I might have thought the American Dream had ended, but the election of Barack Obama makes a difference. He invoked our national dream in his victory speech, an important citation though edged by the ill omens of financial and economic disaster both at home and abroad (I write on 20 November, 2008).
Like so many potent social myths, the American Dream is devoid of clear meanings, whether in journalistic accounts or in academic analyses. The major American writers who have engaged the dream—Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Mark Twain, Henry James, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Hart Crane—have been aware of this haziness and of attendant ironies. And yet they have affirmed, however ambivalently, that it must be possible to have a nation in which all of us are free to develop our singularities into health, prosperity, and some measure of happiness in self-development and personal achievement. Call this Emerson’s Party of Hope, whose current prophet and leader is the still untested President-Elect Obama.
Let us call the Other Side the American Nightmare, from Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville through T.S. Eliot and Faulkner onto our varied contemporaries such as Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth. Between Faulkner and these came Nathanael West, Flannery O’Connor, and Ralph Ellison. Dreamers of nightmare realities and irrealities, these superb writers are not altogether in Emerson’s opposing camp, the Party of Memory because, except for Poe, Eliot and O’Connor, they shared the American freedom from dogma.
But they dwelled on our addiction to violence, endemic from Moby-Dick’s Captain Ahab through Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden, and on our constant involuntary parodying of hopes for a more humane life.
What are we to believe about our nature and destiny in the sea of history that has engulfed so many other nations? We make terrible blunders, of which the Iraqi War and our current financial panic are merely the most recent, and only rarely can they be mitigated. Our American Dream always is likelier to bring forth another Jay Gatsby than a reborn Huck Finn. Our innocence is difficult to distinguish from ignorance, a problematical theme throughout the novels and stories of Henry James, our strongest novelist even as Walt Whitman remains our more-than-major poet. What Whitman discerned (in Emerson’s wake) was the American Adam, unfallen and dazzling as the sun. Is that national myth sustained by the extraordinary rise of Barack Obama?
Eight years from now we may be able to answer that question. A country without a monarch and a hereditary nobility must find its heroes in the American Presidency, an absurd ground for such a search ever since the murder of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, almost a century and a half ago. Emerson’s Party of Hope trusts for a reversal, in the name of the American Dream.
—from The American Dream, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom (2009)