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American Nightmares, Zombie Apocalypses, and Tragic Visions: A Review of Paul Cantor’s Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream

Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream: Con Men, Gangsters, Drug Lords, and Zombies. Paul A. Cantor. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2019.


In an author’s note to his essay collection The Culture We Deserve (1989), the late cultural historian Jacques Barzun wrote that the “essence of culture is interpenetration. From any part of it the searching eye will discover connections with another part seemingly remote.” Paul A. Cantor, Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia, understands Barzun’s idea of cultural interpenetration better than most in the field. In Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream: Con Men, Gangsters, Drug Lords, and Zombies Cantor brings his “searching eye” to bear on an impressive array of literary, cinematic, and televisual works. Even though Barzun, the eminent highbrow (albeit one with a love for baseball and detective fiction), might have looked askance at Cantor’s selections, one cannot help thinking that he would have respected the author’s cultural range and critical performance. From Huckleberry Finn to The Walking Dead, Cantor makes surprising connections between works and genres seldom brought together.

Investigations into the dark side of the American dream in popular culture are never in short supply. But most practitioners of cultural studies view the American dream through the latest theoretical “lenses,” usually of the race-gender-sexuality variety. Such theorists seem cursed with the peculiar habit of chewing more than they bite off: any confident assertion, any value judgment, any attempt at accurate interpretation—any one of these must be “problematized,” mulled over (and over again), and turned not only into a crisis for hermeneutics but also into some looming threat to social justice everywhere. What sets Cantor’s study apart is a modest yet expert approach that never indulges in theoretical pettifoggery or ideological histrionics. Although well aware of the complications involved in the act of interpretation—such as the problem of intentionality—Cantor takes a more traditional critical stance:

However these works may have come into being, they have ended up having an artistic shape, and they form more or less coherent aesthetic objects, which we can analyze for their patterns of meaning. Of course no one can ever come up with an interpretation that cannot be refuted, but one can make a sincere effort to consider all the evidence and search for aesthetic patterns in the works one is discussing, and that is what I have tried to do in this book.

The book is indeed a marvel of practical criticism, an accomplishment further elevated by Cantor’s complete lack of cant. His prose unobtrusively combines erudition with conversation, complexity with simplicity. For those of us fated to read jargon-clogged articles on a weekly basis, this lively and lucid study reminds us that there are, now and again, some small mercies to be thankful for.

The book’s five chapters cover the American dream theme as dramatized in specific works of literature, cinema, and television. In the introduction, Cantor asserts that stories about those who fail in America “may reveal something about the American dream that an endless parade of success stories would conceal.” Although he happily acknowledges that America “has indeed proved to be a land of opportunity for millions of people,” he recognizes that many landmarks of American popular culture “raise profound doubts about [the American dream’s] validity and viability, and in the process reveal something important about America.” The works that Cantor examines “expose the inner tensions in the American dream,” the conflicting and even incompatible values which the dream advocates. As Cantor reminds us, “there is no single conception of the American dream, and the different versions can be at odds with one another.”

Cantor begins his first chapter with an analysis of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He considers the novel “a Tocquevillian meditation on the advantages and disadvantages of aristocracy and democracy as alternative ways of life.” The dogged pursuit of individual freedom in our democracy, though a liberating and exhilarating part of the American dream, is fraught with danger, bringing with it “new fears, uncertainties, and anxieties.” Perhaps more alarming, life in a bustling democracy with a free economy “makes it difficult to distinguish the genuinely self-made man from the con man.” Twain’s nineteenth-century America “is filled with impostors” of one kind or another. Democracy, as Twain shows, has its dark side. But it is often “the lingering allure of aristocracy in democratic America [that] continually threatens to undermine the peace of society and lead to outbreaks of violence.” Twain famously mocks the aristocratic pretensions of the Grangerfords, and the King and the Duke are exposed as impostors posing as aristocrats. None of these insights, of course, belongs to Cantor alone; scholars have elucidated these thematic preoccupations in Twain’s oeuvre for many years. Cantor’s contribution lies in his placing Twain’s novel in conversation with disparate works of popular culture that, despite their vast differences in manner and matter, illuminate each other in unexpected ways.

In his second chapter, Cantor continues his discussion of shifting identity and imposture by turning to W. C. Fields. Cantor sees some of Fields’ films as prefiguring such later works of cinematic postmodernism as Being John Malkovich (1999). Like Malkovich, Fields’s best films explore the “urge to escape fixed identities.” Fields himself, a man who began his career doing stage sketches and vaudeville acts, worked ceaselessly at constructing his trademark persona on stage and screen. Yet, as Fields seems to have known, a grave danger accompanies the temptation to become someone else; in fact, as Cantor puts it, “it may be a formula for perpetual frustration and even disaster.” Fields’s most intelligent films show us that the cherished notions of our American mythology, including our desire to remake ourselves endlessly and to succeed financially, are often delusive and destructive. Cantor’s crisp interpretations of such films as The Bank Dick (1940) and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) make fitting companion pieces to his examination of Huckleberry Finn.

The finest accomplishment in the book is, in my estimation, Cantor’s discernment of the tragic vision in works of American popular culture. Recent commentators—aside from such critic-scholars as Terry Eagleton and Rita Felski—have given short shrift to tragedy, except when it affords them the opportunity to “interrogate” those most recalcitrant “texts” of the Western canon. Fortunately, Cantor bypasses the predictable academic approach to show us how popular artists have exploited classic tragic themes while using modern materials. Equipped with an enviable knowledge of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, Cantor is well placed to comment on the tragic imagination in popular movies and television.

The chapter on Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather II (1974) contends that the films are tragic because the “dream of founding a family and the dream of founding a business” come into irreconcilable conflict with each other. In Coppola’s America, “the core virtues that make a good American paradoxically turn out to make a good criminal as well,” and we are left wondering “whether it is possible to separate legitimate activities in pursuit of the American dream from illegitimate.” One of the tragic conflicts that Cantor magnifies is that between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, a dichotomy first propounded by Ferdinand Tönnies that, as Cantor explains, distinguishes “a small, tight-knight, organic, traditional community (represented by the village)” from “an extended, cosmopolitan, artificial, modern community (represented by the nation-state).” Cantor argues—convincingly, I think—that the Godfather films “explore the tragedy of modernization, portraying what happens when people uproot themselves from their traditional communities to pursue the American dream of freedom and autonomy.” The tension between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft finally proves irresolvable, thus bringing about the Corleones’ tragic downfall. There’s no disputing Cantor’s exegetical mastery in this chapter, which ought to serve literature and film students—and, let us be frank, some of their teachers—as a model of clear, concise, and cogent interpretive prose.

Cantor’s fourth chapter on Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, memorably titled “The Macbeth of Meth: Breaking Bad and the tragedy of Walter White,” is the best in the book. Because all the characters in Breaking Bad feel “frustrated, unfulfilled, and envious,” it follows that they see themselves as having been “denied the American dream.” Finding themselves “[t]rapped in various forms of boring middle-class existence, the characters fantasize about more glorious ways of life.” And so Walter White, the meek and mild high-school chemistry teacher from the suburbs, constructs an alternative identity as Heisenberg, “the much-feared king of meth production in the Southwest and ultimately the world.” White’s transformation from suburban high-school teacher to terrifying drug lord is simply the superhero myth dramatized in a more plausible way. This super-hero element—probably undetected by most casual viewers—no doubt merits further inquiry. The real pleasure here, however, is Cantor’s demonstration of Breaking Bad’s atmosphere of authentic tragedy.

The tragic world of Walter White is “suffused with moral ambiguity.” In White’s world we never encounter “the whites and blacks of melodrama,” only various “shades of gray” (which is one of the show’s many little ironies, considering the protagonist’s surname). “The greatness of the show,” Cantor claims, “is precisely its moral complexity, the way it constantly unnerves us with the difficult choices its characters are forced to make.” The melodramatist presupposes an easily definable and identifiable moral order; the tragedian, by contrast, takes moral ambiguity and human frailty as the données of both tragic literature and life itself. Walter White, inhabiting this fallen world of sin and woe, embodies the mixed traits of the archetypal tragic hero. Like tragedy’s most imperishable protagonists, White is not without commendable qualities. But he is also a man possessed by darker energies and fixations, and he inevitably “makes a mistake, he oversteps the normal bounds of human life, he pushes a principle too far, he overestimates himself, he dares to break a taboo.”

Cantor knows that many will view White as nothing more than an immoral monster and sociopath, dismissing any highfalutin talk about tragic grandeur. To make his case persuasive, Cantor revisits Shakespeare’s Macbeth. If the blood-stained Macbeth can be considered an authentic tragic hero, surely Walter White can as well? Cantor thinks so. He admits “Vince Gilligan is no William Shakespeare,” and that “Macbeth is a greater work of art than Breaking Bad.” Nevertheless, he insists that the filmmakers “are dealing with genuinely tragic material,” bringing the series “as close to Shakespeare’s level as any show in history.” As the chapter progresses, Cantor turns to Macbeth to underscore aspects of Breaking Bad, including Walter White’s masculinity, criminality, and dubious morality. He also remarks on the show’s departures from traditional tragedy and how they accommodate our zeitgeist, such as Gilligan’s exploration of the triumph of the therapeutic in modern life. Still, in the end, Breaking Bad confronts us “with the fundamental experience of tragedy—the sense of tragic waste, the disturbing insight that qualities we admire in people can be put to the wrong use.”

The chapter on The Walking Dead and post-apocalyptic narratives, the last in the book, has taken on a whole new layer of significance in light of the debates over lockdowns during the current pandemic. Many post-apocalyptic narratives seem to convey an implicit demand “for government to grow smaller or disappear entirely.” These narratives, as seen in a television show like Revolution, “seem to reflect a sense that government has grown too big, and too remote from the concerns of ordinary citizens and unresponsive to their needs and demands. If Congress and the president are unable to shrink the size of government, perhaps a plague or cosmic catastrophe can do some real budget cutting for a change” (137). In the aftermath of some apocalyptic event, it is as if the characters in these narratives “return . . . to what political theorists call the state of nature.” Because the characters are no “longer locked into institutions already in place,” they can now decide whether they “might be better off under other arrangements or perhaps no government at all.”

The Walking Dead presents us with a world in which people are ruled by “impersonal and unresponsive institutions.” According to Cantor, the show suggests that “globalization is the ultimate nightmare.” The zombies themselves become apt figurations for the disruptive and ultimately dehumanizing power of globalization. Having lost their “individuality, freedom of will, and everything that makes them human beings,” the zombies come to represent “the kind of mass-men that impersonal institutions seek to produce.” A citizenry of composed of zombies is precisely what large governments want, “a uniform, homogeneous population, incapable of acting independently.”

Cantor points to what he sees as the show’s critique of a government agency such as the CDC, an agency whose message is that “ordinary citizens need to rely on government authorities and institutions to save them.” (That this has become eerily central to our current debates over how to deal with COVID-19 goes without saying.) The filmmakers behind The Walking Dead suggest that a dispersal of people during the zombie plague is more effective than “concentrating them” under one totalizing plan. To put it in Cantor’s words, “When scattered into small groups, people are able to pursue a variety of survival strategies and find out which ones work rather than pinning all their hopes on a single plan dictated by the government, which may fail catastrophically.” Cantor connects this small-government theme to the show’s depiction of the antagonism between “red states” and “blue states” that underlies modern political life in America.

The book does, to be sure, contain a political perspective of which not everyone will approve, least of all the majority of academic critics. Readers will perhaps recall that Cantor was co-author of Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture (2009), a study focusing on the application of Austrian economics to our understanding of literary creation, as well as the sole author of The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV (2012). But Cantor employs his libertarian perspective with tact and restraint, combining it with his nuanced analyses of individual works. Open-minded readers, among whom I should like to imagine most scholars and critics in the humanities, may well see Cantor’s book as exemplifying the sort of viewpoint diversity that today’s literary-cultural criticism desperately needs.


Oliver SpiveyOliver Spivey

Oliver Spivey

Oliver Spivey is a doctorate candidate in English at Oklahoma State University whose interests include nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, the tragic vision in American fiction, traditional Anglo-American literary criticism, British literature, and classic cinema. His writing has appeared in Areo Magazine and The University Bookman.

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