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  • Writer's pictureDonald Iannone

Mark Twain and Upton Sinclair on the American Dream

The American Dream, a core aspect of American identity and culture, represents the belief in the opportunity for success and upward mobility through hard work, regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. Mark Twain and Upton Sinclair, two prominent authors, offered distinct perspectives on this concept through their writings, reflecting their times, personal beliefs, and observations of American society.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, a humorist and social critic, is best known for his novels "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (1876) and "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1884). Through these works, Twain explored themes of freedom, individuality, and the inherent flaws in society's morals and institutions. Twain's representation of the American Dream can be seen as complex and ironic:

  1. Individualism and Freedom: Twain celebrated the idea of the self-made man through characters like Huck Finn, who embodies the spirit of adventure and the quest for freedom. This aligns with the American Dream's emphasis on personal success and autonomy.

  2. Critique of Society and Hypocrisy: While Twain admired the potential for individual achievement, he was also critical of the societal norms and practices that contradicted the ideals of equality and justice. "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" exposes the hypocrisy and inherent racism in American society, questioning the attainability of the American Dream for all.

  3. Humor and Satire: Twain used humor and satire to critique society and the idea of the American Dream. His works suggest skepticism about the dream's accessibility and question the moral integrity of a society that excludes certain groups from achieving it.

Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair, a novelist and social reformer, is best known for his 1906 novel "The Jungle," which exposed the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants in the United States' meatpacking industry. Sinclair's work is often associated with his critique of capitalism and his socialist beliefs:

  1. Critique of Capitalism and the American Dream: Sinclair's "The Jungle" presents a starkly different view of the American Dream, portraying it as a cruel illusion for the working class. The novel reveals how industrial capitalism exploits workers and prevents them from achieving any form of success or happiness, challenging the notion that hard work alone can lead to success.

  2. Social Reform and Activism: Sinclair aimed to promote social and economic reform through his writing. He highlighted the need for collective action and government intervention to protect workers and ensure a fairer distribution of wealth and opportunities.

  3. Realism and Advocacy: Unlike Twain's use of humor and satire, Sinclair employed a realistic and often graphic portrayal of life's hardships to advocate for change. His depiction of the immigrant experience and critique of the American Dream were meant to elicit sympathy and support for reform.

Comparison and Contrast

Perspective on the American Dream: Twain offers a more individualistic and nuanced critique of the American Dream, focusing on personal freedom and societal hypocrisy. Sinclair, on the other hand, presents a collective critique, emphasizing the systemic barriers that prevent many from achieving the dream.

Method of Critique: Twain uses humor, satire, and irony to critique the American Dream and society, whereas Sinclair employs realism and graphic depictions of exploitation and suffering.

End Goal: Twain's works prompt reflection on the moral and ethical foundations of the American Dream, while Sinclair's writing aims to incite social and economic reform.

Both authors contributed significantly to the American literary tradition, offering insights that continue to resonate and provoke discussion about the American Dream and its complexities.

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