Several of the words that Soapy uses to describe Blackwell’s Island, including “refuge” and “haven,” are reminiscent of the language that inspired waves of poor and homeless individuals to seek out the United States in the hope of a better life. Yet even as the “American Dream” promises prosperity to all who work hard, Soapy’s experiences point to the American Dream as being far more selective and undemocratic than it pretends to be. Even if one shows determination and initiative toward life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, these opportunities are neither guaranteed nor equally available to everyone. The story thus highlights the inherent hypocrisy of a society that preaches opportunity for all yet only offers it to a few.
Rather than succumb to the cold like the dead leaf that falls into his lap at the beginning of the story, Soapy leaves his park bench to pursue the seemingly simple goal of staying alive. Yet his freedom to do so is, ironically, also what stands in his way of pursuing this basic tenet of the American Dream. The geese seen in the opening paragraph of the story offer a metaphor for Soapy’s own version of liberty: they possess the freedom of flight but must migrate to find a new home every winter. Likewise, Soapy’s life is not encumbered by a mortgage or a job, yet within that relative freedom O. Henry writes that Soapy is “doomed to liberty.” This suggests that liberty without opportunity is not really freedom at all; rather, Soapy has no chance to take his life into his own hands and better his circumstances as the American Dream would suggest, and, however “free,” remains at the mercy of the world around him.
Nevertheless, Soapy’s dogged determination to get arrested and find shelter remains the driving force behind “The Cop and the Anthem.” That Soapy’s hard work is repeatedly rebuffed, however, further illustrates the illusory nature of the American Dream. Several of Soapy’s interactions—sneaking a meal at a restaurant, assuming the role of a “masher,” and performing disorderly conduct in front of a police officer—can be read as parables of the workplace. Soapy is shaven and wearing a neat black coat when he enters the restaurant, as though he’s entering a job interview. Soapy demonstrates his value as a role player willing to perform “despicable and execrated” work when committing street harassment. And he even code-switches when insulting a police officer—a person who, in this instance, might be considered his colleague—in order to achieve his objective of being arrested.
The story would be radically different if Soapy decided to give up after he’s thrown out of his first restaurant. Instead, he refuses to be dissuaded by failure and digs deeper into his playbook, drawing upon his talents in order to pull himself up by his proverbial bootstraps and land himself in jail. It’s easy to imagine how the determination Soapy displays might be praised if it were the story of an entrepreneur, but in Soapy’s case the rules of the American success story apparently do not apply. This makes Soapy’s decision at the end of the story, upon hearing an organ “anthem” emanate from a church, to seize control of his life and “find work” all the more poignant: no matter how inspiring this emblem of the American Dream, that dream is out of reach for men like Soapy.
It’s crucial to “The Cop and the Anthem” that O. Henry calls the song Soapy hears within the church an “anthem.” This implicitly links the song with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States and the piece of music most closely associated with the American Dream. All of the language O. Henry uses in this scene is deliberate and telling, in fact. For instance, the church anthem causes “a revolution” in Soapy and inspires him to “do battle with his desperate fate.” It’s possible to read this as a re-telling of the American origin story itself, in which the Revolutionary War created the conditions out of which the American Dream arose. That Soapy is on the outside looking in during this scene, barred from the church by an iron fence, can further be read as an analogue of homeless and underclass experience in the United States. Indeed, the church—a place of refuge and salvation—might be seen as a stand-in for the American Dream itself.
Though it presents itself as an equal-opportunity endeavor, the American Dream of “The Cop and the Anthem” is selective, brutal, and can’t be achieved in equal measure by all members of society. The painful irony of O. Henry’s story is that Soapy does achieve his original dream of being taken to Blackwell’s Island, but it’s only after he becomes determined to pursue new dreams altogether and has taken the initiative to change his life. This portrayal of the American Dream reveals its hypocrisy and shows the extent to which homeless individuals are often caught in a brutal relationship with the bedrock concepts of American culture.
The American Dream ThemeTracker
The American Dream Quotes in The Cop and the Anthem
Soapy, having decided to go to the Island, at once set about accomplishing his desire. There were many easy ways of doing this. The pleasantest was to dine luxuriously at some expensive restaurant; and then, after declaring insolvency, be handed over quietly and without uproar to a policeman.
Soapy had confidence in himself from the lowest button of his vest upward. He was shaven, and his coat was decent and his neat black, ready-tied four-in-hand had been presented to him by a lady missionary on Thanksgiving Day.
“’Tis one of them Yale lads celebratin’ the goose egg they give to the Hartford College. Noise; but no harm. We’ve instructions to lave them be.”
In a cigar store he saw a well-dressed man lighting a cigar at a swinging light. His silk umbrella he had set by the door on entering. Soapy stepped inside, secured the umbrella and sauntered off with it slowly. The man at the cigar light followed hastily.
He would pull himself out of the mire; he would make a man of himself again; he would conquer the evil that had taken possession of him. There was time; he was comparatively young yet: he would resurrect his old eager ambitions and pursue them without faltering.
“Three months on the Island,” said the Magistrate in the Police Court the next morning.