The American Dream Examined in Literature Historical Background

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)....

(The entire section is 972 words.)