The American Dream

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The more interesting development, however, was not this progressive emptying out of the phrase, its degeneration into a cliché for politicians, but rather the increasing attention and respect the phrase began to receive from historians, sociologists, and other scholars. As early as 1938 the sociologist Robert K. Merton referred to the American Dream in an important essay called “Social Structure and Anomie”; Merton identified the Dream not with Adams’ vague phrases about “a better, richer, happier life” but with success, specifically monetary success, and indicated that this was the principal goal of American culture. Quite a few other scholars subsequently adopted and elaborated on this interpretation, equating the American Dream with the achievement of the sort of success dramatized in the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches” stories and in the enormous body of how-to-succeed literature produced in America during the late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth—a literature which, of course, still flourishes.

But some scholars took another tack, not so much disagreeing with Merton’s interpretation as simply ignoring it. To them the Dream was essentially a dream of a better society; it was Utopian in nature and belonged to all those dreamers and reformers, from Sir Thomas More on down, for whom America was the last, best hope of mankind, a place not for the achievement of individual success but for the realization of a perfect society. This is the tack taken by Stewart Holbrook in his book Dreamers of the American Dream, published in 1957, which is largely about American reform movements; by Vernon L. Parrington, Jr., in American Dreams, which is about nineteenth-century Utopian communities; and by men like Archibald MacLeish, with their grand sense of the meaning and purpose of America. Unlike the people of other nations, said MacLeish, “We not only have a national purpose, we have a national purpose of such aspiration, such potentiality, such power of hope that we refer to it—or used to—as the American Dream.”

The contradiction between these two interpretations, and the many variations upon them, has led some scholars to wish that the phrase had never been invented. “Though there is a history of dreams about America, and of dreams of America,” wrote the literary critic Robert B. Heilman in exasperation, “there is no such thing as ‘the American Dream.’ ” Perhaps not. Yet it seems unlikely that the phrase would have gained popularity so rapidly and persisted so strongly if it didn’t refer to something. It is still common coin. Journalists use the phrase constantly; there has even been a newspaper course called “In Search of the American Dream.” In New York there’s a film production company called American Dream Productions. In vending machines around the country one can buy American Dream rolling papers for making marijuana cigarettes.

What the phrase means, to be sure, remains unclear. A look at a few of the scores of recent books and articles referring to it— Restoring the American Dream, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, “Aspects of the American Dream in the French Enlightenment,” “Coping With the American Dream”—reveals no particular consensus about what the Dream is. Yet there’s clearly something there—some special quality to the country, something that makes America unique among nations, a sense of aspiration or possibility or open-endedness—that demands a name.

Perhaps the best way to define the American Dream is as a kind of origin myth. The Romans have Romulus and Remus, the English Brutus and his survivors from the fall of Troy; even new nations sometimes develop extrahistorical explanations for who they are and how they got that way. One thinks of the “Australian Legend,” the “French-Canadian Spirit. We have the American Dream. The name somehow defines us, grants us an identity. But it is not really a myth of origins. That we cannot have; our beginnings are too recent, too factual, too diverse to admit of mythologizing. What we have instead is a myth of the future. Our meaning lies not in who we are but in whom we shall become. Such a myth is necessarily vague and without specific content; to be too specific would entail setting limits to the Dream, reducing the range of possibilities, and the governing idea is that we are—America is—all possibility.

It follows that the form in which the possibilities will be realized must always remain to be seen. Wrote Robert K. Merton, “...in the American Dream there is no final stopping point,” for to stop would be to accept limitations, to wake up from the Dream. The Dream stretches endlessly and forever toward the horizon, then, the lure of “more” and “better” pulling us on; no matter what we accomplish, individually or collectively, it lies just out of reach, and we remain, however self-consciously at times, however ironically, a nation of Dreamers.