Title page for ETD etd-06232011-173240

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Ayers, James E.
URN etd-06232011-173240
Title "The Colossal Vitality of His Illusion": The Myth of the American Dream in the Modern American Novel
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Department English
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Cowan, Bainard Committee Chair
Boelhower, William Committee Member
Costello, Brannon Committee Member
Lowe, John Committee Member
Murphy, James Dean's Representative
  • mytheme
  • The Great Gatsby
  • upward mobility
  • frontier
  • self-made man
  • Claude Levi-Strauss
Date of Defense 2011-06-10
Availability unrestricted
This dissertation argues that the American dream is a large-scale cultural myth, and that through an analysis of the dream’s mythic structure we can locate a paradigm according to which both American literature and American culture are organized. The American dream has maintained unique relevance across the historical, regional, and cultural diversity of the American nation, in part because it always remains abstract and resists firm definition. Nevertheless, by breaking the broad myth into its most basic elemental parts we can begin to see patterns across the many distinctive versions of the American dream, such that we can identify the American dream as a generic category. This project therefore proceeds by analyzing the most basic narrative features of the American dream: its actor or hero, its setting or universe, and its primary action. Through an analysis of the figure of the self-made man, the “frontier” as American spatial metaphor, and the action of upward mobility, this dissertation locates common features across myriad versions of this American dream myth in order to establish the American dream as a pervasive organizing ideal within American culture. This dissertation focuses its study on American fiction of the twentieth century, where the American dream finds its clearest articulations, and it has special recourse to nineteenth-century and early American history and culture as the ground for this modern sense of the American dream. Finally, I end with a discussion of American literature of the last decade, in which I discuss prevalent contemporary attitudes about the American dream in order to assess its current condition. Ultimately, this dissertation suggests that the American dream, because it is a genuine cultural myth, both organizes American cultural experience and structures American literature about that experience.
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