The American Dream and Kerouac, Wilder, Miller

Posted: June 24th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Reviews | No Comments »

The American Dream gives hope to humans to break free from the futility of life. Dreaming gives one a sense of purpose and identity which gives Americans something to work towards and against. Fulfillment of the American Dream can bring comfort, hardship, and enlightenment, all at the same time. The Dream evolves over time to keep up with human’s ever changing needs and desires; it is an adaptable dream and the dreamer must be adaptable as well. Our Town by Thornton Wilder, The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, all captivate, as well as reflect and shape, the American Dream. They represent three different points of the evolution of the American Dream. Our Town is an appreciation and critique of the good old days. Death of a Salesman shows of the commoditization of labor and the hardship Americans faced at that time trying to make ends meet. The Dharma Bums shows the American Dream as every human’s personal journey towards or away from happiness. The Dream has evolved to embody not just the stereotypical American Dream of security and a white picket fence but also the Dream can reflect those that are not Capitalistic or selfish but want to see the world with clear eyes and enjoy the beauty of living.
Wilder’s Our Town is both in appreciation for and abjection to American values. The simplicity and stability in Our Town, shown through the community, stem back to a conventional American Dream. In order for the United States to prosper the citizens needed a sense of community and identity that would unite them under one supreme force, “[They]…had a notion that the Union ought to be kept together, though they’d never seen more than fifty miles of it themselves. All they knew was the name, friends- the United States of America” (87).People in Our Town and real day people from that time tended to be isolated to small communities. Families could stay in the same area and believe they were still progressing, “I guess new people aren’t any better than old ones. I’ll bet they almost never are….I don’t need to go and meet the people in other towns” (Wilder 70). Our Town does show the ignorance of people in earlier America but it also shows how beautifully simple life can be.
The American Dream is the security of this small town. Even after death, those in the graves, still place value on their friends and family above. They realize that they never really valued life and wish that those above them would learn to appreciate present time. The dead see how the living get caught up on the big moments in life and lose sight of the day to day significance. In trying to achieve the American Dream of peace and quiet at night, it is easy to get lost and not realize how much being alive means. In the quest for achieving the American Dream, it is easy for some to constantly struggle and worry instead of just being happy to be alive. This can be seen in Death of a Salesman and Dharma Bums. Whether Americans need to be freed from Samsara or a Capitalistic Nation, humans have always defined themselves and worked hard to make life better.
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a story about a man driven to lunacy due to his constant struggle to achieve the American Dream. Willy worked his whole life in an industry where he was disposable. As a Salesman he had to travel away from his family therefore he could hardly enjoy his material home that he spent a lifetime buying. He worked so hard that he was not able to enjoy his life. The promise of happiness with hard work comes at a great cost when Willy can no longer meet the needs of his employers. Miller’s commentary on the American Dream stands as a warning not to waste life as does Wilder’s Our Town. Some Americans in this time were able to move up the corporate ladder or go into the jungle and come out rich. These archetypes, like Willy’s brother, serve to instill a sense of hope for the regular everyday struggling American to succeed in the Dream. This allows people to assume that the American Dream is something that can be achieved and therefore people will spend lifetimes slaving away trying to conform to an American ideal.
Willy and his family dream of being well liked and rich. Biff sees how this mind state has debilitated his father and family and he wants to break away from the lies. In the end he succumbs to the American Dream, stating that he will not let his father die in vain. This is how generations pass down a potentially hazardous way of living. This speaks of a society that does not have mercy on the individual or family. In order to make it in a new industrialized world, American Dreamers needed to evolve to adapt to the new social atmosphere. No longer could one depend on being well liked; an education was more important than ever for practical success. Competition and Capitalistic notions have had an extreme influence over how the American Dream has evolved.
The American Dream, as it both shapes and reflects its inhibitors, has evolved in many ways that include a subculture of dreamers. One consequence of a struggling economy and a merciless government is when the citizens stop believing in the dominate paradigm. Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums shows how the American Dream can adapt and change to meet the needs of a new rising culture. The main characters in The Dharma Bums, Japhry and Ray, consider themselves to be part of the entire universe, but they also desire to be separate from mainstream culture as well. They take time out of what it considered everyday normal life, to climb mountains, hop trains, and eat out of tin cans. The American Dream, with this text, now incorporates people and traditions that would not typically seem to be a part of the Dream. Japhry and Ray dream of a time where they know “that there’s nothing in the world but the mind itself, and therefore all’s possible including the suppression of suffering” (Kerouac 12). They do not want to live life devoted to the corporate regime critiqued in Death of a Salesman. This is in fact what they are trying to break free from, as well as Samsara. The life of a Dharma Bum is lived traveling around gaining understanding about the world and one’s self or privately studying in minimalist dwellings. What is thought of as mainstream in America changes and adapts to new forms of culture. With the American Dream now including quintessentially what could be thought of as the anti-American Dream, it can be said that American culture has room for the subversive.
The Dharma Bums tells of a society disillusioned with an industrialized nation and an “America where nobody has any fun or believes in anything, especially freedom” (31). Japhry and Ray struggle to deal with a contrived world which they know is not real. They only have their perception of it which cannot be considered real because our senses do not prove legitimacy of matter alone. People were no longer content to live in comfortable homes sleeping safely at night. For some, the dream no longer had anything to do with money or fame; like the characters in this novel, some wanted to get at the essence of life and appreciate the natural beauty of the world. Sean and his wife offer a middle way to the life of a Dharma bum. Through a revitalization and evolution of the American Dream, American’s can now enjoy the comfort of home as opposed to working so hard they never get to enjoy life. At the core of the American Dream there is still happiness but the means or modes for achieving any American Dream will continue to evolve and adjust to an ever-changing eager humanity.

Works Cited

Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. The United States of America: Penguin Books, 1986.

Wilder, Thornton. Our Town. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2003.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman



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