Visions of America Quotes
How we cite our quotes:
Of these older people many wear clothing reminiscent in some detail of home – an embroidered waistcoat or stomacher, or a gaily colored handkerchief, or a coat with large cuffs and fancy buttons. All these things are carefully avoided by the young, most of whom have learned to speak English and to affect the latest style of clothing. The girls wear ready-made dresses or shirt waists, and some of them look quite pretty. Some of the young men you would take to be Americans, of the type of clerks, but for the fact that they wear their hats in the room. (1.23)
One of the most common visions of America is that it is a melting pot: millions of people from different countries arrive on these shores and eventually assimilate into the dominant American culture. While Sinclair doesn't actually use the term "melting pot" (primarily because that phrase had not been popularized by the time The Jungle was published), the idea here is the same. The older generations of Lithuanian immigrants are still wearing "clothing reminiscent in some detail of home," while the younger kids "have learned to speak English and to affect the latest style of clothing."
In the meantime there was going on in another corner of the room an anxious conference between Teta Elzbieta and Dede Antanas, and a few of the more intimate friends of the family. A trouble was come upon them. The veselija is a compact, a compact not expressed, but therefore only the more binding upon all. Every one's share was different – and yet every one knew perfectly well what his share was, and strove to give a little more. Now, however, since they had come to the new country, all this was changing; it seemed as if there must be some subtle poison in the air that one breathed here – it was affecting all the young men at once. They would come in crowds and fill themselves with a fine dinner, and then sneak off. (1.31)
Teta Elzbieta insists particularly on maintaining the practices of the old country: she feels that it would be a social shame if they did not host a wedding feast for Ona and Jurgis. Back in Lithuania, though, the guests wind up paying for these feasts (the "veselija"), who bring monetary gifts for the newly married couple. Here in America, however, the culture of individualism means that people will take advantage even of these wedding feasts by eating and drinking and then sneaking off without paying. So, Ona and Jurgis are on the hook for yet more money before they have even started their married lives together. Yet, we have to ask, is it fair to assume that everyone will be equally familiar with these customs in "the new country"? Teta Elzbieta's inflexible traditionalism is also at fault for this financial disaster.
Ona might have married and left them, but she would not, for she loved Teta Elzbieta. It was Jonas who suggested that they all go to America, where a friend of his had gotten rich. He would work, for his part, and the women would work, and some of the children, doubtless – they would live somehow. Jurgis, too, had heard of America. That was a country where, they said, a man might earn three rubles a day; and Jurgis figured what three rubles a day would mean, with prices as they were where he lived, and decided forthwith that he would go to America and marry, and be a rich man in the bargain. In that country, rich or poor, a man was free, it was said; he did not have to go into the army, he did not have to pay out his money to rascally officials – he might do as he pleased, and count himself as good as any other man. (2.7)
So, this is an indirect articulation of the American Dream: in the States, you can make good money, and "rich or poor, a man [is] free." Sadly, the rest of the novel is about debunking this view. What is your perception of the American Dream? Is this an ideal that Americans still find compelling? Has it been replaced by other national ideals?