The American Dream

The ‘myth’ of America

‘The American Dream’ is a complex concept mainly because it represents a shifting set of ideas over the period from the 1700s to the present day. It is deeply rooted in the particular historical development of the American nation, made up by successive waves of immigrants entering a sparsely populated country and establishing their cultures in this new context.


Columbus Fleet 1893 commemorative stampsThe establishment of America took place over several centuries, beginning with its ‘discovery’ in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, large-scale European colonisation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which was followed by an influx of economic and religious migrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Immigration was largely due to the economic potential of the land, generating the perception that, with hard manual labour, prosperity could be attained. Many immigrants were people from the lower social orders in their European countries, now able to transcend old class boundaries because the new context was more fluid. In terms of upward social mobility, anything was possible.

The pioneer mentality

Historians have also considered the possible development of a ‘pioneer mentality’ (based on Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis) whereby immigrants experienced a very dynamic environment on the frontiers of America. This offered freedom and independence from old established codes, as well as fostering individualism, so that the image of the ‘self-made man’ attained heroic status.

Pioneers needed to be rugged and tough, rather than refined and overly civilised, and material possessions were not considered to be status markers in the same way as in settled cultures, since pioneers needed to live simply and be able to move forward. The attitude to the land was that it was there to be taken, and that America was the ‘land of plenty’.

Sudden riches

The Gold Rush period (beginning in 1799 and extending through the 19th century) brought with it the idea that prosperity could be achieved by sudden good fortune, again rooted in the land. The opportunism and energy associated with gold rushes drew thousands of people to the sites where gold was found. An example was the Californian Gold Rush, beginning in 1848, which brought 300,000 people to California, transforming it into a major state with a booming economy.

Californian Gold RushCrucially, the attitude of ‘get rich quick’ (the ‘California Dream’) challenged the older values of hard work as a key to success. In The Great Gatsby, Dan Cody is said to be the ‘product of the Nevada silver fields, of the Yukon, of every rush for metal since 1875’ and his sign of wealth, as recognised by the young James Gatz, is his yacht, the Tuolomee.

The ‘Land of the Free’

The Declaration of Independence (1776) was a key moment in articulating the collective vision of America as a unified nation, and contained the ideals of equality and natural human rights. An extract of particular importance is:

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.

Statue of LibertyAnother key image contributing to the American identity was the Statue of Liberty (unveiled in 1886), which expressed America’s core value of freedom at a symbolic point of entry into America, New York Harbour. America continued to be a destination for migrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and Asia, who numbered around 24 million between 1880 and 1920, enriching it to become a major economic and military power. Only in the twentieth century was there some resistance to immigration, as in the 1917 Immigration Act, which sought to limit the influx, and the quotas imposed 1921-24, which gave preference to the ‘Nordic races’.

Safety for the persecuted

Throughout the seventeenth – nineteenth centuries, America was the favoured destination of religious minorities escaping persecution. Drawing on the imagery of the Old Testament book of Exodus (see Promised Land, Diaspora, Zionism), it was regarded as the new Promised Land for God’s people, particularly for members of the Jewish Diaspora who had no ‘homeland’ of their own (until the creation of modern Israel in 1948). The biblical imagery of a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ (Ezekiel 20:6) was applied to the fertile soil of America, and this idea was extended into the perception that Americans were thus God’s new ‘chosen people’.

The ‘Dream’ develops

As America grew in population and wealth, its ideas about aspiration and success inevitably evolved. By the 1920s, in a post-war boom period with cities expanding and manufacture increasing, ideas changed to reflect the new levels of consumerism and the sense of America as an established nation.

In 1931, the term ‘American Dream’ was coined and defined by historian James Truslow Adams, in The Epic of America, as:

… 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 a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but 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 recognised by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

Corrupt ideals?

As the American Dream has evolved, observers have commented often negatively on the deterioration of the ideals it embodies. They identify a corruption of the ‘pure’ dream, usually with reference to the aspiration for material wealth before ‘happiness’. Alternatively, they may point to the falsity of the premise that success is possible for all, whether through hard work or good fortune, or the idea that American citizens are able to be truly equal.

Fitzgerald’s critique

American literature is frequently interpreted in terms of its position on the American Dream, with The Great Gatsby sometimes said to depict its wholesale failure, largely embodied in the character of Jay Gatsby. His aspirations include economic success, which is certainly achieved, and his humble origins demonstrate that there is equality of opportunity in America. However, Gatsby never gains social acceptance among the established wealthy class and his means of gaining wealth is neither hard work nor good fortune in the usual senses. Moreover, success defined in terms of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is less secure, since the relationship with Daisy is only temporarily and partially restored.

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