Readersforum's Blog

November 11, 2012

Is the Great American Novel still relevant?

Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel reminds us that the genre is about the big journey — and the era, economic disparity

By Julia Ingalls

The United States used to be a country that talked about its dreams with a straight face. The idea that someone born into poverty could work his way up into a better class of life wasn’t the setup to a joke; it was, in real terms, doable. Now, we live in an era when social mobility is passé, and everything hinges on a two-tier system: Last year, Detroit announced a two-tier system for new hires while mobile phone companies keep pushing Congress to legalize a two-tier Internet. Santa Monica College, one of the leading community colleges in the U.S., recently proposed a two-tier tuition plan for its most popular courses. There are tolls to get into New York from New Jersey, but not the other way around.

That this class division exists is not shocking. That it’s a de facto truth among American politicians whose constituents think “forklift” refers to a movement preceding the salad course – well, that is shocking. While the U.S. has never been a utopia, it used to offer something that the rest of the jaded world did not: the hope, however imperfect, for a better future. It was the land of opportunity, not the land of preexisting conditions. People used to actually brag about leaving behind the Old World, and all of the ingrained prejudices and inflexible lifestyles that it implied.

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