My choice of texts are all non-fiction books about the journeys that people take from other countries to America and coping with their new lives, once they have arrived. There are a number of similarities among these books which speak to the current theme of “American Dreams.” All of the authors I have chosen are first or second generation immigrants. Not surprisingly, these texts examine language acquisition, whether that be hybrid language such as Stavans’ Spanglish, the language of neuroscience, as in the case of Kandel, or the narrative of Chinese folklore as it merges with autobiography in Kingston’s memoir. These texts also fall under the genre of ethnic literature, in some way or the other, which, in America, has a long tradition of questioning what it means to be American—how we define citizenship, ethnic difference, our past non-American identities, and generational differences among immigrant families. Finally, all of these texts contribute to the discussion of the psychological and bodily ruptures that often accompany the pursuit of the American Dream.
Mary Antin’s The Promised Land
Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation: A Life In A New Language
Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts
Ilan Stavans’ Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language
Mary Thanh Vo
Sherry Garland’s Shadow of the Dragon: As a Vietnamese-American, this one’s kind of a personal favorite of mine since it takes place in Houston (my place of birth) and is surprisingly accurate regarding the Vietnamese community there.
“Pitchfork in my foot, I tried the best I could / dragging all this wood with a rusty old fishhook / to feed the fire and make our blood flow higher /But I’m a stubborn man, the sun needs my command / I’m gonna make a stand, condemn this twisted land/ I’m sure you’d agree, but I can’t leave you see
All of your days will be blessed / so put on a smile and get dressed/ into the void we will fly away from here / All of your thoughts will be crowned / you’ll be the toast of the town / into the view of a million crystal spheres” - Ed Harcourt
I feel that it’s important to acknowledge and understand alternative and/or darker “American Dreams,” ones that may not necessarily be accepted easily into the greater cultural consciousness. A great example of this is Richard Wright’s Native Son, which affected me intensely the first time I encountered it. It’s a vision of America of which I had no conception previously, but once experienced it forever changed the way I understand the composition of our society.
Another great example is the film There Will Be Blood It’s an often-explored darker side of the work ethic that forms the foundation of American identity – Blood, oil, capitalism! - but the film does it in such a fantastic way.
If you ever wanted to learn how the American dream is seen from the eyes of the very rich, you have to read these memoirs: Geoffrey Douglas’s Class: The Wreckage of an American Family, Adam Hochschild’s Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son, and Sallie Bingham’s Passion and Prejudice: A Family Memoir. For a more detailed discussion of these memoirs and class myths, check out my article in Inquiry Journal.
Arcade Fire’s “The Modern Man”
What would you add to this list?