The American Dream Examined in Literature Analysis

Historical Background

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

It has been said that the United States is the only nation that prides itself on having a national dream and that gives its name to one. Initial dreams about America were imports from Europe, where Renaissance writers dreamed of a utopia in the New World. Perhaps, as some have insisted, there is no such thing as the American Dream, only a diversity of dreams about America and dreams in America. Whether one calls it extravagant expectation, faith in entrepreneurial success, or confidence in the American cornucopia, the American Dream is an inherent part of social, cultural, political, and literary America.

Perhaps the first and clearest verbalization of the American Dream, written long before the phrase was coined, is Thomas Jefferson’s statement from the Declaration of Independence: “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.” This statement, and the American Dream itself, are highly romantic, implying belief in the goodness of nature and rejecting belief in human nature’s being tainted. Because of this seemingly anti-Calvinistic, even anti-Christian, strain, it has been argued that the American Dream is a product of the frontier and the West (or of Rousseauian romanticism) rather than of Puritan New England.

Some trace the American Dream to the early settlement of the country, often to 1630, the date of John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity, best known for its description of the colony as “a City upon a Hill” with the eyes of all people upon it. Part of the American Dream is America being a shining example to the rest of the world. The American Dream, to the Puritans, was divine election, freedom to worship God as they chose, and the blessings of the sovereign God upon their errand into the wilderness.

The essence of the American Dream in the colonial period was “the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” a phrase from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution (1787). A Frenchman who became a naturalized American citizen, Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecur offered a generally optimistic answer to the question “What is an American?” and first wrote of America as a melting pot in his Letters from an American Farmer (1782)....

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The Twentieth Century Nightmare

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Twain set the tone for twentieth century versions of the American Dream, most of which have depicted the American Dream turned nightmare. Twain’s legacy is certainly discernible in such a writer as F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose short story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is an attack on the American nightmare. The protagonist, Braddock Washington, a descendant of George Washington and of Lord Baltimore, has kept his colossal diamond mountain hidden from the world by manipulating and sacrificing innocent people who have stumbled upon it. Wealth and material possessions are shown as the constituents of the American Dream, a theme Fitzgerald further develops in The Great Gatsby (1925). In the novel, James Gatz of North Dakota has, five years before the story begins, lost the wealthy young woman he loves, Daisy, because he lacks wealth and social class. He changes his name to Jay Gatsby, amasses wealth by dealing with tycoons and gangsters, and buys a mansion across the bay from Daisy’s green-lighted dock. He is at “the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty, as Fitzgerald sees the American Dream, a dream for which Gatsby loses his life. The novel ends with an elegy for the lapsed American Dream of innocent success. Nick Carraway, the narrator, contemplates the “fresh, green breast” of the New World that “flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes.”

In American fiction the dream has often been personified in the form of a beautiful young woman such as Fitzgerald’s Daisy. Realtor George F. Babbitt’s fairy girl in Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt (1922) is beautiful but vacuous. Faye Greener in Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939) is another example. The nude dancer with a small American flag tattooed on her belly says to the...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Allen, Walter. The Urgent West: The American Dream and Modern Man. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1969. Traces the dream motif in American literature chronologically, concluding that the dream has become the property of the Western world.

Benne, Robert, and Philip Hefner. Defining America: A Christian Critique of the American Dream. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974. A thoughtful overview and assessment of the dream from a Christian perspective.

Bewley, Marius. “Scott Fitzgerald and the Collapse of the American Dream.” In The Eccentric Design: Form in the Classic American Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963. A perceptive discussion of the jaundiced view of the American Dream.

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Image: Or, What Happened to the American Dream. New York: Atheneum, 1962. An illuminating sociological examination of how the American Dream has become a disenchanting illusion, the problem having arisen less from American weaknesses than from strengths such as wealth, optimism, and progress.

Carpenter, Frederick I. American Literature and the Dream. New York: Philosophical Library, 1955. An excellent beginning source, although dated. Presents an overview of major literature relating to the dream.

Ericson, Edward L. The American Dream Renewed: The Making of a World People. New York: Continuum, 1991. A sociological study of American pluralism, concluding that the dream never died but only needs to be renewed.

Long, Elizabeth. The American Dream and the Popular Novel. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985. A helpful overview of the success theme in best-selling novels.

Madden, David, ed. American Dreams, American Nightmares. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970. A collection of nineteen scholarly articles discussing individual authors, with a helpful introduction.