Contradictions in the American Dream from a First-Generation American Writer

By on Monday, April 7th, 2014 at 9:02 am

My grandfather, Luigino Adamo, sold most of what he had in the summer of 1957 to buy four one way tickets for a boat to America. He landed with only the Italian language and a fifth grade education. Born in the southern Italian farming town of San Mango D’Aquino, Calabria, his first destination was a relative’s farm in Pennsylvania. After working with them for three months without seeing financial results, Luigino took his family to Brooklyn and set about finding work. As an uneducated laborer, his options revolved around factory work, plumber assistantships, and gardener positions. He worked, saved, and looked toward his future. By 1958, he acquired a part-time, seasonal job in a cemetery that would eventually turn into a full-time gravedigger position and then a heavy equipment operator.

My grandparents had high hopes for their children; they valued the American dream and all that it promised. They wanted their children to be educated, and they wanted them to have the opportunity to own property and a home of their own. To Italian-Americans during this time, a better life “meant finding steady employment in the hope of buying a home—a symbol of the family in Italian culture.”1 My grandparents worked and saved diligently, obtaining this symbol for themselves and their then three sons. When the opportunity presented itself, they bought their first home: a six-family house, allowing them not only to have a place of their own but also to collect rent to pay the mortgage. They eventually went on to buy multiple properties. Luigino worked at the cemetery during the week and managed the building on weekends. This was his dream—to work, to buy, to prosper. My grandparents eventually moved to the suburbs of New Jersey, buying a home with three acres of land to farm, plant fruit trees, and host Sunday dinners. At the age of 56, Luigino left his job at the cemetery. At that point, he owned two buildings, over ninety apartments, and a delicatessen that he and my grandmother managed.

The same cemetery that employed my grandfather employed my father. He started mowing lawns as a kid and now is the vice-president of sales and administration. He was able to move up in a company without a college degree through hard work and dedication. However, he now lives in suburban New Jersey, driving over an hour to the cemetery, a commute that seriously affects his health. Growing up, I listened to my father complain at the dinner table about his job, his commute, and how he felt stuck. My mother held a part-time job and thus didn’t receive the health benefits he did. He lacked a degree to gain new employment that would provide the benefits he needed to take care of his family while still preserving his own health, both mental and physical. Sitting at this table night after night, I began to value many of the things my grandfather did. Hard work was certainly an admirable quality. Saving was another since my parents provided a comfortable life for my sister and me without a very large income.

However, I learned another value at the dinner table, one that neither my father nor grandfather did; I discovered that passion and joy for a career was just as essential as a home. I did not want to be unhappy at a job. I did not want to have that conversation at dinner every night. I love and respect my father for his work ethic and devotion to his family, yet I do not want to sacrifice my own desires or health in this way. My father does not want this for me either. And a big difference between my father and me is that I am American, born and raised.

This passion for a career, a truly contemporary American idea, pushed me to graduate from college and graduate school. My grandfather was always very proud of me because I did well in my studies. Having a granddaughter that not only finished college but went on to obtain a master’s degree is certainly the very essence of the American dream. This passion brings me to my three teaching and tutoring jobs, all of which I love, all of which my grandfather praised regularly. Finally, this passion brings me to my writing—my desire to find fulfillment and self in language and art.

My parents were taught that they should go to school and get a job to obtain a home and a family. That is what they did. Their parents were taught they could provide “a better life” for their children with hard work. That is what they did. I was taught I could be anything I wanted. So where has the symbol of Italian culture gone? Because, unfortunately, my grandfather did not live long enough to see any grandchildren purchase a house.

Today, concepts of family and a home are at odds with the concept of an American self. Peter Kramer discusses a similar topic in “Divorce and Our National Value,” asserting, “Autonomy is the characteristic American virtue… Once both partners are allowed to be autonomous, the continuation of marriage becomes more truly voluntary. In this sense, an increase in divorce signals social progress.”2 This conception of marriage and divorce describes my own struggle with an aspiration to acquire creative fulfillment as well as a home and sense of stability. This notion also begs the question: Is the increase in unemployed 20-somethings or 20-somethings living with parents “a signal of social progress,” too? The symbol of buying a house and being financially secure then seems to work against the particular path I have chosen. My career does not assure upward mobility. It does not provide health benefits either.

Despite my instability, my family and friends support my choices, and I do not doubt that my grandfather was and father is proud of me because I do work hard, save money, and plan for my future. However, if I do not spend enough time with other writers and adjuncts—or any others who also stray from traditional timelines—I start questioning my own choices more readily. I find myself saying I don’t know where I will be next year far too frequently, a mantra unnecessary among artists. I also feel the need to prove to friends that my job is not steady or high paying. In part, this is to elucidate their confusion when they mistakenly assume I make big bucks simply because some students call me professor.

On the other hand, I seem to be desperately trying to showcase my efforts to fit some cliché image of a person who sacrifices themselves for art. This anxiety then increases when questioning if such pursuits make an American writer merely a caricature of an artist: someone vapid and selfish. The character of Hannah Horvath from HBO’s Girls exemplifies such a portrayal, as the series has been depicted as having an “aesthetic of egocentrism.”3 More specifically, the media view and, often times, backlash of Ms. Horvath underscores this outlook. I often cringe when my friends equate me with this self-absorbed 20-something simply because she is a writer and “kind of smart.” I would, of course, relish in a comparison between myself and Lena Dunham, a wildly successful young artist and millionaire, but that does not occur.

I often have to remind myself that I chose this particular path and, more importantly, that I’m happier because of it. It’s easy to forget this though when promotions, weddings, and houses crop up more and more. Conservative timelines appear to be a thing of the past—or people often preach that it is, at least. However, once one does not follow the series of events in chronological order, especially as a woman, the timeline suddenly starts looming, bright and shiny, begging to be consumed like the colorful end cap displays in supermarkets.

Is it the American dream, or the American ego that thinks we should all be doing what we want? Should we pursue careers that satisfy us creatively and emotionally as well as, or maybe even in lieu of, financial security? As my father’s daughter and my grandfather’s granddaughter, I say yes and no simultaneously. I know I am still young and have time to climb American ladders in ways I might not see at this time, just as my father probably did not see himself in his current position while mowing lawns. But I am also highly aware of my responsibility as a first-generation American woman. American virtues then seem in conflict with the American dream—a dream that has long been under scrutiny and parody in this country but that still exists as the ideal.

1 Dorazio, Cristina. “The Impact of Ethnic Identity on Attitudes Towards Counseling for Italian-Americans.” Columbia University, 2013. PDF.

2 Kramer, Peter. “Divorcing and Our National Value.” Reading Literature and Writing Argument 4th edition. Ed. Missy James and Alan P. Merickel. New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2011. 486-9. Print.

3 Juzwiak, Rich. “Now That We’ve Seen Everything: A Girls Reappraisal.” Gawker.com. June 2012. Web. 29 March 2014.

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