Generational shift and the American Dream in the Novels of Jeannette Walls

Examination Thesis, 2014

58 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Jeannette Walls and her family saga in consideration of the American Dream
2.1 The American Dream: A Short Historical Background
2.2 Jeannette Walls- a brief biography
2.3 “Half Broke Horses”
2.4 “The Glass Castle: A Memoir”

3. The development of Lily Casey’s character
3.1 Her childhood and her parents’ influence on her education
3.2 Lily on her way to be an early feminist
3.3 Lily’s marriage to Jim
3.4 Lily - a possible role model for other women
3.5 The relationship between mother and daughter and the family

4. Rex and Rose Mary’s methods of education and values of life- their way of bringing up their four children in “The Glass Castle
4.1 The relationship between Rex and Rose Mary including their visions and hopes for the family
4.2 Symbols and metaphors in Rex’s and Rose Mary’s world
4.3 The parents’ attitude towards status, education and work
4.4 Jeannette’s preposterous childhood between weaponry, alcohol and unfulfilled wishes for freedom
4.5 “The Glass Castle” as a symbol of the American Dream

5. Conclusion
5.1 Generational shift concerning educational concepts of Lily, Rose Mary
and Jeannette
5.2 How the American Dream comes to reality in both novels

6. My personal comment

7. Bibliography

8. Appendix

1. Introduction

My thesis (Staatsarbeit) deals with the “generational shift and the question of the American Dream in the novels of Jeannette Walls.”

There are number of reasons why I have chosen the topic of Jeannette Wall’s family saga with reference to the American Dream and the generational shift.

The only common ground I share with Jeannette and her family despite our completely different background is our love of reading. One of the extraordinary books that still fascinates me is the “Glass Castle: A Memoir” by this American author. This autobiography reveals shocking details of her childhood. The reader cannot believe that parents of four children are that inconsiderate to follow their own interests and neglect the little ones disregarding their basic needs like nourishment, a warm and clean shelter and the possibility of regular school attendance.

For several years the family is of no fixed abode and roams through many American states. The children often go hungry and at school their mates mock at them because of their worn-out clothes.

When the novel “Half Broke Horses” was published I hoped to get to know more about the family’s background and to find answers to my questions concerning Jeannette’s mother Rose Mary who often treats her children heartlessly and acts selfishly.

This novel is concerned with Lily, Jeannette’s grandmother. We learn a lot of her upbringing and her strict way of educating Rose Mary. Both novels covering at least sixty years also reflect the American history and values of that time.

So I would like to examine in how far we can speak of a generational shift regarding the women of the families and their role models.

As all members of the family strive to reach their personal goals in life I also want to find out which components of the American Dream are relevant to them and what they can realize.

Lily is ambitious in her career and wants her daughter to have the same stamina and willpower to get a good profession.

Rex’s dream of self- realization is to build a glass castle for the family and being a successful artist is Rose Mary’s aim in life.

The four children would like to call their house a home where they can stay and feel at ease and are looked after and cared for. They just dream of a neat place where they get some attention and can develop their interests. To call back to mind the different aspects of the American Dream I would like to begin with its historical background.

I am going to analyse the books in a chronological order to explicitly develop the characters’ motivations, so first I will examine Lily’s life and her ambitions.

2. Jeannette Walls and her family saga in consideration of the American Dream

2.1 The American Dream: A Short Historical Background

The phrase “American Dream” includes a wide range of hopes and beliefs that are commonly connected with the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, such as “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. The Founding Fathers themselves never used this term.

In 1931, the American historian James Truslow Adams1 coined the term The American Dream in his book TheEpic of America.

He writes,

“but there has been also the American Dream that dreamof a land in which life should be better and richer andfuller for every man, with opportunity for each accordingto his ability and achievement.2

Adams defines the dream by saying that

“it is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely,but a dream of a social order in which each man and eachwoman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature ofwhich they are innately capable, and be recognized byothers for what they are, regardless of the fortuitouscircumstances of birth or position.”3

In today’s treasury of words one would sooner say that it is the opportunity to rise from rags to riches. Peter Freese, a German scholar, who is concerned with issues of the American Dream notices that “long before America became a country, it was a continent, and long before it was known to exist as a continent, it was a vision and a dream4.” Thereby he means the struggle of mankind to find a place in life where everyone has the opportunity to live a life of self- determination and is free.

Since the arrival of the first settlers at the beginning of the 17th century, America has offered a refuge and a new home to millions of immigrants. For them America was a chance to start a new life and improve their social conditions.

In 1630, one of the first settlers and governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop wrote in his published essay ‘A Model of Christian Charity’ that this up-coming world “shall be as a city upon a hill”5, also using a quotation from the Bible where is written that

“ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.” (Matthew 5.14-15)

This quote creates a picture of a paradise-like place. Furthermore it gives hope, confidence and willpower. Beside the idea of a fertile and untouched country, which was seen as the escape from “a sinful and urbanized Europe” it was also a chance for the people to start anew.

In the Bible Canaan was the land God promised to the Israelites. He ordered Moses to lead the people from captivity in Egypt to Canaan- “a land of milk and honey”6.

It is this biblical account the immigrants fleeing to America from religious persecution referred to when they imagined the American colonies as the “New Canaan”. 7

The new settlers moved further westward to cultivate their land and the Native Americans were fought and forced to leave their territories and were denoted as “besotted, childish, cruel, degraded, dirty, diseased, drunken, faithless […]; barbarians, demons, […] savages8.”

John L. O’Sullivan, the editor of the influential UnitedStates Magazine and the Democratic Review embossed the term ‘Manifest Destiny’. This is related to the idea of being destined to explore and cross America.

O’Sullivan stated that

“the untransacted destiny of the American people is to subdue the continent- to rush over this vast field to thePacific Ocean- to animate the many hundred millions ofits people, and to cheer them upward […]9 ”.

In his editorials he popularize the belief that it was America’s mission to democratize the world. In 1839 he declared the United States the “nation of the future”, whose fate was “to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles, to establish on earth the noblest temple to the worship of the Most High-The Sacred and the True.”10 America’s territorial expansion and imperialism are justified by the term manifest destiny, which stresses the virtue of the American people, as they are the ones to establish moral rules and values across the world.

The expansion of the American nation from coast to coast pushed the borderline between civilization and wilderness (the Frontier) westward.

In 1893, “at the meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago11 ”, Frederick Jackson Turner read from his paper, called ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History. There he said that

“American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of anarea of free land, its continuous recession, and theadvance of the American settlement westward, explainAmerican development12.”

Turner spoke about “new opportunities that westward expansion enabled and that the development from wilderness to civilization was the precondition for new settlements and a rebirth13 ”. When the Frontier reached the Pacific in 1890 he declared the geographical frontier closed. The concept of the Frontier is closely related to the American idea of manifest destiny and explains the Americans’ need for new frontiers (science).

A closer look at the ideal of the American Dream, however, reveals a great discrepancy between ideal and reality. Almost from the beginning the dream of personal freedom, happiness and opportunity was denied to a part of the population. It was only in the 1960s, after many demonstrations by the Civil Rights Movement, that Afro- Americans got the same rights as their white fellow citizens and were equal in law.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream of equality. His wish as an African-American was to have the same rights and also the same chances as it is granted in the Declaration of Independence. In his speech ‘I Have a Dream’ in 1963, he says that

“in a sense, America is essentially a dream, a dream as yet unfulfilled. It is a dream of a land where men of all races, of all nationalities and creeds can live together as brothers14 ”.

Even though every American citizen regardless of his or her colour his guaranteed equal rights today, racial discrimination and other problems still occurs.

Jim Cullen states in his book ‘The American Dream’ that “there is not only one dream existing but that there are many and that these dreams have changed over time”15.

History shows that even in the past there has never been the one American Dream but wide ranges of ideas, ideals and hopes and beliefs that were sometimes successful and sometimes not.

2.2 Jeannette Walls- a brief biography

Jeannette Walls, the author of the books “Half Broke Horses” and “The Glass Castle: A Memoir“, was born in Phoenix, Arizona in April 1960. She studied journalism at Barnard College, which is a liberal arts college for women in New York City. Walls graduated there in 1984. After her studies she worked as a gossip columnist for, now Jeannette Walls has also written for the New York Magazine, Esquire, USA Today and The Phoenix, but gave up journalism in 2007 to become a full-time writer. In 2000 her first book “Dish- The Inside Story on the World of Gossip” was published. It deals with the history of gossip in media and its political and social impact, which made her influenced by writing a popular gossip column named “The Scoop” from 1998- 2007.

Her second book “The Glass Castle: A Memoir”, published in 2005, has been a New York Times bestseller for more than six years and deals with her family saga with a particular emphasis on her unconventional childhood as the daughter of Rex and Rose Mary Walls. The family is shown dysfunctional because of the parents, but the children, especially Jeannette, show a huge amount of resilience in overcoming the disadvantages of their lives, while still remaining close.

In 2007 “Half Broke Horses”, her first novel was published. Although it is biographical, Walls refers to it as a novel, because her imagination was necessary to fill in some of the details that were vague or could no longer be verified. Furthermore, she admits that “it was never her aim to be completely historically accurate16.” But calling the book a novel is on the other hand not quite satisfactory to her. Jeannette Walls continues by stating, “I saw the book more in the vein as an oral history, a retelling of stories handed down by my family through the years, and taken with the storyteller’s traditional liberties.17 ”She manages to “capture Lily’s distinctive voice18 ” which she achieves by writing in the first person. This brings her grandmother to life so vividly and is a mark of her talent as a storyteller.

Rose Mary Walls, her mother, delivered a lot of the stories in the book, i.e. detailed memories of her parents and various other facts about her childhood, such as the history and landscape of the places where they lived which formed the basis of the book.

After publishing the memoir she got numerous requests by readers of “The Glass Castle” to find out more about her mother and Grandma Smith. “The Glass Castle” is an interesting follow -up read, even though it was published first- as it continues the story of Lily’s daughter and shows the effect her way of life had on her children.

2.3“Half Broke Horses”

Lily Casey Smith was born in a dugout on the banks of Salt Draw, a tributary to Pecos River, in western Texas in 1901.

The Casey family lives on High Lonesome, a ranch in the heart of a difficult land. They owned 160 acres there, which was used for raising carriage horses. At the age of five, Lily started helping her father with breaking them. After a flash flood the Smiths have built a wooden house. Lily, aged ten, saves herself, her brother Buster and her sister Helen from drowning by making them climb a tree and keeping them awake all night. Their parents react very differently when their children come back the next morning: Their father is delighted to see them and comes out to greet them but their mother gets down on her knees to give thanks to God for saving them. She prayed for them all night long and wants her children to do the same. But Lily remains sceptical and realistic, believing that she is the one who has saved them by making them recite lists of things they have already learnt, for example presidents. It has not her mother’s prayer or a “guardian angel19 ”. Her father stated “maybe the guardian angel was you20 ”. The family live a hard life on their homestead on Salt Draw. Being near a river, makes life easier for them than for some of the other settlers because of having direct access to water. They keep different kinds of animals like cows, hens, but the main job of her father is bending and training carriage horses.

Adam C. Smith, her father, suffers from disabilities such as a severe speech impediment and limited use of the right side of his body. Nevertheless, he loves horses which he cannot actually ride himself but is still able to train them. His physical condition makes it difficult for him to deal with people. “His terrible temper and due to frustration because they do not understand what he is saying21 ”: Her mother, Daisy Mae Peacock, is a “delicate, well-bred woman and a lady22 ” and does not like living on Salt Draw but does her best to add civilization to their home by having furniture and ornaments. She tries to make sure her daughters remain genteel to find a husband. She is not of much practical use on the ranch, so Lily has to make sure things get done. The family has two servants, Apache and Lupe.

After a tornado they go back to Hondo Valley, New Mexico to the KC-Ranch, which is very different to their dugout. It is built on fertile land, which means the family has to do more farming. In 1913 Buster is sent to a Jesuit school near Albuquerque and one year later, Lily starts going to the Sister of Loretto Academy of Our Lady of the Light in Santa Fe. She is awarded gold medals for her high scores in math and overall scholarship. She has to leave after the first half of the school year because her dad cannot pay the tuition which is very disappointing for her because she has enjoyed being there.

In 1915 Adam gives Lily her first horse named Patches. She starts racing the horse in amateur races in the fall. The following year, Lily takes a test to become an itinerant teacher in Santa Fe. Due to WWI there is a huge lack of teachers and because of that Lily has been allowed to take the test. In August 1916 she rides 500 miles on horseback to work as a teacher in Red Lake, Arizona. For three years, Lily teaches in several small towns. In 1919 she loses her job as returning soldiers claim their former jobs and push women out of teaching. After returning home to the KC Ranch Lily moves to Chicago, works as a maid, goes to evening classes and teams up with Minnie. After being in Chicago for almost two years, Minnie is killed in an accident at work. Soon after, Lily meets Ted Conover, a salesman, who proposes to her after six weeks. She enrols at night school in order to get her high school diploma, which she achieves in 1927.

Lily discovers that her husband is a bigamist, has her marriage annulled and leaves Chicago after eight years to apply for Arizona State Teacher’s College in Flagstaff.

In 1929 she makes the journey for the third time to start teaching in Red Lake again. There she meets Rooster Legs, known as Orville Stubbs, starts playing poker and racing horses. She also meets Jim, aged 49 at a horse race. After her pregnant sister Helen, being disillusioned with life, hangs herself in Lily’s flat, she decides to get children on her own. Jim and Lily get married in 1930 and move to Ash Fork, run a gas station and garage and in July 1931 Lily gives birth to their daughter Rosemary. Little Jim is born nearly two years later. Lily starts selling bootleg liquor but after a visit from the police she decides to stop it. Jim manages the Camel Farm Arizona Incorporated Cattle Ranch (AIC). They live and work there for about three years with ups and downs. Lily takes her first flying lessons and dreams of becoming a freelance bush pilot, but her lack of money prevents it. She goes to Main Street, Arizona, a Mormon community to work as a teacher there, but loses her job because the community does not like her values. That summer in 1939 she starts teaching in Peach Springs, Walapai Reservation, where she also works as a janitor and bus driver. In the fall she opens a taxi service. In her second year there her contract is not renewed because she has beaten up the deputy’s son. Her children, Rosemary, aged nine and Little Jim, aged seven are sent to school and Lily enrols at a college in Phoenix to get her teaching diploma at the age of 41. When the family moves to Phoenix her husband Jim is the manager of a warehouse and Lily works in a high school. They buy a house, a car and enjoy luxury23. Lily takes flying lessons and her daughter first enrols at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Phoenix and then at a modelling school, which is her biggest dream.

In July 1946 they all move to Horse Mesa. Lily teaches there and Jim works for the Bureau of Land Reclamation.

Jim becomes a police officer and marries. Rosemary meets Rex Walls who gives Lily flying lessons. In 1956 Rosemary and Rex marry and on April 21, 1960 Rosemary gives birth to Jeannette Walls in Phoenix.

On November 1st 1967 Lily Casey Smith dies.

2.4“The Glass Castle: A Memoir”

The opening scene of “The Glass Castle: A Memoir” describes the author Jeannette Walls sitting in a taxi in contemporary New York City on her way to an event in 2005. Looking out of the window she recognizes her mother, Rose Mary Walls, digging through trash. Although her mother has been homeless for many years, Walls feels a sudden sense of shame and gloom for her life and starts reflecting her childhood and how her parents’ choices affected her.

Jeannette Walls continues to open the door to her childhood, beginning when she is three years old and gets horribly burned by boiling her own hotdog. She has to stay in hospital for a few days and enjoys the comfort of having her own bed and clean clothes, until her Dad shows up and they do the “skedaddle”, which means dropping everything and leaving the hospital without paying the bill. A lot of her memories of her childhood in the desert are based on “the skedaddle” and how her family- Mom, Dad, Lori, Brian and later Maureen move to different desert towns, settling in for as long as their Dad can hold a job. Dad’s alcoholism, being coupled with his paranoia about the state and organized society, forces them to move frequently. Jeannette and Brian spend countless hours exploring the desert on her own, while settling down in a small mining town, Battle Mountain, Nevada for a few months. Their mom also takes a break from her art projects to work as a teacher to extend their stay. The family has to move to Phoenix where their mother has inherited a house from her mother, Lily Casey Smith.

At first it seems that Phoenix offers the family some stability. Grandma Smith’s house is large and has a yard and the children attend school. Even Dad is able to keep a steady line of electrician jobs for a while. However, his alcoholism destroys him. On Jeannette’s 10th birthday she asks him to give up drinking for her. All goes well for a few weeks until their car breaks down and the family has to accept the charity of strangers for a ride back home. That makes him so ashamed that he becomes enslaved by alcohol again to drown his terrible feelings. Mom, starting to feel bored and in need of more adventure, suggests moving to Welch, West Virginia, where her husband grew up. Her hope is his family to help them out of their situation. So they head east, even though Dad is reluctant at first.

But Welch turns out to be more depressing than any other place where they have ever been. Their grandmother is an abusive woman, who has taken sexual advantage of Brian. Welch is impoverished, segregated and does not welcome newcomers, which makes it very hard for the children to make new friends and settle in. But Mom and Dad buy a decrepit shack on the top of a hill for the family to live in. There is no indoor plumping or central heating and it has a leaking roof.


1 Peter Freese (2006), The American Dream, Humankind’s second chance?, p. 10f

2 James Truslow Adams (1954), The Epic of America, p. 374

3 James Truslow Adams (1954), The Epic of America, p. 374

4 Peter Freese (1985), Anglistik und Englischunterricht, p. 8

5 John Winthrop (1630), A Model of Christian Charity; p. 118

6 The Bible. Exodus 33:3

7 Cf. Thomas Morton’s The New English Canaan, 1637

8 Hugh Brognan (1990), The Penguin History of the USA, p. 55

9 William Gilpin (1874), Mission of the North American People, pp. 71, 130

10 John L. O'Sullivan on Manifest Destiny, 1839 (

11 Frederick Jackson Turner (1976), The Frontier in American History, p. 1

12 ibid

13 Frederick Jackson Turner (1976), The Frontier in American History, p. 2

14 Jim Cullen (2003), The American Dream, p. 126

15 Jim Cullen (2003), The American Dream, p. 7

16 Lektürehilfen- Half Broke Horses. Jeannette Walls.Klett. Stuttgart.2013. p.131

17 ibid, p. 131

18 ibid, p. 131

19 Jeannette Walls. Half Broke Horses. 2009. p. 15

20 ibid, p. 15

21 ibid, p. 25

22 ibid, p. 23

23 cf. p. 221

Excerpt out of 58 pages


Generational shift and the American Dream in the Novels of Jeannette Walls
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Essen)
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American Dream, The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls
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Jenny Brocker (Author), 2014, Generational shift and the American Dream in the Novels of Jeannette Walls, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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