The “American Dream” in a Cross-cultural Context


“Has US literature woken from the American Dream?” is the name of a books blog article put out by The Guardian last year. The author recounts his perusal of an American art gallery in which he was “struck by this wilful avoidance of darker, pressing realities. Art preferred to revel in a certain pastoral romanticism that seemed to promise the limitless expansion of the American dream.” In the proceeding paragraph, though, he makes a different statement about American literature:

“Literature, on the other hand, has always taken a more complicated and occasionally far more direct, moralistic stance on the American dream in the face of everyday struggle – even, or especially, when that dream is packed in a moving truck, driven out of the city, and restaged in some sort of pastoral Eden. One could argue that the American dream is the subject of every American novel, a sort of blurry-eyed national obsession with having it all and coming out on top, or in the case of most plot-driven literature, the failures and breakdowns in that quasi-noble pursuit. I’ve asked a few voracious reader friends to name a book where the American dream is a happy one: most were stuck for an answer.”

This was a novel idea to me. Has American literature always had a nuanced and wary relationship with the American Dream (I’m visualizing an awkward middle school slow dance)? Because I think of the ideology as rather ubiquitous. Curious, I googled (PS, I love that this is a word now) “most famous american novels” and found this page. Granted, I realize the list is not official, but I do appreciate the reasonable diversity listed among the titles. Anyway, as I scanned the list, I realized that few if any of the works actually held a sentimental view of the American Dream. Obviously, minorities write about how the American Dream is oppressive (e.g. Silko), but even white dudes note at least that it’s hollow (e.g. Fitzgerald).

This year I’m teaching in San Salvador: today begins my second week. My eleventh grade classes are studying American Literature, and my objective is to begin by thinking critically about the American Dream ideology. This is an especially interesting goal since I’m teaching non-estadounidenses. So much American culture gets transmitted around the world–especially television, cinema, and music–and the allure is powerful. I’m thankful, however, that American Literature actually creates a platform to discuss the shortcomings of our fractured mythology.

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