One book that is often discussed in the context of the American Dream of self-determination and upward mobility is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This 1920s novel deals with a number of issues that relate to the American Dream with a character in Jay Gatsby who remakes himself from a poor Midwesterner into a very wealthy man throwing parties for the rich elite. Gatsby's ambitions exist next to the ennui and moral lassitude of the "old money" crowd -- people like Tom and Daisy Buchannon.
Yet, despite the moral corruption that characterizes the wealthy elite, figures like Nick and Gatsby continue (for a time) to pursue a dream of social mobility and hanker for a true achievement vis a vis class and social connection. They stop their striving only when it proves fatal to continue (literally and figuratively).
"Fitzgerald was also a thoroughly romantic artist in the most traditional sense; and, for him, women like Daisy represented the deepest seductive power of the Dream as well as its greatest dangers" (eNotes).
In these ways and others, The Great Gatsby is a novel of the American Dream.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis are also works of narrative fiction that relate to the American Dream (one a play and the other a novel, respectively).
Miller's play deals with achievement and ambition and the delusions that can accompany them. With a simplistic but almost ritualistic definition of success, Willy Loman imbues his two sons with the notion that one must be "well liked" to get ahead in the world of business and this narrow presumption keeps Willy's ambition painfully fresh and keeps him from realizing all the things he actually does accomplish in his life.
Babbitt deals with a specifically corporate/white collar American Dream, placing the generic value system that advises one to always advance into conflict with a wider set of value systems prevalent in America.
While the works mentioned above deal with a conventional view of the American Dream (linked to ideas of money and social success), there are other ways to define the American Dream and other works of literature that articulate those views.
Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass is a collection of poems that passionately rhapsodizes on ideas of individualism, democratic spirit and dynamic intellectual life. For Whitman, these are qualities that define America and its promise.
Thoreau's work, known sometimes as Walden, explores ideas that are sometimes similar to Whitman's and to those of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
"One reason that Walden is exemplary as a work of Transcendentalism is that the book makes the idealistic assumption that there is a true self to discover" (eNotes).
What do Transcendentalism and the American Dream have in common? They both see the individual self as a perfect-able, discover-able thing. This view of the self is one of the foundations of the American Dream as it is inflected in The Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman.
Other works that deal with American ambition, social climbing, and/or a Transcendental view of the pursuit of self:
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac
- All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
- An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
The American Dream symbolizes upward mobility through home ownership, the opportunity for education, hard work, and a set of ideals that include freedom and achievement.
The first book that comes to mind on the topic of the American Dream is Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. The plot entails the struggles of an ordinary man who desires to provide a home for his family. He has two sons. One of his sons is viewed by the father as the progressive son because he attends college. At the time the novel was written, the ideal of attending college was part of the American Dream because attending college was not as common as it is today.
Willy Lowman struggles to pay off his mortgage and provide a home for his family. He has performed his duties as a man by working hard all of his life as a traveling salesman. However, his dreams have been faltering as people are buying less merchandise from traveling salesmen. Willy believes that being likeable is an important aspect of success. When Willy loses his job, he is devastated. He had already been acting odd by engaging in suicidal behaviors. In the end he wrecks his car and is killed. His insurance pays off his mortgage. Through his death, Willy has finally obtained what he could not do in life. His mortgage has been paid off. He has achieved a part of the American Dream.
The Color of Water is a novel about a woman of Jewish descent who becomes an outcast from her family and community when she becomes pregnant by a black boyfriend. She moves to New York in hopes of finding acceptance. James McBride wrote the novel in tribute to his mother. Ruth is a hard working woman who teaches her children that goals can be reached through hard work, education, and faith. The loss of acceptance from her family and community leads her to find acceptance among black people. She marries a black man and has children with him and continues to work hard to ensure that her children reach the goals that she has set for them. Even when her husband dies, she remains focused on achieving the American Dream for her children. She instills the same ideals in her children, who all eventually attend college. Her son fears for his mother when the Black Panthers speak out against white people, but Ruth remains true to her newfound family and children. She does not falter from her dreams.
The third book is a novella by John Steinbeck. Of Mice and Men is the story of two men, one ordinary laborer and the other a mentally challenged adult. They travel the road looking for agricultural work in Salinas Valley, California. They are nomads and would be loners except the two have a dream of owning and working their land. They work hard and save their money in hopes of buying the land. Ownership of land is also a part of the American Dream as well as independence. Their excitement about their dream leads to two other men desiring to add funds to help them achieve the dream, if they can be a part of it. Despite their best effort, George and Lennie are doomed from the start. They have had to struggle every step of the way and Lennie's disability inhibits him from recognizing his own strength. Eventually, their dream comes crashing down when Lennie's strength results in the death of the boss’s son's wife.