A number of texts discussed for this course communicate the American rags to riches mythology, wherein poverty in childhood cause a select person to become incredibly wealthy through hard work and innovation: the ultimate self-made man, or woman, in some cases. In this essay, I will examine the rags to riches myths exemplified by three books, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass (It should be noted that all citations will represent the page number of Kindle e-reader editions, making some page numbers appear exaggerated). My central claim in examining these three works is that childhood inferiority and compensation mechanisms play a huge part in the rags to riches mythology that has become such a fundamental part of American literature.
The concept of the drive for wealth and success beginning in childhood can be seen in all three aforementioned works. In The Great Gatsby, a young German-American named James Gatz is so disgusted by his poverty that he rebels against his old life to create fantastic new one. Gatz’s parents were, to his mind, “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people –his imagination of them had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself… He invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end,” (Fitzgerald, 98). Similarly, in The House of Mirth, a young Lily Bart is influenced by her mother, who “hated dinginess, and it was her fate to be dingy… ‘People can’t marry you if they don’t see you –and how can they see you in these holes where we’re stuck?’ That was the burden of her lament; and her last adjuration to her daughter was to escape from dinginess if she could,” (Wharton, 535). And in Narrative, a teenaged Frederick Bailey, still a slave at the time, found himself motivated to become educated and free after a chance encounter with literacy. After overhearing his master scold his wife for teaching a slave the alphabet, Douglass asserts that “these words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments that lay slumbering… From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom,” (Douglass, 45).
Though the texts run the gamut from antebellum times to the Roaring Twenties, from factual autobiography to fiction, they express a fundamental trope that can be seen again and again in such literature: that discontent at a young age leads to a continual yearning for greater and greater success, with success defined by the young, distressed self and carried through the entirety of one’s life. In two cases –Jay Gatsby and Frederick Douglass– early encounters with the world of success and comfort motivate the lead characters to break out of their current circumstances. Similarly, the inability of the lead characters to outgrow, change, or update their definitions of success –Lily Bart and Jay Gatsby– leads to their ruin.
Upon reflecting on the importance of childhood in the scheme of the rags to riches myth, it becomes apparent that motivation, like the ill-defined American Dream, has both a positive and negative side. Sometimes, aspiration can lead to spectacular triumphs, as seen in the life of Frederick Douglass, who went on to become the most famous black man of his time and an outspoken advocate of human rights and equality. In other cases, the failure to moderate one’s expectations or address one’s personal problems allows ambition and hubris to ruin lives, as seen in The House of Mirth and The Great Gatsby. Because Lily Bart is forever seeking to escape the dinginess of her younger self, she fears withdrawing from the rat race of success and marriage. Similarly, Jay Gatsby’s fanatical obsession with bringing his boyhood fantasy to life alienates those close to him and destroys his chance of ever being with his love, Daisy Buchanan.
The idea of childhood in the larger schema of the rags to riches myth can be seen reflected in both the fact and fiction of today’s contemporary society. President Barack Obama often hearkens back to his days as a boy from a family of modest means, eking out a living in Kansas and Hawaii while dreaming of bigger things. Some of the most influential and highest-selling musical acts of the 21st century, including rappers Eminem and Jay-Z, use their music to recall growing up in poor and dysfunctional families, in communities beset by crime, violence, and racism. And the popularity of modern movies like Slumdog Millionaire, The Pursuit of Happyness, American Gangster, and The Great Gatsby all attest to the popularity of this particular strain of the pervasive rags to riches myth.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2002. Print.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.
New York: Random House, 2000. Print.