- Historic Sites
The American Dream
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
America has always been not only a country but a dream.—
We don’t ordinarily think of clichés as having an origin, but of course they do. Someone once said for the first time (and may the gods forgive him), “He can’t see the forest for the trees”; someone else first advised us to “leave no stone unturned. ” So it is with the “American Dream.” This overworked phrase, constantly on the tongues or slipping from the peris of politicians, novelists and dramatists, polemicists of every persuasion, historians, journalists, economists, and sociologists, to name just a few, didn’t arise spontaneously out of the primordial ooze of the American language. Someone thought it up—and this time we know whom to blame. He was the historian James Truslow Adams and he invented “the American Dream” in 1931. He was so proud of his new phrase, in fact, that he made it the theme of his book The Epic of America , published that same year, and would have called the book The American Dream if his publishers had let him.
The phrase paid off nicely for Adams. In one of the worst years of the Depression, when few people could afford the luxury of buying a book, The Epic of America was a spectacular best seller; and not the least of the credit goes to the reaffirmation of traditional American hopes and aspirations Adams subsumed in his new phrase. Adams defined it as “that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank,” and again as “the hope of a better and freer life, a life in which a man might think as he would and develop as he willed,” and yet again as “a new dynamic hope of rising and growing, of hewing out for themselves a life in which they would not only succeed as men but be recognized as men, a life not only of economic prosperity but of social and self-esteem.” The Dream was the ordinary American’s “Star in the West which led him on over the stormy seas and into the endless forests in search of a home where toil would reap a sure reward, and no dead hands of custom or exaction would push him back into ‘his place.’ ” This message of hope, coming in the midst of social disaster, not only sold the book, it sold the phrase as well. “The American Dream” quickly became a catch phrase; indeed, if phrases yielded royalties, Adams might have retired within the year.
Instead, “the American Dream” entered the public domain, as phrases must, and took on a life of its own. In 1932 the governor of Massachusetts invoked it in a speech before the monument on Bunker Hill and modified its meaning somewhat to suit his own rhetorical purposes. So did George O’Neil, whose play American Dream was produced by the Theatre Guild in 1933. O’Neil was a pessimist who saw the original Dream—represented in his panorama of American history by a young free spirit who breaks away from his Puritan father to strike out on his own—vitiated and then destroyed, first by the forces of nineteenth-century industrialism, then by a modern materialism empty of all ideals. At the end of his play the contemporary representative of the Dream, another young man descended from the first, commits suicide, leaving the Dream, and his wife, to a Marxist. A few years later Michael Foster, in a novel called American Dream , also explored the corruption of original American ideals; but Foster ended his work on an upbeat note. The Dream would “live forever, for it was “not merely the American dream” but the “old, old human faith that somehow, somewhere, a time might come when man would stand on the ruins of an old world and an old self, with the starlight on his shoulders. Were still in the Depression at this point; O’neil’s pessimism was roundly condemned, Foster’s optimism roundly applauded. By 1942, the worst year of World War II, the optimism had literally—even desperately —become an article of faith. A patriotic pamphlet issued that year by the Woman s Press includes a vesper service entitled The American Dream, complete with a call to worship, a hymn, a litany, and quotations from The Epic of America .
It’s clear even from these few examples that the boundaries of the phrase were becoming increasingly vague, a development to be expected from the vagueness implicit in the very notion of a “dream, of a dimly perceived vision of possible futures. Even Adams, who invented the phrase, was unable to talk about “the American Dream in precise terms. A better, richer, happier life, a life in which Americans “would not only succeed as men but be recognized as men’: these are not so much definitions as invocations. The vesper service, in other words, was prefigured in Adams rhetoric; we are close to the religion of patriotism. Politicians still invoke the phrase without making any pretense toward using it with precision. Richard Nixon kept reminding us that he believed in the American Dream, but what he meant by it wasn’t at all clear. Nor were we any more enlightened when Jimmy Carter. in his Inaugural Address, told us that the American Dream endures.