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The American Dream - A
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
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,
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
"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
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,
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)
American Literature and the
Dream (New York, 1955)
The Americans: The Colonial
Experience (New York, 1958)
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.
Lyndon Johnson and the
American Dream (New York, 1976)
Kruse, H. (ed.),
From Rags to Riches:
Erfolgsmythos und Erfolgsrezepte in der amerikanischen Gesellschaft (München,
Marowitz, Ch. (ed.),
New American Drama
Source: WDR 3, 27.3.1979