The traditional definition of "The American Dream" is
the ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.
This was the standard definition for those immigrants of European origin, who came through Ellis Island: "One could achieve the American Dream only by hard work." For example, a man such as Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947) typifies this definition. The son of Italian-Jewish immigrants, born in Greenwich Village, New York, LaGuardia rose to become one of the most influential New Yorkers of his time, working as an interpreter at Ellis Island, in the U.S. House of Representatives, and becoming a powerful and successful mayor of New York City. As a Congressman he effected reforms to unions and as mayor of New York, he was influential in removing much of the political corruption and criminality in New York City while obtaining federal funds for improving the infrastructure of the city. His tombstone has the titles of "Humanitarian" and "Statesman" under his name.
Certainly, nowadays, the American Dream has more than one definition. For some of those who have come into the United States legally and illegally from third world countries, it means different things, one of which is a haven from poverty and starvation where they can be cared for freely. While some work and become independent, some people do not perceive "the American Dream" as being defined by working; instead, "the American Dream" is one of a benevolent government which takes care of the person his/her entire life through various federal programs.
However, this latter idea has not yet become part of the canon of American literature.
- One of the first works to support the concept of the "self-made man" in pursuit of the American Dream is the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in which Franklin writes of his independent spirit, his struggle to become a self-sufficient individual and his refusal to depend on others. In addition, Franklin writes of his "bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection" which he holds as part of the character of one who achieves the American Dream.
- In the 1920's, the American Dream became materialized and one's character had less to do with success and the achievement of the dream. As a satire against this elevation of material success as the defining term of the American Dream, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his seminal novel, The Great Gatsby in which he portrays a morally corrupt wealthy class in the Eastern United States. They are "careless people" (as the narrator Nick Carraway remarks) in a restless and driving society that have tainted values--Daisy marries Tom Buchanan because he gives her a $350,000 pearl necklace--taking what they can get unscrupulously and discarding anyone who does not serve their purposes of social or financial advancement.
- Much like The Great Gatsby's content, Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, also set in the 1920s, satirizes the conformity to the drive for materialism as the defining measure of the American Dream, a drive that is vacuous and unfulfilling for many.
- Two novels set during the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, both by John Steinbeck, depict the disenfranchised and dispossessed who found themselves without even homes after the financial collapse of the United States. Despite their misery, these lonely and alienated people clung to the promise of the American Dream, the concept that they could one day rise above their lowly social status and own some property and achieve some success and comfort. Lennie has George recite their dream of owning a small farm in Of Mice and Men; Tom Joad foresees men uniting against poverty and homelessness, a deliverance from oppression and the opportunity to pursue the American Dream of owning some land and a home of one's own.
- In a similar fashion, Arthur Miller's tragedy, Death of a Salesman (1949) depicts a man driven by the materialistic concept of the American Dream who sacrifices all that is truly meaningful in his attempts to impress others with his success. Consumed by this drive for "success," Willy Loman sacrifices his family as he cheats on his wife and alienates himself from his sons. In the end, Loman even fails in his financial efforts and is left with nothing.
- Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) depicts a young African-American who holds hopes of achieving the American Dream. When his efforts are cruelly thwarted at his college in the South, he goes to the North only to find that there he is also "invisible" as he finds himself and others of his race exploited by society as well as the Communist Party, which purportedly tried to equalize all opportunities. Defeated, the protagonist lives under the city since he is socially invisible, and through his narration, he essays to make sense of his life and his position in American society.
- Another play concerned with the position in society of African-Americans is A Raisin in the Sun (1959). The hope of the American Dream comes to the Younger family, who reside in the slums of Chicago, with the life insurance check of the elder Younger, who has died. The mother hopes to purchase a new home, her son Walter wants to quit his job as a chauffeur and own a liquor store with partners, and Beneatha wants to be a doctor. When Walter's prospective partner steals the money which Mama has given him for his new business, their hope wanes; further, when the residents of the subdivision in the suburbs do not want the Youngers to purchase a home there, more disappointment in the American Dream develops. Nevertheless, the Youngers prevail and do move into their new home, but it is only after much tribulation, which dispels their initial idealism.
- The Day of the Locust (1959) In a similar manner of examining the American Dream for its lofty idealism that seems to fail in reality or be corrupted by material values, this novel written by a screenwriter depicts the narcissism of the Hollywood stars, producers, directors, and writers who are so often envied by the masses. This view of the materialistic and self-centered personages of Tinsel Town is seen through the perspective of contempt, not the "fanciful wonder" of many in the public.
It would seem, then, that for the most part, the lofty definition of the American Dream is illusionary. Rather, it is a more materialistic, self-serving goal that many pursue in lieu of true achievement in character and idealism as did men such as LaGuardia and others as depicted by Horatio Alger whose "entire oeuvre pretty much embodies every single trope associated with The American Dream," one critic writes.
Therefore, in constructing an essay of the American Dream in Literature, the student may wish to write a comparison/contrast essay. Those works that support the idealized American Dream are The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, the works of Horatio Alger and A Raisin in the Sun (to some extent). However, the others are critical of this illusive, if not illusionary, Dream (especially the more modern authors).
For more of the works discussed above, please see the Enotes summaries and analyses on these works. They can be accessed through the use of the Search icon. (magnifying glass). Or just type www.enotes.com/topics/(title of the work. See the example below on The Great Gatsby.)