By Daniel Shaviro

As William Faulkner famously wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Public food fights about such topics as the 1619 Project, and what we should teach children about the history of American slavery and racism, reflect this assertion’s truth. It’s not just that owning the past gives you more control over the present. In addition, what we were like as a country is likely to have a great deal in common with what we are like. Such continuity over time makes cultural studies a powerful tool for understanding our present, not just our past.

In my new book, Bonfires of the American Dream in American Rhetoric, Literature, and Film, I therefore can take an enjoyably circuitous route towards addressing the question: Why are things so awful in the United States today, in so many dimensions? For example, how could social solidarity have so collapsed that we cannot even cooperate in fighting a pandemic? And what cultural factors, including but not limited to racism, have made us the type of country in which, for example, the rates of infant mortality and food insecurity significantly exceed those in peer countries?

In a word (or rather two), I think a large contributing factor is what we call the “American Dream”—the view holding that anyone can succeed, through hard work backed by the requisite intelligence, self-discipline, and talent. Today this is false for many Americans, held back by narrowing economic opportunity and by the barriers of race, gender, and class. But it also helps to promote hatred and contempt for the poor, who ostensibly have only themselves to blame. And it adds to the anxieties and tensions around economic competition. Wealth becomes the supreme test, not just of how comfortably one will get to live, but also (supposedly) of one’s fundamental worth as a human being. And, while these dark byproducts of the American Dream can be seen across a wide historical spectrum, their virulence varies across time. They grow worse in eras, like our own currently ongoing Second Gilded Age, in which there is extreme wealth concentration at the top.

Now for the fun part. To trace how American attitudes about the rich, the poor, and economic competition have been both constant and yet changing across time, Bonfires of the American Dream offers three case studies, each from a different expressive realm. The first is published rhetoric about success and economic merit. Here I compare the ugly and vicious John Galt speech, from Ayn Rand’s doorstopper novel Atlas Shrugged, to a more benign nineteenth century expression of its worship of the rich and hatred of the poor. Second, I write about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—often viewed as the quintessential American Dream novel. I look, not only at its internally conflicting attitudes, but also at its very differential reception across time. Finally, I compare two classic films—Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street—that tell startlingly parallel stories about upward mobility and the finance industry—albeit, with radically different attitudes that reflect their distinct eras.

To quote the book’s blurbs, all written by reviewers whom I don’t know personally, Bonfires is a “page-turner about popular American thinking about the American Dream” that “shows how much of our cultural experience consists of economic fantasies, and how much in turn these fantasies shape our culture and our politics.” It sheds light on “our anxious perception that American democratic values may be on course for disintegration.” And it “illuminates destructive discrepancies between American ideals and practices, and bitter divisions between rival ideals since the founding.” All this, while being “written in short sentences, in plain but lively prose,” that is “wholly accessible to the lay reader.”

Tags :

Leave a Reply