In his 1931 book The Epic of America, James Truslow Adams coined the phrase the American dream, which is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is .â•¯.â•¯. a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position” (415). Within the whole of the American psyche, there lies an eternal hope that the nation’s citizens will be afforded the opportunity for both monetary growth and social advancement. Of course, hard work and industriousness are embedded within this concept: In the traditional American mindset, any man or woman can achieve whatever he or she wants as long as there is the drive and will to obtain it.
Indeed, although “the American dream” was not used by Truslow until 1931, the concept has always been an integral part within the consciousness of Americans. In the 1776 Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson laid out what may be the most important and well-known reference to the American dream. The Declaration maintains that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Along with the other Founding Fathers, Jefferson believed that the United States could and should be a nation giving every opportunity to individual progress and achievement. In contrast to Great Britain and its strict class structure, the United States represented to Jefferson the chance for all Americans, even those with poor economic backgrounds, to become pillars of their communities.
To much of the world, Benjamin Franklin, another Founding Father, has come to embody the American dream. In The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1793), Franklin states that he arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a nearpenniless youth. He describes walking down the streets with three bread rolls in his hands—those being all he could afford for dinner—and looking about him in order to gauge his opportunities. The remaining sections of the autobiography chronicle his emergence as one of the most influential men in the then-fledgling American nation. Through his diligence, Franklin transformed himself from a poor teenager into a successful businessman, inventor, and ambassador. He established the first library and first fire station, and he initiated the process of harnessing the power of electricity, so it could later be used for the public good. However, not all depictions of the American dream in literature have been quite so favorable. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby depicts the lure of the American dream as being a destructive force rather than a beneficial one. Jay Gatsby, the novel’s main character, believes that if he can move up in society by obtaining as much monetary wealth as possible, then he will be able to achieve the happiness he has always desired. Unlike Franklin, Gatsby is accused of having acquired his money through possibly disreputable means. He does not appear interested in working hard to achieve the luxuries of money; he is instead merely interested in obtaining the end results of actually possessing it. These materialistic values, which he and the other characters in the novel uphold, serve to produce a general feeling of despondency throughout the text. By the end of the novel, this despondency leads to despair, and the greed that overruns the novel leads to Gatsby’s murder.
In a similar vein, Arthur Miller’s 1949 play Death of a Salesman is also critical of the effects the American dream can produce in those who believe wholeheartedly in its monetary promise alone. Like Jay Gatsby, Willy Loman, the play’s protagonist, is obsessed with making money. Rather than finding a job as a physical laborer, which he enjoys, Willy devotes his life to selling. In other words, he devotes himself to the sole task of making money. Throughout the play, Willy experiences flashbacks in which he relives various incidents from his life. He is a constant daydreamer and therefore has a difficult time focusing on the reality of the moment he is currently experiencing. Ultimately, Willy’s obsession with the American dream makes him forget that he has a family who loves him and natural talents that he could employ. In the end, Miller’s depiction of the quest for the American dream is even more somber than is Fitzgerald’s: Willy kills himself, while his son Happy decides to follow along in his father’s footsteps, avenging what he sees as the wrongs society enacted against Willy. At his father’s funeral, Happy asserts: “Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have—to come out number-one man” (2049). This conclusion to the play indicates that Miller believes that what he views as the treacherous myth of the American dream will continually perpetuate itself, relentlessly casting its dark shadow on future generations of young Americans. Yet it can easily be argued that those who feel slighted by the promise of the American dream the most are minority groups—those who have been constantly disenfranchised by the American governmental system and who have been forced to view the hypocrisy they see as inherent within the Dream their entire lives. In his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, the African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., declared that his hope for the equality of all races in America was one “deeply rooted in the American dream.
” King believed that all Americans should be provided the opportunity to prosper to their fullest potential. Much like King, the Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes also lamented that minority groups were never given the opportunity to experience the hope the American dream supposedly provides to its nation’s citizens. In “Let America Be America Again,” Hughes juxtaposes the image of what privileged white Americans envision their country to be with his own experience in the country as an African-American citizen, remarking that “America never was America to me” (l. 5). Likewise, in his 1951 poem “Harlem,” Hughes asks the question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” (l. 1), ultimately suggesting that minority groups are denied the realization of their dreams in America. Deciding to mimic some of Hughes’s themes, Lorraine Hansberry adopted one of the lines from “Harlem” as the title to her 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry’s play follows the lives of the Youngers, an African-American family living in 1950s Chicago. In the drama, Lena Younger, the family matriarch, receives insurance money from the death of her husband. She puts a deposit down on a house and gives the rest of it to her son, Walter Lee. Almost predictably, Walter Lee quickly squanders the rest of the money on a “get rich quick” business scheme that fails.
After all, as has been shown in many of the prior examples, a driving theme throughout much American literature is that the pursuit of monetary gain above all other factors almost inescapably leads to suffering. Because Lena does at least have the chance to put the money down for the house, the play actually concludes on a somewhat positive note. Though the family expects to experience racial oppression in the white neighborhood to which they are moving, they still decide to proceed with the move and to face that problem together. By the play’s end, then, the family is unified. They have all forgiven Walter, and they have come to realize that appreciating family relationships in the same way that Lena does should construct the basis of a “real” American dream. Further, in his 1993 short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, the Native American writer Sherman Alexie shows that, like African Americans, Native Americans experience the idea of the American dream in a unique way. Unlike other minority groups, Native Americans are left out of the American dream because the ideal of white prosperity and “industriousness” led to the destruction and seizing of what was once Indian property and land. Rather than simply being unattainable, the American dream in this case takes on an even more sinister connotation.
Overall, whether they realize it or not, the American dream remains a fundamental factor in most Americans’ lives. Self-fulfillment through monetary satisfaction and whether or not that satisfaction was gained through sufficient hard work is constantly debated and discussed in the media, at neighbor’s houses, and over coffee with friends. Literature is just one venue Americans use to determine their own successes and the successes of those around them. Just as Willy Loman passed on his way of viewing the world to his son Happy, the lens that the idea of the American dream provides will continue to sustain itself for countless future generations of American citizens.
See also Alcott, Louisa May: Little Women; Alvarez, Julia: How the García Girls Lost Their Accents; Cisneros, Sandra: House on Mango Street, The; Dreiser, Theodore: American Tragedy, An; Hinton, S. E.: Outsiders, The; Kerouac, Jack: On the Road; Naylor, Gloria: Women of Brewster Place, The; O’Neill, Eugene: Iceman Cometh, The; Sinclair, Upton: Jungle, The; Steinbeck, John: Of Mice and Men.