American dreams. Colonists, immigrants and the "other"

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Alina-Andreea Dragoescu

University of the West, Timişoara

The present paper examines the “American dream” as the founding myth informing the utopian enterprise named America. Even though it has been defined essentially against the dreams of some significant “others”, I aim at proving the fact that there are several American dreams to consider. The first idea of an American dream should be located at the time of European exploration and conquest, which initiated the process of imagining America. At the same time, this discussion reveals that the American dream started as a European/ Eurocentric dream, since America was not genuinely discovered, but invented by European conquistadors. Thus, the American dream is flawed since its earliest instance. Later, the spirit of the American dream further altered from the Puritans’ visions of “the promised land” to latter-day immigrants’ hopes for “the land of all opportunities”.

American past continues to transform, as postmodern cultural studies have advanced altering interpretations of America’s colonial identity. Like a host of other myths, the American dream has been deconstructed, given the inherent conflicts between the colonists’ dreams and those nurtured by the “others”. We shall inquire who the genuine “American” is and who is relegated to the dimension of “otherness” by not being included within the meaning of the American dream. Thus, the “other” may be the native Indian, the black American or the immigrant who is not genuinely “American”, while they construct and at the same time deconstruct American identity as a multicultural “melting pot”. Finally, the analysis aims at investigating the idea of America to see whose dream it is and whether it is grounded upon one or several “American dreams”.

American identity has been shaped by a series of phenomena, among which colonization, migration and the immigrant experience are particularly significant. The United States do/ does not have a distinctive name, as the usage of “America” has been applied to both North and South America since the seventeenth century. Similarly, applying the denomination “Americans” to the newcomers is a misuse. Apparently, it was still generally being used to refer to Native Americans as late as 1815, after which it implied European Americans (Dippie, 1982:7-8). While that denomination primarily represented another group of people, these consequently became “Indians”. That is why critics acknowledge the underlying solipsism of the term “American’ standing for an artificial identity (Lemay, 1988:xvii). Leo Lemay also deconstructs the word “Indian” because it “perpetuates the mistake that Columbus made when he encountered man in the New World” (Lemay, 1988:387).

Christopher Columbus is presented by American history textbooks as America’s first hero celebrated in a national holiday and his 1492 discovery is appraised as a crucial event. The fact that the past is divided into “pre-Columbian” America and “post-Columbian” America confirms the centrality of this greatly honored protagonist. In James Loewen’s view, the canonization of this figure clearly reflects American culture as colonist (1996:38). His purpose was not merely exploration or even trade, but conquest and exploitation, while religion was used as a rationale (Sale, 1990:71). What textbooks downplay is the pursuit of wealth as the prime purpose for coming to the Americas when they describe Columbus and other explorers/ exploiters (Loewen, 1996:250). Even the Pilgrims left Europe driven partly by material motives, but textbook authors deem it undignified to colonize America for economic gain or at least to disclose this fact (Loewen, 1996:43).

American heroic narratives treat Columbus as an unconditional origin myth and only because he was essentially good can his followers, the Americans, pretend to be the same. However, it is he who introduced two phenomena which deeply transformed the modern world: the taking of land from the indigenous peoples and the slave trade which created a racial underclass (Loewen, 1996:60-69). Therefore, 1492 should be read as a meeting of three cultures, as Africa would soon be involved as well, rather than a discovery by one of another. That is why terms like “discovery” or “New World” are questionable, for the Americas were new only to European newcomers (Loewen, 1996:70). In Inventing America, Rabasa (1993) challenges the common conception of America as discovered and sees it as a European invention rather than a real discovery.

From this standpoint, America becomes the invention of European conquistadors and missionaries not as otherness, but in the guise of the same. The “hierarchization of the two continents subsumes the depicted dialogue under the monotonous murmur of a European monologue fantasizing a New World. Accordingly, the naturalness of America is a mere mirage of European culture and its exploits. The emergence of America marks its loss of identity. It becomes merely a “naked body” for the inscriptions and longings of a European imagination” (Rabasa, 1993:27). Thus, Rabasa performs a critique of colonial discourse, identifying the invention of America as part of the development of Eurocentrism, which opens up “margins, interstices in the master narratives (as it were, to constitute a context) where minor discourses may emerge” (1993:86). Hence, it may be argued that the American dream started as a European dream. What is more, Columbus had died assured that he had discovered the route to Asia. That is why his foundational narratives about America may also be considered Asiatic fantasies.

The first moment of this invention by the explorers consists in the production of newness and new ontological territories. Rabasa’s analysis of Columbus’s texts exhibit the encounter with the other carried out through the production of newness and the imposition of order. The final moment of this invention culminates with defining “Europe as a privileged source of meaning for the rest of the world” (Rabasa, 1993:181). This fact is illustrated by the millenarian or utopian visions of the religious orders. Colonial discourses which may be encompassed by the “American dream” narrative have an addressee as well, who is by all means European. This is yet another factor in establishing a Eurocentric vision and at the same time an instrument for “scrambling previous territorializations” (Rabasa, 1993:186). By the same token, Rabasa reads America as such a “scrambling”: “America as a regime of signs and self-evident facts about its discovery must be “reawakened” with an interrogation about the geographic, cartographic, and historic constituents underlying our present picture of the world – not to demystify, but to invent the Americas anew” (Rabasa, 1993:214).

Thus, the first settlers constructed their idea of America underpinned by a flawed “American dream” spirit long before the American dream narrative actually materialized. Nonetheless, their dreams and ambitions would trigger tremendous consequences in many ways. Though highly esteemed as American heroes in the past, they are now charged with genocide, the unpardonable practice of European societies (Cullen, 2003:13). In A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Spivak (1999) reveals that European great narratives have excluded the “others” or “subalterns” from the mainstream discourse by denying them the status of human subjects. Similarly, the European colonization of America is marked by imperialism, which postcolonialism interprets as “a series of interruptions” in the fabric of cultural history (Spivak, 1999:208). The denial of equality for Indians, blacks and immigrants spanning much of American history excluded them from the mainstream American dream.

Therefore, modern treatment of colonialism dismisses it for its indefensible flaws. For instance, the colonizing penchant imposes socio-cultural religious and linguistic structures upon others through violent intervention. By the same token, the first colonists and later the Puritans and the Pioneers imposed new moral codes, Anglo-Saxon Protestantism and the English language. These elements form a significant part of America’s mythical legacy to this day. Puritans believed that God had chosen them – “the elect” – for the achievement of high purposes. They set themselves the task of promoting civilization on the frontier in accord with the divine will, though with imperial zeal.

The colonists’ American dream was nurtured from the fantasy of Europeans’ racial superiority, according to which America provided the prospect of fulfilling their full potentialities. In order to be legitimized, colonization was grounded on the assumption that the values of the colonizer were superior to those of the colonized. Therefore, their dream may be read as the willingness to manipulate natives and nature in a grandiose project. As pioneers advanced into the “wild” West, they domesticated the frontier and transformed it into a garden according to European standards. The idealized frontiersman was the central heroic figure of this picturesque landscape, while the native Indian was either completely erased or vilified as the “barbarian” who spoiled the land promised to the “chosen people”. Thus, the New World in the Pioneers’ imagination was a place of virgin wilderness, deemed vacant or populated by beings mistaken for part of the wilderness.

Recently, questions of place and space have also been brought into focus with a deeper concern for the politics of difference. Displacements and removals illustrate the shifting meanings of social space and the transformation of real places into imagined geographies. Significantly, settler-colonial imaginaries point to the conflicting meanings of the diverse American dreams. This may further be illustrated through the identities imposed by colonization and signifying practices. The symbolic aspects of assuming colonial identity may be explored in the practice of assigning names to the newly discovered places and even to some Indians. Thus, maps may be read as part of the American dream utopia and deconstructed by exposing the vulnerability of cartographic pragmatics. In American memory, maps replaced roots so as to explain territory ownership by its new masters. Moreover, the American dream required the tracing of boundaries in the Pioneers’ attempt to “shape geomorphic chaos” and to legitimate their quest (Ickringill, 1988:120).

British colonists dominate map-space, as they envision the nation-building project or their version of the American dream. In that process, the map has a major symbolic function of ordering toponymic disarray into a coherent text reflected by the naming of America. These signifying activities enforce another type of surface on the land and announce its new possessors. For that reason, naming a nation or a territory is “a highly ceremonial act of juridical establishment and namers perfectly conscious of their toponymic deeds” (Boelhower, 1988:121).

In the process of nation-building, former reality is erased and America is (re)shaped by replacing the “correct” for the real. Such instances may be illustrated by numerous examples. For instance, an American map compiled by Abel Buell in 1784 was commandingly titled “A New and correct Map of the United States of America Layd down from the latest Observations and best Authorities agreeable to the Peace of 1783”. Another akin example is James Whitelaw’s 1796 “A Correct Map of the State of Vermont”, similarly pretending to be a reliable or even an ultimate authority. Thereby, the text of the map wipes out that which does not appear but exists, as Boelhower refers to Indian culture (in Ickringill, 1988:127).

The choice of the place name “The United States” is grounded upon the cultural imperatives of nation-building. From this perspective, toponymic discourse takes place in an artificial semantic field, which accounts for its unreliability. In this sense, Jefferson was aware of the fabricated, thus fictitious nature of this discourse: “It is strange that annexing the name of “State” to ten thousand men should give them an equal right with forty thousand. This must be the effect of magic, not of reason.” (in Peterson, 1984:31). The colonists’ fabricated discourse is deliberately projected according to their home model. Following Bernard Roman’s 1777 map, “Connecticut and Parts Adjacent”, one could start a journey from New London, travel up the Thames River and reach Norwich or Canterbury in Windham County. This colonial toponymic venture seems designed in cultural continuity, making Anglo-Americans feel at home (Boelhower, 1988:122).

Furthermore, a toponymic system is subversive as a “memory theater” or “a space of memory” especially due to its blank space, which represents a realm of topological tensions. The cartographic terra incognita or blank spaces on the map’s surface actually replaced Indian territory (Boelhower, 1988:124-126). This is the site which marks the amorphous, the nebulous or that which is relegated outside memory. Herman Moll’s 1715 “A New and Exact Map of the Dominions of the King of Great Britain on Ye Continent of North America” is an illustration of “narrative seduction” because, like “correct”, “new” and “exact” are opposed to real. The latter is represented by original Indian names, which also claim appurtenance to the reality of America. For instance, the name of the Iroquois, Ongweoweh, meaning “the real people”, summons an origin myth which provides a more accurate vision of aboriginal America. Decidedly, American mythology abounds in such spaces that question received topography or “correct” state-building (Boelhower, 1988:126).

Although the archetype of the savage Indian pervades American culture, American Indian identities have recently been assimilated into the national narrative. It is the myth of the “vanishing Indians” that has paradoxically generated the recent inclusion of Indian legend as mythic past by mainstream culture. However, the modem invitations into the imagined primitive world deviate from the truth by representing a “faux indigenous hero” (Trachtenberg, 2004). In exploring the complex mixture that America is, Trachtenberg lends attention to the account of the “vanishing red” and the “arriving alien”. What is more, he implies that the process of remaking “alien natives” into heroic Americans becomes a model in the acculturation of southern and eastern European immigrants after 1880. The incomers of various cultures were homogenized as “alien immigrants”, just as the diverse indigenous tribes were indiscriminately and inaccurately labeled “Indian”. What all these groups of “other” people had in common was that they have to be assimilated by all means.

As the century of colonization gave in to the century of Revolution, the American dream myth continued to alter, despite its idealistic formulation as “pursuit of happiness” by the Declaration of Independence. Following the end of secession after the civil war, the new Union designed by Lincoln prompted a sense of nationhood. The nation which emerged endorsed the American Creed, which continued to be in disagreement with the persistent exclusion of black Americans, despite the demise of slavery. Though deeply flawed, the experiment in reforming the South epitomizes the fantasy of creating a new society, which surfaces yet again in American mythology.

However, in spite of the American dream mystique, the disturbing realities contradicted theoretical tenets of freedom and equality. The North did not conceive of “Negro” equality more than the South did. Even here, black people were denied access to certain sections or public places and they were restricted to special areas on public transport. Abraham Lincoln himself, though convinced of the injustice of slavery, was reluctant to grant equality to freed slaves and even devised plans to colonize them outside America. He publicly expressed his distrust that black people would be accepted by whites as their equals (Degler, 1983:136).

While part of the American dream was to reconstruct the South, the defeated states struggled to maintain white supremacy, separation of the races and control over the emancipated slaves. They introduced the “separate but equal” status of black people with regard to the use of public facilities (Inge, 1987:414). Moreover, the “Black Codes” they abusively implemented during Reconstruction defined the blacks’ status as that of second-class citizens and marked out the bounds of the former slaves’ freedom by limiting their liberties. These codes imposed a restrained form of freedom, according to which the Black American was not a freeman, but merely a “freedman” (Inge, 1987:408). Conspicuously, the inclusion of black people within the meaning of equality was a theoretical tenet which failed to be translated into practice throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries.

Thus, complete commitment to the grand statements underpinning the revolutionary American dream is flawed by instances of inequality. Lincoln’s and Jefferson’s ownership of slaves clearly illustrates the conflicting strains of thought and action. Moreover, analysts point out that the very ideas of the American Creed are incompatible. Liberty conflicts with equality even in a formally classless society (Jillson, 2004:4). Absolute liberty destroys equality and community, while complete equality destroys the idea of liberty. Consequently, these lofty ideas are in a state of tension generated by their inbuilt conflict. Despite the conflicting strands of the creed, the American dream myth demands that creedal values be maintained in balance.

In order to point to the excluded ones, Jillson undertakes a four-century survey of the American Dream up to the twenty-first century. What becomes apparent along the way is the altering profile of America as a land of democratic opportunity and buoyant expectations that uphill struggle will be rewarded with success. Despite this doctrine, the author calls to mind all those who were excluded from opportunity in the section “The Faces of Exclusion” (Jillson, 2004:43, 75, 109, 150). Many poor whites and women, black Americans, American Indians and Asians, he argues, were long excluded from this vision. These “Shadows on the Dream” compel Jillson to question whether America is not merely an ideology imbued with messianic clichés (2004:188, 225, 260).

On the other hand, the American dream does subsist in black imagination against all odds. After the failed promises of reconstruction, black Americans were frustrated with the broken social contract of the New South. Consequently, they started to migrate to the industrialized North, where they hoped to fulfill the deferred promises of the American Dream. As De Santis shows in his analysis of the dream rhetoric which spurred the Great Migration in pursuit of the American Dream, blacks and whites shared the belief in this mythic narrative, despite their racial segregation (DeSantis, 1998: 474-511). Jim Crow laws, “Whites only” signs, and other segregationist gestures could not halt the dissemination of American Dream mythology amongst black migrants.

The black press circulated the American dream myth and shaped the social reality of its readers. Articles and advertisements presented by papers such as the Chicago Defender envisaged a “Promised Land” to discontented southerners. Chicago was depicted as a “land of hope” which offered equal access to the white American Dream. Thereby, it reflected the dominant mindset and played a key role in selling this idea to the black community. It also “reinforced black Americans’ belief in the possibility of success, while convincing them that they could open the door of opportunity” (Grossman, 1989:35). Such newspapers dedicated to the Afro-American public asserted a “black American dream”.

More critical of “Negro newspapers”, Franklin Frazier indicts them for “creating and maintaining a world of make-believe in which Negroes can realize their desires for recognition and status in a white world that regards them with contempt and amusement” (Frazier, 1957:178). Indeed, the black American dream was yet again deferred, as little has changed since that violent period, in the view of African-American writers (Asante, 1987). The Great Migration seems to have been unsuccessful in fulfilling this version of the dream, since many black Americans continue to live in the conditions of segregation which materialized at that time. Therefore, from this standpoint too, the American dream may more aptly be seen as a fundamentally Eurocentric fantasy (DeSantis, 1998:511).

Besides the “color line”, another representation which excluded others was the “frontier” line. While mobility and migration have been emblematic for American character, the perpetual movement they involve destabilized the very idea of America. Ironically, settlers moving westwards gave a sense of a forever unsettled nation. Historian F.J. Turner (1997) defined American history primarily as a succession of frontier advancements, which resulted in a perpetual reshaping of the meaning of “America”. In the context of constant expansion of successive frontier lines, America was not as stable in reality as in imagination. It continued to be a fluid idea throughout most of its history up to the closing of the frontier.

Moreover, the term “frontier” fails to do justice to this historical process, as it implies a boundary, while the reality of the frontier meant contact, not separation. Frontier imagery also locates the observer within the civilized or civilizing East as the point of reference, from which the frontier is “out there” in the wilderness. This viewpoint which deems the actions of “uncivilized” people as marginal or ex-centric has been deconstructed as yet another mark of Eurocentrism (Loewen, 1996:108). Nonetheless, migration and immigration alike were fueled by the American dream of a “land of all possibilities”. From the point of view of the “other”, though, frontiersmen must have given “a detestable idea … of the Europeans” to the natives (Crèvecoeur, 1988:125).

Finally, the phenomenon of immigration is utterly significant to my argument that there exist several American dreams. America has been described as “a nation of immigrants” who all become “hyphenated Americans” (Walzer, 1990:399). As Michael Walzer explains, ethnicity is located on the left-hand side of the hyphen and it outweighs the half-identity “American”, situated on the right-hand side. Even though the metaphor of “hyphenation” stands for the spirit of multiculturalism and despite the process of “Americanization”, these multiple identities remain partly “others” inside American culture. Consequently, we may wonder with Tocqueville what brings together such “a society which comprises all the nations of the world … possessing no roots … no common ideas, no national character. How are they welded into one people?” (in Ickringill, 1988:108). The American dream surfaces again as the one idea(l) that has brought Americans together, despite the failings that have been presented above.

It becomes self-evident that the American dream and the idealistic optimism this ideology is based upon are in utter disagreement with the past American realities of “other” American dreams. Concepts of liberty, equality and happiness have long been associated with the illustrious past and the heroic forefathers who proclaimed the pursuit of these lofty ideals. However, the utopian view of America’s foundation and the mythology it has generated are being questioned. Viewed through postmodern lenses, the American dream seems more of an imperialistic penchant and an appetite for material abundance. Therefore, the debate is open as to whether the American dream is not rather an illusion or even a nightmare, especially from the standpoint of the “others” we have met here above.


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