Friday, March 25, 2005

Arthur Miller & the American Dream

When playwright Arthur Miller died last month, much was made in the obituaries about what his plays had to say about the so-called American Dream. Marilyn Berger, writing in the New York Times, said that Miller’s “work exposed the flaws in the fabric of the American dream.” CNN declared that his plays depicted “the American Dream gone awry.” The BBC called them “intricate musings on the darkness at the heart of the American Dream.” And Xan Brooks, in the Guardian, described Death of a Salesman, the play that won Miller the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1949, as “a savage assault on the American dream.”
Arthur Miller was decidedly a man of the left, and dissing the American Dream is a favorite pastime of the left. The complaint seems to derive from equating the American Dream with consumerism, the pursuit of material goods. Of course, the left is a bit inconsistent on this point. Only last year, in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank tried to figure out why a majority of the citizens in his native state continue to vote for Republicans, who he says only cater to their “values,” and not for Democrats, whose policies he says favor their true interests — which are strictly material.
Arthur Miller embodied this inconsistency: That a man who hit the jackpot on Broadway early in life (he was only 33 when he won his Pulitzer), who lived an upscale existence in suburban Connecticut, and married Marilyn Monroe should make a career out of denouncing his fellow Americans’ desire for creature comforts is, at the very least, odd.
Moreover, the quest for wealth and comfort hardly started in America. Neither did criticism of it. Recall that Jesus warned his followers against laying up “treasures on earth, where dust and moth consume and thieves break in and steal.” And William Wordsworth, in 1807, composed a sonnet decrying how “the world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”
In this country, such criticism appeared early and has been repeated often. Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, deplored “creeping down the road of life, pushing ... a barn seventy-five feet by forty.” From Henry Adams to Henry Miller, from Theodore Dreiser to Sinclair Lewis, criticism of the downside of America’s system of free enterprise has been so common as to almost amount to a cliché.
The American Dream itself, however, can’t be easily equated with crass materialism. As it happens, the phrase “American Dream” not only had a precise time and place of origin, it also had a specific originator: historian James Truslow Adams coined it in his 1931 book The American Epic. According to Adams, it is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” Small wonder the dream that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so famously had was, as he put it himself, “deeply in rooted in the American dream.”
In Time magazine’s obituary of Arthur Miller, critic Richard Corliss said that the playwright “saw the American Dream as a kind of curse, for it led us to mistake ambition for destiny, and to suffer the inevitable slump and crumble when reality makes mock of the dream.” I must beg to differ with my former classmate: It was Miller who was mistaken, not us. The glory of the American Dream lies in its challenging the very notion of a fixed and determining destiny for anyone. Americans prefer to shape their own destiny. Emerson, not Thoreau, sounded the authentic American refrain — when he admonished his countrymen to “hitch your wagon to a star.”

12 comments:

  1. Thank you. That's the first comment I've read that noted the disconnect between Miller and what the American Dream actually entails.

    Whenever I read criticism of American capitalism (or capitalism in general), I wonder that the difference is between that and what merchants have done thoughout history. Buy low, sell high. Find a need and fill it. The only difference I can find is that certain societies tend to do it more efficiently than others. But it's all buying and selling.

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  2. I read your article on the American Dream with interest.

    I suspect that the American people have been so propogandized by now by the media that there is little difference today between "having more and better things" and the abovementioned dream.

    They who hold the means of communication shapes the consciousness of the nation.

    The American Dream translates into staggering credit card debt and mortgage nightmares as more and newer SUV and plasma TV's possess our lives instead of the other way around.

    It translates into Americans working longer hours at their jobs than ever, more and more estranged from their families -- and themselves.

    The weight of misery pressed upon the poor and disenfranchised in this country can only be truly estimated by those who have felt its bitter effect. For those who have nothing, the ego crushing "wealth" of others and the consumer-producer media blitz conspire to severely oppress and agonize its victims.

    The monopolies require homogeneous crowds of vapid consumers too tired from excessive work to think about anything other than going to WalMart and buying the same sweat clothes as everyone else.

    Mass Market naysayers are anathema to the Corporate big boys (and their government lackies) and usually solicit derogatory labels -- Miller had his share of social critics, I'm sure. Socialist! Communist!

    Our economic chaste system displays all the earmarks of a rigid control mechanism, and it isn't getting any better. Most young Americans today live in fear from paycheck to paycheck, unable to afford but the most banal aspects of the American Dream -- like TV.

    "Conform or starve" is the corporate American slogan that is turning us into a nation of frightened, mindless zombies.

    Tono Rondone
    Author of The Martyrs
    www.piscesbooks.com

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  3. Hello! Thanks for that wonderful analysis. I just watched a PBS Ken Burns documentary on the Statue of Liberty, and the interviewees frequently maligned the American Dream. They would show the many immigrants coming into New York Harbor, and then they'd make a snide comment that the intoxication with America only lasted a short time. However, the truth is that once people got here, they didn't go back to their native countries. My family came over on the Mayflower, and we're still in love with America.

    Thanks again!
    Nancy French
    www.NancyFrench.com

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  4. Interesting piece of self-promotion from Tono Randone, but it's hogwash. (I tried to find the book on Amazon, but apparently it’s self-published and not available through trade outlets.)

    One of the essential problems that lie at the root of radical leftist thinking is a lack of faith in the individual.

    Mr. Randone would have us believe that the so-called common man or woman is little more than a sheep, blindly manipulated by the evil forces of industry and the media.

    I don't buy it.

    Only a person who holds humanity in arrogant contempt could believe such a distorted view of the world.

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  5. I expect that you have bought it, hook line and sinker. Self promotion? I don't sell books, I don't make money of my writing. Period, sir. So what gain do I have by speaking my mind?

    All you have to do on Amazon.com is to search under my name, not Randone but Tono Rondone. Try that. Depreciation because you disagree with someone's ideas is not cricket, and I'm not looking for book buyers.

    As to little faith in the individual, that is not my major problem. The problem is that the media has brainwashed us; it's propaganda dude, serious and insidious. Pervading every level of our society, brought to a fever pitch by technology.

    Self published? Why, you should have the courage, commitment and skill to publish a book. Why not try it yourself or are you an established writer?

    I'm interested in freeing mankind not denoucing them. It's not our fault. Most of us are pawns, sir, or dupes, or perhaps we haven't got enough of the gray matter. So the leaders must lead. But where will they lead us?

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  6. I expect that you have bought it, hook line and sinker. Self promotion? I don't sell books, I don't make money of my writing. Period, sir. So what gain do I have by speaking my mind?

    All you have to do on Amazon.com is to search under my name, not Randone but Tono Rondone. Try that. Depreciation because you disagree with someone's ideas is not cricket, and I'm not looking for book buyers.

    As to little faith in the individual, that is not my major problem. The problem is that the media has brainwashed us; it's propaganda dude, serious and insidious. Pervading every level of our society, brought to a fever pitch by technology.

    Self published? Why, you should have the courage, commitment and skill to publish a book. Why not try it yourself or are you an established writer?

    I'm interested in freeing mankind not denoucing them. It's not our fault. Most of us are pawns, sir, or dupes, or perhaps we haven't got enough of the gray matter. So the leaders must lead. But where will they lead us?

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  7. My main difficulty with your response is that you did not address the issues but instead launched a personal assault against me. This will never do in debate.

    I'm not honestly sure what your issues are here. That I respect and honor my fellow human beings not at all?

    And then you suckered me into a diatribe about ego. Issues not ego, and ideas not individuals. or maybe you'd be one to line me up against the wall and pull the trigger because my ideas are different than yours.

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  8. I suspected that you purpose was self-promotion since your post seemed to be deliberately provocative, then closed with a plug for your novel. If I ascribed motives to you that weren't appropriate, I apologize.

    (I did find the book on Amazon this time. Thanks for the tip on spelling your name.)

    Your argument, however, is still hogwash. You believe that people are mindless beasts who are blindly led by the media and corporate America like pigs to the trough.

    That’s nonsense. People are intelligent enough to live their own lives and make their own decisions. (What is more transparent then media or so-called propaganda?) Have you considered that what is actually happening is that people just disagree with your view of the world? Perhaps that’s why you are so out of step.

    I am always amused at the arrogance of any agitator who proclaims that he alone is wise enough to see what’s going on, but the rest of us poor slobs are fools.

    The Sixties are over, Mr. Rondone, and your side lost.

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  9. Again, I have to suggest that we address the issues, the ideas, and not the individuals. It's won't do to call another person's views as hogwash. Rather, you have to address specific issues and show how they were presented falsely or are wrongly perceived.

    My desire was to give those like yourself who might engage in conversation about important issues in America some background information about myself. I mean, if you're writing, wouldn't you like to know that another person who is writing has made a life of it?

    Specifically, my observation is that most Americans under the age of thirty are living in fear, from paycheck to paycheck, with only the basic necessities of life. But this of course is only relative. Compared to billions even a homeless person in America might seem rich.

    I had a good friend, my best friend in San Francisco, an original idiot savant, with more arcane and esoteric knowledge than you could shake a stick at, living in Golden Gate Park, unable to hold down a job for a day, because of too many electro shock therapy treatments because he "didn't fit in."

    He died in that park of "exposure."

    What does that prove? It proves that in America, only those that want to earn money and strive for it win. It proves that if you're poor and maladapted to the consumer producer reality of our society, if you're not a contributing member, woe to you, boy.

    True the man got $800 a month in SDI payments. Wow, live large dude.

    I remember a time when I was standing in line at the welfare office on 14th street in NYC. There were three floors in that building, and I was on all three. On the most crowded floor, I looked closely around, and I was the only white man there!

    In front of me was a short black man, who was getting pissed because the line for cab fare back home was moving so slowly. He told me he'd just got done serving five to ten for armed robbery. He was already so frustrated with the system that he pointed his hand up in the direction of the sky with a gun in at and said to me, "Yeah, man, this is bullshit. I'm thinking of taking up the gat aagin and going to work.

    Now, I ask you, here I was, a college graduate, a former West Point Cadet, standing in a welfare line thinking I was lost, and then I met him!

    I don't know. But the American Dream is only there for those that have been lucky enough to have lived it in their waking lives. For the rest, it's purely cruel technologically manifested delusion.

    So, the next time you blog, blog about the issues I've raised and the articles, not the person, please if you will. And I appreciate the apology, I really do.

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  10. meanwhile no promised review is forthcoming. Before year's end. even if you have to do it yourself. Which means you're not even a book reviewer, you're the employer of book reviewers. And those book reviewers are not up to reading and analyzing The Martyrs. Nor are you. So take your forum and lather yourself. Yet, I remain, your nagging itch.

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  11. Anonymous12:16 AM

    frank wilson is a lying jerk

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  12. Anonymous3:00 PM

    FOOL! YOU FOOL FRANK WILSON! THE AMERICAN DREAM IS A LIE, JUST LIKE YOU! IT LEADS PEOPLE ON ONLY TO LET THEM FALL AGAIN!
    YOU FOOLS!
    ONE DAY YOU WILL LEARN?
    BUT WHEN WILL YOU LEARN?
    ONE DAY IS NOT SOON ENOUGH!
    FOOL!
    FOOLS!

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