The American Dream in Literature

By Sarrah McGraw

Do Dreams Come True? It depends on the Dream

The greatest thing about the idea of the American dream is that it’s different for everyone. Though it began as an American ideal, it has spread across the world. After all, other nations have visions and ideas of destiny too.

But the question may be asked: What aligns the idea of the “American dream” in the forefront of our thoughts, when it comes to destiny and personal and national advancement? The answer is that it was the first of its kind to be expressly enunciated in written form. The prophetic words written by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence define the contours of that same dream. Phrases such as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” “all men are created equal” and that these same men are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” are words that have formed the American dream into what we know it to be.


The American Dream and Literature

Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald have used the idea of the American dream in their famous works.

Twain’s prolific American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, seems smitten by the notion of freedom and what it means for the American dream. For the novel’s protagonist, Huck, the dream is all about freedom of movement without constraints or restrictions. Twain’s work is revolutionary because he envisions Jim the slave as a free person as well. Twain describes Jim as being not only free from physical shackles but free from the prejudices of Southern society.


Evolving but not Changing the Dream

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 and was mainly concerned with the commercialization of the American dream. Through Gatsby, the novel’s protagonist, Fitzgerald dreamt of an American society where you “be all you can be.” For Fitzgerald and for the characters in his most famous novel, the American dream comes with an influx of wealth and exorbitance, rendering it devoid of true love and joy.

How Far are we From Realizing the American Dream?

In 1931, James Truslow Adams wrote, “we dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

The stipulation with Adams’ dream is that one’s achievements and abilities are dependent upon various external factors–economic situation, social status, gender, sex, etc. Have we, as a society, given up the idea of the American dream?

The 1776 dream was about America’s future. Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

Are we any closer to realizing our forefather’s American Dream? Or is this dream not attainable?

Sarrah Mcgraw is a graduate of University of Pennsylvania with a Master of Science in Criminology. She currently resides in Dayton, Ohio and she regularly contributes to


Les Miserables and the Criminal Justice System

By Joe Suhre

If you love literature, may I suggest you read the unabridged English translation of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo—yes, all 1500 pages; that is unless you want to skip the fifty plus pages describing, in oozing detail, the extensive French sewer system. The work is a tour de force of literature, reflecting the optimistic 19th Century view of redemption and the social struggle between justice and mercy.

Although the setting for Les Miserables is early 19th Century France, its message is timeless. It connects with the reader on a primal level; holds up a mirror and says, “This is who you are.” Change the time and the setting and the entire novel could take place in present-day Chicago.



The modern courtroom

In my criminal defense firm and in my interactions with prosecutors and judges, I encounter different variations of Javert, Jean Valjean, and Bishop Myriel every day. Victor Hugo’s characters seem alive and well.

I often represent Jean Valjean in court. I glance over at the prosecutor. I know him. He is Javert. I have a struggle on my hands. I look at the judge. She is a Bishop Myriel. Despite everything she has seen, she hasn’t lost faith in humanity. She wants to extend mercy but a congress of Javerts has tied her hands with mandatory sentences. The police arrested my client for allegedly “stealing a loaf of bread.” Now he could face ten years in prison without parole.

Verbal shorthand

I like it when I know people who have read Les Miserables. I am able to describe the criminal justice system with just a few words. For instance, if you haven’t read Les Miserables, the above paragraph might seem like gibberish.

Part of the reason I think I see Javert so often in my work is in the designation, “Criminal Justice System.” Otherwise, it might be the “Criminal Mercy and Rehabilitation System.”

Javert against drinking and driving

One area of law that sometimes feels like it has been hijacked by Javert, is DUI law. From the initial stop to the automatic suspension of your license and arraignment, the stern face of Javert is there to greet you. Forget the fact that you are innocent. If you were arrested, you must be guilty.

I sometimes try to explain the typical DUI stop to people in a way that allows them to understand how questionable that procedure actually is. I find that Jean Valjean’s statement in defense of Champmathieu actually describes a DUI stop quite well.

 “If I speak, I am condemned.

If I stay silent, I am damned!”

The crucible of humanity

 I believe two places where humanity comes face to face with itself are the battlefield and in the courtroom. I haven’t been on a battlefield but I often find myself fighting a real war against people who are screaming justice, when mercy may be the solution.

The value of literature like Les Miserables is that it allows people to see the world differently. The criminal justice system, as I mentioned above, is a stage where humanity reveals its true self. I am front row center to the future of our race. Great literature, whether it was written 200 years ago or yesterday, will help shape that future; but only if we open a book or at least download it to our iPad and read it.

If we continue to allow our time to read great literature give way to video games and action movies, future generations may find themselves in a state of moral confusion akin to Javert looking down at the river Seine. If you don’t know what I mean by that, I know a good book you can read.

Victor Hugo himself stated,

“So long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Miserables cannot fail to be of use.”


Joe Suhre is a DUI attorney and principal of Suhre & Associates in Chicago, IL. He received a Criminal Justice degree from Xavier University and worked for 6 years as an auxiliary police officer. He later received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Cincinnati.

Little Trifles Like Law and Order

Winter Elliott is an Associate Professor of English at Brenau University, an institution composed of an historic women’s college and a coeducational undergraduate college.  She teaches courses in composition and British lit, and enjoys the saucier side of literature — murder, mayhem, monsters, and the war between the sexes.

At first it seems like a clear cut case of right and wrong:  a husband is murdered in his sleep, strangled to death by a rope around his neck.  His wife, who appears all “done up” to the man who discovers the victim, pleats her apron and laughs crazily.  Her alibi, if it can be called that, is so asinine as to be ludicrous:  she didn’t wake up from a sound sleep while the deed was done, and in modern parlance, some other dude did it!

While the facts of the murder seem obvious, two decent, otherwise law-abiding housewives eventually decide to hide the evidence of the wife’s motive – and whether or not justice will be done is left unclear.  This murder mystery is the subject of Susan Glaspell’s 1916 play Trifles, which she renamed “A Jury of Her Peers,” when she published it a year later as a short story.  In some ways, the title of the short story better indicates Glaspell’s point.  Even the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 did not immediately give women the universal right to serve on juries.

Thus, Glaspell implies that the two housewives in the play or short story are more truly the “peers” of the murderer, Minnie Wright, than would be an all-male jury.   Consequently, as Mrs. Wright’s peers, the two women, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, uncover evidence of Minnie’s long-term abuse and decide to hide the strangled canary that both represents Minnie herself and provides evidence of her motive – she strangled her husband as both she and her pet had been, figuratively and literally, strangled by him.

A one-act play, simple in terms of plot, characterization, and symbolism, Trifles is a frequent inclusion in college literature anthologies and on syllabi of writing about literature courses.  In this context, my students encounter the ethical dilemma suggested by the play.  As students at a women’s college, one might expect, as one of my students herself put it, that all or most of the young women would immediately side with Minnie Wright and her female supporters in the play.  This is not the case.  Students who read Trifles for the first time usually position themselves alongside the male representatives of “law and order” in the play, the sheriff and country attorney.  Like these men, students first encountering the play don’t really care why Minnie Wright killed her husband; they perceive only a crime that must be punished – regardless of the status of either the victim or the murderer.

Continue reading

The World of Learning, Imagination, and Entertainment

book fractal by bzedan on flickrBob Schilling is a defense lawyer and former assistant district attorney who lives in New Bedford.  His practice is now in the New Bedford District Court and in the Juvenile Court handling delinquencies and ‘youthful offender’ cases.  He has a daughter in New York City and a son at UMass Amherst.

A former colleague (an assistant district attorney) recently asked me if I was still involved with Judge Kane’s “bleeding heart book club.”  We both laughed. In a more serious vein, he went on to ask whether I thought he might enjoy it, because he is approaching retirement and may have some time to – and it sounds like a cliché but really isn’t – “give back to the community.”


I first heard of Changing Lives Through Literature from Judge Robert Kane, a brilliant, experienced, tough judge in the Superior Court; I heard him gently query convicted felons about whether they had ever taken any interest in the written world of learning, imagination and entertainment.


He spoke to these hard men of the life of the mind and encouraged exploration of the world of letters. He offered them the possibility of this program. Some, who think toughness and compassion are mutually exclusive, would roll their eyes.


Three years ago, when I retired from service to the Commonwealth, I had the occasion to do a good deal of work in the New Bedford Juvenile Court as a defense attorney. Lo and behold, I heard again of CLTL through Stella Ribeiro, a dedicated probation officer who I worked with in the “Second Chance Drug Court.” I told her that I would love to participate, finally, in the program.

Continue reading

Books Behind Bars : The War on Prison Law Libraries

photo by teachandlearn on Flickr

Mona Lynch is an associate professor in the Criminology, Law and Society department at UC Irvine. Her research and writing focuses on the social, psychological, and cultural dynamics of contemporary punishment processes, and has been published in a wide range of journals and law reviews. Her new book, Sunbelt Justice: Arizona and the Transformation of American Punishment is due out this fall with Stanford University Press.


I am just coming off of a ten-year obsession with Arizona’s punishment practices. There is an aspect to the multiple assaults on prisoners’ rights and dignity that I have yet to articulate until now–the “tough” punishment policies instituted in this state that directly assault the autonomy of the prisoner’s soul. This guest post is my attempt to make sense of these policies by sharing just one such episode in Arizona’s recent penal past: the war on prison law libraries.


The legal battle began in 1984, when a class action suit brought by inmates at the central prison unit alleged that prisoners were denied meaningful access to courts due to inadequate law library facilities. Under order from the Court, the state agreed early on to improve the access, but the plaintiffs soon returned to court, alleging continued violations of prisoners’ rights.


Federal District Court Judge Carl Muecke ordered  the Department of Corrections to supply trained legal assistants to help prisoners who were denied physical access to the library with their cases. The department, however, simply assigned prisoners–many with no legal skills whatsoever–to the job of “legal assistant.” The prison only allowed inmates to use the library on a very limited and arbitrary schedule and forced  many prisoners to pay for basic supplies for filing cases, such as paper and stamps, even if it meant that they had to forego other necessities to do so.


Read more after the jump.

Continue reading

Buber in Brookline

Photo by flickr user tidewatermuse

by Ronald P. Corbett, Jr.

1975. Brookline Municipal Court, MA. Juvenile session. Late afternoon. Veteran street worker Dave Wizansky approaches a recently appointed probation officer.  “Ron, I think this new judge is really going to make a difference. He approaches the cases in a very different way. Did you notice how he always addressees the juvenile directly? That rarely happens. These kids are used to being talked about, or at, or around. They are not used to be talked ‘to’. And that is what Judge Shubow does.”


1995. Henderson House, Weston, MA. A meeting of judges, probations officers, and educators involved in or supporting Changing Lives Through Literature. Each participant is asked to offer a reflection on the program and its power. A probation administrator mentions how empowering it is for probationers to sit with judges and educators and get treated as equals at the discussion table.


2005. University of Massachusetts, Lowell, MA. A graduate class in criminal justice. A judge and staff from Ayer District Court discuss the workings of their drug court. The probation officer coordinating the program suggests that the attention from the judge and the heart-to-heart communications that take place each week between judge and drug court participant account for much of the program’s effectiveness.


Each of these vignettes strikes a common theme and illustrates a basic truth about the latent–and commonly overlooked–power of relationships in the administration of justice. In these examples, the relationship implicated is that  between the “judger” and the “judged.” 


Continue reading

Criminal Sentencing: Retribution or Redemption?

by Lawrence T. Jablecki

jablecki1Fourteen men, ages 30’s-60’s, clad in white, incarcerated behind steel bars for crimes of violence, from 10-30 years, seated in a classroom discussing crime and punishment. When asked if they were willing to discuss the impact of their crime and incarceration on their families, their collective reply was “sure, doing time has made us tough.” Almost immediately, the room was transformed into the silence of a chapel as the teacher asked them one by one to share their stories. Two hours passed in a flash during which most of those tough guys were choked with emotion, had tears in their eyes, and a few cried with no shame. The emotional intensity in the room was an indescribable experience.


The above event took place two weeks ago in a Texas prison and for this writer who has taught university classes to prison inmates for 20 years, it was a totally unique and unforgettable experience. And it is a real life confirmation of the reasons why Changing Lives Through Literature co-director Bob Waxler can feel genuine compassion for the fictional character of Cholly Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Waxler is an incorrigible idealist and I am proud to be one of his friends. The fact and depth of his idealism are eloquently stated in his recent post “Prisons are Built with Stones of Law. He tells us that a few of the judges who read Cholly’s story are compelled “… to see from a new perspective offenders appearing before their bench. Each offender has a richly complex story….It makes judgment difficult, raises questions about the perplexing relationship between mercy and justice, compassion and judgment.”

The tragic reality, however, is that the vast majority of judges who preside over our Federal and State criminal justice systems lack the temperament and training to engage in this type of reflection. They administer systems with penal codes which give priority to retribution, i.e., offenders must receive their ‘just deserts.’ The belief that many offenders who are sentenced to prison, including many for violent crimes, could find redemption in local communities under the rubric of Restorative Justice, is still widely viewed like an alien from another planet.

In 1991, when Waxler and Kane created Changing Lives Through Literature, they certainly knew that it was an unconventional alternative to prison. I am persuaded, however, that they did not realize the extent to which it is a radical and frontal assault on the crime control policies which have been in the driver’s seat in this country for the last 30 years. They were insurgents who planted the seeds of a much needed revolution in American criminal justice. I am very proud of the fact that I joined the revolutionary forces in 1996.




Dr. Lawrence T. Jablecki is the former director of the Brazoria County Community Supervision and Corrections Department in Angleton, Texas and currently teaches in the Sociology Department at Rice University. He co-founded the Texas chapter of Changing Lives Through Literature in 1997 with Judge Robert E. May.