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American Dream Essay, Research Paper

America, The Land of Opportunity

Most people, nowadays, want to become wealthy and live in the lap of luxury. Everyone wants that million dollars, and to make it to the Promise Land. We use literature to spill our thoughts and tell stories about history. History and literature are linked in that they depend on each other for existence. All throughout the history of literature, America has been made out to be The Land of Opportunity. This theme can be recognized throughout the various literary periods: Puritans(1630-1760), the Age of Reason(1760-1820), Romanticism(1820-1860), Realism(1860-1910), Modernism(1910-1940), and Post Modernism(1940-present).

The Puritans came to America to realize their dream of building a new secular society patterned after God s word. They originated in England, but some of them were forced to leave because of persecution. At first they went to Holland, but fearing that they would lose their identity as English Christians, a small group of about one hundred set sail in 1620 for America. Their voyage from Plymouth, in southwestern England, to Cape Cod in North America lasted more than two months. They began in two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. They were forced to turn back twice because of damage to the ships and eventually had to abandon the Speedwell which was prone to leaks. Halfway across the Atlantic, the main beam of the Mayflower buckled in a storm, and the group almost turned back for good. They repaired the beam with a large iron screw which they had brought with them. The Mayflower arrived in the new world on November 11, 1620. There they created towns in order to provide opportunities for the soon to come settlers.(Holt, Reinhart, and Winston 5-7)

The Bible was the foundation on which the Puritans built their literature. They believed that their lives would be enriched by following the word of the Bible. In their religious services, Puritans rejected any ceremonies that were not mentioned in the Bible. The same restrictions applied to their literature. The ideal Puritan style was a plain style strong, simple, and logical. It was this literary style that could make explanations of the scriptures accessible to everyone. The Puritans believed that God revealed his purpose to humanity in three ways: through the Bible, through the natural world, and through Divine Providence. Thus the Puritans wrote on biblical and devotional topics. They wrote about spiritual truth they discovered in the natural world. And they wrote about moments of special providence or events that had great lessens, such as Anne Bradstreet s poem on the destruction of her house by fire. In this poem, Bradstreet does not show a dry lesson from the event, but she writes about her moments of joy in the house. Puritan literature records not just the moments when the physical and the spiritual worlds cross but the moments when they seem to be different.(Holt, Reinhart, Winston 9-10)

During the Age of Reason discoveries made by physical scientists and mathematics were changing the way that people viewed the universe. This created new opportunities for people to pursue new professions and interests. Scientific investigation seemed to show that the universe was organized according to certain laws, and that people could discover those laws through the use of their reason. Sir Isaac Newton compared God to a clock maker who created a perfect mechanism of this universe. He then left his creation to run on its own. The French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes said in the opening sentence of his Discourse on Method, I think, therefore I am. This shows the gift of reason that enabled people to discover both scientific and spiritual truth. This gift would later create a whole new lifestyle for the people in America. The people would learn to think independently and to pursue a life of their own beliefs.(Holt, Rinehart, and Winston 68)

During the Age of Reason the writers in America were looking for a way to break away from England and for America to prosper on it s own. Most of the literature written during this time was rooted in reality rather than in the imagination. The best minds of this time concentrated on social, political, and scientific improvements. Thousands of broadsides, the poetic equivalent to pamphlets, were produced during this period. These poems and ballads often made fun of the British and urged Americans to take political action. They encouraged readers not to drink English tea, to wear domestically produced cloth, and to fight for liberty. (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston70-71)

Romanticism is the name given to the train of thought that considers the rational inferior to the intuitive. It was developed in part as a reaction against rationalism. Romanticism had a strong influence on literature, music, and painting. The Romantics believed that imagination could discover truth that reason could not reach. The truth was usually accompanied by powerful emotion and associated with beauty. The romantics did not reject reason all together, but for the purpose of art and literature they used the imagination and the heart for motivation. Poetry was the highest work of the imagination for the Romantics. They often contrasted it with science, which was seen as destroying the very truth it claimed to seek.(Encarta)

Transcendentalism was developed in part by the American pioneer, Ben Franklin. It is a literary and philosophical movement that developed in the U.S. in the first half of the 19th century. Transcendentalist writers expressed semi-religious feelings toward nature, as well as the creative process, and saw a direct connection between the universe and the individual soul. American transcendentalism began with the formation of the Transcendental Club in Boston. The Transcendental Club published a magazine, The Dial, and some of the club’s members participated in an experiment in communal living at Brook Farm, in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, during the 1840s. Major transcendentalist works of the American movement include Emerson’s essays Nature and Self-reliance , as well as many of his metaphysical poems.(Encarta)

Gothic literature is a reaction to Romanticism. Gothic writers wrote with extreme detail of emotion and beauty. Gothic literature coincides with the Gothic period and Gothic architecture. Gothic works are notorious for wild landscapes and mysterious castles. The idealism behind gothic literature has to do with medieval times; with castles, dragons and knights. One of the greatest writers of this time is Edgar Allen Poe. The Fall of the House of Usher is probably Poe s best and most famous story.(Encarta)

Realism was created in reaction to the highly subjective approach of romanticism. The difference between realism and naturalism is that realism is concerned directly with what is absorbed by the senses; naturalism is a term more properly applied to literature. Also it attempts to apply scientific theories and art to literature. Realism has to do with the belief that ordinary objects of sense perception, such as tables and chairs, have an existence independent of their being perceived. It is contrary to the idealism of philosophers such as George Berkeley or Immanuel Kant. The things perceived by the senses are believed to be exactly what they appear to be. Some explanation is given of the relationship between the object and the observer that accounts for the possibility of illusion, hallucination, and other perceptual errors.(Clark)

Mark Twain and William Dean Howells were the pioneers of realism in the United States. Their works told stories of great American adventures and pastimes. One of the greatest realists of all, the Anglo-American novelist Henry James, was inspired from his mentors, Eliot and Howells. James’s concern with character motivation and behavior led to the development of a subgenre, the psychological novel. The work of these writers shows the main idea of realism; that writers must not use facts that are from the previous age or from past writers ideas but must set down their observations impartially and objectively. Concerned with the faithful representation of life, which frequently lacks form, the realists tended to downplay plot in favor of character and to concentrate on middle-class life and preoccupation s, avoiding larger, more dramatic issues.(Encarta)

Naturalism was first seen in the writings of 19th-century French authors, such as Edmond Louis Antoine de Goncourt and his brother Jules Alfred Huot de Goncourt. These writers attempted to apply methods of scientific observation to the description of pathological human character, notably in their series of novels devoted to several generations of one French family. Jules essay The Experimental Novel explains his theory of literary naturalism. One of the first American exponents of naturalism was Frank Norris, whose novel McTeague is a classic study of the reaction between instinctual drives and environmental conditions. Other writers from the naturalistic period include Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, and James T. Farrell.(Clark)

During the Modernist period new opportunities were becoming available for the American citizen. Because most men were off fighting in the war, job opportunities were opening up for women. At the turn of the century, less than one out of five women held jobs in offices or in stores. Most of the women of this time were working in factories. By 1930, 44 percent of employed women worked at white collar jobs. Men were also finding jobs in offices and stores. They held managerial positions and jobs that could lead to a better position in the company. New opportunities also became available for the Native Americans. They were starting to migrate from the slave states in the south to the free states in the north. In the war the ethnic troops were a great success which gave them respect among the American people.(Nash 279-282)

Literature during the modernist period reflected the American beliefs of the time. The interests of the American people were influenced by Prohibition. Many people believed that the ideal lifestyle was filled with great wealth and the pursuit of pleasure. These beliefs are present in one of the greatest American novels, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ever since he was a small boy, Gatsby planned out his life so that he could accomplish the goals that he believed were necessary for becoming successful. In his adulthood, he spends his days throwing lavish parties in hopes of attracting his long lost love. When Nick Carraway first attends one of Gatsby s parties he says, I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby s house I was one of the few who had actually been invited. (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston 557). This shows how during this period Americans were overcome by the pressure of elegance and they did what was popular at the time. Everyone migrated to Gatsby s house because it was the thing to do. Everyone who was anyone was there.

The Postmodern period of the 1940s showed the strength of America as a country. On December 7th 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor; sending America into World War II. American citizens wanted revenge and supported the war with everything they had. They created songs and sayings about hatred towards the Japanese. They made movies and wrote books supporting the war. In order to help their country, many people volunteered for the armed forces. By 1942, nearly 3.9 million Americans were in uniform. That number more than doubled in 1943, and by 1945 peaked at more than 12 million. Immigrants such as Mexican Americans, Japanese Americans, and African Americans also joined the army in order to show their patriotism. However, since the war was against Japan many Americans were worried that people of Japanese ancestry were working as spies. The government rounded up Japanese Americans and put them into camps much like that of the Holocaust. They were later released and commended for their patriotism.(Nash 410-412)

The 1940 s was known as the angry young men era. During this time we see young people starting to revolt against the traditions of the past. This may also be almost a start of the great rebellious period of the 1960s. In the 1940s one novel pops out as the most popular; The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. The story is about a young man named Holden Caulfield who has trouble staying in school and seems to be lost in his own world. The story describes the experiences of a teenager trying to fake his way into the adult world.

In my opinion America is definitely the Land of Opportunity. But I think you have to work at it in order to use those opportunities that are available for you. If you want to become successful education is important, whether it be college or work experience. A person should be ready to work hard and focus on acquiring the necessary goals for becoming successful. I plan to utilize the opportunities that are available to me. Even though my future is unclear I plan to pursue a higher education that I believe will help me on my way to becoming successful.


Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. Elements of Literature. Austin, Texas: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston Inc., 1989.

Nash, Gary B. American Odyssey. United States of America: Glencoe Division of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill Publishing, 1992.

Clark, Harry H. Transitions in American Literary History. http://www.calpoly.edu/ulib/engl/public_html/resources/index.html

Microsoft Encarta 96 Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. Microsoft Corporation, 1995.


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