The idea of the "American Dream," of achieving material success through one's own efforts, is not merely a constant topic in American literature, it seems to be a fundamental archetype of American national mythology. The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and the popular stories of Horatio Alger in the 19th century established this motif as central to the American concept of manhood: we can see the precise motif still at work, virtually unaltered, in the 2006 film "The Pursuit of Happyness" Based on the story of a real man, Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith), who is rendered homeless with his five-year-old son (played by Will Smith's real-life son Jaden), Gardner manages through charm and a few lucky breaks not only to drag himself out of the poverty caused by his unwise investment in bone-density scanners, and back up into success. As Gardner tells his son in the film: "You gotta dream... You gotta protect it. People can't do somethin' themselves, they wanna tell you can't do it. If you want somethin', go get it. Period." (Muccino 2006). Yet Gardner's dreams pay off, ensuring this Hollywood production is precisely what Manohla Dargis called it in her review of "The Pursuit of Happyness" in The New York Times -- "a fairy tale in realist drag." Dargis concludes tartly that "how you respond to this man's moving story may depend on whether you find Mr. Smith's and his son's performances so overwhelmingly winning that you buy the idea that poverty is a function of bad luck and bad choices, and success the result of heroic toil and dreams." In other words, the very existence of the "American dream" seems ineluctably to conjure up its own opposite -- a dark critique of the pursuit of what one critic (William James) would darkly term "the bitch-goddess Success." I would suggest that the protagonists of two important mid-century American plays -- Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun -- are really intended as illustrations of the moral failures of the capitalist pursuit of "success." Indeed, the notion of any human problems (social, ethical or otherwise) being solved by the system of profit-making private enterprise at it exists in America in the mid-twentieth century (and to this day) is made to seem absurd by both plays. In the end, both Miller and Hansberry present their central characters as a way of critiquing an American mindset which views human beings purely in terms of their cash-value.
Miller's Willy Loman is clearly intended to be defined almost starkly and allegorically as the "salesman" of the play's title. This seems to be Miller's way of letting the audience know that it is his occupational role -- his function as an agent of capitalism -- that is the subject for observation: the play could easily have been entitled Death of a Father, but this would ask us to judge Willy on his merits as a father and perhaps find him wanting. In fact, critic Harold Bloom believes that the success of the play hinges on this paradox at the conclusion: Bloom writes of Willy Loman that "his sincere pathos does have authentic aesthetic dignity, because he does not die the death of a salesman. He dies the death of a father…a father central enough to touch the anguish of the universal" (Bloom, 9). Yet it is through undignified language that Miller allows Willy to be eulogized, especially when Miller's emphasis on Willy's occupation comes to the fore in the "requiem" section after Willy's suicide, perhaps best summed up in Charley's speech:
Nobody dast blame this man. You don't understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman there is no rock bottom to the life. He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine. He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back -- that's an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you're finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory. (Miller 138)
Willy's "dream," like the "heroic toil and dreams" that Dargis sees in "The Pursuit of Happyness," is one of material success. But Charley's description here performs several different functions at the same time. First, Miller is clearly allowing Charley space to define Willy's job in terms of the Marxist concept of "alienated labor" -- in other words, what a saleman concretely does is very hard to quantify, since "he don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine." In other words, we are asked to conceive of Willy's position as better than a proletarian but worse than an educated professional -- but at the same time to understand that the position he occupies is somehow "way out there in the blue" and detatched from concrete detail. But it is also remarkable to note the way that Charley defines the occupation superficially: if the life of a female prostitute were defined in the same terms -- she smiles at customers until the day when they start not smiling back -- or if we euphemized the prostitute's job as being merely a "salesgirl" (where, like Willy Loman, what she is selling is herself) then the appalling dehumanization of Willy's position, in which his own self-worth hinges on his ability to turn being "well liked" into a sale, becomes even more clear. The irony in Charley's close is that "territory" is both a technical term of art for salesmen -- Boston is part of Willy's "territory" in this sense -- but that Charley has already given a definition of Willy's territory as being "way out there in the blue," in other words, there is no safety net to what Willy does, and no grounding in reality. Reality, after all, is the opposite of any dream, including the "American Dream."
Lorraine Hansberry allows Walter Lee Younger his own speech in which he expresses dissatisfaction at his own employment, in terms that share with the overall sense of vertiginous menace that adheres to Charley's characterization of Willy Loman. To a certain degree, this is one of the chief differences in the way that Miller and Hansberry construct their critiques of capitalism -- in Hansberry, the issues are self-aware (presumably because the family is African-American and the play takes place in the Civil Rights era) even if the characters grope for ways to articulate completely their complaints. Yet the inarticulate vagueness of Willy Loman's job being "way out there in the blue" is matched by Walter's own self-aware analysis of his own employment as a chauffeur:
WALTER: A job (looks at her). Mama, a job? I open and close car doors all day long. I drive a man around in his limousine and I say, "Yes, sir; no, sir; very good, sir; shall I take the Drive, sir?" Mama, that ain't no kind of job…that ain't nothing at all. (Very quietly). Mama, I don't know if I can make you understand.
MAMA: Understand what, baby?
WALTER (Quietly): Sometimes it's like I can see the future stretched out in front of me -- just plain as day. The future, Mama. Hanging over there at the edge of my days. Just waiting for me -- a big looming blank space -- full of nothing. Just waiting for me. (Hansberry 73)
In other words, Walter is able to articulate the potential for this American dream to be a nightmare, in part because the type of job he is able to get makes his sense of dignity irrelevant: like a child or a military recruit, he is forced to call his employer "sir." But it is the future, rather than the marketplace, that is conceived of as a menacing void, "a big looming blank space -- full of nothing."
With such dehumanized roles to play in America's market economy, it is no surprise that both writers employ a certain element of self-dramatized fantasy to allow some vision of what their protagonists envision as an alternative -- not as a political alternative to capitalism, but a daydream alternative seeing ways in which life could be otherwise. The content of these fantasies is particularly revealing. For Walter, it is -- quite naturally -- an African identity which sidesteps (as Asagai does in the script) the problems inherent in being an African-American:
WALTER (All in a drunken dramatic shout) Shut up! & #8230;I'm digging them drums…them drums move me!...(He makes his weaving way to his wife's face and leans in close to her) In my heart of hearts -- (He thumps his chest) -- I am much warrior!
RUTH (Without even looking up) In our heart of hearts you are much drunkard
BENEATHA (to encourage Walter, thoroughly caught up with this side of him) OCOMOGOSIAY, FLAMING SPEAR!