To become an American success a person has to have the perfect life of money, luxury, family and work in the pre-civil war era; after the civil war people suddenly found that the people who had the best lives were the
people who were the happiest. Not everyone looked upon happiness as being successful, but for most Americans happiness became more important than money or social standing like with Edna in The Awakening, the outcasts in The Outcasts of Poker Flat, Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and even Rosicky in Neighbor Rosicky, though not all of them were successful in their attempts.
The American success story has become mixed up in so many different representations that one definite success story is no longer known. Before the United States turned on itself in civil war the totality of success was in social standing and appearances taken from the British way of life. Money, family, and work were all incorporated into your appearance and if you pulled it off just so the society would find you most accomplished. That was all you needed to be one of the top persons around, no matter if you hated everything about your life down to the squeaky shoes you wore. After the horrors of the North fighting the South people began to re-evaluate exactly what mattered to them in their own lives. Suddenly the people who did what they really wanted and not what society expected of them were the ones who turned out happy and not hating life. Even though it took the elitists more time (some still refuse to believe that anything but money and how you are looked at matters) to accept this radical new theory, it started permeating throughout all American life.
How the new success started to be defined was by taking the accepted norm and putting a slight twist on it. Kate Chopin does this in The Awakening. This book shocked many people because the main character was a woman
who decided to break the societal laws in search of her happiness. Edna still stayed within some acceptable bounds however. She still had to wear what was expected and she never ran off with one of her lovers, but she did put aside many norms, like living with her family and taking an abundance of social calls. Edna never found her true happiness though, she committed suicide before she could fully explore her new self. Being one of the first in this new phenomenon, Edna couldnt completely break out of her societal restrictions, though she tried valiantly. Edna was a failed American Success story because she couldnt completely leave behind society to find her happiness; she had kept looking for it through her own place, art, and lovers of a type, but to no avail. Society crushed her before she could fully understand herself and live the life she truly wanted, the one that would have made her happy.
The characters from The Outcasts of Poker Flat written by Bret Harte went through a type of this, though they were killed straight out by nature and only indirectly by society. Unkle Billy escaped his direct fate by dooming the others and it is never let known to the reader if he becomes happy later on in his life, though it is doubted by his cynical and untrustworthy nature; he would probably never let himself be happy by always fearing the world around him. Oakhurst and the Duchess both had more life to look forward to and so far they had been living life on their terms, even if it wasnt the optimal way to live. The Innocent and Piney had each other and had run away to fulfil their lives of happiness together. Mother Shipton was the only one in the confining cabin that didnt have something specific to look forward to after the mountains, yet she had been living her life the way she choose before the exile. Society had thrown out Oakhurst, Duchess and Mother Shipton for them being themselves; by living their successes they were condemned. The lovers left society because they knew their union wouldnt be accepted. This is an example in literature about how the society in real life didnt accept people who were living out their lives on their terms and not according to any unspoken rules that were expected to follow. Though all of the outcasts were looked down upon and their lives were cut short by the storm that forced premature death they had been living the new American success by being themselves and not letting society dictate their every decision.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain show both how society still tries to shape individuals and how Huck lives his own success. Huck kept trying to reconcile between what he knew was right (societal rules)
and what he felt was right. Eventually he shunted society in favor of his own moral beliefs when he proclaimed hed go to hell and free Tom. Huck sincerely thought that by going against the norm hed be punished for all eternity, yet he decided to do what his conscious told him. He lived his own life, up to and beyond that point. He always did what he wanted, lived how he liked, and even though he had been settled down in a family at the end of his adventures, it was still something that he could build his own life in. Ultimately he was happy with himself and his life, something hard for most people to achieve. Huck is a true American success story.
Rosicky in Neighbor Rosicky by Willa Cather was another who lived a completely successful life. He never stopped doing what he loved even though he was told by the doctor that it would shorten his years. Above that he was always happy. Rosicky loved everything and everyone. Whenever something happened that would bring others down he looked at it as an opportunity to enjoy life in a slightly different manner. It didnt matter that he was poor and living out in the dust, he was always optimistic and jovial. His success came from love and happiness with everything about and within him.
Life used to be measured with scales and parties; if you had enough class you were among the best on earth, but if you were poor nothing could save you. The Nation started realizing that there was much more to life than status after the most bloody war America had ever witnessed. Now people wanted to get out of their societal roles. Happiness seemed to be the only thing that made life worth living. Some succeeded and some failed, most fell in the middle where others couldnt quite classify whether they had reached their goal or had fallen short. Living life on ones own terms and loving every minute of it is an American success story.