American Dream in Literature

James Truslow Adams is usually attributed first with coining the phrase "American dream," when describing it in his 1931 book The Epic of America, where he wrote of a "dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity according to ability or achievement." American literature is permeated with explorations of the American dream, the idea of which existed in the national consciousness well before the phrase was first used.

From the infancy of the nation, Americans saw their society as different from others because of the opportunity it offered to the individual, no matter of origin, to accomplish success. This was enshrined from the very founding of the nation, in the Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, with its statement that all men are created equal and endowed with the rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

Benjamin Franklin, who helped write the declaration, was also an example of the achievement of the American dream. Franklin's rise from an apprentice to one of the most respected figures of his age was a demonstration of the opportunities of the New World. Moreover, his idea that hard work is the only true way to wealth became a key tenet of the American dream.

Another key aspect of the dream is freedom. This feature is woven in the image of young Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain's 1884 adventure novel. Huck does what he feels is right. Worried that he is helping his slave friend Jim to escape, by the end, he listens to his heart when making decisions.

In 20th century literature, F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise (1920), touches upon the increasing disillusion with the traditional American dream. The main character, Amory Blaine, is a young man coming from a rich family who tries to find his own answer to what makes life meaningful. Only when he has lost both his wealth and love is he free to find his true self. Thus, Fitzgerald portrays the new American dream as a quest for one's self.

Considered to be Fitzgerald's masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925), is commonly cited as a comment on the American dream, in describing how despite his riches, the titular hero Jay Gatsby could not get the love he longed for.

Some authors take a realistic view to the American dream, depicting characters struggling to attain their dreams in the face of sometimes insurmountable difficulties. Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's 1949 play Death of a Salesman is a tragic hero who believes in the American dream but sees it fall apart. Although Willy has worked hard all his life, he has not managed to attain success he thinks he deserves. Close to retirement, Willy is slowly going mad, regretting that has achieved none of his goals. He is envious of his luckier neighbors and relatives, but his pride does not allow him to accept help.

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is set in the Great Depression and tells the story of the Joad family, who, driven away from their farm in Oklahoma by drought, head to California in search of simple dreams, to find only disappointment. The theme about the dream is also present in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951), where disaffected youth Holden Caulfield dismisses as phony the adult world and the concepts of the American dream that goes with it.

In 1971, a work of "gonzo," journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, captured a fundamental change America's values and aspirations. The novel's two protagonists embark on a drug-induced search for the American dream. While searching, literally, for the true nature of the dream, they are constantly attacking images and elements of mainstream American culture.

Other authors who explored the theme of the American dream in the latter part of the 20th century include Toni Morrison in Song of Solomon (1977), Edward Albee and Langston Hughes, Douglas Coupland in Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991) and Anna Deveare Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 (1994).

American Dream in Literature: Selected full-text books and articles

American Literature and the Dream By Frederic I. Carpenter Philosophical Library, 1955
Willy Loman By Harold Bloom Chelsea House, 1991
Librarian's tip: "Women and the American Dream of Death of a Salesman" begins on p. 129
Black, White, and Huckleberry Finn: Re-Imagining the American Dream By Harry Mensh; Elaine Mensh University of Alabama Press, 2000
Understanding Richard Wright's Black Boy: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents By Robert Felgar Greenwood Press, 1998
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "The American Dream of Success" and Chap. 4 "The Dream Deferred"
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Understanding Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, and The Pearl: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents By Claudia Durst Johnson Greenwood Press, 1997
Librarian's tip: Chap. 5 "Losers of the American Dream" and Chap. 6 "The American Dream in a Mexican Setting"
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Student Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald By Linda C. Pelzer Greenwood Press, 2000
Librarian's tip: "Fitzgerald and the American Dream" p. 21
An American Dream: The Singular Nightmare By Kaufmann, Donald L The Mailer Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall 2007
The Critical Response to Truman Capote By Joseph J. Waldmeir; John C. Waldmeir Greenwood Press, 1999
Librarian's tip: "An American Tragedy and In Cold Blood: Turning Case History into Art" begins on p. 205
American Mythologies: Essays on Contemporary Literature By William Blazek; Michael K. Glenday University of Liverpool Press, 2005
Librarian's tip: Chap. 6 "'Cheap, On Sale, American Dream': Contemporary Asian American Women Writers’ Responses to American Success Mythologies"
The Ironies of Progress: Henry Adams and the American Dream By William Wasserstrom Southern Illinois University Press, 1984
Rolando Hinojosa and the American Dream By Joyce Glover Lee University of North Texas Press, 1997
Freaks and the American Dream: Horatio Alger, P. T. Barnum, and the Art of Humbug By Hoeller, Hildegard Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 34, No. 2, Autumn 2006
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The American Writer and the European Tradition By Margaret Denny; William H. Gilman The University of Minnesota Press, 1950
Librarian's tip: "The Enlightenment and the American Dream" p. 16
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