The american dream and the american nightmare in literature by William D. Howells and Henry James

Seminar Paper, 2008

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

I. The American Dream often turns into the American Nightmare

II. The American Dream and the American Nightmare in literature by William D. Howells and Henry James
1. The Origin of the American Dream
2. Summary and Comparison of William D. Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham and Henry James’ The American
3. Success and Exclusion
3.1. “From rags to riches”
3.2. Negative influence on the personality by business and wealth
3.3. Individual progress
3.4. Irreconcilable differences
3.4.1. Futile endeavors for social acceptance
3.4.2. Antagonism between America and Europe

III. People partially acquire the fruits of the American Dream

IV. Bibliography

I. The American Dream often turns into the American Nightmare

The American Dream has a long history which goes back several hundred years. For some people the American Dream might stand for property, for others it might be the image of freedom and equality. By all means, the American Dream promises a more comfortable life and the realization of the deepest dreams. But reality can turn the American Dream into the American Nightmare. Searching for a well paid job to raise their standards of living, people acknowledge that it is difficult to move up the economic ladder. Longing for equal opportunity, people face discrimination due to their race or social class.

This term paper deals with the origin of the American Dream and two novels The Rise of Silas Lapham written by William D. Howell, originally published in 1885, and The American by Henry James published in 1877. The term paper mainly concentrates on the main characters and their social life and shows that the protagonists, who live the way that the term “American Dream” implies, experience the seamy side of the American Dream.

II. The American Dream and the American Nightmare in literature by William D. Howells and Henry James

1. The origin of the American Dream

Before Europeans had moved to the new continent, the first immigrants living in America were Asians (Jordan, Winthrop D./Leon F. Litwack. The United States, Conquering a Continent Volume 1. California: North West, 2003: 1). In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered an unknown continent which was named “America” after the explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Reports of America visitors connected the impression of America with “a paradise on earth” and the “El Dorado” and thus attracted people (Freese, Peter. The American Dream and the American Nightmare: General Aspects and Literary Examples. Paderborner Universitätsreden 7. Paderborn: Universität-Gesamthochschule, 1987: 8). Terrible and dangerous life situations, daily suffered by men and women during the “Protestant Reformation” , forced victims of “religious persecution” to flee the countries (Freese 1987: 10). Searching for protection, they moved from the “Old World” to the “New World” (15).

America was regarded as a place given by God and “as a city up on a hill” (Freese 1987:10). This new continent should become the “counterpart” of Europe which people, who sailed to America, only associated with negative attributes (9, 12). Since other nations of the world would always keep an eye on America, its inhabitants should act correctly to be an excellent example to Europe. America should become the place of “the most advanced civilisation” and “a new earthly paradise” (Freese 1987:13). Moreover, the young nation of America had to prove that the American way of life would be better than the European one (25).

Primarily, myth, religion and politics fed the American Dream: the belief that the new continent would be “an El Dorado”, the religious idea of America as “the New Jerusalem” as well as the “political promise” to offer “human equality, liberty and brotherhood” to the American citizens (Freese 1987:15). Consequently, optimistic people migrated to America. But when they were striving for living the American Dream, they were confronted with the American Nightmare. Many people “starved to death” (33). Furthermore, the arrival of the white population led to “extermination of the Indians” (33).

The Puritans who came to New England in the 17th century were “English Calvinists” and believed that only people chosen by God were able to “receive salvation” (Jordan/Litwack 2003: 21). But the Puritans did not know whether they were predestined to “be saved” or not (21). According to their opinion, God had chosen people for a particular job and everyone should work hard to succeed. For success could be considered as “a sign of salvation” (Freese 1987: 21).

By improving his life situation a worker could achieve “Progress” and “Success” (19). In addition to these two terms the “founding myth” also consists of other essential elements such as “Manifest Destiny”, “Frontiers”, “Liberty and Equality” and “Multi-Ethnicity” which form the American Dream (19). As God’s chosen nation, which the Americans considered to be themselves, they had a “Manifest Destiny” (19). Therefore, they were obliged “to missionarize and pacify the world” (9, 10), but also to bring the “true American-style democracy” to other nations of the earth (19). Conquering westbound territories, the Americans extended their settlement area, because the territories offered “new opportunities” (34). So, the frontier, which restricted the settlers, was pushed continuously in a westward direction. What is more, the predominant part of the American Dream is the trust in the American democracy which provides individual rights and freedom to every citizen (20). The American Dream also includes the “idea of Multi-Ethnicity” which says that people coming from different continents will create a “new nation” (20)

2. Summary and comparison of William D. Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham and Henry James’ The American

In The Rise of Silas Lapham, a novel written by William D. Howells, the greedy, self-made millionaire Silas Lapham suffers financial ruin, but he makes a moral rise. In order to find suitable matches for his daughter’s marriage he makes the acquaintance of Boston’s upper class society, primarily of the aristocratic Corey family. Except for their son Tom, the Coreys, however, do not accept the Lapham family. Silas’ disastrous businesses ventures lead to his financial fall. After the downfall, Silas changes inasmuch as he starts to make morally acceptable decisions.

Henry James’ novel The American tells the story of the rich businessman Christopher Newman, who moves to Europe to find a wife to marry. His friends acquaint him with the Bellegardes, an aristocratic family. He meets Claire de Cintré, a member of the Bellegardes. Several months later, Christopher and Claire are engaged. But Claire’s family does not approve of Christopher. After futile efforts for Claire, Christopher finally gives up and returns to America.

The stories of the novels are set in the nineteenth century shortly after the Civil War. Both protagonists are nouveau riches. Whereas Silas Lapham is still working to increase his prosperity, Christopher Newman is of the opinion that he has enough money and takes a break from business. Lapham moves together with his family from the rural Vermont to the city of Boston. In Boston, the Lapham family learns that they will never be part of the aristocratic elite. Newman, however, wants to see what Europe has to offer and looks for a woman to share his wealth with. Therefore, he travels to France on his own where he is confronted with the antipathy of an aristocratic family.

3. Success and exclusion

3.1. “From rags to riches”

To begin with, the term “from rags to riches” means that everyone has the “equal opportunity” to improve his or her living conditions and the social status (Freese 1987: 22). Once, the Puritans worshiped God by doing their job. Thus, they considered “hard work” as their duty (21). Then, the Calvinist ideology became less important. Instead, people believed that “God helps them that help themselves” (22). From this citation follows the conclusion that everyone is responsible for his or her own fate. During the “secularization”, being successful did no longer mean deliverance from sin or saving from the power of the evil but it stood for people’s self-centred seeking “for money and status” (43).

Both, Silas Lapham and Christopher Newman have profited from the prospering industry of the post Civil War years and have managed to make a fortune. Lapham is in his mid-fifties and “a fine type of the successful American” according to a journalist (Howells, William D. The Rise of Silas Lapham. New York: Signet Classic, 2002: 2). While talking about his childhood to the journalist, Lapham mainly remembers that his mother always had cared for the family, while his father had “worked like a horse” (4). Silas’ father, Nehemiah Lapham, had discovered the paint mine (5). Encouraged by his wife, Silas risked and succeeded in building a million dollar mineral-paint company starting from the bottom (8, 9). Influenced by his parents who worked hard for the family, but also out of greed, Lapham keeps on doing business, although he already is extremely rich.

In 1861, the Civil War broke out between the “North” and the “South” (Jordan/Litwack 2003: 337). In order to serve in the Civil War, Lapham temporarily shut down his business (Howells 2002: 19). He was wounded and left the war with the rang of the “Colonel” (19). But also Newman fought in the Civil War. During “his four years in the army”, he achieved “a brevet of brigadier-general” (James, Henry. The American. The Novels and Tales of Henry James 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935: 25).

Characterized as “temperate”, athletic, strong, being in good physical shape and having a “liberal looseness” (3), Christopher Newman is “the superlative American” (2). Forced by poverty, Newman has been working since he was 15 years old (123). So, he “sold leather” and “manufactured wash-tubs” (123). He earned a lot of money by fortune and intelligence (26). He regarded life as “an open game” and simply took the risk of the business (27).

By the way, Christopher Newman is named after Christopher Columbus (8). In the fifteenth century, Christopher Columbus left Europe in order to explore an unknown continent. Christopher Newman, however, travels from the “New World” to the “Old World” to discover Europe and to search for a bride (24). Intending to enjoy his wealth in France, he is not sure whether he really can entertain himself (28). For Newman has been used to work the whole day, but also at night (2). Now, the change from employment to leisure seems to be a problem for Newman (28).


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The american dream and the american nightmare in literature by William D. Howells and Henry James
University of Constance
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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American Dream, from rags to riches, old money, new money, nightmare, self-made millionaire, prosperity, success, disadvantage, exclusion, failure, William Howells, Henry James, opportunity, social acceptance, nobility, Old World, New World
Quote paper
Carolina Hein (Author), 2008, The american dream and the american nightmare in literature by William D. Howells and Henry James, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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