Rethinking the American Dream in Coney Island of the Mind, Why Wallace?, and Goodbye, Columbus

Rethinking the American Dream in Coney Island of the Mind, Why Wallace?, and Goodbye, Columbus

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Rethinking the American Dream in Coney Island of the Mind, Why Wallace?, and Goodbye, Columbus

 
    Webster defines a dream as "something notable for its beauty, excellence, or enjoyable quality." This seems, logically, something that everyone desires to obtain. However not everyone is the same therefore each dream is not the same. According to certain works of literature regarding the 1950's-60's though, it appears as if many people are quite disillusioned and believe their dream is the one and only dream suitable for everyone. This American Dream consists of a nice job, nice spouse, nice house, nice kids, nice car and all the money, money, money you can get your hands on. Anyone who desires differently is unacceptable.

 

But what happens when people finally start to realize, heaven forbid, that this one dream isn't a dream at all and is not the ultimate source of happiness? A rebellion against this materialistic society takes place. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in his poem "A Coney Island of the Mind," illustrates this dissatisfaction with American society:

 

"...on a concrete continent

spaced with bland billboards

illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness

The scene shows fewer tumbrils

but more maimed citizens

in painted cars

and they have strange license plates

and engines

that devour America" (Ferlinghetti,131).

 

America is supposed to be the great capitalistic society, but Ferlinghetti sees otherwise. Billboards feature material assets in a style showing its necessity for human happiness. By calling this happiness the billboards represent an illusion, Ferlinghetti is speaking out against materialism. This materialism has apparently also horribly disfigured America and it's citizens. The citizens believe that the more material possessions one has the happier they will be. Ferlinghetti says these material possessions such as cars and fancy license plates devour them instead and are possibly dictating their life.

 

Addressing this issue of a materialistic society is a common theme among many of the writer's during the 1950's and 1960's. In their writings Phillip Roth and Michael Novak both depict a family of this society. The parents of these writings have an "ideal" lifestyle and a standard for their children, which gives the children every reason to want to rebel. They want to break away from the thoughts and standards of their parents and society. In Roth's novel, Goodbye, Columbus, the character Mrs. Patimkin is much like the Andy Restek of Novak's "Why

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123helpme.com/search.asp?text=wallace">Wallace?" They are both parents who hold to the conservative American values and expect their children to carry on with these same values. They want their children to have a respect for their material possessions and appreciate their parent's achievements. They expect this appreciation to come in the form of choosing to live in accordance to their parent's plan set aside for them before they are even born.

 

Both parents come from families less fortunate than the ones they have raised themselves. Restek works hard and earned "a fairly comfortable house and nice lawn, a new Plymouth" (Novak,352). As for Mrs. Patimkin, Roth infers that she marries a nice young man who works and provides for her. According to this time period a young man is to find a descent job and a woman a descent husband. Both Mrs. Patimkin and Restek support this ideal. Restek has two children in college, Bob and Sally. Restek tells Novak, "He envisages Bob as a clerk in a bank and later an officer...He hopes Sally will marry a nice solid fellow with sound ideas" (353). This is not only a suggestion of what he would like his children to do with their lives, but according to him this is what they are going to do with their lives. If they drift too far away from what he has "envisaged" for them they are chastised: "He saw a picture of a longhaired boy in her wallet and he threw her out of the house for several hours" (353). Restek apparently wasn't even sure if the boy was in fact her boyfriend but before he gave it a second thought he immediately threw her out. Perhaps the most ridiculous and unjustifiable demand is the one for her to cut her long hair and not wear it straight. This illustrates that even the tiniest sway in the wrong direction from the perfect daughter he has imagined makes him angry. This sounds much like Mrs. Patimkin's reaction to finding her daughter's diaphragm.

 

It is natural tendency for someone to rebel against a great state of restriction. This is the reason for Sally, Restek's daughter, to call him old-fashioned and refuse to recognize his authority. Mrs. Patimkin's daughter, Brenda, rebels as well. Brenda seems to resent her mother and the ideals of her mother. Brenda's mother, judging by the letter that she sends Brenda, envisions her marrying a nice young man from a well-to-do upbringing. She has high standards in regards to morality and expects Brenda to follow them. Brenda has grown up in this household under her mother's critical eye and has, until Neil, held to her mother's standards.

 

Brenda's mother believes she has raised an innocent woman when in fact, Brenda, for no other purpose than to get back at her mother has premarital sex. Her mother discovers Brenda's diaphragm and is devastated because this is such a tragedy: "I don't know what we ever did that you should reward us this way. We gave you a nice home and all the love and respect a child needs...even though we sent you to the best school and gave you the best money could buy" (Roth,129). This brings back the idea of materialism. With all these material possessions Brenda's mother believes she should be content. She should reward her parents for their efforts by bringing home a nice young man and not one who should act "that way." Mrs. Patimkin writes, "He is his parents' responsibility and I cannot imagine what kind of home life he had that he could act that way. Certainly that was a fine way to repay us for the hospitality we were nice enough to show him..." (129). Mrs. Patimkin herself would not have married a man with a background such as Neil's. She doesn't even call him by his name in the letter. How dare her daughter date a man of and with such low class? Through having sex with Neil, Brenda rejects the idea of living her life as her mother. She liberates herself and breaks free from being the carbon copy her mother has created. She forms her own standards and rejects accepting material gain in return for her lifestyle.

 

This raises an interesting parallel between Brenda and Sally, Mr. Restek's daughter. Not once Neil is referred to as Brenda's boyfriend. For all the reader knows Neil is just some guy Brenda sleeps with to seek revenge against her mother. Even if Brenda chooses to stay with Neil there is no way she could ever bring him back to her house. In order to remain in her family she is obligated to follow their rules. Sally's situation is basically the same. While living under her father's rule she will not have a picture of a longhaired boy in her wallet. And for all the reader knows the picture of the man in Sally's wallet is not her boyfriend, but just some man she doesn't even know. She could have planted it there to rebel against his rules.

 

Apparently Mrs. Patimkin and Mr. Restek recognize the change in the American society or the younger generation at least. They believe change is a bad idea and through their children attempt to keep it from occurring. In her letter to Brenda, Mrs. Patimkin writes, "Times certainly have changed since I was a girl that this kind of thing could go on" (129). The idea of having sexual relations outside of marriage is inconceivable to Mrs. Patimkin. She doesn't want to believe it could happen and won't accept her daughter for not conforming to her ways. Mr. Restek's opinion is a bit more developed. The sixties are about over and he is responding to what has taken place in society not just his own home. He too is not willing to accept a society that differs from his values. He says of the youth he, "strikes out in fury at every manifestation of the kind of youth he despises: shiftless, dirty, uninhibited, smart-alecky, superior, aiding our enemies" (Novak, 354). Mrs. Patimkin and Mr. Restek seem to be themselves in a sort of rebellion: a rebellion against others actually thinking for themselves and forming their own dreams and ideas. They believe freedom comes through the gain of money and material wealth and not through personal independence.

 

Works Cited

Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. "A Coney island of the Mind." The New American Poetry 1945-1960. Los Angeles: University of California P., 1999.

Novak, Michael. "Why Wallace?" Takin' it to the Streets. New York: Oxford University P., 1995.

Roth, Phillip Goodbye, Columbus. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
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