“The American Dream”

What does this eternal pursuit of “The American Dream” mean to us as Americans? Based on our exploration of the American dream in reading American authors accounts and through the experiences of immigrants and natives alike, I do not think that a definitive single answer exists for this question. As Jack Keroac and the Beatniks were always seemingly chasing “it” across the nation, in search of that ultimate answer to what America is really about, so we, as individuals and as members of an American identity, have to discover that “it” in our way and under our own rules.

When James Fennimore Cooper was contemplating the character of Natty Bumpo in “The Deerslayer” I think he was exploring the search for that ambiguaous quality of America through the eyes of a character who was attempting to occupy both the world of the immigrant and the world of the native. When Gloria Anzualda expressed both the disillusionment and hope of existing on “la frontera” as a mestiza in “La conciencia de la mestiza/Towards a New Consciousness”, she was expressing the search for a place to occupy America which was comfortable, at the least, for the stranger in a strange land, even if that land is, supposedly, his own.

The “American Dream” cannot truly said to be unattainable unless that dream is personalized upon another person by projection. What another person may see, in perspective, as happiness or a constructive existence or fulfillment on some level, may not jibe with the attributes you give to the same subjects. What another person may view as “success” or “failure” may not equivocate your own ideas of the same based on their knowledge, their experiences in life and their motives.  It is only when we try to assign a certain set of parameters to attaining “The American Dream” that we run into roadblocks and perceptual failures.

There are many examples of the American dream and equally many approaches to whether that vision was brought to fruition. A prime example would be the writing of the U.S. Constitution, itself a calling for the pursuit of the American dream as envisioned by a certain group of individuals in American history. Repeatedly, historians wrestle with the effectiveness of the Constitution as a catalyst for attaining the American Dream. Those who support the idea that it was(and is) successful point to the specific rights and freedoms guaranteed by the articles. Those who oppose the idea point to the numerous injustices which have not been solved with the implementation of Constitutional law. In some sense, both parties are right but both parties are also not viewing the big picture. Perhaps the attainment of this vision cannot be fulfilled by implementation of laws, rules, regulation alone. There is something about living your life as you desire which transcends rule of law and indoctrination. The “American Dream” can be viewed as the fulfillment of personal as well as collective aspirations. It can be something as grand as composing a just government or as small as sleeping in peace at night.  Many immigrants were seeking the American Dream in response to persecutions suffered within their country of origin while others pursued a type of dream grounded  in opportunities in business, exploration or innovation as well as having the freedom to live their lives in any way that they deemed to be comfortable “in their own skin”.

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“What You Pawn I Redeem”

After reading the story “What You pawn I redeem” I considered the questions raised by the main character as they could relate to my own life and concluded that we, as human beings and members of a great, diverse community in America, should embark on a similar journey, a search for self and how we fit in with those around us. The main character was trying to understand what it was to be a native American, what his “roots” were” and how to find himself in order to reestablish his connection with his ancestors.

I think that everyone should take such a journey, especially in a nation as ethnically diverse as America, a place where what is considered to be “American” is, in face, a combination of many  cross-cultural influences which we have picked up over the course of decades or centuries of movement throughout America.

In my case, my ethnic ancestry is fairly simple to backtrack(or is it?). As far as I know, I am ethnically German and English, based on what I was told by family members. I can’t vouch for that information, as many Americans can’t, because I have insufficient data to back up any word-of-mouth references to my ancestry. In that sense, I share something of a common bond with characters in “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” in that I am searching for a connection to something which will give me more of a reference point than just being considered an “American”. I have many questions about my place in the great family of peoples around the world and expect it may take a long time to answer any or all of them.  I was fortunate enough to live for four years in Germany and England and try to “reestablish” some sense of personal connection with the cultures of those countries through experiencing how people lived there, their habits, their behaviors, their beliefs . In turn, I acquired some of their habits and brought them with me back to America, much like my ancestors did, I suppose, such as an unconscious desire for British humor (Monty Python, Benny Hill) and an instinct to search out the best markets for sausages and beer. I have also acquired a clearer perspective on how my ancestors may have viewed their new country based on their perceptions of their old country. In this sense, America was probably never so much America to them but America through German eyes or America through English eyes . I think this particular perspective affected what course of action the European explorers took when they  decided what America should be instead of what it was.

In this light, I was at odds with the writers we discussed who had taken the view that immigrants to America chose the journey as a method of “escape” from their native countries. I take quite the opposite view. I believe that , in the fashion of their ancestors, they were of a restless, creative frame of mind and chose change over stagnation. They were immigrants within their own countries and chose to keep moving, always exploring, always learning about new places, people, ways of doing things and improving their lot. America was, and is, not so much a place of refuge as a land of opportunity. The main character in “What You Pawn I Redeem” was, in truth, still on a form of immigration within his own land in the sense that he was trying to establish a real place he could find connection with. The quests and the solutions for attaining the American dream are much too varied and theoretical to contain inside a narrow framework of reference. In reality, the “American” dream is really the dream of everyone.

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“What Is Wilderness?”

After reading several articles about environmental issues being explored in American literature and the importance of preserving the wilderness in America  I decided to explore the concept of “wilderness”, namely, what that means to me as well as comparing the various definitions of wilderness against the backdrop of reality.

Using the various definitions of wilderness given in class, I attempted to find a parcel of land, first in my local area of Jacksonville, Florida, and then in other areas of the world,  which could fittingly be called “wilderness”. The first criteria I explored was the size of the parcel of land. Then I considered the equation: “What does size have to do with it?” Can’t a wild place be encompassed on anything from a continent to the size of a postage stamp?

How about a place with no development present by human beings, i.e., no housing developments, no pipes, no road, no Starbuck’s café, no landfill piles . Around Jacksonville, this became a pretty difficult endeavor. If one was to expand the scale past a hundred acres of land or so, there would be nothing to be found (postage stamp size is a winner on this point). Everywhere you look, there are signs of what could be called “civilization” and not very flattering ones at that.

Would wild preservation areas be considered as “wild”?  The problem here lies in the attempt to preserve the area in the first place. This is practically impossible without some form of interference. With the best of intentions, people manage to muck up any tract of land which they occupy in some way, whether it be building access, garbage or altering the landscape to fit their idea of whatever pristine wilderness should be.

This brings me to a more expansive question concerning the nature of wilderness: Does wilderness, by our standards of the definition, even exist? The central part of the equation when we talk about anything we call wilderness seems to be human beings. The separation of man and nature seems to meet a certain standard for making something “wild” or “unspoiled. Sounds simple enough, right? So I searched for areas where human beings and the rest of the natural world are entirely separated. I came to the following earth-shaking conclusion, namely, that “wilderness” does not exist! I base my answer assumption on simple logic above all other considerations. “How can he make such a statement ?”, the reader may say. Just consider closely whether there exists, on any part of the earth, a place where humans have not impacted  their environment in some way (the “footprint” of man). There is no such place. We humans, with our construction, our pollution, our manipulation of environmental processes, have affected every square inch of the earth, intentionally or otherwise, to some extent. We have taken the “wild” out of wilderness, often with the best of intentions as a motive, by constantly injecting our own habits into the mix. Perhaps it is not the maintenance of wilderness but the maintenance of humanity that we should be trying to master. The saying that “f you want to change the world you should try to change yourself” may be especially applicable here. We, as a society, can do nothing to improve upon what nature has already given to us. In order to coexist with nature we would be best advised to let nature operate in its own state with as little outside influence from man as possible.

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“Herland” and The Real World

After reading the short story “Herland” by Charlotte Gilman I was intrigued by the idea of “utopias” as a possibility in the “real world,” so I examined why people have desire for these perfect societies and also what the effect of such societies would have on people in reality if they were implemented. When you look back in history, there are several examples of attempts to make the perfect society or the ideal society, often based on purely speculative theories about what traits that society should have, with the results of such an endeavor usually being less than satisfactory. Perhaps the main problems  involved with these microcosms of perfection involve both the scale of the undertaking and the inflexibility of the ideology of the participants. I can’t really be sure, in the space of this blog, I just don’t have time to do the research. I do, however, have time to examine a few traits in Gilman’s  “Herland” and look for them in “real life,” deciding whether the traits really worked effectively to make for a more harmonious and productive group as a whole. I will explore these based on real life examples of communities  as well as the effects of implementing the “utopian” policies was effective or not on the real life societies.

The raising of children as a community projects seems to be a staple of the Herlanders, with the emphasis on exploratory learning for the children and the shared parental responsibilities distributed among many women (but not men) in the group. On a real scale, similar measures have been employed in real societies, usually in some collectivist type of system. While there might be some positive results from such an action, such as the socialization of the child and the sense of worth for the women in terms of having child-rearing and mentoring responsibility, I believe that there is an equally detrimental trait in that there is a real “disconnect” associated with the lack of a traditional family unit when using this method. It is true both the children and adults may feel a real connection but this may be offset in by the lack of the type of bonding which only a nuclear family unit can provide. The idea of a “Herland” in which males exist but really play no significant role as parents strikes me as counterproductive in that it discounts the influence and possible parental bonding of half of humanity. This would probably not work effectively at any scale in real society.

Equally curious to me was the supposed “ideal” upbringing of the children in the story and the effects it had on their well being as well as their individuality. I searched for similar “real life” examples in history and found none which would apply. Soviet Russia,  aoist China, the Roman Republic, cultist movements, even collectivist movements centered around micro-communities such as agricultural “villages” in real life would not produce the ideal intellectual effect which Gilman envisions. Why is this so? In practice, I believe that humans, male or female, desire at their deepest level to be individuals, with individual ways of thinking and individual ways of constructing their own version of society. This makes this method of harmonious cooperation and sacrifice always for the greater good an ultimately undesirable way of living for the individual.  Perhaps the most striking feature of Herland which I found untenable was the absence of a real standard of the concepts of “good” and “evil”. I believe that, if practiced in the real world, this system of non-beliefs could spiral out of control  in ethical dilemmas.

 

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