.: American Dream Reference Page :.

The American Dream - A literary overview


The term

While the dream itself dates back much further than the discovery of America, the expression "the American dream" was created as recently as 1931 to give a name to "the greatest contribution we have as yet made to the thought and welfare of the world" (Adams, p. VIII, ed. 1931). Since then it has been used with regard to almost any aspect of life in America, both negatively and positively. As a formula it has acquired a life of its own, yet it is not entered in any reference books, nor is it to be found in the registers of American history books. However, it occurs on the title pages of literary works, such as Mailer's An American Dream and Albee's play The American Dream; of interpretations of American literature such as Walter Allen's The Urgent West: The American Dream and Modern Man and F.I. Carpenter's American Literature and the Dream; of political writings like President Johnson's biography Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream; and as the name of a magazine.

The expression is increasingly used by politicians who, by invoking the abstractions behind it, of which everyone is more or less clearly aware, try to win the confidence of the American electorate. The more frequently it is repeated and the more widely the contexts in which it is used differ, the more difficult it becomes precisely to determine its meaning. What it lacks in precision it gains in emotional appeal. The attempt to define its meaning can considerably trouble Americans of widely different levels of education. (cf. Elliott).

Origin and confirmation

The old dream of a land of ideal perfection in which a perfect society could be established had inspired the earliest explorers and settlers who came to America. As soon as they were there and had thus found a new land into which this dream could be projected, the dream became "American": it began to seem realizable, and the way to its fulfilment appeared, despite all hardships, as one of constant progress. This progress was visible as the frontier moved westward. At the same time it was intellectual. Physical and intellectual progress had almost become synonymous, as Boorstin says (cf. p. 159). The novelty of the country in which it was hard to avoid new things and new experiences was accessible to all, and the opportunities it thus offered to all who came made them equal. The immigrants lured to America by the hope for a free and successful life came equipped with their old world accomplishments to cope with the new life awaiting them; whatever talent they possessed was challenged and so they attained achievements which for them had been unthought of and so far impossible. It was part of the new experience that everything achieved could be surpassed. And even if they did not have the success they desired, they could make a new beginning somewhere else in the ever-expanding country - another opportunity given to all.

Reflections upon these conditions can be found from the earliest times on, as for example in de Crèvecœur's frequently quoted remark: "Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying with them that great a mass of science, vigor and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle. The American dream was laid down generally in the declaration that "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" were self-evident rights of the individual. It contributed to the foundation of the first democratic republic, retained its challenge for the future when the newly founded state was regarded as the "great experiment" and established its importance as a fact of history.

It became "that dream of a land in which life should be better, richer and fuller for every man with opportunity for each to his ability and achievement" (Adams, p. 374) in a perfect democracy.

The scope of the dream

The safest thing to say about the American dream is that it is "one of the motivating forces of American civilization" (Carpenter, p. 5). Whether it was considered an inspiration, a vision, an illusion, a delusion or a nightmare has always depended upon what was thought to be its essential element, and how in every individual case reality came up to the ideal. It would be most surprising if these attitudes did not widely differ according to origin, education, experience, age and other factors which determine people's lives and distinguish them from those of others.

Since the dream ranges from the idea of a "holy commonwealth" to the cliché "from rags to riches" with cookbook-like recipes to go with it, it is plausible that the dream of a richer, fuller life independent of rank should be traceable in almost any expression of American life and thought. That which makes it so pervasive and yet at the same time elusive, is that it has been described and manifested at all intellectual and emotional levels.

Like the most enthusiastic affirmation, radical negation is a statement of the dream. In any case, it has determined the pattern of American thinking (cf. Carpenter, p.5). "Even today it distinguishes American writing, if only by the intensity of its disillusion" (ibid.).

A celebration of the American dream can be found in the writings of the Transcendentalists and it can be found in the context of a malicious joke, when, for example, a movie director is made to say to his male star, "I'll say one thing, if they ever educated one of you dopes it'd be the end of the American Dream" (Gore Vidal, The City and the Pillar, Panther, p.57).

With progressive urbanization one aspect of the dream gained in importance which (added to it a somewhat nostalgic quality. Hope for the future was no longer its only main component. It increasingly conveyed a sense of loss, the loss of something that had to be regained. This element is in itself a piece of criticism of the dream, yet particularly of what man has so far made of it.

While the frontier was still open, life in an urban society could easily be escaped, when it was felt as a menace to one's personal freedom. This is just what Huck Finn did when he decided "to light out for the Territory" before they could "sivilize" him. When, by 1920, half the American population lived in urban areas, the idea of going west had taken on a new glamor. The attraction it has for the failure in the city is very aptly expressed in Murray Schisgal's play The Tvpists: "Paul: I've been thinking of it for a long long time. This city stinks for my money; there's nothing here but a lot of smoke, noise and corruption. I don't know where that bus is going to take me, but I'm not getting off until I find a place where there's plenty of fresh air, lots of room, that's what I want, lots of room, and mountains, mountains as high as you can see. Yes, sir. When I find that place I'm getting off and that's where I'm staying." (Marowitz, p.145).

There is something in the dream for everyone

"America counts almost entirely on the future. Nor is that hope unwarranted. Today ahead, though dimly yet, we see in vistas a copious, sane, gigantic offspring. " This somewhat mystic remark from Whitman's Democratic Vistas expressed the dream just as authentically as the hero at the end of a traditional western movie who delivers his trivial eulogy of America. Emerson's assertion that "whoever will be a man must be a nonconformist" is as much a statement of the dream as the ideal of the All-American boy who succeeds precisely because he excels in adapting himself to the norms and demands of the society he lives in. Ideas which would normally seem mutually exclusive can be comprehended within the range of the American dream.

The rainbow and the pot of gold

There are two levels at which the American dream has always existed. It has developed along the divergent lines of spiritual and material aims. Most incongruities in the articulation of as well as the contrasting attitudes to, the dream are due to this dualism. Whether the dream turns out to be good or bad is mainly a question of priorities. The synthesis, according to L. B. Johnson, is found where "men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods" (Kearns, p.211).

There is that part of the dream which must be constantly aspired to, which can be approached, yet never quite attained; in solemn terms it is the quest for perfection, more casually it might be called the "rainbow aspect" (cf. Adams, p.373). By contrast, the prospect of personal material success or simply wealth, the pot of gold aspect, is more tangible and more immediately attractive. There are numerous well-known instances of the poor boy who by his own effort made his way to the top. Such examples can easily exert a greater influence on individual wishes and dreams than ideas which remain abstract and require thinking. The effect of such models of personal success encouraged others who tried to make the dream come true and strengthened their belief that it might. Their reaction was not envy but the feeling that this was their own good fortune anticipated. Understandably, the pot of gold aspect came to predominate and equally understandably, it has always been subject to criticism.


Adams, J. T., The Epic of America (Boston, 1967, 1st publ. 1931)

Carpenter, F.I., American Literature and the Dream (New York, 1955)

Boorstin, D., The Americans: The Colonial Experience (New York, 1958)

Allen, Walter, The Urgent West: The American Dream and Modern Man (NewYork, 1969)

Elliott, G.P.,"Waking from the American Dream", in: The Nation, Nov. 1, 1974, pp. 491 ff.

Kearns, Doris, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (New York, 1976)

Kruse, H. (ed.), From Rags to Riches: Erfolgsmythos und Erfolgsrezepte in der amerikanischen Gesellschaft (München, o.J.)

Marowitz, Ch. (ed.), New American Drama (Harmondsworth, 1966)


Source: WDR 3, 27.3.1979