American Literature and the Dream

By Frederic I. Carpenter | Go to book overview

PART I

1. INTRODUCTION

"THE AMERICAN DREAM" has never been defined exactly, and probably never can be. It is both too various and too vague: many men have meant many different things by it. I shall therefore follow popular practice and use the phrase inclusively.

But "American Literature" has been defined more exactly, and has been outlined in courses and embodied in anthologies. Most men agree that it is something very different from English literature, and many have sought to describe the difference. This book began as a series of essays in interpretation of the major American authors. But in the process of writing, an idea crystallized: American literature has differed from English because of the constant and omnipresent influence of the American dream upon it.

But this influence has usually been indirect and unconscious, because the dream has remained vague and undefined. Few Americans have said: "Go to-- I will imagine the perfect democracy." Even the phrase "American Dream" is of recent origin. But the vague idea has influenced the plotting of our fiction and the imagining of our poetry. Almost by inadvertence our literature has accomplished a symbolic and experimental projection of it.

Traditionally, American literature has been described under such categories as "romantic" and "realistic," "transcendental" and "genteel." But considered in relation to the dream, it falls into new patterns: the old words persist, but in new relations. Using the old words, I shall describe the Transcendentalists as the philosophers of the dream, the Genteel Traditionalists as its opponents; the Romantics as the emotional enthusiasts of the dream, and the Realists as its sympathetic critics. This interpretation will emphasize neither the technical forms of literature, nor the historical patterns, but the ideal attitudes of American writers toward the dream.

Before considering American literature in general and its authors in particular, I shall partially define the American dream by recalling some of its most famous and explicit expressions in history, and examining the ideas which these have held in common. However abstract, the words "freedom," "progress," and "democracy" recur,

-3-

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American Literature and the Dream
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Part I 3
  • 1 - Introduction 3
  • 2 - The American Dream 5
  • Part II 11
  • 3 - The Transcendental Dream 11
  • 4 - Emerson 19
  • 5 - Bronson Alcott:Genteel Transcendentalist 30
  • 6 - Walt Whitman''s Eidolon 40
  • Part III 51
  • 7 - The Genteel Tradition:A Re-Interpretation 51
  • 8 - Scarlet a Minus 63
  • 9 - Melville and the Men-Of-War 73
  • Part IV 83
  • 10 - The Pragmatic Realization 83
  • 11 - Charles Sanders Peirce:Pragmatic Transcendentalist 94
  • 12 - William James and Emerson 105
  • 13 - Sinclair Lewis and the Fortress of Reality 116
  • Part V 126
  • 14 - The Romantic Confusion- The Devil in America 126
  • 15 - The Romantic Tragedy of Eugene O''Neill 133
  • 16 - Death Comes for Robinson Jeffers 144
  • Part VI 155
  • 17 - Thomas Wolfe- The Autobiography of an Idea 155
  • 18 - John Steinbeck- The Philosophical Joads 167
  • 19 - The Time of William Saroyan''s Life 176
  • 20 - Hemingway Achieves the Fifth Dimension 185
  • Part VII 194
  • 21 - The Good and the Bad 194
  • 22 - The Logic of American Literature 199
  • Notes 208
  • Index 217
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