Thursday, 28 February 2013

7) Phonetic Transcription and Recieved Pronunciation

As we have discovered in previous posts, and as I have prefaced many times before that, the main problem with considering the sounds of language, is that not all people sound out language in the same way. There are many variations which may depend on regional dialects, first languages, social class or even speech impediments. It is a hugely complicated task to attempt to take account of all the variations of English which might exist. For this reason, when we talk about the sound qualities of particular phonemes we do so in relation to a standard form of English.

It's fine to be angry about government, but not to become self-righteous

A comment was made to me recently that I had been keeping 'rather quiet' of late.  It was nice of anybody to notice of course - and I muttered some drivel about marking, and assessment boards, and preparing a new module, and that sort of thing.  All of which is true.  However, the comment made was not a general one about the fact that I have not been irritating everyone with countless tweets quite so much, but was more specifically about the fact that they had not seen me rant and rave wildly about politicians. 

More specifically, about the Conservative government. 

More specifically, about Michael Gove.

It is not that I have become a convert to any of these things, but there are two reasons why I have been consciously trying to reign in my impatience for Conservatives policies and ideologies, and my tendency to twitch violently at the very mention of Gove.

Reason 1: Misery and Pessimism

The first is that the whole business has simply got me down.  I know this is a wussy, cheap and cowardly thing to admit, but frankly when took stock and surveyed an economic system in which poor people are expected to pay for rich people's debts, where arrogance overpowers knowledge or consensus, where education is tailored to increase the divide between the achieveing rich and the under-achieving poor, and where even the fire services are being covertly privitised so that getting burned alive is something that will only really ever happen to poor people - well, frankly it is difficult not to despair.

What kind of politicians are happy to create a country so lacking in compassion?  Even worse, what kind of a nation are we, that we elect them?

There is a local by-election taking place where I live, and so far I have had three leaflets posted.  One was from the Conservatives, playing heavily on the idea that my local area (an East London sink estate), strongly needed a 'local' voice on the Council.  Their solution?  Voting for one 'Marcus Llewellyn-Rothschild'.

I kid you not.

As though to hammer home the obvious advantages of electing a man with a top hat to represent the interests of working-class East Londoners, there is a little visual aid on the leaflet: A picture of some delapidated garages from the 1970s, with a caption implying (as I don't have the leaflet in front of me, I am working from memory) 'remember what it was like under Labour'?  Next to it, a picture of some renovated garages, taken a year ago - with the caption implying 'see how much better we are under the Tories'!

What should I been angriest about?  The sheer stupidity of this kind of campaigning, or the fact that I know without any shadow of doubt that it will work!!

But this is not the worst of it - oh no!  Another leaflet was kindly posted by UKIP.  Emblazened accross the top of it was a headline warning the people of East London that unless we do something now, the whole of Britain will be filled with...


Holy molely!  Quick, batten down the hatches!  Dig out the bomb shelters in the back gardens!  The leaflet went on with such a pile of twisted, hateful, panic-mongering distortians of facts - really, I wish I had the time to go through it all with you, but my blood pressure could not cope - that it took several hours, four cups of coffee and two episodes of Mr. Ben to calm me down.

But this is not the worst of it - oh no!  Another leaflet.  This time from our freinds the BNP.  This did not anger me, so much as make me want to sit with my clothes on under a hot shower for several hours.  Pages of stuff about the moral decline of Britain, particularly in relation to sex crimes - all written rationally and convincingly.  Yes you're right, sex crimes are a horrendous thing.  Yes you're right, we should do something about it.  Yes you're (surprisingly), right that it is not a simple issue.  It is not until you get to the back page and read through a little more carefully that you realise what is going on.  Every example given involves an Asian sex offender.  The back page details how sex crimes are not considered crimes in 'Arabic countries'.

So to translate: Solving the issue of sex crimes is not a simple issue - because its all done by Muslims.

Words cannot express the seething rotten blackness which filled my soul when I read this.  Words cannot express the feeling of hopelessness and despair when I recognised that of all three leaflets, it was the BNP one which managed to sound the most rational.  Words cannot express the despondancy I felt at the realisation that it will probably be one of these three that gets elected.

So - I have been quiet on politics for a while, in part because of sheer weight of misery and pessimism about the whole business.

Reason 2: Self-righteousness and Nastiness

The second reason I have been quiet on these issues, is the realisation that there is a fine line between righteous indignation, and self-righteous arrogance.  In fact, you can see this very problem in the section above - you may have noticed my implication that the people in my local area are somehow dafter than me, and more likely to fall for the lies and manipulations of local politicians.  You may have noticed that my criticism of the Conservative candidate was founded on knowing nothing more about him than his name.

What presumption.  What arrogance.  What self-righteousness.

The trouble is, it is difficult to express my own frustrations at things like this without slipping over the edge - sometimes before I have even noticed it.  I would normally go back and edit my above comments to take out this bit of pomposity, but have left it in because it is a good illustration of the point I am making.

It is right to get worked-up about things sometimes.  It is right to be passionate about injustice, unfairness and a lack of compassion for people in society.  It is right to be angry about corruption, lies and manipulation.  It is right for one simple reason: Because it is good to care about others beside ourselves.  We may not be directly affected by injustice, but we should be angry about the way it directly affects others.

In other words, it is not all about you.  Let's not forget that most of the injustice, corruption and lies which angers us have, at their root, the motivation of self-interest, and self-righteousness - the belief that there is no problem if other people have to make sacrifices in order to secure your power or your wealth; the belief that there is simply nobody better than you who has the right to tell you anything.

To slip into self-righteous arrogance then, is to end up being one of the very things you are attacking, and when your own indignation focuses on individuals who you have never met you can end up painting with one big sterotype brush (whether the brush be a Conservative one or a Romanian one).

Today I read an excellent blog titled (intriguingly) Avoiding the Bears by Kirsty Rolfe, which identified this exact problem in the ways in which people responded to the recent Oscars ceremony.  Kirsty suggested a few rules for behaviour in order to counteract the kind of sexism the Oscars represented:

  • Things you can write hateful screeds about: Objects. Foodstuffs. Systems. For example: ‘I really hate the Hammersmith and City line, because it’s always late’. ‘I hate drinking Bailey’s because I feel like a misbehaving babysitter’. Etc).
  • Things you can’t write hateful screeds about: Actual people, or generalisations about people (e.g. ethnicities, genders, sexualities, nationalities, professions, etc). For example: ‘I hate all bankers’ (oh, great. Yes, look, an acceptable bogeyman. Tell me, sir or or madam, have you met everyone who works in, or for, a bank?). ‘Ugh, I really hate Jennifer Lawrence. I know everyone likes her but she’s really fake’ (WHAT THE SHIT, HONESTLY. Have you met her? Or, indeed, to take a different tack: Do you believe that, interviewed by the world’s media, you wouldn’t put on some form of social act? Do you believe that you don’t do this at work, or on the phone? Would you be at the Oscars scratching your arse through tracksuit bottoms?)

This seems to me to be some useful advice for, well - everything really.  I will never stop being angry about politics.  Never stop being frustrated and furious.  However, I do need to be better at channeling that fury in a way which avoids more consistently the kind of generalised self-righteousness which I find so unpalatable in those very politicians that annoy me.

So does all this mean I have to be a bit nicer about Michael Gove?

It's a toughy, but I will do my best.

That is all.  Thank you.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

8) Introduction to Semantics and Pragmatics

So far in this series on the basis of linguistics, we have considered how words are constructed of morphemes, and how words are classified, and form groups known as phrases. We have, as well, considered how language is created through the human vocal apparatus. We have explored how phonemes are created through the place and manner of articulation.

Shaun Tan: Migration, Displacement and Belonging in Children's Picturebooks

I have been reading a lot about Shaun Tan in recent weeks.  His illustrated books are extraordinary things, and well worth a look.  Equally interesting though, is what Tan himself says about them - particularly in relation to his recurring themes of migration, displacement and belonging.

In this keynote speech from the 2012 IBBY cogress (a full transcript of which is available on Tan's own website), Shaun Tan explains about the themes of migration, identity and belonging in his books - and in particular in his book The Arrival. Tan highlights the relavance of stories of migration by suggesting that children develop a sense of their own identities by being able to measure it against 'otherness'. "Culture, nature, family, belief, work, play, language" Tan says, "are flexible realities, something we realise especially when we travel overseas, and discover that the commonplace is exotic and the exotic is commonplace, depending on what side of the tour-bus window you happen to be sitting on". More than that, migrations and issues of identity and beloning enable children to encounter the values of multiculturalism, because stories of migration enable them to realise that the nature of cultural identity is that it is pluralistic, not singular: "One of the great gifts of travel, multiculturalism, and other boundary-crossing – including of course reading -– is that your own culture, lifestyle and language is suddenly not so absolute, normal, righteous or sacrosanct, it’s just another way of thinking and existing, based on historical accidents that mainly happened before you were born."

Not only can stories of migration enable children to focus on their own, and others, issues of identity but it can enable children to explore (perhaps more philosophically) questions of what are the common factors (or "intersections") of different identities. "[W]hat do we all have in common? What binds us in the most elemental ways and perhaps defines our humanity? Where is the ‘train station’ through which all these cultural railways pass? These might seem like big philosophical questions, but they need not be presented in big philosophical ways. In fact, they come up all the time at a modest scale, especially in literature for young people".

Tan suggests that his process in helping his stories focus on these broad themes, is to try and reduce the extent to which the stories themselves can be bound to any particular form of reality, or of identity. This "stripping back" of reality means "removing words, character identity, any precise notion of time or place, and also hovering between realism and the dreamlike softness of drawing. I realised that all these things allowed the reader to interpret the story in their own way, and at their particular pace or level of understanding".

This relates to the question of fantasy in children's picturebooks, because this stripping of reality entails a movement into an alternative (or fantastical) plane where the story can explore broader themes. "[T]he best way to be ‘truthful’" Tan says, "is to sometimes go in the opposite direction ... instead of focusing on things that made sense, trying to simplify some universal migrant experience, trying to understand everything, the best thing to do is simply focus on strangeness, dislocation and complexity". 'Fantasy' as a vehicle enables strangeness to be focused on - the strangeness of the migrant experience, and the strangeness which enables readers to see their own self as part of a cultural plurality which is indeterminate and unfixed. This focus, and the fantastical mechanism by which that focus is created, "enables us to figure out problems by tranferring them into a different kind of reality - something which is a natural activity for children".

We can see many of the themes which Tan talks about in his story The Lost Thing. This is a story Tan describes as being about the fact that "we should not leave behind the things we learn as children" but "also about a kind of cultural indeterminacy: Why do we feel compelled to ask or answer a question of belonging at all? Why do we crave a ‘right place’ for this lost thing?".

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

9) Pragmatics and Grice's Cooperative Principal

We have so far considered how words are formed and classified, and how words are grouped to form phrases. We have considered as well how words are formed vocally through the manner and place of articulation. We have even explored the murky realms of semantics to consider the difficult issue of how all these factors combined to make a language capable of communicating meaning.

Monday, 25 February 2013

10) The origins of language: Language Acquisition

The question of the origins of language has two parts, which do not easily connect to each other.

1. On the one hand, the question is one which relates to human development – the natural history of language. How does language start? Where does it come from? We have already seen that human language is totally unique from the animal kingdom. How did this happen?

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Re. Clothes do not make the scholar?

This morning's interesting read comes again from Pat Thomson's excellent blog, in which today she comments on several articles that have focused on the dress sense of academics.  These articles, she points out, lean on "some rather hoary old stereotypes" which assume that academics simply don't live in the real world.  In contrast, Thomson argues, academic can indeed be real people too and perhaps it is the Harvey Nick's catalogue cronies who actually have the problem.

Don't know why, but I have a mental image of this idea being converted into a successful film - doubtless directed by Chris Columbus - in which a a beleagured academic sporting sandles and a bow tie is harried through a train station by bronzed TOWIE-types, until the emotional climax where the academic (doubtless played by Bill Nighy) is cornered and bellows 'I am not an ivory-tower anachronism!  I am a human being!'

Actually the reasons why this strikes home a little for me are twofold.  Firstly, in a couple of weeks NUC will be having it's first graduation ceremony - and of course I will be attending to cheer on our heroic students.  However, almost as a condition of attendance, I have had to be measured in countless uncomfortable ways in order that I can wear a gown and a ridiculous hat which seem custom-built to make me look like I belong to some secret sect that has absolutely nothing to do with the real world, or real human beings.  I understand all the arguments about it being 'for the students' and 'elevating their achievement', but frankly I cannot help the feeling that is all a little too much posturing.  As though 'academics' really are living in a bubble of Masonic-like closed ceremonial isolationism.

Not to mention it all makes me feel like an idiot.
Graduation: Welcome to the real world?

The second reason this strikes home for me though, is that it reminded me of an attitude to dress which I had when I began my academic career, but which I had forgotten.  When I started teaching my style of dress remained unchanged from my previous careers as a parking attendant, a courier driver, a furniture-mover, a security guard, a cleaner, a filing clerk and (least glamorous of all) a journalist.  In other words practical and sturdy, and generally indistinguisable from the generic garb worn by most of the lags making their weary way home to East London every day.  Certainly not particularly smart - and definately not a bow tie or tweed blazer to be seen.

One of the benefits of this mode of dress was that I kept getting mistaken for being a student:  Other students would ask me what I was studying;  Security guards would ask what I was doing in the building before opening hours;  Chairs of board meetings would stare dangerously at me as though I were a mouse deposited at the table by a cat.  This all kept me, of course, enormously entertained - but my reasons for maintaining this dress 'code' (for want of a better word) were not entirely for the fun of it.  It meant that my students saw me as being, if not exactly one of them, then at least not a model of impossible aspirations.  None of my students would have looked at me and thought to themselves 'I can never be like him'.  Indeed, I sincerely hope that their view was more accurately in the lines that 'if this numptie can acquire all these qualifications, then I sure as hell can too!'

This did have its down sides, of course.  Since many of my students were older than me, some found it difficult to accept the advice and guidance of such an uncouth upstart.  Other colleagues dressed differently though, and it was interesting to see how different students responded differently to them.  Some dressed immaculately, and these colleagues become a model of the things that students were striving for, and as an attainable image of genuine achievement - in other words while I might have seemed a model of the attainability of getting a degree, these other colleagues seemed to demonstrate that the degree was something worth having.

Lately of course, things have been changing.  I am too old now to be mistaken for a student in their 20s.  Pat Thomson is right to point out that the dress sense of academic should be seen as no different from any other profession - and yes, my choice of clothing these days is more often determined solely by locating the only items not smeared in porridge by one of my children.  In other words, I cannot really claim that my dress sense has anything to do with a consciousness of the appropriateness (or otherwise) of my clothing to my educational ideals or roles.

I do, though, believe that the way we present ourselves can send messages to students which can either encourage or discourage - that can motivate or (in the case of some of my colleagues) inspire with a sense of aspiration, or they can alienate and isolate.

Something New: Designing a new module in Children's Literature

In the forthcoming semester, I will be embracing something NEW and teaching a module on children’s literature – a significant shift from my areas of specialism in eighteenth-century literature, American drama and cultural theory.

This is something I have been wanting to do for some time – before, indeed, I had the pleasure of becoming and parent and finding myself reading Maurice Sendak and Julia Donaldson so repetitively that at times I find myself reciting ‘a mouse took a walk through the deep dark wood’ to myself as I walk down the road, like a Gruffaholic zombie. It has always interested me largely because it seems to interest my students so much. Of all the dissertations I have supervised (and despite my best efforts to get people to write about Tristram Shandy) children’s literature has probably been one of the most recurring topics. Not surprising given the explosion of critical interest in the field, rather nicely demonstrated by this ngram chart:

Indeed, it is even less surprising given the rise of ‘cross-over’ literatures designed to appeal to both adults and children (Harry Potter being a prime example), and which have worked well to increase both the readerships and the broader impact of such texts.

Over the last ten years, courses and degrees focused on children’s literature have been popping up in Universities like mushrooms in a muddy lawn, and while I am certainly coming late to a party which is arguably down to the cheese platter and Blue Nun there is certainly still more folks milling around here than in my own wee eighteenth-century ceilidh.

If nothing else then, my venture into this territory could be described as simply an attempt to be more sociable.

Having decided some time ago to do something about my anti-social eighteenth-century habit, I began by developing a second-year module on children’s literature. This module contained only rough sketches – an outline of key topics, an indicative bibliography and an assessment design – and certainly not enough for me to deliver it straight away. Then the whole thing sat in the files collecting dust like a partially-completed but over-ambitious shelving unit.

The reasons it has taken so long to get this module off the ground are threefold. The first and most practical reason is the difficulties in finding the time to do the kind of reading and research which is the most basic requirement for teaching a module at this level. It is a rather intimidating reality of teaching in HE that the benchmarks are set so high: It is a perfectly justified student expectation that their tutors are experts in their subjects, and it is not unreasonable to measure this expertise by the number of books written, papers published, and years spent studying. By teaching a subject like eighteenth-century satire it is difficult not to be struck by the thought that just down the road the likes of Professor Alan Downie are teaching the same thing.

Of course, it is difficult to achieve this level of expertise even in your own specialist subject. Starting a new subject though, is like staring into a seemingly infinite chasm of knowledge which you somehow need to fill with libraries-worth of books, articles, resources and (quite simply) years of experience.

I have now been reading about children’s literature on and off for the last six years – but the bottom of this chasm seems as much an echoing void as ever. Maybe I should wait another ten years or so?

Except, when I look back over my teaching career some of the most successful modules I have taught have been fresh and new – and at least to some extent have been as much a process of discovery for me as they have been for my students. In contrast, when I have taught subjects which have been the focus of most of my post-graduate research the modules have often felt unfocused, unstructured and unclear.

A bit like when you were a child and trying to explain to your Mum or Dad why your limited edition Emperor Star Wars action figure is the greatest thing ever: Somehow you just never quite feel like you are getting an adequately enthusiastic response, and that somehow your powers of communication are perpetually falling short.

One of the reasons I am excited about this new module, is precisely because I do not feel I have the same level as expertise yet as I do in some other subjects. Precisely because my thoughts about the topic are not overwhelmed with the clutter of decades of research, and because I would feel less like an omnipotent tour-guide of learning, as I will a fellow traveler.

Coming to a new topic, and looking at a new module as a blank canvass, there is a chance to shape the delivery of your topic to fit – and the first stage in this process relates to the module design.


My reading of critical texts relating to children’s literature has gone into over-drive a little over the last few months. I have discovered many interesting approaches, some of which have changed my thinking in terms of what I want to do with my new module. One of the things which I have been concentrating on though, is on finding a clear focus.

When I began teaching, I thought about my modules in much the same way as I remembered modules being taught to me: A different novel or play every week, and each lecture was basically a bunch of background information followed by a wee chat (characterised by few words and long pauses) about it. After a whole series of these you write an essay about one of the books.

Which essentially means that your essay is based on one weeks lecture.

Actually this approach to module design is one which suits instructions where a different lecturer covers each topic, but in my own College we have the relative luxury of thinking more holistically about things. So the trick is to find a focus which enables you to progress through a series of topics which build on each other, and in which every week can address issues that relate directly to the assessment for the module. The focus, or key theme for your module, will act as the thread which links everything together, gives it all a sense of relevance and purpose.

This focus relates, as well, to the level of the module. As a degree course progresses, the level of critical depth students are expected to demonstrate increases. The type of focus which you choose for a module can support students in developing that depth: Choose a narrow focus, and you encourage depth. Choose a broad focus, and you encourage something more descriptive – like the kind of ‘introductory’ modules you get in your first year on a degree, where you generally tend to roll through a long sequence of foundational topics.

My children’s literature module is a second-year module. This means that students need to be exploring the topic in more depth than a year earlier, but not necessarily as much as they will in their final year. I could make my module about all children’s literature – but this would mean spanning across several distinct genres (in particular the ‘kidult’, or ‘crossover fiction’ genre, and the picturebook genre). This would be a rather broad approach. However, by choosing one of these genres as a focus (in this case, picturebooks), I can narrow the focus and encourage greater depth.

Of course within the genre of picturebooks there are a wide range of potential topic areas. I could focus for example on issues of child development, or the relationship between image and text. However, to narrow my focus to just one of these would perhaps be to narrow too far – to make expectations on the students which are perhaps more appropriate for a year 3 module, than for a year 2. So, instead, I have decided to compromise and to highlight four or five key issues relating to the study of children’s picturebooks – which at the moment seems to me to be both focused enough, but at the same time not too narrow.


Of course, the point of all this is to lead up to the assessment. Ultimately the success of a module is dependent on the success of students on assessment. It would be nice to teach a module where there was no assessment at all, merely the insatiable appetite for learning and discovering – but that kind of talk can get you into trouble these days. No – everything depends on student retention and achievement, and this means the assessment for any module needs to be thought about carefully.

One of the most commonly-cited reasons students give for poor performance in assessment is not understanding what they have to do. What should I be writing about? Do I need to include this? Or that? Certainly anyone who has been teaching Higher Education for a while will have doubtless experienced the week-12 tutorials with students staring desperately into your eyes as though they have just woken up naked in a supermarket. ‘How did I get here?!’ the eyes ask. ‘Where can hide?’, or just plain ‘???!!!’.


Designing assessment is all about trying to make the requirements of the task clear, and such that every week you can relate content to the assessment – so every week students are being given the answers to the kind of questions that they might otherwise not ask until it is too late.

There is another issue though. Assessment needs to be designed as far as possible to that it can engage students. It is difficult enough to complete your assessment for any study, but it is much harder if the assessment is simply not interesting.

Of course there are various ways in which you can go about attempting to address these issues. Over the years I have leaned towards trying to ensure that my assessment is as relevant to the module as possible, and that the assessment can draw on different strengths – trying not to think about criticality in a one-dimensional way, and enabling students to try out new skills at the same time. This has led to some complete disasters (group work – always group work), some difficult but ultimately ok experiments (assessed wikis or practical workshops), and some which probably seemed more successful to me than they did to the students I had traumatized (creating cartoon strips, discussions on posters, etc.).

For this new module, my assessment was already set for me.

An essay. Good grief. What numptie put that in the module definition?

Oh yes. It was me.

Ok, so my bed was made and I had to lie in it. The idea of ‘just another essay’ has the advantage that for many students there would be the comfort of familiarity, but in terms of a topic which has imaginative processes at its heart, it does lack a certain … erm, imagination?

In some ways tough, this mode of assessment highlights one of the ways in which criticality can be viewed in a more three-dimensional way. Why can’t an essay be imaginative? Why can’t it be reflective, or even (to some extent) practical?

This new module is about the ways in which children’s experiences are translated into an adult consciousness, and then re-converted into story, situation and character – often having passed through entrenched ideological filters. What better way to demonstrate an understanding of that process than to try and follow that process yourself? This does not have to mean producing a piece of creative writing (which would, let’s be honest, have been preferable but difficult to describe as an ‘essay’) – but it can mean that the focus of the essay is the relation of the students own imaginative thought process to different texts and theories. It is at once creative, reflective and critical. It means that every week’s content can be seen as providing material relevant to the assessment. It means that the mode of assessment is directly related to the topic being studied.

It all sounds wonderful. At least, to me it does. The next difficulty though, is in explaining it clearly enough to students so that they understand from the beginning what is required of them.  You can see my attempt at providing this clarity here.

So there we go.  Something new.  Now we just have to wait and see...

Children's Literature Assessment Design

For this task, due on 10th June, you will be writing an essay – but not just an ordinary essay. Remembering that one of the learning outcomes for this module is to “[d]evelop skills in crafting writing for specific purposes, both academic and non-academic”, this essay is going to centre on a more creative approach to the subject.

This essay will therefore chart your development of your own idea for a piece of children’s literature. Hopefully it will not take you long to realise that such a task is far from simple. It will require a number of complex processes, of critical awareness, and an understanding of how language can be narrowed in order that the reader has multiple pathways of possible expansion.

This assignment does not require that you actually write a children’s story (although if you wanted to do so, you could add it as an appendix).

What it requires is that you demonstrate a process of shaping a story – thinking about it in terms of its ideas and their relationship to child development, its intended readers, its ideologies and assumptions, its narrative, structure and modes of discourses, and the interaction of text and image within it.

As you demonstrate your thinking about these things in your essay, you will need to ensure that you are demonstrating that your thinking is critically informed. In other words, it is one thing for just anybody to say ‘hey, how about this great idea for a children’s book?!’, but as undergraduates you are (perhaps unfortunately) required to demonstrate more. You are to show that you are people who are widely read and critically aware. Your thinking about children’s books will need to demonstrate:

  • That you understand critical and theoretical issues about children’s literature;

  • That you can analyse children’s stories using these theories;

  • That you understand stories in terms of psychological or social meaning;

  • That you can shape your own writing in relation to all of these points.

So it might be worth thinking about this essay in terms of these stages:

Start with experience you want to write about or an issue you want to address.

This could from your own experiences – and generally the best stories start out this way. Your experience could be how you felt when you got a treat as a child, and the sadness (perhaps) of the fact that such simple and unadulterated joy is so short-lived (which is a significant thing for a child), or how a child’s sense of the world is so dramatically expanded by the first experience of ‘holiday’. Here you could maybe think about the experiences which other writers have drawn on: The experiences of grief which underpin Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, or John Burningham’s Grandpa; experiences of absent fatherhood in Anthony Browne’s Gorilla, or experiences of childhood ‘wildness’ in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Exploring texts in relation to the experiences they relate to will allow you to demonstrate analysis of the texts. They will enable you, as well, to consider how the writers have transformed experience into story – did they use metaphor, or fantasy? Did they use realism? – and draw on their examples in how you start to shape your own experiences into story.

Consider from the child’s perspective

This is the important part of the process where you try to externalise your experiences – thinking about your intended reader, and about how children perceive experiences. At this point you will start to refine a little the specific age you are targeting your story at, which is significant in terms of pitching its tone. This would be a good opportunity to think about your story, its experience or issue, in terms of a child’s social and psychological development. Here is a good opportunity to draw on critical texts about how children’s literature relates to these processes.

What ideological issues are there?

As well as thinking about your intended reader, you need to think about yourself as an adult writer, and adult readers in general. For much children’s literature has the explicit purpose of instructing undeveloped social beings according to the values of the times. Those of you who have already looked at a range of literary theories in Literature in Theory will already be familiar with thinking about texts in terms of ideologies relating power, gender, or difference. This is the point at which you can ask yourself questions about your experience, and what ideologies you can see which shaped that experience or your reaction to it. Are those ideologies ones you want to perpetuate, or to challenge? Again, this is a good opportunity to demonstrate analysis of other texts, exploring the ideological basis of other children’s stories, and (perhaps more importantly) using critical texts to help you draw them out.

Re-frame the story

At this point, you may want to think about the location of your story. Think about time, think about place and think about character. As Maurice Sendak says in the quote at the beginning of this module guide, children often process their ‘wildness’ through fantasy. Do you want to re-locate your story into fantasy, or try and keep it in a reality? Or do you want to use a kind of transitional meta-narrative of the kind Sendak uses? What about the characters? Do you want them to be human, or can you better explain aspects of the characters by turning them (Aesop-like) into animals or monsters? Again, look at examples of other writers – what did they do? Why? Did it work? How do other writers use character to explain things without having to use words? (for example, the fox is always cunning – you don’t need to say it; the big monster is always misunderstood, or a bully, etc.).

Narrative style and Discourse

The narrative style, form of discourse and the visual elements are really all parts of a simultaneous process. You want to be thinking about the balance between showing and telling your story: Are you telling a story to children, or are you showing them things from which they can draw out their own stories? This will relate again to your intended reader, because it relates to how much of your story, and its meaning, you want your reader to work out for themselves. Will you use a narrator? Will your characters talk? If so, how?

Thinking visually

Of course, your idea of a story is an idea for a picturebook. Obviously you are not going to be expected to illustrate your own story, and I imagine Axel Scheffler is probably a little busy to oblige you. So, you will need to think about images for your story by again looking at examples from other books. Do you think this part of the story would work well with the kind of semi-realistic and descriptive expressionism of Quentin Blake? Or perhaps the more abstract expressionism of Anthony Browne would be a better fit? What about the brooding fantastical surrealism of Shaun Tan, or the innocent and sentimental realism of Shirley Hughes? Analyse the books you have looked at for how the pictures relate to the text – and again draw on critical sources to help you. Then, use these ideas to develop a sense of the visual style of your own story. You could even use a Google image search to find pictures which illustrate the kinds of things you mean. Do remember, that in this section you may well be using images from Google or from the books you have studied – these do need to be referenced. There are guidelines on references images from the internet in Quote/Unquote.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

David Mamet

Throughout the twentieth century, we can see a consistent degradation America’s own view of itself, through the work of the playwrights studied. Its dreams and idealisms have, for these playwrights, fallen down around them. The Depression destroyed the dreams of economic security and the confidence in capitalism. The McCarthy trials destroyed faith in American democracy, and its position as a ‘land of the free’ was challenged by those who pointed out the vast inequalities sustained by so-called American ideals. 

Playwright’s responded to these various set-backs in a variety of ways. Some like Clifford Odets wrote plays designed to act as clarion calls: calls for social reform, as idealistic and as optimistic as those of the Founding Fathers. Others, like Tennessee Williams, responded with despondency, presenting a world of decayed values in which the individual soul was irretrievably lost amid the confused jockeying of societies privileged few. There was a brief flowering of a new kind of optimism with the election of John F. Kennedy, whose charisma and inspirational speeches led many to believe a new era had dawned. Kennedy famously determined in 1962 that America would travel to the moon - not because of any monetary value it might afford, but simply because of the glory and inspiration such a venture afforded. Not because it was profitable, but because the human spirit needed it:

A year after making this speech, Kennedy was assassinated. His moon project would go ahead, but the shadows of military interventions in Korea and Vietnam quickly took the stellar shine of this achievement, and as the 70s arrived Americans had perhaps as much reason to be disillusioned as they had ever had.

The United States exited Vietnam in 1973; Saigon collapsed the following year. Nixon’s resignation amidst scandal diminished trust in government. The oil embargo of 1973 contributed to economic instability. Rising “stagflation” – a term coined by economists of the time describing a combination of inflation and recession – marked the end of America’s post-World War II boom … Following the economic turnaround, large sections of the nation experienced moribund incomes … [the 1980s] saw the AIDS epidemic, the Reagan administration, and continuing obstacles to minority participation in the economy. The anarchy and liberation of the 1060s gave way to rampant individualism and acquisitiveness even within the most liberal segments of society. (Krasner, 2006. p. 101).

Into the last quarter of the twentieth century, a new brand of response began to emerge in writers looking to respond to this new despondency, and to move away from the large – often limiting – influence of dramatic giants such as O’Neill, Williams and Miller. The brief moment of idealistic optimism inspired by the eloquence of John F. Kennedy had been shot down the moment its inspiration was, and despite the concerted efforts of the Reagan administration in the 1980s to re-kindle that kind of hope, there followed a series of political and economic throughout the 70s and 80s which served only to deepen the sense of gloom. The economy was, as during the depression, marginalising the majority at the same time that it was creating a strata of the uber-wealthy. 

The intellect of Odet’s had made no mark on social structures. Miller’s eloquent tragedy had changed nothing about the unfeeling and curelly material world it described, and Miller himself barely avoided jail for trying to change it. Williams' romanticism had been ineffectual, and his marginalisation because of his sexuality only served to support the pessimists view of the country as having betrayed its roots in social equality. Despite the efforts of these giants of drama, America was still going to hell in a handcart. 

It is interesting, perhaps, to compare the kind of ineffectiveness attributed to artistic expression in American up to this period, with stagnation of drama in Britain before 1956. In Britain, in a post-war period in which many were feeling increasing disconnected to their pasts, and increasingly out of step with the social ideologies which formed their national roots, drama was considered ineffective largely because it was not even attempting to articulate the experiences of a disaffected contemporary society. In America, society was seen to be degenerating quickly, and although the drama that accompanied it had gone far to move with the times, it had yet to construct a response to it which seemed adequate. A voice had not yet been found to articulate the experience of a late twentieth-century American existence. The British ‘land-mine’ which blew up the perceived bog of dramatic unconcern was John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Look Back in Anger succeeded not because it shaped an answer to social concerns, but because it understood that there was no answer. There was simply an expression of that frustrated sense of inadequacy, of un-belonging, of disaffection with the past. The articulation of this sense of social experience was one of rage – a rage all the more powerful because it was never entirely sure what it was raging against, except perhaps apathy. Except perhaps a lack of empathy with the emotional force of embittered frustration: 

In America, this intellectual rage had been pre-figured a decade or more earlier by the likes of Stanley Kowalski and Willy Loman – characters who represented a common class of society, but through whom the Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller expressionistically developed an articulate and eloquent social critique. It was the gutteral anger agains society in Osbourne's play though, which shocked audeinces. In effect Look Back in Anger succeeded because as an example of an intellectual response, it failed. Through its own failure to construct a convincing social critique, it fell back on the simple fact of its heroes rage against society. 

Through its own failure to understand that rage, it encapsulated to a new degree the frustrations of disconnection which characterised individual experience in post-war British youth culture.
In 1976 the film Network seemed to pick up on this idea of rage. In the face of all the disappointments of modern American, its disillusionments, frustrations, and the feelings of powerlessness in the face of a political and economic bourgeousie Network's central character Howard Beale is a television presenter facing redundancy. Since for Beale this makes him feel as though his life is over, he gives full vent to his feelings of anger and frustration, urging his audience to join him in expressing that frustration in the now-famous lines "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more!"

In America, the need to identify an effective social critique was now no longer as pressing as the need to articulate an effective expression of individual experience. All that was left to express the rage and frustration of dreams denied, ideals betrayed, and a self lost and abandoned in a society consistently failing to live up to expectations was a new kind of eloquence. A visceral eloquence. An eloquence born on the streets of those at the sharp end of disappointment, and which would shape the dramatic landscape of both American theatre, and much of American cinema, from then until the present:

Goddamn this fuckin’ place, how can anybody live in this shit city? (Lanford Wilson, Burn this (1987) 

But there is a problem. Despite all this rage, and all this frustration, the hegemony of the economic and political powermongers remains untouched. In Network, the presenter Howard Beale rails against the corrupt forces of a new America which marginalises its majority while its minority grows rich. Eventually though, network owner Arthur Jenson calls Beale to his office and delivers his own tirade. Unlike Beale's tirade, Jenson's is done in private, in the sanctity of his company boardroom. Jenson's rhetoric and sense of the theatrical turns him into a god. He is preaching a message of capitalism to the unconverted Beale, who sits looking small and insignificant in comparison.

Beale is convinced. He returns to his programme and becomes an evangelist for capitalism and corporate greed. The rage has again proved futile, and this sense of futile rage is what becomes a powerful characteristic of dramatic writing in America during the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps the most eloquent articulator of futile and visceral rage in this period, is David Mamet. In Mamet’s plays characters rage against anything, or nothing. They express fury and resentment. They vow vengeance, they plot retributions, they whip themselves up into a frenzy…and do nothing. As Christopher Bigsby writes, in Mamet’s plays the “language of liberal concern and humane principle echoes through plays in which rhetoric seldom if ever matches the reality of characters or action” (1999, p. 196). David Krasner echoes this sentiment, asserting that, “[b]luster and puffery is the essence of Mamet’s dialogue, artfully disguising ineffectuality … Mamet’s characters speak of doing but rarely do anything. They use transitive verbs to investigate, provoke, and alter the environment, yet reality rarely changes.” (2006, p. 103, 104).

Mamet has become famous for cinematic contributions such as The Untouchables, State and Main, or The Winslow Boy – the last of which he adapted from an original script from Terrance Rattigan, and which makes for a fascinating comparison with his other works. In 1976 though, he made his first impact on the stage with American Buffalo. Just as British audiences were shocked by the appearance of an ironing board on stage at the introduction to Look Back in Anger, and French audiences were shocked by the expletives bellowed out in Alfred Jarry’s Ubi plays, so American audiences were in for a shock on the appearance of the character Teach: 

Teach: (Appears in the doorway and enters the store.) Good morning. 

Don: Morning Teach. 

Teach: (Walks around the store a bit in silence.) Fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie. 

Don: What? 

Teach: fuckin’ Ruthie

As shocking as the language may appear, it disguises the thing which makes Mamet one of the most fascinating of playwrights today – a lyrical, almost musical eloquence. Perhaps more than anyone else, Mamet is a master of dialogue – a dialogue in which expletives which express rage are subtly turned into a lyrical and rhythmic expression of powerlessness, and duplicity Glengarry Glen Ross draws on themes which have permeated American drama since the beginning of the twentieth century. On it’s fist production, it inevitably drew comparisons with Death of a Salesman because of its focus on salesmen – and in particular, salesmen who are losing touch with the modern world and being left behind. Salesman who are characterised by a sense of disillusionment with the world around them, and who are struggling to find a sense of self in a world where the past means nothing, and the future is insecure. Indeed, in Glengarry Glen Ross we encounter a collection of disgruntled and disillusioned salesmen, each filled with a sense of righteous anger and frustration. In a scene which bears comparison with that of Jenson in Network a representative of the corporation is sent to give these salesmen a 'pep talk'. Just as Beale's rightous anger is thrown back at him, so the anger of these salesmen is thrown back at them - and they are left equally speechless at the sheer power and force of this symbol of economic might.

The response of the salesmen to this invective is, predictably, anger. Moss and Aaranow drive away from this scene together and we see Moss eloquently expressing just how unfair he thinks things are. "It's medieval..." Moss declares, "it's wrong". What is 'wrong', according to Moss, appears to be the whole system - an economic structure which means that they are powerless against the material power of the businesses they work for: "And we enslave ourselves. To please. To win some fucking toaster". Like Willy Loman before him, Moss expresses the sense that it is unfair to those who have been with the company a long time to treat them like this and concludes that action needs to be taken:

MOSS Look look look look, when they build your business, then you can't fucking turn around, enslave them, treat them like children, fuck them up the ass, leave them to fend for themselves... no. (pause) No. (pause) You're absolutely right, and I want to tell you something. 


MOSS I want to tell you what somebody should do. 


MOSS Someone should stand up and strike back. 

This all sounds very noble. Indeed, at this point in the dialogue we might be thinking that Moss is equivalent of Jacob in Awake and Sing! - a voice of idealism, urging others to action. Of course this makes it all the more of an uncomfortable anti-climax when we discover that Moss's intended action is to rob the office. In a world where the system is unfair, and where the system pushes people to the edge, the action of robbing the office only adds another layer of self-interested unfairness to those which already exist. In other words, such an action does not oppose the system which oppresses them - it is a part of it.

It is hard not to see in this scene a powerful expression of the extent to which the systems of capitalism and market forces have both enslaved people, and at the same time appropriated any form of protest against itself. The idealism of Jacob is here converted into an act which serves the interests not of the collective, but of Moss and Aaranow only. Jacob gives his life to serve the greater interests of 'the people', but ultimately Moss is not interested in them. Ih what ways would robbing the office challenge the way his company treated employees? In what ways would robbing the office make like better for anyone else who worked there?

We can see the problem more clearly as the scene progresses. As Moss and Aaranow continue, what was initially an anger directed at the system which turns men into slaves becomes an anger directed simply at the mis-management of that system:

In other words, the problem is not that they are working for a system which is itself corrupt, and which takes advantage of people, but that the company is not efficient enough in the way it takes those advantages. "Don't sell a guy one car" Moss concludes, "Sell him five cars over fifteen years". Don't JUST rip a guy off. Rip him off in the long term. It quickly becomes clear that the discomfort we might feel at the aggressively discriminatory language of Moss (the "deadbeat Polack" and the "Fuckin' Indians") is syntomatic of the sense Mamet is creating that these are characters who have been systematically corrupted to the point that their aggression against the systems which oppress them is mis-directed into areas which only serve the interests of that system.

If this wasn't enough, even this questionable form of protest becomes something which Moss wraps in layers of ambiguity - is such an action something which he intends as a direct action, or is he (like Jacob) simply 'talking the talk'?

As Bigsby comments, in “Mamet’s world is a world in which people are not what they seem” (Bigsby, 1999. p. 197). What is becoming apparent here is that Moss is indeed very much like Jacob in Awake and Sing! He is not intended to participate in his version of social protest, but wants to incite others to action. Notice here though, that again that form of protest is corrupted from the very beginning. Moss does not incite Aaranow to action. He blackmails him into it. The whole conversation has been about Moss manipulating Aaranow into doing something which serves the principal interests of Moss alone. As we discover later in the play, Moss has been manipulating not just George but Levine as well, who he has more successfully persuaded and who eventually commits the crime. 

The rage and fury Moss vents at the self-serving company is itself futile and self-serving. In the end the ones who suffer are those who were even worse off than him: his rhetoric of rage and idealism leads to himself profiting the lion share of the profits from the stolen leads ("He told me my share was twenty-five"), and to the one salesman who seems to have a less purely selfish motive (his hospitalised daughter) facing a jail sentence on his behalf.

When Levene finally appeals to Williamson on behalf of his daughter, Williamson's response is an archetype of self-interested and un-empathetic attitudes prevailent throughout Glengarry Glen Ross:

LEVENE John: daughter... 


In Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet presents us with a vision of American society as he sees it. It is a vision of decay: environmental decay, physical decay and, most significantly, moral decay. The sales office is a downbeat environment, in which characters react and respond to each other violently and aggressively, without ever generating a real threat. The business of sales is one of deception and exploitation – of lying in order to achieve a sale. 

“Everyone, it seems [in Mamet’s plays], exploits everyone else and when it appears otherwise, as, briefly, in Speed the Plough, this proves illusory. Reality is deconstructed. It is not that human needs or fears are denied. Quite the contrary. Mamet’s tricksters freely acknowledge them; they show a perception, a sympathy, an insight which is startling. It is simply that such an awareness is a tool of the trade. Just as advertising, pornography or Hollywood make fundamental human needs serve the purpose of commerce, so Mamet’s confidence-men do the same” (Bigsby, 1999. p.198)

Moss manipulates Aaranow and Levine by subtly and intelligebtly understanding their human weaknesses - just as Levene attempts to sell people properties by manipulating theirs. All the salesmen demonstrate their own particular brand of lying, and for each one the question of there being a moral issue is not even raised. Deception is simply the business of selling. As the company man from downtown makes absolutely clear, business is business, and the rest is of no concern in that office. Ironically, this message surprises the office salesman not because it is new, but because it is so obvious they didn’t even pay attention to it any more. 

In this salesman’s world, the ideals of capitalism gone wrong, so unpleasantly personified in the company man, have created a state of moral decay in which deception, lying and cheating are no longer wrong – they are simply the way things are, and the way they have to be. Roma has little or no compunction in using any trick available to ensure his victim is unable to take advantage of the cancellation period on a sale, even though it is clear his victims marriage is at stake, and even though it is clear that his victim is the closest thing to an honest man the play has to offer:

There is an awkward irony towards the end of this scene, when the victim of Roma’s duplicity actually apologises to Roma for foiling it:

LINGK Oh, Christ...(starts out the door) Don't follow me...Oh, Christ. (pause, to Roma) I know I've let you down. I'm sorry. For...Forgive...for...I don't know anymore. (pause) Forgive me.

In a clever moment, this apology is followed by a shifting silence ("Lingk exits.Pause.") in which the audience may half expect some abashment from Roma – perhaps even a sense of relief that the honest man had not, after all, had to sacrifice his marriage in order that Roma might win a car. Lingk is an honest man. A man struggling with the pressures of modern life. A man who has, perhaps more than any of the others, just cause to complain about a system which oppresses and corrupts people. A system which destroys human relationships.

Roma is perhaps the only salesman we think might be receptive to this. After all, he has just demonstrated a perceptive and compassionate understanding of LIngk's plight:

ROMA Forget the deal, Jimmy. (pause) Forget the know me. The deal's dead. Am I talking about the deal? That's over. Please. Let's talk about you. Come on. (pause. Roma risesand starts walkingtoward the front door) Come on. (pause) Come on, Jim. (pause) I want to tell you something. Your life is your own. You have a contract with your wife. You have certain things you do jointly, you have a bond there...and there are other things. Those things are yours. You needn't feel ashamed, you needn't feel that you're being untrue...or that she would abandon you if she knew. This is your life. (pause) Yes. Now I want to talk to you because you're obviously upset and that concerns me. Now let's go. Right now. Lingk gets up and they start for the door.

Far from abashment though, far from relief, Roma and Levene turn on Williamson – roundly abusing him for, as far as Roma knows, telling the truth (although it is actually a just another lie). Indeed, Roma's invective is one of the most explicit and most bitter in the play:

ROMA (to Williamson) You stupid fucking cunt. You, Williamson...I'm talking to you, shithead...You just cost me six thousand dollars. (pause) Six thousand dollars. And one Cadillac. That's right. What are you going to do about it? What are you goin to do about it, asshole. You fucking shit. Where did you learn your trade. You stupid fucking cunt. You idiot. Whoever told you you could work with men?

In the world of Glengarry Glen Ross, were deception is right and truth is wrong; where goodness reaps no reward, but lays itself open to exploitation – in such a world, anything genuine dies or suffers. Levine appeals for Williamson’s help using every possible argument – and only at the very last gasp appeals on behalf of his daughter, who we know is very ill. After bribery and bluster, this is his only genuine, his only real and human appeal – and being genuine, he knows it will be the least effective. 

In the world of 1980s America, capitalism was seen as a shining light which empowered individuals to provide for loved ones, and reap the rewards of individual endeavours – the underpinning ideology of the American Dream, in which all men achieve wealth and success (all they have to do is close a deal). The economic boom of the decade seemed to justify such ideals. In Mamet's world though, such a system is seen to de-humanise. It takes away from humanity and individual identity, and replaces it with self-interest and corruption. As Bigsby writes, “David Mamet explores the myths of capitalism, the loss of that spiritual confidence which was once presumed to underpin individual identity and national enterprise alike” (Bigsby, 1999. p.196). 

In his play The Water Engine, Mamet asks the question, and proposes the answer, which perhaps can be seen as an eloquent summary of the message of Glengarry Glen Ross: “What happened to this nation? Or did it ever exist … did it exist within its freedoms and slogan … Where is America? I say it does not exist. And I say it never existed. It was all but a myth. A great dream of avarice.


Fearnow, M. (2007). ‘1970-1990: Disillusionment, Identity, and Discovery’, in Krasner, D., ed.. A Companion to Twentieth-century American Drama. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 423-439

Smith, A. I. P. (2006). ‘American Political Culture’, in Temperley, H. and Bigsby, C., eds.. A New Introduction to American Studies. Harlow: Pearson, 50-74

Cullick, J. S. (1994). "Always Be Closing": Competition and the Discourse of Closure in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 3, 2, pp. 23-36

Haedicke, J. V. (2007). ‘David Mamet: America on the American Stage’, in Krasner, D., ed.. A Companion to Twentieth-century American Drama. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 209-228

Boon, K. (2011). 'Ethics and Capitalism in the Screenplays of David Mamet', Literature Film Quarterly, 39, 3, pp. 174-189

Cardullo, R. (n.d.). 'Selling in American drama, 1946-49: Miller's 'Death of a Salesman', O'Neill's The 'Iceman Cometh', and Williams's A 'Streetcar Named Desire' (Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams)', Explicator, 66, 1, pp. 29-33

McDonough, C. J. (1992). 'Every Fear Hides a Wish: Unstable Masculinity in Mamet's Drama', Theatre Journal, 44, 2, pp. 195-205

Arthur Miller and the American Dream

The notion of the American Dream has now established itself fully into the mythological life not only of America, but of many nations around the world – including (arguably) our own. The term ‘American Dream’ was not a commonly used one until 1931, when the popular historian James Truslow Adams attempted to use it as the title for his short history of America. His publishers were not happy with the title, preferring the eventually chosen one of The Epic of America. Adams used the term ‘American Dream’ more than 30 times throughout his book though, and in the years to follow – during which the popularity of The Epic of America became immense - the term became commonplace. Now, Jim Cullen writes that the:

American Dream” has long since moved beyond the relatively musty domain of print culture into the incandescent glow of the mass media, where it is enshrined as our national motto. Jubilant athletes declaim it following championship games. Aspiring politicians invoke it as the basis of their candidacies. Otherwise sober businessmen cite achieving it as the ultimate goal of their enterprises. The term seems like the most lofty as well as the most immediate component of an American identity, a birthright far more meaningful and compelling than terms like “democracy,” “Constitution,” or even “the United States. (Cullen, 2003. p. 5)

But what do we mean by the term ‘American Dream’? Adams himself defined the term as:

that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank, which is the greatest contribution we have made to the thought and welfare of the world. That dream or hope has been present from the start. Ever since we became an independent nation, each generation has seen an uprising of ordinary Americans to save that dream from the forces which appeared to be overwhelming it. … Possibly the greatest of these struggles lies just ahead of us at this present time – not a struggle of evolutionists against the established order, but if the ordinary man to hold fast to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ which were vouchsafed to us in the past in vision and on parchment (Adams, 1931 )

It is tempting to see the concept of the American Dream as a specifically modern one – but this would be to ignore the cultural history of American which has spent many hundreds of years forging it. Without this historical context, we ignore the rich complexity of the idea, and perhaps, too, find it too easy to adopt a patronisingly critical tone when considering those who so whole-heartedly shape their social existence by the hopes and ambitions it fuels. Because ultimately, the question of the American Dream is the question of American social and cultural identity:

Over the course of human history, people have used any number of means to identify themselves: blood, religion, language, geography, a shared history, or some combination of these. (Japan comes to mind as an example that draws on all of them.) Yet the United States was essentially a creation of the collective imagination – inspired by the existence of a purportedly New World, realized in a Revolution that began with an explicitly articulated Declaration, and consolidated in the writing of a durable Constitution. And it is a nation that has been re-created as a deliberate act of conscious choice every time a person has landed on these shores. Explicit allegiance, not involuntary inheritance, is the theoretical basis of American identity. – Cullen, 2003. p. 6

The ways in which the myth of the American Dream has infiltrated American identity can be seen not just in the astonishing regularity with which its ideas and assumptions continue to emerge in films and books, but in the way its political life is shaped – the NHS, still, could never be a reality in America, because the very notion of it assumes that it is a very real possibility that you or I will never be wealthy enough to afford expensive private health care. For Americans, to admit this would be to admit defeat – to admit that they might never achieve the American Dream. For any government, to institute such a thing would be to admit it has failed to provide for its citizens the inalienable rights Abraham Lincoln himself cited as its ‘great principle’:

This progress by which the poor, honest, industrious, and resolute man raises himself, that he may work on his own account, and hire somebody else, is that improvement in condition that human nature is entitled to, is that improvement that is intended to be secured by those institutions under which we live, is the great principle for which this government was formed (Lincoln, 1859)

The origins of the American Dream, some have suggested, extend as far back as the Pilgrims who first travelled to American seeking to build a New World.

the Pilgrims may not have actually talked about the American Dream, but they would have understood the idea” writes Culler. “after all, they lived it as people who imagined a destiny for themselves (Cullen, 2003, p. 5)

It may be a little incongruous to think of these travelling puritans – a people famously described by Richard Rorty as “self-flagellating sickies” – as a people following a dream. But implicit in the notions of Puritanism was a belief that a New and better world was possible and – more importantly in terms of relating these ideas to the American Dream – that this New and better world could be made in America:

Amid all the various abstruse concepts that complicate discussions of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Puritanism – episcopacies and presbyteries, Arminians and Antinomians, covenants of grace and covenants of works – the irreducible foundation of all varieties of Protestantism was this: a belief that the world was a corrupt place, but one that could be reformed. How it could be reformed, of course, was another question, and one that provoked all kinds of squabbling. But that it could be reformed has been central, a belief – actually, there were times it was an aggressive assertion – that distinguished sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestantism from Roman Catholicism … This faith in reform became the central legacy of American Protestantism and the cornerstone of what became the American Dream. Things – religious and otherwise – could be different. (Culler, 2003. p.15)

The Puritanical version of the American Dream, it could therefore be said, was one in which they freed themselves from the bounds of a corrupt world, and found the freedom to construct a New (puritanical) one. The quality of this dream was one of genuine attainability, rather than far off, and unrealistic, vision. The echoes of this dream can be seen in the attitudes and mythological status afforded to the frontier lands in the modern mind – a wild a lawless place, a blank slate in which to give birth to a utopian society.

The seeds of this notion we can see emerge again in the mid to late eighteenth century, as the dream of a new and a free world inspired the Founding Fathers in their fight for independence. Integral to the fight for independence was a determination that America should be free to govern itself without being bound to the old beaurocracies of Great Britain. In defining this freedom in its Declaration, though, the Founding Fathers demonstrate an evolution in the idea of the American dream. Harking back to the 1717 complaints of New England clergyman John Wise that the government should be about promoting “happiness for all”, and “life, liberty, estate and honor”, they included the passage now more indelibly burned into the minds of Americans than, perhaps, any other:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, than among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Political freedom here becomes simply the practical means of achieving the potential of human individuals. The Declaration implies not only that all men are equal (and no amount of wealth, or power should be considered exclusive), but that all men as a right, should be happy. Throughout the history of America, social change has been defined in terms which derive straight from this passage of the declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal. (Seneca Falls Declaration, 1848)

Assembled upon the 116th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the People’s Party of America, in their first national convention, invoking upon their action the blessing of almighty God, puts forth, in the name of the people of this country, the following preamble and declaration of principles. (American Populist Party platform, 1892)

I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963)

Key to each of these interpretations of the Declaration, is they ways in which they determine the meaning of this ‘happy’ life which is such a fundamental right.

For the Founding Fathers, one definition of this happy life was as one which was integrally tied into the notions of life and liberty which clearly accompany them in the Declaration. What was a happy life? A happy life was a good life – a life which not only took advantage of the liberty which was its right, but ensured that same liberty for others.

But there was a less overty altruistic interpretation as well, recognised even at the time of writing. A happy life was a good life – not just morally, but materially. A good life, full of hard work and dedication, was a happy life not just because it would attain rewards in heaven – but because it would attain rewards on earth. Earthy rewards, here, had moved away from the puritanical definitions which saw them as a distraction from true, spiritual rewards. Earthy rewards, instead, were now being seen as the outward symbols and markers of a good life.

The puritans Calvinistic doctrines meant they believed that God had pre-destined their lives – and their only function on Earth was to live it. This new doctrine believed that God had pre-destined that all people should have the ability to carve for themselves a good life – by force of independent spirit to free themselves from the fears and whims of earthly fate. “Hard work was no longer a (hopefully useful) distraction from the dictates of fate but rather an instrument of fate itself, a tool for self-realization” (Culler, 2003. p. 59).

In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of chance, and shall sit hereafter out o fear from her rotations,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. By hard work, it was possible for individuals to control their own destiny – and this was the Dream. This was what was interpreted as the meaning of ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’. The original Puritan doctrine had strongly emphasized the degree to which men and women could not know what God intended for them and faith as the single most important instrument of their salvation. Yet by the early eighteenth century it was possible for a young man like [Benjamin] Franklin to articulate a far more pragmatic – one might say self-serving – spiritual vision that emphasized the degree to which virtue and happiness were not only correlated but discernable and achievable. “I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded that he holds none that are dangerous; which I hope is the case with me” he told his parents in 1738. If, then, acting on a belief in the efficacy of hard work yields affluence, then surely this is a sign of God’s favor. Here, in effect, is an embrace of the old Catholic doctrine that works were more important than faith – except that the doctrine was now enlisted in the service of personal and social reform (which Franklin considered mutually reinforcing). A new form of common sense was emerging.

"Franklin thus became the patron saint of doing well by doing good" (Culler, 2003. p. 63). This interpretation of a happy life was perpetuated by a succession of prominent figures rising to prominence from humble origins – notable presidents Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom won elections with campaigns that strongly emphasised those humble origins – the American Dream evolved again, and took on the shape of a national myth which would drive national identity from that time to the present.

Death of a Salesman

Indeed, if one were forced to find a single quote which could be said to underlie the entire psychosis of Willy Loman, one could do a lot worse that go back to Lincoln himself, who once said: “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing”. To explore these themes in Miller's play, it is worth exploring the relationships between the central characters. Willy is a character who certainly defines himself according to his own interpretation of success - he defines both his successes and his failures according to a standard which reflects very much the idea of the American Dream. It is through the filter of this Dream that Willy responds to those around him.

For example, consider the opening scene of the play here:

  • Firstly, begin by asking yourself the question - 'What is the problem with Willy here?

  • Then ask yourself 'how does Willy see himself'? Look through the scene and consider in what ways Willy can be seen to create an image of who he thinks he is.

  • Ask yourself 'how does Willy see Biff'? Why does Biff seem to agitate Willy so much?

  • Finally, ask yourself 'how does Willy think about his own past'? Can you see any correlations between the way Willy sees his past, and the way Blanche du Bois saw hers?

Willy's sons Biff and Happy provide both an emotional centre for Willy's growing delusions, and at the same time a counterpoint to the life and values which Willy represents. Happy helps us to understand some of the motivating factors which lead to the kind of dream which is blighting Willy's view of himself, while Biff offers the possiblity of something different. In the following scene, we see Biff and Happy discussing their own lifes and aspirations:

  • What is Biff's dream, and do you think this dream is different from Willy's?

  • What is Happy's dream?

  • How do they describe their past, and where do they see themselves heading in the future?

In addition to his two sons, Willy finds counterpoints in other characters in the play. His neighbour, Charlie, is in many ways an opposite character to Willy. He seems to embody the contradition of both everything Willy desires and everything Willy scorns. We can see this contradition in the following scene:

In this scene we see some of thie things about Charlie which irritate Willy. It is interesting that this is the scene where the image of Willy's dead brother Ben comes to life.

  • What does Ben represent for Willy? What values does Ben embody?

  • In what ways is Ben contrasted with Charlie? What makes them different?

Willy asks Ben perhaps one the most pertinent questions in the play - 'How should I teach them?' In other words, what values should Willy instill into his sons Biff and Happy?

  • What values does Willy teach his sons?

  • What values does Charlie teach his son Bernard?

  • Which is proved right?

The American Dream would have no drama or mystique if it were a self-evident falsehood or a scientifically demonstrable principle. Ambiguity is the very source of its mythic power, nowhere more so than among those striving for, but unsure whether they will reach, their goals. Yet resolution may not afford clarity, either. Those who fail may confront troubling, even unanswerable, questions: Do I blame myself? Bad luck? The unattainability of the objective? Such uncertainty may be no less haunting for the successful, who may also question the basis of their success – and its price. (Culler, 2003. p. 7)

Q: In what ways can this passage be related to Death of a Salesman?

Citation:  Tulloch, J. (2013) Arthur Miller and the American Dream [Internet]. Available from: <> [Accessed 14 February 2013].


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