The American Dream is something that’s been ingrained in us. Films, family, and our education show us the house with the picket fence and fancy car, the family sitting at the dinner table passing the rolls. But somewhere in that understanding, real life gets in the way and forces us to reinterpret what we expect of this great land called America. Is our dream to be able to pick up and go? Is it the desire and drive for material comforts? Is it something intangible and misunderstood? Let’s explore some well known examples.
Taking place around the time of the Great Depression, Steinbeck gives his readers a look into the lives of three townsfolk who have very different ideas of the American Dream. They may not have wealth and fame, but Doc, Mack, and Dora find their own versions of the American Dream. Mack and his ragtag group of well-intentioned friends try to throw Doc a party to show their appreciation, Doc tends to sick animals and troubled community members, and Dora takes care of the prostitutes she manages at the Bear Flag Restaurant. While they lead separate lives, the residents of Cannery Row band together to care for each other, support each other, and show that there’s a lot more to life than that big house on the hill.
While the American Dream has always suggested stability and having roots, oftentimes characters have no choice but to keep moving in search of that ultimate freedom. Flannery O’Connor focuses on the moving character in Southern mid-century America, exposing readers to the (sometimes self-imposed) isolation her characters feel when looking to stay free. In “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” Tom T. Shiftlet has no family or anchor, so he always keeps moving. Landing on Lucynell Crater’s doorstep, Tom is happy to help with chores, but balks when Mrs. Crater tries to marry him off to her daughter. So he fixes up an old ’29 Ford and heads for the open road, declaring “. . . the spirit, lady, is like a automobile: always on the move, always . . .” (152).
Ellison’s masterpiece, Invisible Man, focuses on the life of an unnamed African-American character determined to live the American Dream of financial and intellectual success and basic social freedom. Ellison’s Man does what he can to give himself an edge but is ultimately undermined, humiliated, and abandoned by the very society he so deeply respected and tried to emulate. Themes of blindness and darkness and references to red, white, and blue add to the painful realization that Ellison’s Man has been denied the basic right to exist in American society, leaving him alone in his underground home.
Small-town America has always been seen as the center of the American ideal—made up of tight-knit communities that support and look out for each other, and built by honest, hard work. But for 16-year-old Matthew, life on the desolate border of Minnesota and South Dakota has both its draws and its turn-offs. He struggles with his deep desire for Louisa, the young, female victim of a shooting in his small town, and his desire to be accepted by his community. But he feels a simultaneous desire to escape small town life and make it on his own, so Matthew is turned in different directions and unsure of which way to go. In American Boy, Larry Watson expertly crafts a story of heartache and ambition in America’s heartland, throwing it all against a backdrop of unforgiving wilderness. Matthew must now face reality in his search for the American Dream—is it the glory of a big city, or the quiet life of a small town?