The American Dream is an ideal of anyone being able to attain great wealth and glory through hard work and perseverance. It has long been a part of the national psyche of the United States and has been championed by presidents and captains of industry throughout the ages. So American was it, that it was even taken and franchised out to other countries as their own ideal.
However, as the 21st-century ploughs onward in a period of fewer jobs, less security and greater uncertainty, we look at how great literature took the very notion of 'The American Dream' and showed its decay and death to us in gory and painful scenes. Here we look at 15 books that killed the American Dream.
1. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Despondent, listless and stuck in a rut where he is surrounded only by the mod cons and stylish objects he buys, the protagonist of this novel lacks meaning or direction until he meets a stranger who shakes up his world and shows him he can find meaning in fighting other men like himself.
This soon morphs into an organisation of angry individuals who want to feel something and are prepared to do anything to attain that. Vicious and sinister, it is a dark look at generation X and where the world has left them as the are inundated with consumerism that gives them something to reach for but never purpose.
2. Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller
A classic play that follows a salesman who is so desperate to succeed professionally that he marginalises his family and prioritizes his work only to find he is soon left with nothing when he fails in business as well.
Critical of the pursuit of wealth and the expectations of capitalist society, it reads as a sadsack playbook of how life can destroy you.
3. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Many underrate this novel for what it is, having been forced to read it at school, considering it too short or simply misreading it as a love story gone awry and all too often it takes non-Americans to see its true magnificence but does it show “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence"?
Many would argue that it portrays the lives of the rich during the roaring 20s, a time of excess and economic wellbeing, but look at the language and how ordinary American speech is elevated to a point of poetry, and you'll see this novel is far more than what it is on the surface. Gatsby himself has climbed to his position from ordinary origins and shows who Americans want to be as much as who they are.
4.The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
A memoir that reads, in parts, like a wistful fairy tale as the author recalls her childhood with warmth about her father teaching her and her sister and recounting grand dreams and ideas to them.
However, it soon emerges as a story of a dysfunctional family filled with broken promises and lack of structure that means that the children must rely solely on their own successes in life.
5. American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis
Can something that arose from a specific period and a specific profession ever be described as something that reflects the psyche of a nation? An anarchic, depiction of corporate America in the early 90s, it shows the decaying state of capitalism in America and the consumerist obsession that seeps through the echelons of society.
Sick and twisted, it filled with brand names and sex and social anxiety and points a grubby finger at America shouting "this is what you wanted!"
6. Bonfire of The Vanities by Tom Wolfe
A go-getting, high-flying Wall Street trader has it all, with wealth, a mistress, power, and respect but he soon loses all of that through one wrong turn, and he is then plunged into the dark and seedy underbelly of New York City, a side of it he has never seen before.
Showing up the fissures between races and ethnic groups in post-modern Manhattan as well as what excess brings people to do.
7. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
The true genius of this novel is that it is many things to many people raging through psychological portrait of racial identity, racism, history, politics, manhood, and conflicted personal growth all the while with a nameless narrator that allows it to revel in the substance of the riffs it pulls upon and layers up and up and up.
Despite not being visible the narrator has a face, and as an African-American, they are rendered invisible by society. By viewing America from a position of such lack of privilege the book twists and turns its way through the notion of the nation.
8. American Pastoral
In an elegy for all the twentieth century's promises of prosperity, civic order, and domestic bliss, SwedeLevov has it all after working in his father's glove factory as a young man, which he gave up on his sporting dreams for, he now runs it as a multi-million dollar company, with a happy marriage and a beautiful daughter, he just wants to pass everything on to.
However, as she grows older and becomes disillusioned with the status quo of the country, she is soon accused of domestic terrorism and what everything Swede has aimed for now seems so fleeting and pointless. Raging and sorrowful the novel picks apart the notion of American luck and lays tragedy at the door of someone who once embodied that very ideal.
9. Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas - Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson became infamous for his gonzo journalism in which he would turn up to places and go on a bender fuelled by a cocktail of drugs and then document what he saw through the prism of this chemical haze. A divisive figure in his writing because of this, some people love him others cannot stand the writing it produces.
Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas is the quintessential example of this where he hires a car and drives out to Las Vegas to write about a racing event which he soon ditches to whirl around the city of sin fleeing from killer bats and human eating lizard people that his tripping mind is visualising. Scary in the sense of what drugs can do to a person and darkly comic in how he reacts, it can also be seen as a satire on the American dream. It was turned into a cult film starring Johnny Depp.
10. Revolutionary Road
Succeed in a career in order to buy a big house and marry a beautiful wife, and all will be well. Surely these are the ideals of the American dream and Frank and April Wheeler seem to get to the very core of that as they move into the suburbs during the hopeful 1950s believing greatness to be just around the corner.
Soon they betray themselves and each other though as these dreams never quite come to fruition and what they've been told they should want doesn't ever seem to be all that.
Arguably the graphic novel that redefined the genre as a serious arena for adult readers and truly gripping writing, Watchmen took all the typical tropes of comic book superheroes and turned them on their heads. Playing on cold war tensions, this masterpiece sees legendary creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons turn once infallible superheroes into psychotic, jealous human beings who struggle with the ignominy of middle age and obscurity. Each character has their own social and political leanings that sees them used as pawns in a game of power and greed. It also avoids any cliched endings with the superhero being used as a mirror to the nature of humanity itself as each 'hero' discovers they are just as flawed as the villains they once faced.
Turned into a critically acclaimed film in 2009, it is well worth giving the book a spin regardless of views on the movie as it stands as something delightfully unique in its own right. So much so, that it remains the only graphic novel to be included in Time Magazine's 100 Best Novels.
12. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Covering a dark part of America's history in its dustbowl, it is just about average Americans “just trying to get along without shoving anybody” and that is it. That is what makes such a strong contender for the title of 'Great American Novel' as it does not trouble itself with lofty ideals but rather just how one can live a reasonable life.
It shows something lesser than the American dream and carves out a new one, that being just the search for land, dignity, and a future.
13. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Sprawling, idiosyncratic, and wrenching, this novel is about comic books and the people who make them. That may sound flippant, as does the title, but it brings in the themes of cultural assimilation and the search for an emotional and moral identity amongst the general public and how pop-culture can affect that.
Comic books are one of the truly American art forms, and by setting the novel in this world, it gives rise to some truly American themes.
14. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
A vast and wide-ranging novel that discusses the effect of a mutated gene on several generations of a family, it follows an intersex protagonist delve through the novel's main themes like nature versus nurture, rebirth, and the differing experiences of what society constructs as polar opposites.
Also looking at the American dream, gender identity and politics, this won the Pulitzer Prize for its epic scope.
15. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A story of the 'immigration experience' this book is an epic that spans from a Nigeria under dictatorship right through to post 9/11 America that sees the struggles with leaving your homeland, racism, diaspora and identity all come to the fore in this expansive and touching booking that also includes a magnificently woven love story into the narrative.
With a notable range across different societies and reflections of global tensions, this book is a modern story of the world we live in.