The Occupy Wall Street protest, which has now become a movement spreading across the country, and has come to Boston this week, is a contemporary critique of the American Dream. The protests have brought to light the growing inequality in the US–and how the rich and big business have contributed. Even those not participating or expressing their solidarity with the protestors can agree that what is popularly considered the “American Dream” is in peril. Literature has at various times praised and criticized the American Dream, the best of them having people talking long after its first print run.
Plenty of contemporary writers today explore the American Dream with a critical eye, showing a sober side of so-called “success” in America. But many of these novels are somewhat behind the times: for instance, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom ends in 2008, hardly exploring the effects of the Great Recession. So if readers want a more accurate portrait of the state of the American Dream, they may have to look further back, to the Depression.
The Grapes of Wrath, written and published during the Great Depression, has never been more relevant since the era in which it was conceived. A massive novel that took John Steinbeck years to write, inspired by the plight of the “okies”–migrant farm workers from the Heartland who moved West (mostly to California) in pursuit of a better life. Though the book was a popular and critical success, it did stir up controversy in its day. Some called it communist for its sympathetic view of poor workers, and that it exaggerated the conditions of the migrant camps. Though The Grapes of Wrath may take place in the past, its confrontation of the American Dream and its unattainability for many people in a state of extreme economic inequality is sobering and rings true to the economic conditions for many Americans today. The Grapes of Wrath has also been a banned book, so it’s perfect reading for Banned Books Week!
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, published a decade earlier, examines the American Dream from the perspective of a man who has already made it. The titular character indulges in excess and gains a sense of entitlement, leading to greater despair when he can’t win the heart of his dream girl. In the end, he loses everything, prompting the narrator to reconsider his own dreams and move back home to the midwest. As an article in the BBC last month put it, The Great Gatsby asks us, do we want money to play a significant role in our lives and what is really important to us? The book is regaining enough enthusiasm for a new film adaptation to be in the works. The director, Baz Luhrmann, said in an interview that he wanted to “hold up a mirror to his audience, but from another time because they would be more willing to accept it.”
And considering the similarities between the past few years and the years before and during the Great Depression, what better than to examine the literature of that era, in hopes of reclaiming and reshaping the American Dream, so that equality is something that everyone can realize?