Studying the American Dream in Literature
Sophia “Sophie” Barnes ’22 has a long list of books and poems that try to capture the concept of the American Dream. The Literary and Textual Studies major grew up surrounded by some of these classic examples of American literature. Her father, a high school English teacher and professor, helped with that.
But as Barnes entered high school, she became fascinated with the theme of the American Dream. “There are a lot of examples of people striving for something more, but they don’t always reach what they’re striving for,” Barnes says. “It was a lightbulb moment for me, and I wanted to know more.”
That curiosity led Barnes on a journey that would become part of a larger project under the Presidential Research Fellowship Program, which fosters academic research while providing full scholarship opportunities for students.
Barnes started her research with The Great Gatsby, where a series of characters chase their own version of the American Dream, often defined by material success and wealth. “I don’t think anyone in the end reached their version of the American Dream,” Barnes says. “It prompted me to start looking at sociological aspects of the American Dream. Is it something Americans really believe in? Or is it something we’re told we should believe in?”
Her research led her to the poem Harlem by Langston Hughes, which became the backbone of her research. The dream starts out as something pleasant before turning sour and then exploding. As her project progressed, she dove into the works of Benjamin Franklin and Washington Irving, written when the country was new and hopeful.
Works by Flannery O’Connor started to question if the American Dream existed or if it was available to everyone, Barnes says. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse-Five, the dream becomes nonexistent.
“The question now is, if, as a culture, we’ve moved past our cynicism,” Barnes says. “Is there still hope that the dream exists?”
As Barnes’s research brought her to modern literature, she identified with a lot of modern perspectives on the American Dream. “We’re clearly at a very pivotal time in history with COVID-19, racial injustices, and a president unlike any we’ve had before,” she says. “When I started this, we were more or less in a peaceful time where the dream was something I could picture and imagine. In the last year, it’s been discouraging to see what our country is capable of. In modern times, does the American Dream have a place?”
For Barnes, her personal definition of the American Dream is a lot less tangible than for past generations. Her meaning is less about material satisfaction and wealth and more about feelings of satisfaction and happiness. It’s a mentality her research shows aligns with many of her generation.
Next in her research, she might look at television and movies, and she hopes it becomes a jumping-off point for a dissertation.
“The American Dream is something thrown around in English and history classes, but I never felt I was given the chance to dig into it further,” she says. “It’s opened my eyes to the broader American experience and the dividers that define the dream for everyone.”