The man’s peasant parents worked themselves to death in the “stingy earth” to give their child a better life, one that permits “shallow breathing” and riches. Their love and sacrifice made him feel undeserving and afraid no job would ever be good enough to satisfy their ambitions for him.
Accordingly, he now feels lost as in a desert without a map or supplies. He looks down and sees his shadow: he is “an Average Man / Attempting the Exceptional.” He starts to run.
This early short poem takes the form of a modified Petrarchan sonnet. Two four-line stanzas form the octave, rhymed AABB CCDD (the most common Petrarchan form is ABBA ABBA). The sestet, two three-line stanzas, rhyme EFE FGG. This poem expresses the pressure of generational social mobility on a child whose parents worked hard to give him an opportunity for a better life.
The boy’s “peasant parents” toiled to death in very difficult conditions. Their goal was not survival but providing the conditions for their son to have a job in a town where physical labor is not featured. They want their son in a profession that encourages only “shallow breathing” in an office where he might “grow rich”—what has been called a white-collar job since the early 20th century. Generational social mobility is a common parental hope across cultures and especially among immigrants.
The trouble, in the second stanza, is that the parents’ sacrificial toil and love is felt oppressively. The man is “shy and country-loving,” yet his parents’ sacrifice is worthy of a “hero.” No normal profession seems “good enough,” and the result is paralyzing for him. It is a bittersweet tension: while it is admirable that the parents worked so hard for their child, they raised unreasonable expectations in him.
In the third stanza the child is off in the hostile world. Without the social capital he needs to succeed—his rural family has not prepared him for success in the city, nor has it provided him any connections—he feels metaphorically in a desert, “a hundred miles from any decent town.” In a desert without supplies, time is critical, yet he is alone as the personified desert glares at him in dry, silent judgment.
His next thought, in the final stanza, is to look down, perhaps in shame or to avoid the desert’s glare. This is where he sees an image or outline of himself, his shadow, and after all, he is no hero. He is an “Average Man / Attempting the exceptional.” Can an average person succeed at all, much less become the rich hero his parents expected? Most likely the man is further disheartened. He begins to run. Feeling pushed to use gifts he does not possess is not ensuring either success or happiness.
Where, however, is he running? Is he running from the desert back to the “stingy soil” of the fields? Since he is shy and loves the countryside, returning to the land of his parents makes sense. If he is going to fail in their wish, perhaps he might as well fail completely. Yet, what if he realizes that an Average Man attempting the average is still a good life, one much better than what his peasant parents experienced? The American Dream can be realized even if it comes more slowly than one’s parents would wish. Perhaps he understands that if he engages in the same heroic sacrifice for his own children, they might be the ones to become rich. Perhaps he can at least run a hundred miles or more to some town somewhere and give it a chance.