by Tyler Mangrum
– The Capitol Hill Times –
The Western United States has long-embodied the spirit of the American Dream and Manifest Destiny – the belief that with enough tenacity and hard work, anyone of any class can rise from poverty to prosperity. It’s a notion that has fueled the growth of the West over the last century and a half, and has placed cities like Seattle on the world stage. But behind the Horatio Alger myth of rags-to-riches success lies the omnipresent question of if such a dream is truly attainable, and if the pursuit of happiness through lofty ambition instead leaves many stumbling into greater misfortune.
That question is the central topic of a literary reading event at Capitol Hill’s Richard Hugo House, called “The Paper Chase,” on November 15, as part of Hugo House’s Lit Series. Authors will present new essays on the American Dream, “keeping up with the Joneses,” and all of the advantages and pitfalls that come with it.
The event will be headlined by the best-selling and award-winning novelist Dorothy Allison, and will also feature authors Stephen Elliott as well as Kirsten Lunstrum, a local short fiction author who teaches at Hugo House. Plus, Levi Fuller, a Seattle-based musician.
Lunstrum, who returned to Seattle in recent years after living in New York, views the topic as one that is close to her own heart as she sees the American Dream as a defining characteristic of the nation, and one central to the literary works that it produces.
“This story is what it is to be Americans, and it really influences the way we think about ourselves,” Lunstrum said. “A lot of us who grow up in the West have this mythology in our blood. Even if we’re less inclined now to view Americanism romantically, this idea of working toward a dream that’s within our reach, even if we really know that it’s not, is something that really interests me in how it plays out in literature.”
When compared to what she saw during her time on the East Coast, Lunstrum looks at Seattle and still sees the remnants of the American Dream that brought people to the region only a few generations prior. While classism has become a recent topic of political campaigns in Seattle, the divisions between rich and poor are not as entrenched as they are in places like New York.
“My sense is that people on the East Coast don’t feel the push of the American Dream as we do in the West,” Lunstrum said. “Our ancestry is a little closer to the edge of the dream than places that are a little older. We’re still figuring ourselves out and are adolescent compared to other places, and that’s what I love about here. Because we’re still working on that identity, I think it is still important to have that identity and figure out what we’re dreaming about.”
Fuller, on the other hand, looks at the topic differently. As a musician, he will be performing three songs about the theme, two drawn from news events across Seattle, like the call for a $15-per-hour minimum wage, and another inspired by the recent story about the wife of a Seattle Mariner stealing the credit card info from another player’s wife, while the third is an account of Fuller’s own personal thoughts about the belief of self-actualization being the only tool necessary in attaining personal wealth in the West.
“I think that it’s harder for folks to get ahead,” Fuller said. “The gap between the rich and poor gets bigger and bigger, and more and more of the nation’s wealth is held by fewer and fewer people. Some people have this sort of bootstrap ideal of achievement, and I don’t think it’s the case. People who are against a living wage seem to think that people are just lazy and don’t deserve a higher minimum wage.”
To Lunstrum, the American Dream is a mixed bag. While the rags-to-riches myth that Alger fostered is one that she sees as largely fictionalized, the drive for achieving something better than what we’ve been given is, if not entirely realistic, a wholly admirable pursuit that makes the West a unique place in the nation and in the world at large.
“It’s not completely good or bad,” Lunstrum said. “I don’t exactly believe that it’s possible to satisfy the ambition of the American Dream. There are not a lot of truly happy stories about the American Dream, or at least not real ones. So I don’t quite believe in it, but I like the idea of trying for it anyway. That part of it is compelling – the searching.”
“The Paper Chase” will be held at Hugo House, located at 1634 11th Avenue, on November 15, at 7:30 p.m. General admission is $25, $20 for members, and $15 for students and seniors.