The American Dream Deferred:

November 2, 2010

An Exploration of Gastby, Kane and Hackett

“Hollywood has become a scrap-heap for the broken values of disillusioned Seekers and thus localizes the coming apart of the American Dream.”  -Bruce L. Chipman

The Great American Dream has been a part of our culture before that culture had any real clear definition. It has, in fact, played a major role in defining what it means to be American. We consider this American dream part of our heritage and inheritance. It is our birth right as U.S. Citizens. But what is it? Its definition is as elusive as obtaining the Dream itself. Early on in the time of the Colonies, England was flooded with pamphlets calling everyone to America; a place of abundant lands, abundant wealth, and a chance to start a new life in a new world. Some came for fortune and glory, some for religious freedom, and some to cut off ties from the past. After Europeans populated the East Coast, these dreams of a new life had evolved into rights and we experienced the bloody birth of a new nation. Yet we still would look west, our dreams taking us ever further until there was no more land to possess. The stories of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Citizen Kane by Orson Wells, and The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West are all an exploration of achieving the American Dream and what happens when America doesn’t seem to make good on her promise. But what is that promise? Jay Gatsby and Charles Foster Kane both achieve great things, and Todd Hackett is surrounded by an industry that offers riches and fame, but is that what America has promised them; or did they miss it? Was there something deeper they were searching for, something that can still be achieved in America today?

Since he is the inspiration of the other two works, we must first give our attention to Mr. Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is the ultimate dreamer, the epitome of the self-made man, rising from poverty to incredible riches. Unfortunately, he is so self-made that he is completely made up. He is not real, everything about him is only a character that Jimmy Gatz created. “Jimmy was bound to get ahead,” Gatsby’s father proclaims after he had presented a comic book to Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, that contained a list of “resolves” and a daily to do list for self-improvement written in Gatsby’s handwriting (Fitzgerald 181). This list is reminiscent of Benjamin Franklin’s list of self-improvement written in his Autobiography (Heath 860). Ben Franklin is America’s first rags to riches hero and he defined the self-made man. The allusion to Franklin reveals Gatsby’s potential, but Franklin accomplished something more than riches. Gatsby’s dream becomes distorted when he meets Dan Cody, a smuggler who takes Gatsby under his wing and teaches him how to live among high society. Dan Cody represents the distorted American dream. Dan, at the first symbolizes Daniel Boone, America’s famed frontiersman and icon, but in the end he is only Cody, representing Buffalo Bill Cody’s Western freak-show, a pale, false, broken representation of the deceased American West. Gatsby’s fate is sealed when he falls in love with Daisy; she becomes a symbol of the society he could never penetrate. If he can obtain her, he has obtained success and he rushes to build his empire of wealth to woo her to him. Gatsby creates a false self, acquires false riches (in that they are illegal), and when he finally gets the girl, he realizes that she is only another empty prize to check off his list of accomplishments. In obtaining Daisy he has only lost a dream.

What do you do when you achieve your dreams and they turn out to be empty? It can be argued that Gatsby waited in his pool to die, but I don’t think so. I believe that Gatsby had enough character to grow, and in fact started to as soon as he realized Daisy’s complete lack of substance. He realized the falsehood of himself and all that Mr. Cody offered him. Had it not been for Nick he may have slipped into hopelessness, but Nick’s friendship kept him grounded to reality, probably for the first time since he stepped foot on Cody’s yacht. Although Nick confessed he never really liked Gatsby, he was the only person in the book who had any kind of character at all, and he was a true friend; Gatsby’s only friend. Gatsby was a humble mid-western boy trying to better himself. But by the time we are introduced to him he is a lonely man seeking relationship and acceptance in the wrong places. Nick’s friendship offered Gatsby what he had been looking for all along, and it came with substance. Had Gatsby been allowed to live he and Nick might have remained friends and Gatsby would have continued to grow and might have accomplished some of the great potential that Jimmy Gatz revealed in his “Hopalong Cassidy” comic book. But what kind of a boring ending would that be? That ending would be too polished and too Hollywood.

In Citizen Kane Orson Wells tells a new rags to riches story inspired by Gatsby, but Charles Foster Kane is allowed to grow up into a lonely, broken, old man. Wells explicitly reveals in the movie that Kane is really searching for people to love him; however, Kane was unable to love them back. This is because Kane had no example of what it is like to love and be loved, except, perhaps, something from a distant past. Kane inherited millions of dollars at a very young age and became the ward of an investment banker who completely lacked any emotion at all. Charles, living contently and happily with his parents, was forced by his mother to live with this man in order to grow up more refined. To a child, this would certainly seem like betrayal (in my opinion it is), his mother giving him up and sending him away. Kane grew up in a situation where he could have anything he wanted, but no one to show him what was of true value. His dreams, which fed his ambitions, were really very simple, he only wanted to be loved and accepted. Everything he did was for “the people,” so that they could admire him and love him. Like Gatsby, he built an empire that was meaningless to him; he only did it for show, to prove something to those whom he wanted attention from. Kane never emotionally matured from the child who left his mother.

When Kane said “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man,” he begins to understand that he is missing the mark somehow. All of his effort and energy did not accomplish what he had hoped for; however, he does not know what is missing, and tragically he never figures it out until his death. Kane’s only friend was Jedediah, and he kept him grounded for a time, but Kane’s ambitions became too much for Jedediah, so he let Kane go on his path of self destruction. Susan Alexander took Jedediah’s place and Kane finally had someone who loved him only for who he was. But Kane was never able to offer that back to her. He could only offer her “things” instead of his heart. Unable to live with this, she too leaves. In the end, we discover the mystery of “Rosebud.” It is not simply a sled he loved as a child; it is a return for Kane back to his youth, back to a time when the world was safe and secure in the love of his family, back to a time when he was able to dream about the hope and possibilities of life. In the midst of all of Kane’s wealth, it was only a cheap snow-globe Susan possessed that was able to move him. It represented his childhood home, his longing to go back to simplicity and safety. Just as Susan possessed the toy, it was she who possessed the ability to give the security and safety of her love to Kane, if only he was able to love her back. Kane realizes this only after she leaves, and in that revelation he also realizes all his accomplishments, all his great palaces, measure up to nothing without what his heart truly desired: love. Had he realized this earlier, he may have accomplished his dreams in a fulfilling way, but finding out so late, Kane’s heart finally broke and he died.

In West’s Day of the Locust there is no Jay Gatsby or Charles Foster Kane for Todd Hackett to befriend and keep grounded. In fact Todd is unable to even keep himself grounded. There is only the distorted and false dream itself, personified in the character of Faye Greener. Faye represents Hollywood and every male character in the novel lusts after a chance to be with her, if only just once. It is consistently mentioned in the novel that Faye is playing roles, unable to be real to anyone, yet she has an inviting way about her that seems to offer intimacy but never delivers. She, as Hollywood, is the failure of the American Dream, unable to deliver what she promises and only offering false hope. Americans move westward, hoping for a chance to be a part of the dream factory, to get a piece glory, but when they get to Hollywood, there is no action, there is no glory. Our dreams have been reduced to Faye Greener, cheap and slutty, yet never delivering.

Just as Europeans continued to pour into the new world in colonial times, Todd predicts early in the novel that Americans would continue to pour into California; they are the victims who make up Todd’s  apocalyptic painting, “The Burning of Los Angeles.” Todd believed that the people coming out to Hollywood and finding their dreams unfulfilled would revolt and end it all in a cataclysmic riot. He also believed that these people were only the beginning, they represented the whole of American Culture; “He changed ‘pick of America’s madmen’ to ‘cream’ and felt almost certain that the milk from which it had been skimmed was just as rich in violence” (West 118). Todd is able to be an observer for a while, but he too falls under Faye’s spell and becomes a victim. He has included himself in the painting and indeed he ends up in the riot he predicted. The book ends with Todd’s madness and with Los Angeles in absolute chaos resulted from the unquenched passion of unrequited dreams. There is nothing in the end that offers us any hope. Nathanael West has declared the death of the American Dream.

But is it dead? Sixty years later, we have not yet felt the Apocalypse. Hollywood, and indeed the mid-west and east coast, are all still here. And we are all still dreaming; some dreams being fulfilled and some dreams ending in tragedy, as all three of these stories have ended. West offers us no hope at all, yet Wells and Fitzgerald exhort us to look back to simpler time, when we were innocent. At the end of Gatsby Nick harkens us back to the time of the Dutch settlers, back to the “fresh green breast of the new world” (Fitzgerald 189). During the American Revolution a French colonist named Crevecoeur wrote for the first time what it meant to be an American in his fictional Letters from an American Farmer. He places into the mouth of the farmer these words, “When I contemplate my wife, by my fireside…our child, I cannot describe the various emotions of love, of gratitude, of conscious pride…I feel the necessity, the sweet pleasure, of acting my part…of an husband and father, with an attention and propriety which may entitle me to my good fortune” (Heath 903), and later, “We are all animated with a spirit of industry which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself” (Heath 906). These are the foundations of what the American Dream rest upon. For the first time in history common man had the opportunity to make something of himself, to rise up through the social order and provide for himself and his family to come, to own himself and his destiny, to dream and to work for that dream.  The American Dream is indefinable because it is as varied as the individuals who make up the American People. It is an accident, it roots reaching into hypocrisy as well as purity; ask any Native American and African American about their ancestor’s dreams, and it would have something to do with freedom from the white man. Yet this accident has the ability to be realized and rather than dieing, this Dream has finally matured four centuries later into something close to what it offers. The American Dream is a birth-right but it is not a promise, it is only an opportunity. Gatsby’s dream of a better life became distorted by the seduction of Daisy’s high society. Kane’s dreams were never well defined and never accomplished being lost in the unlimited wealth he possessed. Those who came to California to die found themselves empty handed with a dream that ends in the hour and a half it takes to play them. But they all had choices, they all had the opportunity to seek for something greater than wealth and fame. The only thing the American Dream promises is the freedom to dream with the opportunity to risk for and to work for those dreams. What a person dreams of, what he’s willing to risk and how hard he is willing to work depends upon the character of that person.

Peter L Richardson
7/29/2003

Citizen Kane By Orson Wells. Dir. Orson Wells. 1941.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995.

Lauter, Paul, ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. 4. Vol. 1. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.

West, Nathanael. The Day of the Locust. Signet Classic, 1983.

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