THE AMERICAN DREAM An Introduction to the Idea and its Development
What is the American Dream? • Phrase first coined in 1931, by James Truslow Adams: citizens of every rank feel that they can achieve a "better, richer, and happier life.“ • Democratic ideas mean that the American people can achieve prosperity through hard work. • An idea that has made the United States an attractive destination for many immigrants.
What Makes America (Theoretically) Different? • Many European “caste systems” do not allow much movement up through the social classes – if you’re born poor, chances are that you will remain poor. • Westward expansion started from Europe to the U.S., then from the East Coast to the Midwest to the West Coast. The frontier seemed endless.
Horatio Alger • Alger was a 19th Century American novelist who wrote stories about young, poor boys who would move to the west and create a successful life for themselves through hard work. • Most famous example of combining the ideas of Westward Expansion, the “Self-Made Man,” and “Pulling Yourself Up From Your Bootstraps.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald • The wave of wealth and prosperity in the American 1920s led to a widespread criticism of materialism and consumption by many Modern authors, notably by Fitzgerald in his novel The Great Gatsby.
F. Scott Fitzgerald • The Great Gatsby questions the American obsession with wealth, pointing out many of the flaws inherent in an idea of “success” built around wealth. • Implies that the American Dream might be dying – the positive aspects of the Dream might be being forgotten in favor of material wealth.
John Steinbeck • The U.S. economy fell into a deep depression in 1929, which changed many people’s thoughts about the American Dream. • 10 years or so after Gatsby, Steinbeck critiqued the idea of westward expansion, and the idea that a man could be a success through hard work alone, in his novels Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath.
Hunter S. Thompson • Inspired largely by Fitzgerald, journalist and novelist Hunter S. Thompson felt that Las Vegas represented how the American Dream had failed. • His Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1973) discusses how the idea of the American Dream has been replaced by people seeking easy and instant gratification.
The American Dream in the 1950s • Between the 1920s/30s point of view of Fitzgerald/Steinbeck and the 1970s point of view of H.S.T., plays like Death of a Salesman (written in 1948) and Fences (written in 1983, but set in the 1950s) explored the topic of the American Dream in different ways…
The American Dream in the 1950s: Questions for Reflection • 1) What do you think the American Dream meant to Willy Loman? • 2) Based on your reading of Death of a Salesman, how do you think Arthur Miller felt about the American Dream? Was his point-of-view closer to Alger’s, Fitzgerald’s, Steinbeck’s, or H.S.T.’s?