“All hail, the American Boy!”

A Dismantling of the American Dream

In A Cool Million Nathaniel West parodied the myth of the American Dream through the “dismantling” of Lemuel Pitkin. In “All hail, the American Boy!” (The closing sentence of A Cool Million) Les K. Wright recounts his own would-be “dismantling” as the American Dream reveals itself for it truly is.

The American Dream is a dominant, albeit now waning, myth which began as an ethos based on the ideals of democracy, individual rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality. These ideals, it was widely believed, could be lived in a young democracy recently freed from the constraints of the rigid social, political, and economic hierarchies of Europe. The most long-lasting belief was that hard work was sufficient for social mobility and each generation would rise higher than the previous one. The California Gold Rush gave rise to the California Dream – the ease of instant wealth – which still lives on in the faith Americans place in winning the lottery or being an entrepreneur. All you need is to have the right idea at the right time. Horatio Alger popularized the myth in his “rags to riches” fiction, in which hard work and good faith efforts inevitably lead to material success. What has generally been overlooked is that the success of each of these poor young men turn out to be achieved, not by their own efforts, but rather by the intervention of a wealthy deus ex machina. This is a handy literary device,  rarely happens in real life. 

I grew up in the postwar era that saw an explosion of consumer capitalism. Mass-produced consumer products, from suburban tract houses and cars to frozen TV dinners to eat in front of the TV sets suddenly appearing in every household, advertised the newly expanding middle-class. The GI bill afforded men (and women), who had missed out on higher education while serving their country, the opportunity to catch up. Education was the guaranteed path to social mobility. 

I was born into a working-class family. We did not participate in this new wave of material and social advancement. We remained non-unionized working-class renters.  My father always drove an older used car, which he constantly repaired himself. Color televisions remained too expensive. We never went on vacation. A better-off relative usually paid for the extras, as well as some necessities, that I and my sister received. 

I took the Iowa Test in third grade, and discovered I was bright, very bright. In high school my IQ score ranked me at “near-genius” level. I loved school and was an A student. My parents and I saw that education was clearly my path to a brighter, non-working-class future. 

So, that is the path I took. I garnered academic awards in high school. I was able to spend a year in West Germany as a high school exchange student. I won a National Merit scholarship. My future looked bright.

But I was taken in completely by the myth. I returned from a year in West Germany living with an upper middle-class family, which gave me a different perspective on my family’s social class. My access to higher education would allow me to move on and away from that. My passion was for foreign languages and literature. I entered college with a proficiency in German other undergraduates would only attain through classroom learning by the end of their senior year. At the recommendation of my high school German teacher, I had applied to Middlebury College in Vermont. It had the reputation as the best school for undergraduate training in foreign languages. I was accepted. But the financial aid package I was offered, including two scholarships, work-study, and student loans, still did not come close to covering the cost for me to attend Middlebury. I had to decline the offer. Only many years later would a former professor of mine tell me that this was a common practice among private colleges – to accept poor students in the full knowledge they would not be able to afford to attend. Later I also came to understand that a degree from Middlebury almost assuredly would have opened the doors to an Ivy League education for me, which would have gained me access to the privileged world reserved for the entitled few. 

I chose to go to SUNY Albany. Although I had two scholarships, I quickly found out I also needed to work part-time to make ends meet. It was the best place a working-class boy could hope to go to. At the time it was the flagship school of the SUNY system and was informally known as the “Berkeley of the East.” 

I came out shortly after the Stonewall riots. Navigating homophobic society as an openly gay man was challenging. Navigating academe as a working-class academic, another world where I was unwelcome, was complicated by my homosexuality. As my personality, proclivities, interests and involvements, both personal and professional, took shape, I found myself an eccentric “bohemian.” Academia, it seemed, would allow me the space to be myself. 


“Bobos,” as the Apple ad enthuses, are “the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers.”  With the rise of Big Tech, the highly educated creative class, as David Brooks reports in “Blame the Bobos,” found secure and lucrative jobs. Their tastes and employment drew them to the major cities. With their wealth they raised the cost of urban living beyond most of the of the middle class. During the 1970s and 1980s gay men migrated to major cities like San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, and Boston creating gay neighborhoods where they could live in safety. The cost of living at that time was cheap, cultural life was rich, and  job opportunities were great. In 1979 I moved from Tübingen, West Germany, where I was pursuing a PhD, to live in this burgeoning gay Castro District in San Francisco. Social and cultural innovation was everywhere. The future looked very bright. But over time the newly gentrified urban gay neighborhoods became too expensive, and newly wealthy (mostly) heterosexual Bobos moved in, displacing the gay urban pioneers. I became one of the economically dispossessed. 

I eventually earned my doctorate at UC Berkeley. By then I had gotten a solid education. According to the American Dream, pulling myself up by my bootstraps and taking the path of self-betterment through education, I should have been poised to start an academic career. My plan was to teach German and Russian at a small liberal arts college. When I was a freshman in 1971, this was a highly employable (and uncommon) skill set. By the time I graduated PhD in 1993, the Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Soviet Union had collapsed. Most German and Russian departments had been dissolved. My career chances had evaporated before I even got started.

Parallel to my academic training, and in tandem to my coming out, I researched and read widely in what little gay history and literature I could ferret out in the 1970s. Perhaps more wishful thinking than practical, my Plan B was to teach gay literature and make a small contribution to what I hoped would become the of field of Gay and Lesbian Studies.  (I had observed student agitation for Black Studies and Puerto Rican Studies in Albany.)  As I neared the end of my doctoral studies, gay and lesbian literary studies had emerged, but my approach was suddenly old-fashioned, superseded by newly emergent queer theory. I was as employable as a cooper. Using my degrees in Comparative Literature (often interpreted in academe as “glorified English”), I marketed myself as a professor of English.

A close lesbian friend at an open-admissions private college in Boston, who was well acquainted with my situation, saw to it that my c.v. was placed at the top of the pile of applications for a new English position there. She had warned me about the poor working conditions there. Academic standards were very low. The faculty had little power, usually overruled by the will of the board and senior administrators. The college was owned and run by a family of wannabe Boston Brahmins, who used the college as a family cash machine. For liberal Boston, campus culture was surprisingly conservative, and sometimes openly homophobic. Friends on the West Coast thought I taught at a conservative Christian college. Faculty salaries were very low – so low that NEASC, the accrediting agency, threatened to pull the college’s accreditation if our salaries were not brought into line with national averages. As real estate prices escalated in Boston, I was forced to move to an outer suburb an hour’s drive from Boston, where I could afford to live. When I parted ways with the college,  after two large raises, my salary was still not quite half the national average for an associate professor of English. 

After eleven years of surviving the relentless toxic work environment of the college I had a major nervous breakdown and an HIV-related illness. I realized this was not what I wanted to be doing on the day of my death. So I quit and moved back to San Francisco, knowing this was ending my academic career. A couple of years later the college folded, victim to the endless mismanagement and corruption. The entire tenured faculty found itself unemployed overnight.


Over the many years of my graduate education I had taken a couple of breaks and explored making a career change. I found survival jobs to keep a roof over my head. I explored options that did not require significant education and further student debt. Both times I opted to “follow my passion” and return to graduate school. When I graduated PhD and could not land a single job interview, I again attempted a career change. I sought to start over as a technical writer with a high-tech company in the Silicon Valley. As I had done before in other attempts, I went to many informational interviews. A technical writer friend got me an interview with his company, but his boss, a manager, rejected me because (as my friend reported) she was afraid I was really after her job. Then a new boyfriend, also a technical writer, lined me up for a job interview. However, he committed suicide and his company cut off all communication with me. 

Then came the Boston teaching job. When that ended and I moved back to San Francisco, I had set up job interviews at two San Francisco colleges. Both interviews went well, but I did not get a job offer. Instead, in both cases, the college hired their inside candidate, whom they had planned to hire all along. This is a common practice in academe, at least in the humanities. The hiring committee goes through a big, and expensive, show of interviewing the strongest candidates, knowing they will not hire any of them, to give the appearance of following the law. I was not granted an interview for any other job I applied for. If any reason was given, it was “you do not meet our needs at this time.” If pressed further, the answer hidden behind that was “you are overqualified and under-experienced.”

Not yet old enough to retire and ever hopeful of finding gainful employment, I turned to an agency in San Francisco that helped long-term AIDS survivors return to the job market. After much counseling and testing I began a new career search. My first goal was to become a documentary filmmaker. My counselor dismissed that out of hand. I next applied to a local college to become a licensed MSW.  In the middle of my application process the college acknowledged it was on the verge of bankruptcy. They offered the financial help of a student from Bhutan, who claimed to come from a wealthy family. He proved to be a fraud and the college closed.

I then followed through on two alternative careers testing had shown to be good matches for me. I spent a year in seminary and realized I would accrue student loan debt I would never be able to pay off. There were far too many unemployed priests already. And food for thought, the very first thing I was taught in seminary was that almost everything I had been taught growing up in my parents’ church was not true. So many of the teachings of the church were things formulated and decided by committee 300 years after the death of Jesus.

I then earned a high school teaching credential and went on the job market, first in California, and then in New York State. Again, I never got a single interview, even to become a teacher in the prison system. (Prisons have a hard time filling these positions.) As I then found myself being rejected from minimum-wage jobs, it became clear that I was now facing illegal discrimination. Not only was I “overqualified and under-experienced,” but also “too old” to learn a new job. 

I am now officially retired. I moved back to the working-class community I grew up in and had once escaped from. I never planned for retirement as I had been diagnosed with AIDS in the early years of that epidemic – I never expected to see 30, let alone 40 or 50. By 50 it was too late to start planning. I have never owned a house or condo. I live in low-income public housing. A a gay man of my generation I never had children. I am the black sheep of my extended family, so I do not have family to fall back on. 

“Genteel poverty” is a term applied to the “undeserving poor,” who have fallen (far) down the economic ladder through no fault of their own. Americans generally believe poor Americans are  “deservingly poor.” They are too stupid and too lazy to help themselves and they only have themselves to blame. As I fell below the official poverty line, many of my (now former) middle-class friends have distanced themselves from me. In some cases I am no longer able to keep up with their level of “respectability.” In some cases, they are embarrassed for me or ashamed for me. 

Sadly, for them, I am embarrassed and ashamed for them. I have accomplished much in a difficult life. I continue to respect myself. I hold myself with dignity. As one academic mentor once told me, “You are a survivor, not a victim.”

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