The American Dream: Fact or Fiction?
In his 1931 book, “The Epic of America,” James Truslow Adams spoke of the American Dream:
“But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his 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 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.”
Interesting that Adams’ book was written in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression, a time in our country when hope of ever seeing the American Dream was possibly at its lowest. Or was it?
The year is now 2012, and I would suspect that the concept of the American Dream may very well be, at this very time, a myth for millions rather than an attainable concept. It is interesting also that in Adams’ view, the dream pertains as much to social order as to possessions and status. I suspect, and this is only my opinion, that this idea of an American Dream has changed in nature over time. During the 50’s and 60’s, when the economy was booming, it is my guess that if you polled Americans they would have told you that the American Dream had much more to do with possessions and status.
So what does the Dream mean today? As of this writing the nation is still struggling to rise above a crippling economic recession. Unemployment is still high, the real estate market is still floundering, jobs are still being outsourced for cheaper labor, and government leaders are battling over the proper path to take. What does the average American feel about the Dream today? Has the Dream changed in nature once again? Is it even attainable?
A bit More History
The Dream, of course, has its origins in the Declaration of Independence. The unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the bedrock foundation for this nation. Immigrants streamed to this country by the millions, searching for a better life and an opportunity to live according to those principles of freedom. It was believed with great conviction that a person had the opportunity in the United States to succeed, to carve out a good life, and even to attain greatness.
They plodded across the country, headed west by wagon, horseback and on foot, chasing The Dream. They invented, they improved upon inventions, they begged, borrowed and yes, stole, to gain a foothold on which they could stake their claim.
Many succeeded! Stories were passed down from generation to generation, stories of success in the Land of Plenty, stories of a land bountiful in riches and hope. If a man was willing to work hard enough and sacrifice enough, then he could grab his piece of the Dream and never let go.
Was That a Reality?
Without a doubt the deck was stacked against several of the card players at the Dream table. Blacks kept drawing a pair while their white counterparts held flushes. Indians were not even allowed at the table, given instead a place next to the spittoon buckets in the corner. Women were told to wait in the closet for decades until it was determined that even they could buy into the game if they could come up with the ante.
Still, rags to riches stories were plentiful, and there was no doubt that a white man, showing ingenuity and determination, could in fact find The Dream.
A Dose Of Reality
The Great Depression was the great Dream-buster. Suddenly white and black, man and woman, all were playing the game, only many of the cards were missing from the deck. Where once there was hope, suddenly there was despair. Where once there was reward for hard work, suddenly there was no work at all. The American Dream became a myth except for those few who now held all the cards and were not letting anyone else sit at the table. Darwinism took on a whole different meaning as crops blew across the Plains in a dust cloud of mammoth proportions and executives found that buying on margin was the equivalent of shoving a .357 Magnum in one’s mouth.
Patriotism Leads The Way
Despite the hardships of the Great Depression, once the patriotic fervor was awakened the American Dream was re-born. Pearl Harbor awakened the slumbering industrial giant and men, women and children helped prepare this country to protect the American Dream and way of life. I have no doubt that the welder in San Diego, the farmer in Topeka, and the riveter in Minneapolis would have all said in 1941 that the American Dream was a dream of liberty.
Time Marches Onward
After the War the Age of Consumerism gained momentum. Buy, work harder, buy some more. The American Dream had once more changed identity, now looking more like a home mortgage and a new sedan than any red-white and blue war poster. Freedom took a back seat to loan applications and the newest appliances. Why hang clothes on a line when for a buck a month you could punch a button and the job was done quickly? Why live in a three-room apartment when a new home in the suburbs awaited you; true, it would require both parents working, but that was a small price to pay for a den and extra bathroom.
The American Dream was alive and well, like some punch-drunk boxer who finds new strength in his right cross. A new chant rose from the steel mills of Pennsylvania and the assembly lines of Detroit. “Work now, pay later and never lose sight of the Dream.”
Where is the Reality in it all?
It all reminds me of a dog race I once saw on television, the dogs all chasing that plastic rabbit, in some cases running themselves into the ground, for a prize they never could catch. Today I look at the faces of the people I pass on the street and I see the thousand-yard stare. If hope isn’t dead it is at the very least on a vacation to points unknown. If the American Dream is defined as financial stability in this country, then to the average American, those in the ignominious 99%, the Dream is on life-support. The best that can be hoped for is to keep the life raft floating while the passengers bail with a spoon.
If the American Dream is defined as living in a land where the possibilities are endless for every man and woman, then again I will be the bearer of bad news and say that I have serious doubts.
If, however, the American Dream is defined as having the opportunity to attain happiness, I am more than willing to buy into that Dream. We all have the opportunity for happiness simply because happiness is not dependent on any outside force. It’s an inside job and always has been. No matter your status in life, inner-happiness is attainable, and all it takes is willingness.
James Adams wrote of a land where the social order allowed everyone the chance to rise to their fullest stature and to be recognized for what they are. Do I, personally, believe that is true today? Yes, I do. Taken literally I believe everyone has that opportunity; however, I also believe the playing field is again seriously slanted towards those who have an advantage, whether it be the color of their skin, the ancestors they had, or the socio-economic landscape they live in.
My own American Dream
I love a challenge. Tell me I can’t do something and I’ll work round the clock to prove you wrong. Tell me that a sixty-three year old man can’t make it as a writer and I’ll kick out ten-thousand words per day to improve my chances. Tell me I have no reason to be happy and I’ll tell you that you are an idiot.
I have all the tools I need to succeed and realize the American Dream, no matter how you define it.
The American Dream is no more than a concept that can be changed on an individual basis. Do I believe I can become a best-selling author somewhere down the road? I certainly think it is possible and that has nothing to do with ego. Do I believe I can live a life of happiness and love? Most definitely for those things are dependent only on me.
In the final analysis, I don’t believe the American Dream is limited to Americans. Rather than call it the American Dream, I prefer to think of it as The Dream! We all have them. We all have aspirations and goals. We all have visions of a better life. The only question that remains is how are we going to make those dreams a reality?