A Deconstruction of the American Dream
The Young Man from Atlanta opens with Will Kidder, age 64, sitting in his office at the produce firm for which he has worked since his early twenties, examining the plans for a luxurious new home he has just finished building for himself and his wife, Lily Dale Kidder. When his colleague Tom questions him about the extravagance of the new house, Will answers ‘‘I want the best. The biggest and the best. I always have. Since I was a boy. We were dirt poor after my father died and I said to myself then I’m not going to live like this the rest of my life.’’
This short bit of dialogue succinctly and clearly establishes Will Kidder as a rags-to-riches character—that is, a person who has moved from poverty to material wealth and, therefore, happiness and fulfillment. The rags-to-riches character is a type that is echoed throughout American folklore and history—from the true story of Andrew Carnegie to the wildly successful early twentieth-century formulaic novels by Horatio Alger—and reflects the ideal of the American dream, which is that anyone, no matter what his/her background, has the equal opportunity to attain financial success. Kidder has indeed attained the American dream of material success. His attainment of wealth is merely a prologue to the plot of the play: Kidder’s complete loss of that wealth and financial security and how this loss changes his life. In effect, Foote creates a riches-to-rags story, rather than a rags-to-riches story, thereby accomplishing a deconstruction of that mainstay of American storytelling. By turning upside-down the rags-to-riches convention, Foote effectively deconstructs two intertwined ideologies that it presumes: the virtuousness of the competitive drive for the acquisition of material wealth and the value placed on material wealth itself as the ultimate form of happiness. The pursuit of the happiness promised by wealth has not necessarily made the Kidders happy and has instead led them to emotional losses in their relationships with each other.
The opportunity to compete freely for business is an essential component of a free market economy like that of the United States. In the formulaic American rags-to-riches stories, the equal opportunity to compete for wealth is an assumed constant, and, most importantly, the ability to make the most of opportunity is regarded as a moral virtue and is therefore rewarded with material wealth. Will is a wholehearted believer in opportunism and the free competitive economic system. In the opening scene, Will admires the plans for his extravagant new home, as if basking in the wealth he has managed to amass during his career at the Sunshine Southern Wholesale Grocery. Will has been rewarded with wealth for succeeding in the competitive market. He says to his colleague Tom
We have the best products in the city of Houston, and those we don’t have we just have to aggressively compete for. I’m a competitor, son. A born competitor. Nothing fires me up like competition. . . . My brother, may his soul rest in peace, wasn’t [competitive]. He didn’t have a competitive bone in his body. All he ever thought about was where his next drink of whiskey was coming from.
Will’s belief and participation in the system reveals his unquestioned belief not only that the economic system is morally and ethically sound but also that subscribing to it is a guaranteed way to attain financial success. On the other hand, he blames a lack of financial success on a lack of competitive drive, which he places on par with the vice of alcoholism. He sees the failure to attain financial success as a direct indication of a lack of the virtue of competitiveness.
Will’s view of the competitive system is idealistic; it echoes the idealism with which other ragsto- riches stories exalt the opportunism of the competitive free market economy. But idealization, as is its nature, simplifies and narrows one’s outlook. As soon as Will’s idealization of the system is established, the play begins the deconstruction of his one-dimensional view of the competitive marketplace. The...
(The entire section is 1689 words.)