Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 836
Fritzi Crown, one of the leading characters of the novel, states the basic theme of American Dreams. She contrasts her childhood dreams of becoming a dramatic Shakespearean actress on Broadway with her successful career as a slapstick comedienne in the movies:
Unfulfilled dreams disappeared, rucked away in some ghostly bureau drawer like last year's unwearable style—mementos of what might or should have been. Sometimes dreams changed. . . .Her dream had come true in a way she couldn't have imagined a few years ago.
In achieving her dream of becoming an actress, Fritzi adapts to social and technological changes, even emotional losses— estrangement from her father and the death of her lover. The result is fame, adventure and the enrichment of other people's lives through comedy and laughter.
Carl's dreams of adventure and fame also evolve. He discovers that racing and flying for excitement and the adulation of audiences are not satisfying. His expertise and courage as a pilot serves him best in a war against tyranny in Europe, rather than in defense of tyranny in Mexico.
Prejudice is an underlying theme in nearly every episode of the work. Hobart Manchester, Fritzi's kindly mentor on the Broadway stage, confesses to her that he is a homosexual. If others find out about his sexual orientation, he will be barred from directing or acting. Jesse, a skilled mechanic, accepts his role as an underpaid Black employee in a hazardous job. He overcomes hardships and eventually owns his own home and develops a business. In Hollywood, D. W. Griffith's famous epic film, The Clansman, depicts Ku Klux Klansmen as heroes. It ignites resentments still smoldering from the Civil War. Paul's assistant Sammy is Jewish, an identity he must carefully conceal while he is with Paul in the presence of German officials. Joseph Crown's prejudice against Fritzi's "immoral" lifestyle as an actress, and his outrage at Carl's passion for excitement and adventure alienate him from his children.
Sexual harassment is another theme. Women who dare to leave the protection of a father or husband set themselves up as targets for predators. Fritzi's fast thinking, athletic body, and long hatpin save her from numerous unwanted sexual encounters. The drunken manager of the Bleeker Hotel, where she works as a maid, tries to rape her. She narrowly escapes rape and murder at the hands of Pearly Purvis, a patent detective. Carl's problems with Barney Oldfield reach a climax when Oldfield's wife claims that Carl has tried to seduce her. In reality, she has been the aggressor, and Carl's rejection has made her vengeful enough to accuse him of harassment. Oldfield gives Carl a Mickey Finn, beats him up, and fires him.
Physical disabilities and aging affect the lives of several characters. Joey Crown, an important character in Homeland, loses his youthful dreams after an accident cripples him. In American Dreams, he is a cynical alcoholic, dependent upon his parents, Joseph and Ilsa Crown. Joseph, the patriarch of the Crown family, suffers and survives a heart attack. Clinging to values from a former time, he coldly rejects the ambitions of his children and cuts them out of his life. Too late, he regrets his unwillingness to give his blessing to their pursuits of happiness. A. R. (Rip) Ryan, talented airplane mechanic who has built a Curtiss-designed Eagle, is crippled with arthritis. No longer able to fly, he instructs others from the ground, and soars vicariously. Songwriter Harry Poland's loyalty to an invalid wife restrains him from forming a permanent bond with Fritzi for many years, even though she is the inspiration for his popular songs.
The power struggle between authoritarian rule and individual liberty is a theme exemplified throughout the book. Joseph Crown becomes a tyrant as he attempts to force his values of hard work, duty, and social conformity on his adult children by withholding his love and financial support. In spite of his previous heroism during the Civil War and Spanish-American War, and pride in being an American, Crown supports Kaiser Wilhelm's attempt to rule Europe.
The futility of trying to pacify an aggressor is related to the power struggle on several levels in American Dreams. In the course of achieving their dreams, Carl, Fritzi, and Paul learn to defend themselves and their ideals. Traits of mental acuity, physical strength, courage, and stubbornness help them succeed. At the beginning of Germany's militant behavior, British and American political leaders choose to ignore the threat of war. Lord Yorke, Paul's London publisher, forbids publication of his pictures of German atrocities because they might conflict with official British propaganda. Many Americans, like Crown, are sympathetic to Germany. When Paul shows these pictures at lectures in the United States, people are repelled, not angered, by the violence. They wish to remain neutral, to avoid a life-or-death conflict. With President Wilson's approval, laws are enacted forbidding Americans to participate in the European conflict. In defiance, Carl joins the French Foreign Legion, and Fritzi marches in "Stop the Huns" parades, a real deterrent to her career in Hollywood.