What is the American Dream? The most common definition we hear is the economists’—a wife, two kids, a home of your own and a car in the drive. That definition may serve its economic purpose, but it isn’t, to me, the stuff of dreams. It’s a nation’s legends that fire the imagination, give shape to our hopes. Horatio Alger, Paul Bunyan, George Washington’s cherry tree, to name a few, but it’s hard to find stories that have permeated more deeply than those of the frontier.
The open space beyond. The Future. The Second Chance. The Unspoiled. Freedom. Self-Reliance. Everything from the Pacific outside my windows to the exploration of the moon has been poured into the shape of the frontier story. To a child in Chicago, as I was, the West was an enchanted land. Long ago I read a wonderful essay, comparing European towns, with their wall-to-wall houses and encircling walls to American towns which spread across the landscape. Open space, the author argued, was key to the American psyche. I’ve read Washington State writers argue that the wilderness, visible from both rural and urban homes, is central to the northwestern psyche. Most intriguing for me, however, is the power of the cowboy story, shaper of dreams of generations of boys.
But what is the cowboy legend, exactly? Set in the vast, empty land of the high prairies sits a sun-bleached town held captive by bad guys who ride roughshod down its dusty Main Street. The corrupt sheriff is its sole government, or he is the sole gun in the face of a corrupt landowner and his gang. Onto this scene rides the lone cowboy, a six-gun on each hip, who kills off the bad guys and rides off into the sunset. The towns are always weak, the governments, such as they are, corrupt. The cowboy hero is an outsider. He has no ties; he forms none. He rides off alone.
This is not the freedom to form our own communities, to govern ourselves; it’s the freedom from communities which are always corrupt. Its hero is a pure-souled, well-armed strongman who rides in and straightens everything out. The heroine in these stories is always, young, lovely, and in need of rescuing. But he doesn’t ride off with her. He is free—without entanglements. Yet this is the story that has become an American ideal for huge numbers of American boys, and it echoes in the war cries of the extremists of today.
How many men dream of this kind of freedom? When I enrolled in an American Literature course for my Master’s degree, we largely read stories of male disillusionment: John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemmingway, John Dos Passos, etc. None succeeded in finding the promised freedom; all became entangled in life with disastrous results—frequently at the hands of women. I wrote my final paper on John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, arguing that the repeated disasters that struck down the hero were strikingly similar—the girls got pregnant.
When I compare this legend to The Odyssey, the classic story of the hero’s journey, this American legend reads as the story of the first stage of the journey—adolescence. Is that truly what we promise American boys? Perpetual adolescence? In a world where women are hazardous encumbrances? It’s no wonder our youth view adulthood as a period of corruption and decay. And I search my memory for an American legend of adulthood—of fatherhood, leadership—Atticus Finch stands alone. Grow up America. It’s time for the men—and women—who’ve rejected or outgrown this “dream” to voice the need for the community, commitment and responsibility needed for maturity and wisdom. There are many such. In a recent poll on the best American book, To Kill a Mockingbird won hands down.