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American Dream Interpretation Through the Prism of Time

In E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, Tateh and Father avidly pursue the American Dream while possessing contrasting beliefs about their individual visions for freedom, wealth/opportunity, and social mobility. While Father’s nostalgia, archaic ideas for the family structure, and lavish, international explorations dictate his quest for mental fulfillment, Tateh remains true to his socialist values by seeking to uplift the working-class, criticize employers for their minimal wages and cruel working conditions, and re-organize the Capitalist system which he believes stands as a barrier between himself and the achievement of the American Dream. Although already a wealthy, honorable, and well-respected member of New York City society, Father endeavors in his intellectual pursuits to discover meaning and purpose in his life which only results in his further restrictive behavior and antipathy toward social freedoms. On the contrary, Tateh, fueled by the Anarchist movement headed by Emma Goldman, anxiously advances into the tumultuous 20th century, hungry for equality, monetary fortune, and change. As Upton Sinclair once wrote, “You don’t need to be satisfied with America as you find it. You can change it.” Although both individuals, Father and Tateh, are constantly, dissimilarly searching for true happiness in the United States, they dually share a sensational vision for a country that is possible through the American Dream.

Father’s innermost desires for the ultimate fulfillment of the American Dream are expressed distastefully, cynically, and bitterly. His mortal being took a disliking to Coalhouse Walker “not based on the man’s color but his being engaged in an act of courtship” (Doctorow 182); he discovered “[m]other’s body did not arouse his lust, only his quiet appreciation. He admired her shape and softness but was no longer inflamed (Doctorow 182). Furthermore, his inferiority to his full self (strictly warned against by philosopher Dr. William James) causes Father to live strictly within his own limits and habitually fail to use his human powers. His stubbornness and nostalgia, combined with extreme distaste for modern society, prompts Father to develop a vision for the American Dream which is lonely, pessimistic, and certainly, partial to 19th century-America. Father’s hopes and outlooks, unlike those of newly-arrived immigrants from Europe such as Tateh and his daughter are buried in the past, and irretrievable in the future.

The premise of the American Dream, as outlined by playwright, David Henry Hwang is “the ability to imagine a way that you want your life to turn out, and have a reasonable hope that you can achieve that.” The subjectivity of the American Dream was often disregarded by employers and companies who dictated to a group of immigrants that fortune and wealth come from long, laborious hours of working in a factory; pioneers such as Tateh recognize that the fulfillment of their aspirations can be self-derived and certainly, reasonably achieved through the American Dream. “Tateh joined the thousands of pickets encircling the [Lawrence, Massachusetts textile] mill, a massive brick building that went on for blocks” (Doctorow 101) and in doing so, realized that “[t]he bosses want you weak, therefore you need to be strong” (Doctorow 102). By lawfully going on strike, Tateh and fellow strikers trigger a 15% pay increase, a 48-hour work week, and the elimination of bonus pay. The America which is gradually evolving to better suit the worker is the country which Father arrives to (from his polar explorations) and has dreaded; as Father sails on the Roosevelt, he sees a passing boat filled with immigrants, “a rag ship with a million dark eyes staring at him. Father, a normally resolute person, suddenly foundered in his soul. A weird despair seized him” (Doctorow 12). Father’s 19th-century dream for America, although not entirely racist or immigration-opposed, is fearful of the American Dream which is being executed by revolutionary immigrants such as Tateh. Suddenly, the two opposing views for the ideal America create an ambiguous, vague, and entirely subjective definition of the “American Dream.”

By the year of 1909, the America with which Father was so enamored and fascinated had been characterized by grandiose, flagrant expressions of wealth and large quantities, especially of food. Affluent individuals such as Pierpont Morgan “would routinely consume seven- and eight-course dinners… The consumption of food was a sacrament of success” (Doctorow 69). Rich men who had attained the very success which the American Dream guarantees were demonized for their gluttonous lifestyles, and gained a certain reputation as “selfish” and “rapacious.” Anarchists (of whom Tateh was a devout follower), envious of the American Dream which had supposedly suppressed theirs, even “barged into [Henry Clay] Frick’s office in Pittsburgh and shot the bastard three times. In the neck, in the shoulder” (Doctorow 51). Tateh’s American Dream, gravely affected by the American labor movement setback caused by the failed attempted assassination of Carnegie Steel’s Chairman ten years earlier, upon arrival in the Lower East Side, becomes focused on his daughter’s future well-being as opposed to his present one. Father, on the other hand, is obstinate in his belief that the American Dream lies buried deep in the past—happiness and success will come from the ‘primitive’ system of the government, social hierarchy, and workplace.

The commencement of the 20th century proved to a transitioning point for the ever-changing, ever-transforming American Dream which granted many the opportunity to possess a differing perspective about the country in which they wanted to cry, rejoice, and reside. Men such as Father developed an antique, patriotic, and nostalgic philosophy which tainted the American Dream with a 19th-century essence that was isolationist, traditional, and industrious. Antithetically, individuals such as Tateh zealously fought for an American Dream which was concealed within the progressive, futuristic era of an unknown millennium. Although the American Dream symbolized the final destiny of the thousands of immigrants who docked at the shores of Ellis Island and today, still continue to arrive at America’s borders, it also represented the tendencies of many to find individual happiness which was thought to have vanished into American history. The objectives and desires of one’s lifetime in the United States differed among the millions of Americans who were both foreign and domestic, but were always part of one single, all-encompassing—American Dream.

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