Course Spotlight: American Dreams & Nightmares in 20th-Century Literature

First-year students study how culture and context influence our values, fears, and aspirations.

Students in Lucy Littler's American Dreams & Nightmares in 20th-Century Literature course explore Zora Neale Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville to gain a better understanding of the African-American community depicted in Their Eyes Were Watching God. (Photo by Scott Cook) Students in Lucy Littler's American Dreams & Nightmares in 20th-Century Literature course explore Zora Neale Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville to gain a better understanding of the African-American community depicted in Their Eyes Were Watching God. (Photo by Scott Cook)

The American Dream. Living it—let alone pursuing it—has been inherently more of a nightmare for some than others.

In 1931, when author James Truslow Adams coined the phrase, he wrote of “a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement … regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

But how has that concept played out for various groups over time? Are Adams’ ideals in practice today? And how can we apply lessons learned in 20th-century literature to better understand our place in modern culture?

First-year students at Rollins College are exploring these questions, while quite literally tracing the steps of a local icon who forged her own version of the American Dream.

Course Title

American Dreams & Nightmares in 20th-Century Literature

Instructor

Lucy Littler, lecturer, Department of English

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Description

The American Dream has meant a variety of things to the nation as a whole and to its individual citizens, but it is most often associated with a faith-like allegiance to values such as liberty, wealth, education, family, and even fame.

In Littler’s class, 17 students are dissecting the nuances of this foundational concept, considering the often problematic relationship it produces between self and community. Books like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust—coupled with pop music from artists like Toby Keith, Gloria Estefan, and Jay Z—illustrate how culture acts as a way people see the world around them.

What do we fear and value? What do we aspire to achieve? What is the political, social, and historical context in which we attempt to make our dreams reality?

“I’m trying to get them to see that these ideas and novels aren’t dead words on a page,” Littler says, “but living and breathing things that connect to their lives in a temporary way.”

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Snapshot

On February 12, students traveled to Zora Neale Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville to gain a better understanding of the African-American community depicted in Their Eyes Were Watching God, her critically acclaimed work of fiction from 1937.

Starting at the museum that bears her name, they visited town hall and other nearby historical spots on a guided tour, walking the same streets as protagonist Janie Crawford and her second husband, Joe Starks.

“It was a short 10-minute drive that really crossed a lot of miles in other ways, metaphorically speaking,” Littler said. “It was definitely a different world than what most of us are used to in Winter Park.”

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

21st-Century Applications

Another way Littler helps students personalize the subject matter is by having them post “selfie and community” photos to the class Instagram account.

For week two’s “hope” assignment, anthropology and classics major Hailey Mills ’18 shared a photo and caption of a blooming flower.

“The hope for a new life, for a better life, for a new self—the hope for greater things. It is the driving force of the American Dream, and it persists when all seems bleak, when the dream slips into a nightmare,” Mills wrote. “It has driven me to work harder, and it has driven individuals in America to do the same, to go on until they achieve. In this way, we better our communities as we better ourselves.”

Quick Fact

James Truslow Adams, a businessman and historian from Brooklyn, New York, first wrote about the American Dream 85 years ago in his book The Epic of America. His three-volume series The Founding of New England won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)