Sarah Churchwell on The American Dream

If Jay Gatsby was alive today, he would be a Russian mobster with artistic leanings, Sarah Churchwell said at the end of this thoroughly entertaining lecture on the meaning and myth of the American dream. The dream itself is not, as we may have imagined, Washington’s dream, Jefferson’s dream or even Lincoln’s dream. In fact, it is coined at the beginning of the Great Depression as a way to explore the corruption of a society which had collapsed. The ‘American dream’ was invented to discuss American failures: to acknowledge the moral poverty and spiritual bankruptcy of the 1920’s. But the term was quickly ‘hollowed out’ and soon reduced to simple striving for better material prospects.

As Churchwell says, ‘if a novel is an American classic, it must comment meaningfully on the American dream’ and the novel which is thought to most epitomise that dream is Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. Churchwell’s own most recent book, Careless People, is a reflection on Gatsby, and she suggested today that popular understanding of Gatsby is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the work. Gatsby is a ‘lament’ for greed and acquisition not a ‘license’ for it, while the perception that Nick is a failure because he gives up on the dream ignores the fact that the dream itself is an illusion and a lie. It’s founded on greed and acquisition and Nick is right to be disgusted by it.

The parallels between the ’29 and the ’08 crash were brought out strongly today, though as Churchwell said ‘they had a crash and tried to change it; we had a crash and said let’s try the same thing again.’ Or, to take it another way, the ideals and aspirations of the dream are good, the problems are with the people who dream it.

At the end, there was some wondering what a ‘Welsh Dream’ might look like: any ideas?

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