" identity. Phrases like "as American as apple pie" may come to mind, or images of baseball stadiums packed with fans singing the national anthem, but when it really comes down to it, symbols like baseball and pie represent only a small portion of our diverse society.
If there is one defining narrative of our county, it just might be the ideal of individual success and personal responsibility. The self-made man has come to symbolize the ideal which the American man (or woman) is supposed to strive for. The problem with such an ideal, however, is that it really only represents a preoccupation peculiar to the American middle-class, that of individualism as the defining factor in life.
This form of individualism places the idea of the “authentic self” on an unattainable pedestal. Self-satisfaction, through which the authentic self is reached, becomes the defining goal in life. Ultimately, this overemphasis on individualism leads to an impoverished culture, in which people have difficulty making sense of their lives or finding a sense of meaning in their choices, associations, and lifestyles. Russell Banks’ novel Continental Drift epitomizes this phenomenon in the fictional character of Bob Dubois, providing a detailed look at the ways in which an American culture devoid of communal association leads to general unhappiness, ennui, and moral bankruptcy even in the face of material success.
In Search of the American Dream
Bob Dubois is depicted as a typical American, lower middle-class white male. Though his family is descended from the French, they have erased all vestiges of the French culture, including the French pronunciation of their last name. His father prohibited him from speaking French as a child, and all Dubois has to rely on is the working-class values of hard work, discipline, and self-reliance.
Bob Dubois appears to hold family and reasonable job accomplishment as defining values, but he lacks any kind of understanding on just why these values are important, or why he personally should take any sense of satisfaction or happiness out of his having attained them. Banks writes, “what he once was grateful for, a job, a wife, kids, a house, he comes to regard as a burden, a weight that pulls his chin slowly to his chest, and because he was grateful once, he feels foolish now, cheated somehow by himself."
The dominant cultural narrative has told Bob that the individual pursuits of pleasure, happiness, and stability, including financial stability, are the important values in life. Yet he is perplexed because he does not find the sense of satisfaction in his achievements that this narrative is telling him he is supposed to feel. Within the individualist worldview that Bob has adopted to make sense of his world, his interactions with other people exist solely as a source of personal satisfaction. Ultimately, Bob's private life is devoid of a sense of meaning or greater purpose.
Bob reacts to this lack of inner satisfaction or inner impoverishment in multiple ways, none of which seem to help with the issue at hand. Bob has several affairs, even though he claims that he loves his wife. In each instance, Bob seems to find himself only further adrift. It would seem that Bob’s sexual encounters are a means of attempting to combat the fundamental loneliness that comes with American middle-class individualism. Bob is desperately seeking a sense of connection with others that he is deprived of in his normal life.
Bob also sells his home and boat in Catamount, New Hamphire, leaving for the Florida unknown with his wife and two daughters. In abandoning his middle-class life, Bob is simply trying out a means of self-indulgence, erroneously believing that rather than dedication to family and stability, a dedication to upward mobility and financial success will bring him personal satisfaction. Bob has simply changed his idea of what would make him happy, but the new focus seems to be as arbitrary and self-serving as the last.
When Bob again abandons his life to become a lonely boat captain off the coast of Miami, he enacts another dimension of what could number among the great failings of American individualism, the fruitless search for the authentic self “unencumbered by the trappings of society.” Bob has become so caught up in the search for the self that he takes little notice that it is not the self that is the problem, but the fact that he cannot seem to reconcile a way for this self to coexist within a larger world.
No Happy Ending
Ultimately, Bob’s deep-seated notions of individualism and self-preservation come to a tragic end. There has been no redeeming quality to his life, no lesson learned. Yet even in the tragic example of Bob, some questions remain. First, is it the idea of individualism itself that is problematic, or the potential for selfishness and greed that arises from this individualism?
Second, in Robert Bellah's book Habits of the Heart, he speaks of a “first language of individualism,” which is often complimented by second languages of community, family, ethnic belonginging, etc. Was Bob’s major failing simply that he was never versed in a second or third language, or is the larger issue at stake the fact that it is individualism that speaks first?
Finally, in the case of immigrant assimilation, is adapting the language of individualism necessary for assimilation? Is this something required in the “brutal bargain?”