In the United States of America, freedom of speech and the ability to challenge accepted truths and to criticize the status quo have been a part of the identity of citizens since the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Since then, the country has undergone many changes, particularly in the ways that the social norm views the nation and the population who inhabit it. One of the most important components of the national identity has to do with the concept of the American Dream, the intangible quality that Americans have which allows anyone who is willing to work hard to transcend the social class in which they were born and climb the ladder to success. Anyone, from those born to the lowliest of families to the wealthiest person in the country could become anything their heart desired as long as they were willing to work for it. Throughout the history of the U.S. each subsequent generation has come up with new ideas and theories about how the country should be run; ideas which often conflict with the views of their predecessors. In the 1960s and 1970s, the discrepancy between the attitudes and perceptions of the past generation and those of the younger population became even more obvious and, to a great degree, violent. Two works from this period, Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America and Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, illustrate the different viewpoints that young people of the era had over the fate of the United States and the limitation or cessation of the American Dream.
Flower children and other members of the '60's counterculture were encouraged to drop in and tune out, that is to say that they should stop participating in the status quo such as the workforce and education and instead to do drugs and meditate on an acid trip-induced meaning of life. This new attitude created a class of people with limited dependency on work and a small appreciation for work-ethic. More important to these people was the concept of identity and what it meant to be an individual, to be an American (Braunstein 157). Those who were still interested in economic growth and the identity of America as a land of opportunity examined this in terms of how the American Dream compared to the counter-culture movement of the era. The traditional values of those who sought the American Dream were counter to this new quest for identity and a complete reevaluation of Americanism was to follow.
Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America is a collection of short stories which deal with one man's perception of the United States based on what he experiences in the early 1960s of California, both in his interactions with other Americans and through his interactions with nature. In his book, the expression "trout fishing in America" has many meanings. It can be a person who is defined by what they do, it can be a place where the fishing of trout can happen, and of course it describes a person who actually goes trout fishing for enjoyment. Each of these labels defines the term in a different way and is used to describe an action or a part of the American population. Trout fishing is another name for the using of resources. Those people who take advantage of the resources available to them as Americans can be said to be taking part in trout fishing and those who choose not to take advantage are missing out on something which could give them metaphorical and literal nourishment.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an autobiographical novel which is based on a real event, where the author of the book Hunter S. Thompson talks about a time when he and a friend traveled across the American landscape in order to search for the truth of the American Dream in order to determine if it still lived in the United States or if it ever did at all. They ultimately decided that the American Dream was actually a real thing and that it still existed, but that it is seldom actually achieved by anyone. He wrote that it is harder and harder to find people who truly understand the concept of the American Dream as it was originally intended. Instead the people have redefined the term as something that people are entitled to because they are Americans.
Early in Trout Fishing in America, the author describes the first time he became aware of the sport. Brautigan wrote of how he learned about trout fishing and its myriad of purposes and what this truly means. An old man he encountered had taught the author about trout and in his reflection, Brautigan tries to appropriately enumerate the true meaning of the trout fishing, but finds himself unable to do so. He stated:
Silver is not a good adjective to describe what I felt when he told me about trout fishing. I'd like to get it right. Maybe trout steel. Steel made from trout. The clear snow-filled river acting as foundry and heat. Imagine Pittsburgh. A steel that comes from trout, used to make buildings, trains and tunnels (Brautigan 3).
At first glance, this passage makes little sense because how can a fish be a profitable metal? However, beneath the actual word choice that Brautigan uses is a deeper meaning about the nature of the United States and the purpose of the natural resources that can be found on the continent. Trout is fished from the various lakes and rivers of the United States. This fish can either be sold for a profit or it can be eaten by the person who caught the fish. In order to catch the fish, someone has to go out onto the water. They must use their muscles and put out effort to get something from this venture. Any business is like this; whether it is fishing, agriculture, or metals like steel. The only way a person can become successful is to put them in the position where they can become so.
In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Thompson and his companion are sent to find the American Dream. He writes, "We were sent out here from San Francisco to look for the American Dream, by a magazine, to cover it" (Thompson 165). The characters believe that there is a dream which can be found but a person must make the effort and take the chance to go out and seek it for him or herself. In the novel, Dr. Gonzo and his friend interview many different people, asking each of them where to find the American Dream. No one seems to be able to either identify the precise location of the American Dream but each person thinks that it is real and that the dream can be literally found. This passage is interesting in that it also asserts that it is because they were hired by a magazine that they even went on this mission; a mixture of American individualism and capitalistic input. There has to be the promise of financial gain and potential fame which pushes some of the people to achieve their American Dream, rather than something inside the self. This shows a different perspective than is visible in the Brautigan book where it is the industriousness of man and his pursuit of the American Dream which leads to success. In Thompsons's book, it is the quest itself which serves as the harbinger of financial success.
Both men seem to rely upon the importance of labels as part of the American identity. In Brautigan's book, he writes of a time when he went to a group of first graders and physically provided each of them a label. Instead of unique, individual labels however, each one is given the same name. He writes:
The first-grader turned around and I wrote "Trout fishing in America" on his back. It looked even better on the second first-grader. We couldn't help but admire it. "Trout fishing in America." It certainly did add something to the first-graders. It completed them and gave them a kind of class (Brautigan 38).
Although each student is given the same moniker, they are still compared to one another. The narrator of the passage claims that it looks "better on the second" child even though the words are the same. In the United States, each person is given the label of American and the subsequent symbolism and meaning which goes along with that label. Despite the fact that each person is given the same label, there are some people who are better examples of this term than others; those who better embody the ideal of the American or in this allegory the ideal of the trout fisherman.
This is where the two men agree, about the importance of label and that everyone is granted a label. In another particular passage from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the author asserts that it is…