Themes

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American Dream
Since the country was established in 1776, the United States has offered the promise of freedom, freedom not only to worship one’s own God but freedom also to pursue material wealth. When Walt Whitman wrote “Song of the Open Road” in the middle of the nineteenth century, he represented America as a place of brotherhood and expansiveness, where each person was a cosmos unto him or herself. Possibility was limited only by what one could dream. Simpson takes that vision of America and the American Dream and shows its tawdry underbelly. He suggests that the achievement of the Dream leads not to untold happiness and communion with one’s countrymen and women but to a life of monotony, where the pursuit of pleasure and convenience outweighs any desire to pursue the higher good. Rather than saying these things out- right, Simpson implies them by depicting the middle-class life as one of waste, where its inhabitants can only blindly chase what they have been told is the “good” life. This blind pursuit is summed up in the image of people walking in procession “To the temple, singing.” The suggestion here is that middle-class life itself is a form of religion with its own gods and rituals. Though Simpson doesn’t draw out his analogy, readers understand that these gods are security and material wealth and that the rituals of the middle class include the “daily grind” of a 9 to 5 job and, for many suburbanites, the traffic-clogged commute.

Class
By linking social class with the suburbs, Simpson’s poem perpetuates stereotypes both of people who live in the suburbs and of those who inhabit the middle class. Equating a middle-class life with a “wasted” life, the speaker draws on popular assumptions about what constitutes the middle class. These assumptions include a certain income, conventional tastes, conformity, an aversion to risk and, paradoxically, a feeling of hopelessness. A life can be wasteful, however, only if there exists an idea of a productive life. Although Simpson never explicitly describes what such a life might look like, he suggests that it would not include middle- class “virtues.” A “productive” life might be one in which the individual values risk over security, adventure over stability, the exotic over the mundane, the very kind of life that Walt Whitman explored in his poems more than a hundred years ago.

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Critical Essays