A handful of years ago, I graduated from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study where I eschewed a traditional liberal arts major and designed my own plan of study. I concentrated in the American Dream, a concept that has technically existed since the 1930s, but has roots in 1776’s American Declaration of Independence. Through generations, this dream concept has gone through various costume changes. It has even been exported worldwide while remaining central to the American conception of self. For example, about ten years ago, State Chairman Xi Jinping began boasting about 中国梦 (China Dream) and today it is not unusual for H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE, to evoke the idea of a Dubai Dream. While there are many facets of the omnipresent American Dream, I want to focus on the problematic upward mobility component, which Lawrence R. Samuel argues is “the heart and soul of the American Dream” (2012). My contention with the contemporary American Dream’s component of upward mobility is threefold: its over-reliance on the rags-to-riches motif and the logical error of survivorship bias, its basis on an unsustainable capitalistic model of wealth accumulation (ignorant of humanity’s other manners of mobility), and what I’ll call its upward-outward perpetuation of the white-Christian-male-first mobility of Manifest Destiny. This essay will mainly explore the first and second points.
Recently, a poet friend and I were talking about our undergraduate experiences at elite private universities. She comes from a rural white middle class background, but one where she mixed with a lot of working class people. I come from a white urban working poor background (my dad was a local bartender); in both of our experiences, we witnessed our middle-class, upper middle-class, and wealthy classmates playing “poor” or reinventing working-class origin stories for themselves. Often, they hijacked narratives of downtrodden and/or marginalized people. In truth, I was an accomplice in this game, because as a first-generation scholarship student, I quickly realized my acquiescence was a requirement in maintaining and building relationships with these people. Pretending to believe their lack-of-capital origin stories and becoming friends (or at least friendly) with my privileged classmates, employers, and professors (and eventually, colleagues) opened doors for me. Thus, I pretend(ed) for them and prioritized their comfort. Eventually, I was invited to their parties, clubs, beach houses, after-internship drinks, and received recommendation letters and scholarships. I ignored when we went out for dinner and the rest of the party threw credit cards on the table with their mom or dad’s names embossed on them while I scrimmaged in my purse for a combination of my babysitting and work-study money. I pretended it was working-class normal for them to move off-campus and have their own apartments in Manhattan, or memories of annual family trips abroad or to summerhouses. Things haven’t changed much now that I am part of the white-collar workforce, but this type of relationship is exhausting and frustrating; it requires extensive emotional labor, especially for minorities, who must also deal with white fragility.
Once, I was in a taxi heading uptown for an eye doctor’s appointment with a West Village girl I babysat (I girl I love very much to this day) and she was lamenting about the snobbish and mean attitude of some of the other kids and their parents in her elementary school. She said, “They’re so rich, their parents were doctors.” Now, actually, both her parents were lawyers with advanced degrees; she lived in a beautiful West Village apartment, and had already traveled internationally several times. I see now that she wanted me to understand her pain and register the difference between her and them. She wanted to be empathic and kind, which maybe she saw in me and not in them. She also wanted to be like her mom who was kind and had a working-class origin story. How did someone so young already know that in American hearts the upward mobility story trumps all other narratives of success? The problem in America then and now is that we muddle morality and social class. The bigger problem is that our country’s only worthy narrative is the rags to riches motif. As a society, we celebrate the person who rises through their merits or defeats unspeakable odds over the story of a person of inherited wealth who does well with what they were granted. Even now, in an era of checking your privilege, our country’s anti-aristocracy history makes people uncomfortable with their own inherited wealth and status. They are uncomfortable enough that they create these working class origin stories, but they are not uncomfortable enough, in most cases, to fight the system of inequality.
Lawrence R. Samuel wrote, “…the key concepts we associate with who we are as a people (such as opportunistic, self-reliant, pragmatic, resourceful, aspirational, optimistic, entrepreneurial, inventive) are all present in the orbit of the American Dream” (2012). Thus, if the American Dream scaffold is upward mobility, how can someone from the upper classes be self-reliant, aspirational, inventive, et cetera? Of course, they can, but we don’t tell their stories often enough. We don’t tell riches-to-riches stories unless we want to disparage someone or their career (especially in politics), but we can and ought to tell these stories too. We can ask folks: what have you done with your privilege? What are the other ways (besides financial) that humans can be upwardly mobile? Once we stop pretending about working class origin stories or rags to riches narratives, we can talk about other real hurdles and moments of reinvention. Three examples of riches to riches stories are: American Astronomer Marie Mitchell, American author Annie Dillard, and Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I chose these three women, because I think they have all exhibited Samuel’s key concepts and have been “upwardly mobile” despite being from relative wealth.
To parse one of these examples, Mitchell, the first professional American astronomer, went from riches to riches, but her latter riches were not economic. Over her lifetime, she developed her intellect. She grew critical of religious institutions and slavery. She ultimately left her Quaker religion even though her ability to go to achieve higher learning during that era was due to her family’s Quaker faith. To protest slavery, she stopped wearing cotton clothing produced by slaves in the American south. Along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in 1873, she co-founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women. Mitchell didn’t need a story of financial upward mobility to achieve acclaim. In fact, by acknowledging her privilege, she was able to contribute to an alternative riches-to-riches narrative and show how proper education, health care, and freedom could make us all better citizens. Today’s middle class and upper middle class people could do the same with their own from riches to riches stories.
In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote, “Here you come to the real secret of class distinctions in the West…It is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering…The words were: The lower classes smell.” In the United States, we don’t use the terms “lower class” and “upper class” as liberally as the British do, but make no mistake, these bodily class distinctions exist, and the American rich do disdain the poor for their bodies and habits. In the US, it might not always be smell that indicates class, but “in contrast to international trends, people in America who live in the most poverty-dense counties are those most prone to obesity” (Levine, 2011). As the gaps in childhood obesity continue to rise along economic lines in the US, it has become much easier to target poor people’s bodies. When upper class doctors try to create their own false class narratives (not necessarily origin stories), it is also damaging says Michael Hobbes:
“Kenneth Resnicow, a consultant who trains physicians to build rapport with their patients, says white, wealthy, skinny doctors will often try to bond with their low-income patients by telling them, ‘I know what it’s like not to have time to cook.’ Their patients, who might be single mothers with three kids and two jobs, immediately think “No, you don’t,” and the relationship is irretrievably soured.”
Furthermore, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, people of low socioeconomic status are more likely to be targeted by tobacco companies, grew up around secondhand smoke, and smoke themselves. The Oregon Center for Public Policy, which uses research and analysis to advance policies and practices that improve the economic and social opportunities of all Oregonians, has published reports indicating that most Oregon families living in poverty have one parent who works. There is an increasing overlap in our ideas of working poor and lower middle-class, not just in Oregon but across the United States. Furthermore, among the poor, many are suffering food insecurity. “Common physical conditions associated with food insecurity among children include asthma, birth defects, anemia, low birth weight, lower bone density, lower physical functioning, colds, stomachaches, and tooth decay” (Bauer 2018). I bring these physical aspects of poverty up to emphasize the title of this piece: everyone wants a working class origin story without having a working class origin story. Nobody wants the physical challenges of the working poor, yet they still want the societal rewards of the rags to riches narrative.
Historically, American literature and films have elevated the desirability of the upward mobility/rags-to-riches narrative. More often than not, our beloved protagonists are the poor and/or those striving for education and financial stability. The antagonists are the rich (no one wants to be the antagonist). Overall, these narratives are not harmful. I don’t know where I would be without Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Jimmy Gatz. The issue is that without more from riches to riches narratives, wherein the latter riches are not economical necessarily, we will continue to cling to our rags to riches narrative which is too individualist and oftentimes harms our environment and social communities. Look at reality television today, specifically Keeping up with the Kardashians. The Kardashian family is a good high-profile example of promoting their own false class origin stories. In 2018, Kylie Jenner was featured in Forbes as a “self-made billionaire” along with the hashtag #SelfMadeWomen. This extreme example garnered a lot of criticism, but much of the criticism centered on the irresponsibility of the magazine; yet, it is more than irresponsible, it is unimaginative. Kylie Jenner, you will never be Francie Nolan, but that’s okay.
In her new book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Jane Alison critiques the traditional linear narrative in fiction. Quoting critic Robert Scholes who connected fiction with sex’s “rhythm of tumescence and detumescence…of intensification to the point of climax and consummation”, Alison pointed out that this is not how most women experience sex. She goes on to argue for alternative narrative structures away from the Aristotelian sequence of beginning, middle, and end. In truth, there are many alternatives already out there; even in translation, writers like Murakami or Calvino challenge this pattern, or look at Margaret Atwood’s story “Happy Endings” or Clarice Lispector’s “The Fifth Story.” Nevertheless, the linear narrative still dominates in American fiction the same way the rags to riches narrative dominates American hearts. Yet, like Robert Scholes’ hetero-liner theory of fiction, must Americans do not experience life like a rags to riches story. There is more social mobility in places in Europe today than in the United States, and to continue to extol the individualist virtues of the rags to riches story, we commit a type of survivorship bias, which is concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. Many things cause this lack of visibility, but one fixable cause is the tendency for people in positions of power and privilege to tell false working class origin stories.
What can be done? So much! Like Mitchell, we can strive to expand ourselves in alternative ways that are not based on economics. We can make our mind mobile, and we can share those narratives of reinvention and expansion. We can enrich ourselves by becoming less racist, less sexist, or less environmentally unsustainable. These kinds of riches to riches stories will only be possible if American society becomes more forgiving, if we allow people to change their minds and grow. To have a change of heart is to be human. Any kind of change of heart it is a mobile action; and if this change of heart means you have become a more loving, a more tolerant, and more empathetic person, you have achieved, in my opinion as someone who studied it, a new better kind of American Dream, you have experienced upward mobility. If we are free and have disposable income, we ought to spend our time, as Toni Morrison would say, freeing others, by giving everyone access to the rights of the riches like healthcare and education. This is more worthy of our time than trying to be some old character inside a Horatio Alger Jr. novel of the Gilded Age.
Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. Boston, MA,1931.
Bauer, Janet. Oregonians in Every County and Congressional District Suffer Food Insecurity.
https://www.ocpp.org/2018/06/20/oregonians-every-county-and-congressionaldistrict/ 9 June 2019.
Cullen, Jim. The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation. New York,
Hobbes, Michael. Everything you know about obesity is wrong.
Lawrence, R. Samuel. The American Dream: A Cultural History. 2012.
Levine, James A. Poverty and Obesity in the U.S. Accessed from:
http://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/60/11/2667. 9 June 2019.
U.S. Census Bureau. Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016external icon.
Last updated 2018 April 10 [accessed 2018 Jun 13].
Image: Betty Smith, author of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” next to the ailanthus tree outside her old house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn