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Novel Reflections: The American Dream

NOVEL REFLECTIONS ON THE AMERICAN DREAM considers 20th-century authors and the novels that illuminate society's inequities, limitations, and heartbreaks.

In 1938, the SAN FRANCISCO NEWS hired John Steinbeck to cover the desperate conditions wrought by the Great Depression in California's Central Valley. Finding entire communities devastated by disease and hunger, Steinbeck was enraged. The experience compelled him to write THE GRAPES OF WRATH, confronting an inconvenient truth about the American dream: hard work and virtue do not guarantee success. When it was published in 1939, THE GRAPES OF WRATH was accused of being false, offensive, and communist. It sold out immediately.

Steinbeck's powerful tale is one of seven seminal works of fiction explored in NOVEL REFLECTIONS ON THE AMERICAN DREAM. Directed and written by Michael Epstein, this special two-hour presentation of the acclaimed AMERICAN MASTERS series premieres Wednesday, April 4 at 9 pm (ET) on PBS (check local listings). The film, a production of Thirteen/WNET New York, is narrated by the award-winning actress Patricia Clarkson (SIX FEET UNDER; GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK).

NOVEL REFLECTIONS ON THE AMERICAN DREAM explores the characters, plots, and themes of seven novels that deal with wealth, poverty, and the nature of success and failure in America. In an exploration that moves from the turn of the 20th century into progressively more contemporary surroundings -- and reflects increasingly diverse voices -- passages from each book are dramatized through haunting still photography that is inventively animated and coupled with original and archival footage. Woven throughout the dramatized excerpts and evocative images is insightful commentary from literary scholars and authors Gloria Naylor, James Atlas, Julia Alvarez, Erica Jong, and Gish Jen.

NOVEL REFLECTIONS begins with Theodore Dreiser's 1900 novel SISTER CARRIE, in which Carrie Meeber leaves her impoverished small town for Chicago, climbs the ladder of success, and eventually finds fame as a Broadway actress. But she does so in a way that scandalized Dreiser's audience. Carrie Meeber is not a woman of virtue -- her success comes through a series of affairs -- and in 1900 that simple fact was enough to turn Dreiser's publisher, Frank Doubleday, against the book.

Dreiser's vision is contrasted in the film with Edith Wharton's THE HOUSE OF MIRTH. In it, Lily Bart, unlike Carrie Meeber, forfeits financial security by declining to marry a wealthy suitor she does not love. A married male friend offers to help with her finances. But Lily's American dream is shattered when she learns she is expected to return the favor with her body.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, another keen observer of the American dream, revealed the dark side of prosperity in the roaring '20s with THE GREAT GATSBY. His character, Jay Gatsby, flees a humble past, inventing an upper-crust persona in the belief that he can "buy" his lost love, Daisy Buchanan, with money and power.

By contrast, Lutie Johnson's downfall in Ann Petry's THE STREET comes from her stubborn belief that anyone can achieve wealth through hard work. But she is oblivious to the reality of race relations in America, and she pays dearly for her dreams of a better life.

NOVEL REFLECTIONS also touches on the immigrant experience through Ralph Chang, the central character of Gish Jen's acclaimed novel TYPICAL AMERICAN. And then there is Tommy Wilhelm, a failure in life who finds spiritual redemption in Saul Bellow's SEIZE THE DAY. Together these seven works of fiction help define more clearly the very real economic and spiritual struggles that shape millions of American lives.

NOVEL REFLECTIONS ON THE AMERICAN DREAM is a production of Thirteen/WNET New York. It is directed and written by Michael Epstein and produced by Epstein and Julie Sacks. Susan Lacy is the creator and executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS.

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Program Funding
National Endowment for the Humanities logo

Major funding for NOVEL REFLECTIONS ON THE AMERICAN DREAM is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the W.L.S. Spencer Foundation, Mary and Marvin Davidson, Ralph W.Voorhees, Rosalind P. Walter, and Dr. and Mrs. Julius H. Jacobson II.

The American Novel