American Literature essay presentation: OCR A level

This is a soundfile of an essay requiring students to work with Jefferson’s Independence declaration speech and to link it to the texts studied… The idea is to use it as a basis for discussion.

The essay is printed below the MP3.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”


This statement made by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence is best analysed when split into sections that pertain to prevalent themes throughout American Literature. The first part of the quote that directly relates to American Literature is, “All men are created equal…inherent and inalienable rights.” The motif of inequality is inextricably related to American Literature as the frontiersman and pioneer attitude in the nineteenth century and how it evolved into the business focused approach of wealth. This inequality is especially evident within Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the character of George Wilson. George lives in the desolate Valley of Ashes, where “men who move dimly and are already crumbling,” not only does this explain the blatant inequality between not only the Valley and the rest of America but more comparably the Valley and the Eggs they live in. Such a dire city compared to the thriving West Egg which is inhabited by the rich who were profiting from the economic boom of the 1920s. such an inequality of wealth. More importantly, the inequality of wealth not just between societies but between the people and how little compassion they have for each other and how little they attempt to help each other is a display of the beginnings of the greedy capitalist political society and ideology America adopted. George Wilson is a blonde, spiritless man, anaemic, and fairly handsome.” Although his work is reminiscent of the initial idea of the American Dream, it does not fit into the ruthless society that has a pure, sole focus on increasing one’s monetary gain from everything. This blatant inequality could be contrasted with the wealth of Tom Buchannan, who has a pure excess of money. The lack of compassion for one’s fellow constituents is a display of how far America has regressed from Thomas Jefferson’s initial idea of the American constitution.


Furthermore, in “My Ántonia” there is not just inequality in society, but also within gender roles as the novel completely subverts gender, portraying women at their strongest, whilst simultaneously displaying men as the weaker gender. A critic would argue, from a more contemporary standpoint, that of course women and men are equal in every possible sense and that differing views are merely archaic and display a naïve and ignorant society. Antonia is portrayed is strong in both a physical and mental sense, as she works long, tedious hours and also bears the stresses of her family and the emotional trauma they suffer. On the other hand, Jim is portrayed as weak and indecisive throughout the novel. Although he is an emotional cornerstone for many characters, he rarely makes genuinely impactful choices and actions upon other people’s lives within the novel. This subversion of gender roles is very odd considering the book takes place in between 1880 and 1910. Considering women did not have the right to vote until 1920, it is unique to see Willa Cather display Antonia become the figurehead of the family and take a more dominant role over the males in the book. This is also true of Antonia’s dad as he suffers from extreme depression due to the sudden culture change that he has not adjusted to, leading him to commit suicide later in the book. The progression of his character from a successful bohemian who made a substantial living to being reduced to a sub-human immigrant in the land of opportunity displays how severe the effect of inequality can be.


Huckleberry Finn is also rife with inequality, with the obvious example being Jim, the escaped slave. Although his physical presence is only there at the start of the novel, Pap displays the level of poverty that some people within America suffered at the time. Akin to George Wilson in Gatsby, Pap lives a sad life rife with inequality where the reasons for inequality were not particularly fair, considering that his son has more money from exploring and pioneering than his father. Although his rampart alcoholism has descended him into the depths of society, society as a whole rejects him and does not aid him, once again showing the capitalist greed of American societies. Throughout the course of the book, the level of inequality that he experiences throughout the novel peaks after he leaves the ironic safety of his slavery, and although he is unknown to the travellers and villagers they meet along their journey, with the exception of a few, they all treat him extremely badly. In particular, in the latter parts of the book when they meet the Duke and Dauphin, they insist that “a nigger can run across money and not borrow some of it.” Although in the pre-civil war state that this novel took part in this was very normal, the gross stereotyping and generalisation of a particular race goes against the declaration of independence, which the initial quote of the essay is drawn from. Understandably, this came before the declaration was written, it still shows the de facto racism and inequality that minorities suffered throughout the twentieth century and how it was virtually normalised within society.


Additionally, inequality is especially present within Grapes of Wrath, which is noted by critics to personalise the injustice dealt to many migrants during the Great Depression, it is widely agreed that Steinbeck has succeeded in doing so. Great poverty is juxtaposed with a great appetite for wealth that stems from the immigrant’s dream to succeed. However, the main family, the Joads, truly seek peace and comfort as opposed to make lots of money at all costs, which is something akin to Gatsby in the Great Gatsby. Steinbeck describes the lack of money at the time as a monster claiming that they should “pay him a wage and take all the crop We have to do it. We don’t like to do it. But the monster’s sick. Something’s happened to the monster” the monster is an analogy for the economy, and just as the tenant farmer is hungry for food. The word monster has negative connotations and reminds the reader of things that want to destroy and ruin the tenants. Therefore, in the same way, the landowners pitch the economy as the enemy of themselves. The novel as a whole depicts the necessity to earn money and without money, they lived a life which was virtually impossible to survive in. Furthermore, within the society depicted in Grapes of Wrath, the gender roles are extremely conventional, which is the polar opposite to My Ántonia. In Steinbeck’s novel, the men hunted and tended to any and all physical problems during life, whereas the women tended to the house chores and cooking. Often, the reader sees Ma Joad assume a man’s duties, and this becomes more and more common as the events of the novel unfolded. This wasn’t very irregular however as the novel was published in the 1930s, which was a time of evolving gender politics.


Another way of interpreting the quote is by understanding the reference to the foundations of the American Dream. The ‘pursuit of happiness’ that Jefferson refers to is taken by many writers to mean the pursuit of money as in many novels they claim the two to be identicals. In “The Great Gatsby” Tom Buchannan is the perfect example of this. Tom has a vast excess of wealth, but it does not make him truly happy. He has all the materialistic things he could wish for but that does not bring him real happiness, which is what the American Dream intends to do. Therefore, I think those characters within American Literature, at least those works developed in the twentieth century, have a corrupted idea of the American Dream whereby they think it is all about become excessively rich in order to own whatever one pleases. This is especially apparent in Gatsby as Tom’s house represents how deeply influenced, they are by society and its perception of them – the excessive and gluttonous extravagance of the house shows the wealth that Tom wants to flaunt, them living in a “Georgian Colonial mansion” is a display of how corrupted he was. Furthermore, on a smaller scale. The Georgian aspect of the mansion is merely just a reminder of how the American ‘bourgeois’ copied their lavish lifestyles from the architecture of those who established their country. In addition to this, Nick Caraway, one of the more conservative characters who is less focused on wealth – or at least depicts himself to be – moves to the East Coast for a chance to join in with the new buzz around the emerging markets. Although his intentions are not explicitly mentioned, it would be fair to assume that, given the American psyche at the time, he has done this due to his want for money and the potential newfound riches. Although one could argue that he is, instead, just trying to make a better life for himself and live out a more contemporary American Dream I think that it his idea of it is more in line with Tom’s, making it very corrupted. Furthermore, his pursuit in life is not of happiness, but instead social acceptance. Happiness may be a by-product, but his whole adventure and time in the novel is fuelled by his need to be friends with people. One could give a wide variety of reasons for his move to the East coast but it is more than probable that it is not due to happiness.


The quote from Thomas Jefferson was the foundation of the American Dream, and it directly inspires what George and Lennie from Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ were trying to accomplish. Their dream was very simple, only wanting to live off of the “fatta the lan.” Their vision of the American Dream, unlike Tom Buchannan and the rest of West Egg’s, was that they wanted a simple life which essentially sustained itself, living off of the wild and not disturbing anyone. Their dream is pure and when they venture out to find work to fulfil this dream, they realise how corrupted America as a whole has become as a direct result of not only the pursuit of money, but also the vast inequalities that surrounded everyone throughout the course of the book. Steinbeck, like he does in Grapes of Wrath, displays America which values monetary over a life of liberty and happiness, which goes against the very thing their founding fathers fought for. The book shows the importance of having a dream. Dreaming about the American dream is part of the essence of the American Dream itself. The dream that George and Lennie share is what cements and immortalises their friendship, stopping them from becoming like other ranch hands who just lie and cheat their way to riches. It gives them a life which allows them to genuinely get closer to achieving their dreams. Many critics argue that George and Lennie are the truest form of pioneers, as they work their way to their dream via legitimate means, as opposed to characters like the Duke and Dauphin who want to achieve their goals through cheating whole villages out of their hard-earned money.


Finally, Jefferson claims that all Americans had been “endowed by their creator.” Religion plays an immense part in American Literature, as there was a divide between not only different religions, but also the different sects of certain religions. This is especially apparent in My Antonia when Mr Shimerda commits suicide. He commits suicide mainly due to the lack of acceptance in society, not purely due to his culture and heritage, but also his religion. The religious divide between the Nebraskan Protestants and the Catholic immigrants was so severe and exacerbated that Mr Shimerda felt that he could not bear it anymore. It led his fellow constituents to never help him, which although is not solely religions fault as it is also a reason that came about as a result of the socio-political climate at the time. This problem of religion escalated so much that they refused to bury him in a cemetery due to the fact that he committed suicide, which is a sin. Even though the differences between sects of Christianity are very minor, it was still an uncontrollable divide within the community. This pertains to the previous theme mentioned as were it not for the selfish capitalist society that America had nurtured and adopted, the people of Nebraska would have been willing to help their fellow countrymen, it is ironic as it is the land of the free and opportunity however those who live in it are not cooperative with each other and purely pursue money, a very narrow minded view that took several decades to change.