According to a recent poll by Harvard’s Institute of Politics, nearly half of millennials in the United States believe the American dream is dead. I don’t know if they’re right; I suppose it depends on how one defines the “American dream” (and death, for that matter). But the fact is that a host of factors — inequality, unemployment, globalization — is forcing millions of young people to reckon with an uncomfortable truth: A land of opportunity for all inevitably will be a land of disappointment for some.
Few artists have conveyed this reality as well as Edward Hopper. To view the realist painter’s works is to encounter America — not just in gas stations and motel rooms, but also in the anxious faces of his world-weary subjects.
Windows feature in so many of Hopper’s paintings, functioning as portals through which his subjects gaze out into the wider world. The window gazers almost always face the sun, and oftentimes a rising one. There is a whiff of that hopeful American spirit: that desire to move on and move up, to start fresh in a new city. You can almost hear the Gipper saying, “It’s morning in America.”
And yet so many of Hopper’s subjects look out on the world with worry.
Amber waves of grain in the distance offer an enticing vision, but one that’s unattainable for the men and women of Hopper’s America. That’s because his subjects are stuck: stuck on the borders between here and there, home and away, present and future.
These borders are tantalizingly permeable. Hopper’s windows are rendered essentially without glass, and it’s often impossible to tell whether they’re open or closed.
Even when Hopper’s Americans do make it outside, they seem incapable of straying too far. Take the young woman in Summertime (1943), who seems to be holding herself back from taking that last step onto the sidewalk:
What’s stopping her? I think the answer can be found in another major theme running through Hopper’s works: alienation. Many of his subjects are alone; all of them are lonely. In the piece below, we see a woman sitting alone with her coffee. What’s more, she’s in an automat — which means she purchased that coffee without speaking to another soul.
When Hopper does bring people together, they seem to want nothing to do with each other. Take, for example, Room in New York (1932):
Consider also the dour-faced couple from The Nighthawks (1942), their hands close but never touching:
True to form, Hopper’s Americans are individualists. Perhaps that’s why they’re so hesitant to step outside during the day, and resigned to huddle in islands of artificial light at night. When your fate is tied up with no one else’s, heading out into the world means going it alone. That’s a scary thing.
Moreover, this hyper-individualism does a disservice to the American dream. It feeds the delusion that happiness is achieved through autonomy. Actually, it is our ties to others that bring us joy. Commitment gives meaning to our lives, and liberty is good only insofar as it allows us to commit ourselves to the good life. We must also respect the commitments we do not freely choose. These ties, which Roger Scruton calls “transcendent bonds,” include obligations to the family and community one is born into.
American conservatism has largely eschewed such discussion of community, unfortunately, exalting Ayn Rand and her rational selfishness over Edmund Burke and his little platoons.
Remember those millennials who don’t believe in the American dream? It’s worth noting that their preferred candidates for the presidency in 2016 are Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. I don’t think that’s because millennials are chiefly concerned with economic prosperity (if they were, they wouldn’t be supporting either candidate, whose economic policies make little sense). It’s because they’re hungry for solidarity. Sanders offers solidarity through socialism, Trump through pseudo-nativism. Sanders’ supporters want to be a part of a revolution; Trump’s supporters want to be a part of “making America great again.”
Of course, neither a President Sanders nor a President Trump would solve the problem. The ascent of individualism and the eclipse of the American community after World War II was a bottom-up process; it cannot be fixed by executive order.
No. The responsibility lies with us: with the ordinary men and women of Edward Hopper’s America. Want to make this country great? Turn your gaze from the window long enough to connect with someone you love and, when it’s time to walk toward the sun, do so together.