Dostoyevsky: Why American dream was never a bargain

Nicolas Bonnal |

The American dream…We have been told for two centuries that America was the awesome land of dreams and achievement, and that the rest of the world was a mere failure; that in Europe everyone was starving while in America everything was lush and green. What if it was all a lie? If the conquest of the west was a nightmare for those who lived there, and if the life for the poor had been very hard, and not only during the interminable and unsolved crisis of 1929? As a libertarian French economist wrote recently, 90% of the American people would be considered poor in the so despised Europe, if only we included criteria like the cost of private health or education in the calculation of American way of life.

I don’t mean to be provocative. Many superior minds were already provocative in respect of this humble reality: American dream never was a bargain.

Let’s start from the seventeenth century and the founding fathers. Never forget that the American climate is one of the wildest in the world, that one could hardly survive, and that the American growth is mainly due to the second industrial revolution and the demographic explosion in Europe during the last third of nineteenth century! Otherwise, the living conditions were abominable and many times colons died during wintertime. So, how could one be so “eyes wide shut” to get there? The great sociologist Daniel Boorstyn, in his wonderful rhetoric of democracy, gives us the key:

There was never a more outrageous or unscrupulous or more ill-informed advertising campaign than that by which the promoters for American colonies brought settlers here.

Advertisement is the language of America. Advertisement is an arguing technique producing addiction and consumerism, including in religious matters (Protestantism and Puritanism). The development of printing means the development of lies and British extremist politics during cromwellian times (which are allegedly the model of Orwell’s Oceania!). And thus, to populate America, this far, cold and deserted land, you had to lie a little bit:

Hopeful overstatements, half-truths, and downright lies… gold and silver, fountains of youth, plenty of fish, venison without limit, all of course were promised…

Despite this art of lying, and considering the impossible conditions of living in a pre-technical world, we understand why there were only three millions Americans at the beginning of the nineteenth century, this golden age of their civilization and literature. The awkward difficulties of the American reality were thus appreciated by our favourite witness, Alexis de Tocqueville. At the time of Tocqueville, there is no European mass immigration. Yet there is an American immigration to the west, whose harshness shocks French traveller and writer:

Many of these adventurers, who rush so boldly onwards in pursuit of wealth, were already in the enjoyment of a competency in their own part of the country. They take their wives along with them, and make them share the countless perils and privations which always attend the commencement of these expeditions. I have often met, even on the verge of the wilderness, with young women, who after having been brought up amidst all the comforts of the large towns of New England, had passed, almost without any intermediate stage, from the wealthy abode of their parents to a comfortless hovel in a forest.

The conditions are thus equal to those lived by John Ford’s heroes and pioneers:

Fever, solitude, and a tedious life had not broken the springs of their courage. Their features were impaired and faded, but their looks were firm: they appeared to be at once sad and resolute.

What motivated these sacrifices? I should say idealism, in a word. America is an idealistic, somewhat fanatical country, run by a wishful thinking and a fascination for the bible, and the people there enjoy blinding they eyes: in Utopia the dream is still to come!

I’m not kidding, I’m just referring to the greatest genius of literature, Dostoyevsky, who describes an amazing episode of his possessed’ life. They come to America, then:

“We hired ourselves out as workmen to an exploiter; there were six of us Russians working for him students, even landowners coming from their estates, some officers, too, and all with the same grand object. Well, so we worked, sweated, wore ourselves out; Kirillov and I were exhausted at last; fell ill went away we couldn’t stand it. Our employer cheated us when he paid us off; instead of thirty dollars, as he had agreed, he paid me eight and Kirillov fifteen; he beat us, too, more than once. So then we were left without work, Kirillov and I, and we spent four months lying on the floor in that little town. He thought of one thing and I thought of another.”

Dostoyevsky just explains that any bad condition of living in America is well received for the country is the land of light and freedom and highly motivated people. Everything is thus deified by the possessed; it is good just because it is American (it’s like Vietnamese and Iraqi bombings…) and because the other men are simply children.

On the contrary, Kirillov and I made up our minds from the first that we Russians were like little children beside the Americans, and that one must be born in America, or at least live for many years with Americans to be on a level with them. And do you know: if we were asked a dollar for a thing worth a farthing, we used to pay it with pleasure, in fact with enthusiasm. We approved of everything: spiritualism, lynch-law, revolvers and tramps.

The slaves-adventurers are thus labelled “Men made of paper” by Shatov. With his habitual and implacable shrewdness, Dostoyevsky understands that any American trait will be celebrated by the adorers of Uncle Sam. He seizes that in the future America will fascinate the minds of many, even if this country will attain its status and wealth thanks to European wars and communism, communism that will delay the development of Russia (next world power in 1914) and China. In this meaning yes America was a lucky place.

Let us conclude: we are used to assert that a man fascinated by the presently fraying America is a liberal. And what is a liberal for Dostoyevsky?

“Our Russian liberal is a flunkey before everything, and is only looking for some one whose boots he can clean.”

In France and in Europe today, we have a lot of flunkeys, and, would say the great Will, an American dream still strutting and fretting his hour upon a stage…