Searching for an essay?

Browse the database of more than 4500 essays donated by our community members!

The History and Development of the American Dream

It has become a custom nowadays that the USA has turned into the first-rate provider of goods to the cultural market of the planet. The seeds of the New World’s culture have appeared on the Eurasian soil since the USA started to gain power in the military and geographical spheres. The goals and values that used to be unknown have now become cult ones. One of them is the widely known American Dream. Due to its incredible popularity, the American Dream seems to be a one-sided aspiration for success, respected social status and material well-being. People in this country are believed to follow this very general list of desirable and forget about spiritual development. By the way, this is one of the weakest points in the American dream and the one that it is mostly criticized for.

Sozobe (Phoenix’s “Ideological Conformity”) said: “Cultures that have faced extermination in one way or another are susceptible to this. If there is a sense that the culture could die out because of outside influences, there is even more resistance to the idea of the culture being diluted and possibly dying out through the actions of people who are “supposed” to be protecting that culture. Over the last 30 years or so, it seems we’ve shifted. Instead of people of different ethnic groups coming to the US and everyone picking up little bits and pieces of the various cultures, we’ve fragmented. Instead of a melting pot, we seem to have become more of a mosaic. Groups still come to the US, but they seem to retain their own cultural identity and the “melting in” seems to be discouraged instead of encouraged.

The Irish, Germans, Polish, etc.. of earlier generations always maintained a large part of their cultural heritage. Still, they seemed to overcome that and accept being a part of the larger whole. It seems today those that come to the US want to recreate their home country here, and instead of melding, we have clear (and sometimes divisive) walls that separate us.” The term “American Dream”. The American Dream is a notion in everyday use. It is heard in speeches of politicians, sociologists or analysts. Many literary works are dethroning it and showing its dangerous impact upon peoples’ minds. Various sources of information (mass media, critical essays, Hollywood movies, etc.) have «encouraged» non-Americans to assemble several rather perfunctory models regarding the American Dream. It may be understood as averaged stable material well-being of a usual family and successful career development.

And the path from a dustman to a millionaire in its different variations is considered the wildest dream of every American. These are stereotypical images provided by cinema (movies for the whole family where all the events take place against the background of quiet family life), books (recollect characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Theodore Dreiser), show-business, sports etc. Having such models in front of their eyes, people create for themselves a collection of trappings of the American Dream: success, public recognition and prosperity depending directly on money. And there is little doubt that someone has ever tried to muse on what actually there is behind the phrase American Dream.

It is impossible to move any further to comprehend the deep sense of the phrase «American Dream» or to estimate its nature without a generalized definition of the concept. James Truslow Adams formulated and used the first definition in his book The Epic of America, first published in 1931. There he stated: «The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position».

Over time, the term “American Dream” has been developing new meanings and getting more indistinct. Nevertheless, its definition is virtually taken for granted. According to a Wikipedia web page, the American Dream is the conviction, widespread in the United States, that by working hard, being patient and being persistent, anyone can change their life for the better. Such changes traditionally involve the improvement of financial or social status. The article discusses both the past and the current state of the Dream. The opportunity to get free enterprises or/and escape from war or persecution has always lured people from different countries, thus causing waves of immigration. Nowadays, the examples of realization of secret hopes and wildest expectations still keep many people believing in their lucky star. However, the concluding part of the article is a fly-in the ointment since it enumerates several aspects that rouse the censure of critics.

The main principles of the conception — the equality of opportunities and its accessibility — are disputed on social, ethical, economic and some other levels. In some critics’ opinion, the idea, on the whole, is believed to be misleading and even meaningless. Nonetheless, the question about the Dream and its weak and strong points is still open and highly disputed in American society. (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: American Dream, para.2-8) Both definitions of Adams and Wikipedia authors are too concrete in the former and too general and narrow in the latter for describing such a complex subject precisely. The same can be said about all the previous works on this topic. The other authors believed this particular concept describes something very contemporary. They regarded the Dream as a social phenomenon only. However, it can be viewed as an iceberg: we see only a small part of it, all the important is hidden in human memory under remote ages.

To understand what the American Dream truly is, we need to look back. The famous publicist and writer Jim Cullen did while working on his new book The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation. He has chosen a slightly different approach linking the Dream with history and social changes. He believes the American Dream is like a mirror reflecting all the needs of the American nation during its development. Currently, his work is the most complete and detailed research of the given phenomenon. He insists that Americans are the nation of American «Dreams» in the plural in the text. That is where the originality of his book lies. The six main chapters are each devoted to a different Dream. Cullen begins with the Puritan dream of building a perfect new society of believers where every person would be free from the Old World’s impact. For Cullen, the most American feature and the crucial point here is the strongest «faith in reform» and the belief that, with effort, things could be different and better than they are at the moment.

This links the Puritans to the second American Dream, which is embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are terms no less ambiguous and mythic than the notion of the American Dream itself. However, this is why the founding charter has been a recurrent inspiration for such people and movements that the Founders could never imagine having a place within the nation’s political life. Democratizing the Founders’ vision and the expectations of upward social mobility for people of humble beginnings is the third version of the Dream considered by Cullen. Together with social and political changes, he mentions a few new tendencies in language development. The fourth Dream is social equality, which he explores particularly through an intense discussion with Martin Luther King, Jr. Fifth. Finally, he regards «homeownership» as the sixth American Dream. He emphasizes here, in the discussion of suburbanization after World War II that of all the Dreams, this one is most widely realized.

Finally, he approaches the dream «of the Coast» — Californian dreaming, another vision of a good life. Unlike the previous dreams that imply hard work and patience, the dream of the Coast originates from the gold rush, the gambling represented by Las Vegas, the cult of personality (rather than character) that, as Cullen claims, is provoked by Hollywood and in particular by the great and successful actors of that time. Cullen’s well-written book is objective and unbiased. It enlarges the existing idea about the notion and every good piece of writing; it raises some questions. The author confesses that he cannot formulate the uniting features of all the Dreams and suggests that each of them is about «freedom» and equally about «agency that individuals have control over the course of their lives» (2004: 10).

When Americans finally noticed and admitted the obvious weak points of their national conception, numerous discussions and debates flared up. We find a life of the notion within the literature to be the most captivating and worth of attention since this space is multi-dimensional and immense. There is a certain list of books traditionally associated with the problem of the Dream. That is where readers gain a rough about a typical «conqueror» and follower of the Dream: authors’ talent and art of word together with readers’ vivid imagination definitely bare fruit. The world is aware of the main tendency of anxiety and discontent now inseparable from the notion of the American Dream. However, more intimate knowledge of the national literature lets us conclude that people’s minds are occupied by other things besides the notorious aspirations and aims. From books’ context and literary reality, we may single out the other models of behavior and ways of thinking of Americans.

Historical Background. Historian and writer James Truslow Adams coined the phrase “American Dream” in his 1931 book Epic of America: The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.[8]

He also wrote: The American Dream, which has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century, has not been a dream of material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. Instead, it has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as a man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class. In the mid 19th century, many immigrants came to America to escape their persecutions at home and in the hope of getting a new chance and finding new opportunities for themselves in a new world. Between 1820 and 1975, mostly European immigrants emigrated to America; In the last 25 years, there has been a drastic change to mostly Latin American and Asian immigrants.

At the End of the 19th century, there were many immigrants, especially from China, who were brought to America to work at the transcontinental railroad; once the road was finished in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which denied all foreign-born Chinese immigrants the right of American citizenship. The Act was a response to harsh anti-Chinese feelings at the time. The theory of the melting pot coined by Crevecoeur, where all immigrated and existing races and cultures melt into one single race, has become an unrealizable myth. The American Dream was inspired by many stories, especially those written by Horatio Alger Jr., who became famous with his Ragged Dick tales that told an impoverished boy. Through determination and hard work came wealth and success.

Since the early 19th century, the United States has regarded and promoted itself as a beacon of liberty and prosperity achieved through combining the philosophical and ethical principles propounded by its founders and implemented in their most perfect form. In tandem with this is its natural wealth and bounty within the New World. As a result, the meaning of the ‘American Dream’ has evolved over the course of American history. While historically traced to the New World mystique — the availability of land and the continuing American expansion—the ethos today simply indicates the ability to bring prosperity to oneself through participation in the resonant society and culture of the United States.

According to the dream, this includes the opportunity for one’s children to grow up and receive an American education and consequent career opportunities. In addition, it is the opportunity to make individual choices without the restrictions of class, caste, religion, race, or ethnic group. At the beginning of the 20th century, the American Dream was challenged because, after the Great Depression, people lost their beliefs of the Dream; that’s when James T. Adams renewed the definition of the American Dream and linked new values with it. Although, after World War II, people pursued the American Dream of the “perfect family,” these conservative values were denied and abolished by the hippie generations of the sixties.

Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny was an American doctrine first coined by the journalist John O’Sullivan. The meaning of the phrase was the inevitable destination of the American nation to expand on the continent. Manifest Destiny also had consequences for the Native Americans as their land was occupied by the new settlers. The U.S. government legitimized their west expansion through Indian Treaties. The whites wanted the Natives to become “civilized” and live, act and work like the whites. (farmers) The new settlers regarded the Natives as nothing more than “savages,” who stood in the way of American expansion. Between the 19th and 20th century America began to annex many islands like the Philippines or Puerto Rico.

Here territories were not acquired to become new U.S. states like it. It was the actual intention of manifest destiny. Now colonies were made, and constitutional rights were not established on the islands. That was a violation of the traditional manifest destiny, so the phrase’s actual meaning was thrown aboard by American imperialism in 1899. Americans at the time thought that they had to “educate” and “Christianize” those “uncivilized” Filipinos. But the Filipinos resisted and outbroke the Philippine-American war. In the 20th century, the phrase manifest destiny became a new definition. Roosevelt’s and especially Wilson’s version of manifest destiny rejected expansionism and saw the new “mission” of America to be the leader of the free world in the name of democracy. Today manifest destiny only describes a past era in American history and is often criticized as being the cause of American imperialism.

Popularization of the American Dream. The USA has always been popularizing its dreams and ideals. In many respects, they succeeded owing to Hollywood, the development of the film industry, the improvement of instruments for making and receiving images and some other accidental or special factors. However, as a result of all the attempts on «projecting» images to the world, the American dreams appeared as highly pleasant and attractive shells whose inner content, though, was forgotten to be taken care of. At first, these pictures were a kind of visiting card of American life, and the Americans hoped to share their values with others through such images.

The development of various additional options of filming evoked the desire to make the image of America educational and entertaining so that it would astonish others with the possible prospects and promises of the American dreams. Therefore the image began to improve itself in compliance with laws of perception. Its brilliance, simplicity and allurement had intensified so much that the Americans at home started to believe that their Dream was a house with a green lawn and work in a large city and a separate office in a successful company. Splendour and charm of megapolis and youth surrounded by luxury, or peace of the suburb and sweet serenity of a domestic idyll — that is how the new Dream looked like even for Americans. The images directed toward foreign countries were being applied at home in the USA to all its citizens.

For every piece of the American Dream inlay, there was a product, screen character or any other thing of the three-dimensional world. None longer mused or recollected that actually all these pieces stranded for something more fundamental, profound and even global. Dreams, ideas and principles of the great country had covered themselves with images in the nation’s mind and vanished quietly. That is why the USA, a nation explicitly built on ideals, was blamed for materialism. This seems bizarre but explicable and, in many respects, even natural to Boorstin. When another regime had appeared in the world arena, America changed its «image politics.» Communism, curiously enough, had been attracting people, too, as well as free and democratic capitalism. The ambitious American nation decided to lock horns for the palm. Thus, the image had developed a new and more important task: to dominate. The USA was devoted to the elaboration of their presentable appearance and prestige.

The national values were forgotten utterly and completely. Business, show business, film industry, music — every piece of culture and life had to be bright, successful and flashy. The Americans had been plunging into their illusory reality deeper and deeper. How to make others follow? That was the question the nation was faced with. Americans needed to create credible images and real myths abroad but bring back the reality displaced by the illusions. America used the right tool to attract attention. On the one hand, the image is a simple and clear symbol that can be decorated or exaggerated. On the other hand, though, it is a limited, concrete and narrowed phenomenon of the three-dimensional space. Its inner content is impossible to reveal and demonstrate; hence, it may even be absent at all. Thus the image is effective due to its attractiveness rather than positiveness. Boorstin claims that «images are the pseudo-events of the ethical world.

They are, at best only pseudo-ideals. They are created and disseminated to be reported, to make a favourable impression». This, according to Boorstin’s theory, may be the key point in the problem of perceiving America abroad: «We suffer abroad simply because people know America through images» (1962: 243). Images are always more static, concrete and rigid than ideals. They do not have any connection with the past and lack useful pithiness. People are searching, finding, buying and enjoying things, goods, and brands and so on. They mistake these purchased amenities for the real taste of life. Everywhere, as Boorstin says, everything has been substituted with prestigious, popular, tempting and artificial. The only key and support for this world is money.

Natural desire to project images and the development of prestige do not exhaust the list of stamps made by Boorstin. He also considers a danger to the American Dream and its vision abroad is the «devotion to status.» Everything is done not for one’s sake but to emphasize the process. «What we seek, we are told, is no longer wealth or glory or happiness, but a sociological concoction called «status’. We do not simply «believe’; instead, we talk of «the values we hold’; we cannot do something in our spare time; we must cultivate it as a «hobby.»

Present-day American Dream. The American Dream, pure as it was, has disappeared. There are only artificial substitutes for it. Urged to be introductive and elaborated to astonish the others, American images captured the thoughts of the Americans themselves. Boorstin calls it the «mirror effect» (1962: 255); all the efforts made redound upon their source. America, just as handsome as Narcissus from ancient Greece, has fallen in love with its reflection. Boorstin believes this is the diagnosis: «As individuals and as a nation, we now suffer from social narcissism» (1962: 257). At the same time, he tries to comprehend whether this ailment is curable. His answer is depressing in a way. «There is no cure,» — he concludes in the final abstracts of the book. However, there is still hope for this nation. Boorstin’s suggestions are reasonable enough. «The first step is to begin to suspect that there may be a world out there, beyond our present or future power to image or to imagine.

We should not worry over how to export more of the American images among which we live. We should not try to persuade others to share our illusions» (Boorstin 1962: 260). The only solution here is to stop for a while and admit the disease. Boorstin calls it «the opportunity for discovery» (1962: 261). The time for seeking the forgotten truths in piles of materialistic objects will come later. For now the discovery of «where dreams end and where illusions begin» (Boorstin 1962: 261) would be enough. Having finished with this task everyone may look around and see where they are and where they would like to head to. The “rags to riches” legend has and continues to be a cornerstone of the American Dream. The traditional message taught that one could achieve financial success and social mobility through hard work, frugality, and self-sacrifice.

Ben Franklin counselled industry, Abraham Lincoln sang the praises of the northern labour system, and Horatio Alger instilled hope in generations of Americans. All three helped to establish basic guidelines for success in a land of infinite possibility. There are unquestionably many Americans who continue to abide by such tenets and, in doing so, are rewarded for their efforts. Yet some have come to believe that the American Dream’s promise of riches is just that, a promise, and as such, they feel entitled to instant financial success. Nor has the socio-corporate climate in America disappointed such a belief. Savvy television producers and marketing executives have latched on to the core of the American Dream. They understand that Americans are enthralled with striking it rich. Thus millionaire game shows are designed to make winning seem easy.

Lotteries are marketed in such a way that one thinks they have a real shot at cashing in. The reality in both instances is that achieving the American Dream through such means is a long shot at best. Too much chance exists. Too much luck is necessary. So what is the end effect on society? Do millionaire game shows and promises of lottery millions help to erode further the work ethic and self-reliance that once embodied the American Dream, replacing it with an ethic of luck? Or are these sources of instant gratification merely products of an ethic already lost to some Americans? Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The even darker side to this cultural phenomenon is how the sense of entitlement has spilled over into a lack of responsibility. The fact that so many Americans are willing to utilize litigation to cash in on the American Dream is disheartening. Failing to take responsibility for their own mistakes, plaintiffs look to the legal system to make misfortune into a fortune.

Again, marketing and an avalanche of advertising by personal injury lawyers help encourage would-be injury victims. Still, the readiness of people to sue is a key social factor. Ultimately, most Americans would like to achieve the American Dream of financial independence. Yet, it is the means to achieving it that are essential to the nation’s ethical foundations. Unfortunately, it seems that many Americans covet the easy road to the Dream and, in the process, undercut the core values that established the Dream in the first place. Equally culpable are the big businesses that capitalize on the quest for the Dream. In an ironic sense, such businesses are fulfilling the Dream for themselves while dangling the possibility of the Dream over the heads of the public. There can be little doubt that the producers of the millionaire game shows, the state lotteries, and lawyers are getting rich on other people’s yearning for the American Dream.

How does one achieve the American Dream? The answer undoubtedly depends upon one’s definition of the Dream, and there are many from which to choose. John Winthrop envisioned a religious paradise in a “City upon a Hill.” Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of racial equality. Both men yearned for what they perceived as perfection. Scholars have recognized widely varying conceptions of these quests for American excellence. However, one component of the American Dream seems to be fairly consistent: the quest for money. Few will deny that Americans are intently focused on the “almighty dollar.” In a society dedicated to capitalism and the maxim that “the one who dies with the most toys wins,” the ability to purchase a big house and a nice car separate those who are considered successful from those who are not. Yet the question remains, how does one achieve this success? How is the dream realized?

For many Americans, the formula is one of instant, albeit elusive, gratification. Rather than adhering to a traditional work ethic, far too many Americans are pinning their hopes on what they perceive as “easy” money. This article focuses on three phenomena in contemporary American society that have successfully captured the quest for the American Dream. Savvy marketers have convinced their audiences that a new wave of television game shows, lottery luck, and lucrative lawsuits are the way to wealth. Instant wealth has not always been a major component of the Dream. Americans have traditionally centred their efforts on thrift and hard work. During the Colonial Period, Benjamin Franklin counselled people on the “The Way to Wealth.” Poor Richard’s Almanac advised that “Early to Bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” The key to wealth was an industry: “Industry pays debts,” insisted Poor Richard. Americans of the Early Republic expanded Franklin’s notion of industry into a labour ideology.

For many, the goal was not extravagant wealth but economic independence and the opportunity for social advancement through financial gain. Abraham Lincoln insisted that the greatness of the American North was that industry allowed all men to prosper: “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labours for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labours on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This…is free labour–the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all.” In the midst of industrialization following the Civil War, many Americans experienced profound hardship in the changing economic landscape. They found solace in the tales of Horatio Alger, whose characters overcame adversity through industry, perseverance, self-reliance, and self-discipline. The ubiquitous “rags to riches” legend became a cornerstone of American society; anyone could succeed and achieve wealth if they worked hard.

The commitment to industry illustrated by Alger’s characters, Lincoln’s ideals of free labour, and Franklin’s practical maxims were further solidified in the American mind by adding a religiously based, Protestant “work ethic.” Many believed that hard work allowed one to not only achieve financial success but, through that success, revealed God’s grace. Numerous scholars note that the shift away from the traditional American work ethic corresponded directly with the rise of industry. Work values changed dramatically when industrial America’s assembly line production and machine-driven atmosphere swallowed up skilled workers. The aftermath of World War II exacerbated the ethical shift as a consumer culture blossomed and Americans became preoccupied with material goods. As one critic noted, “consumed by desires for status, material goods, and acceptance, Americans apparently had lost the sense of individuality, thrift, hard work, and craftsmanship that had characterized the nation.”

The result of this shift in work ethic has actually spurred rather than lessened the people’s desire to achieve the American Dream. Yet, the real difference is that the Dream has become more of an entitlement than something to work towards. Many Americans no longer entertain a vision for the future that includes time, sweat, and ultimate success. Rather, they covet the shortcut to wealth. Many who are engaged in work view it more as a necessary evil until striking it rich. This idea has been perpetuated by a massive marketing effort that legitimizes the message that wealth can be obtained quickly and easily. Whether through the television entertainment industry, state-based lottery marketing drives, or legal advertisements, Americans are told repeatedly that the road to the financial success of the American Dream is more a matter of luck than hard work.

Criticism of the American Dream. The main point many critics pick up is that everyone can’t become wealthy and successful. Many other factors play a role like language, luck, IQ or family. Therefore, the American Dream is misleading because the people who don’t have success and wealth might quickly think it is their own fault. And the wealthier also make less effort to help the poor because they think the poverty just comes from the laziness of the people. Conclusion. The „American Dream“ is alive and well. For over a century, the idea that America can offer its people the best and most prosperous lifestyle on our planet has attracted millions of immigrants. This dream consists of a genuine and determined belief that all things are possible to all men in America, regardless of birth or wealth.

The American Dream has been centred around material prosperity. It was and is essential to have a successful career, a family, a big car, and a showy house with a white fence in American society. Status symbols and prestige are significant aspects of the American way of life. From the fifties to the seventies, the classic icon of the American Dream was the Cadillac, the most expensive American production car. It was a symbol of wealth. The American Dream should mean the right of the individual to become wealthy. Although the second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence from 1776 states that “all men are created equal,” it does not say, nor even suggest, that they should remain equal. So while equality of rights and equality of opportunity are in theory at least fundamental values of American life, social equality is not. Blacks and Hispanics do not have the same opportunities as white people.

If you are a young person, of black or Hispanic origin, born to a single mother living somewhere in an urban get tho, it is more than probable that your dreams will never be more than dreams. Americans have a tradition of respect and consideration for material wealth and success and those who do well and become rich just as long as their wealth results from hard work or successful business operations. Slogans that are characteristic of the American Dream and people who get it keep the Dream alive. Horace Greeley’s famous exhortation “Go West, young man” encouraged people to go out and find new wealth and create prosperity by becoming landowners and house owners in New America. The set phrase “from a dishwasher to a millionaire” has become symbolic of many immigrants and, of course, Americans who make their dream come true. The best example is Arnold Schwarzenegger. He grows up in a little village in Austria. When he was fifteen, he discovered his love for body-building. With daily hard work and strong enthusiasm, he won the titles “Mr. Olympia” and “Mr. Universum.” One day, he decided to migrate to “the country with the unequalled possibilities.”His film career started with the movie “Pumping Iron.” Today he is not only a very excellent businessman but also the Gouverneur of California.

Literature

  1. The American Patriot’s Handbook, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, 1997
  2. A Fondness for Ice Water, A Brief Introduction to the USA, AFS Intercultural Programs, 1984
  3. Focus on the USA, T.Cox, Prentice Hall, 1998
  4. Businessweek magazine, 1998 http://www.businessweek.com/1998/42/b3600013.htm
  5. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Dream

Cite this page

Choose cite format:
The History and Development of the American Dream. (2021, Aug 25). Retrieved August 30, 2021, from https://essayscollector.com/essays/the-history-and-development-of-the-american-dream/