defining the american dream

May 27, 2010
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The dictionary defines “American Dream” as:
1.the ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity traditionally held to be available to every
2.a life of personal happiness and material comfort as traditionally sought by individuals in
the U.S.

As my friend and I prepared to interview my mom on her opinion of the “American Dream,” I smirked and provided my own pessimistic opinion of the American dream as portrayed in this definition, dismissing it as a simple and unreasonable fantasy. My mother raised her eyebrows at me and began her interview with a strong retaliation.

“You can’t understand what the American Dream means.” she said coarsely. “You’ve lived here your whole life, you’ve always enjoyed the surplus of America. A surplus of materials, of opportunities, of things to do! ... Everyone wants to improve. As a parent you want your kid to do better – you didn’t finish school, you want your kids to have a great education; you never had a proper home, you never want your kids to know what it is to go without shelter. People come here with one thought, mija, and one thought only. They come to improve their lives.”

And right there, before our interview had even properly begun, she had hit it on the spot. The American dream is about creating a better life, for yourself, for your children. It’s about having the opportunities to achieve what elsewhere may have been impossible. Of course the outline of the dream differs for everyone. For those who come from broken countries, where death is a constant companion and the drug lords had long ago taken control, the American dream is peace of mind. For a ranchero del cerrito it might mean indoor plumbing. For a successful middle class man, as testified by a friend, happiness would never be possible until he owned his yacht and had enough to travel to Europe on a yearly basis. For my mom, it was the possibility of getting the education she so desperately wanted – the one thing she knew could not be taken away from her.

These ideas fall most easily into the definition given by the Cultural Dictionary:
A phrase connoting hope for prosperity and happiness... Possibly applied at first to the hopes of immigrants, the phrase now applies to all… and suggests a confident hope that one's children's economic and social condition will be better than one's own.

My grandmother elaborated on these idea. She gave me her interpretation of the American dream as developed throughout settling back and forth in Mexico and California with her young family.

“Everyone thinks that this place is truly the ‘land of opportunity,’” she begins in Spanish, “They believe it will be just as they have seen in those idealized movies. They think it will be easy. As we used to say, ‘creen que vienen a barrer el dinero’, or they think they’re coming to sweep money off the ground.”
I smile, thinking of the clichés associated with America: land of immigrants, a land of opportunity, the streets are paved with gold.

“But these people’s dreams are achievable,” she continues, “if they put enough effort. You can do anything if you put in the effort.” Her sentiments echo the way of thinking I’ve known all my life.

My thoughts turn to Fitzgerald’s short story, “Babylon Revisited.” In this story, Fitzgerald’s criticism of American culture is similar to his commentary in The Great Gatsby. Being set in the early 30s, “Babylon Revisited” gives Fitzgerald the opportunity to present the failure of not only a man but an entire nation, an opportunity not available when he wrote The Great Gatsby in the mid 1920s. The general prosperity of the 1920s no doubt led to a great deal of “American Dreams” becoming reality. During the short-lived, glamorous era it became easy to get rich quick, through luck with stocks; the prosperity and confidence of the decade left the dream in reach of anyone. Then the crash of ’29 robbed the public of their fantasies. When a bartender mentions that he heard Charlie, the main character, had lost his money in the crash, Charlie replies, “I did, but I lost everything I wanted in the boom.”
The character’s response indicates a very “American” attitude – to shrug off the losses and forge ahead. Similarly, the American dream as held by native born Americans has a hint of distinct American essence. The most notable “American Dream” – arguably still a basis for today’s standards – comes from the 1950s. By this decade, American successes in the wars and its rapidly recovering economy brought back dreams of achievement and prosperity. Racial tensions escalated during this time period, as evident with increasing race riots and court cases such as Brown v. Board in 1954. Mainstream America, however, turned from these disturbances. The war had been a hard time for Americans and they desired to return to simple, unchaotic lives. Conformity and normalcy were held in high esteem; thus the image of the 1950s American dream was formed. Families were pressured to reach perfection. Success was a one-story house in the suburbs surrounded by a white picket fence, inhabited by the nuclear family. Levitowns spread throughout the nation, and families flocked to the comfort of the suburbs, far from the controversies in the city. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 made it the breadwinning husband to continue climbing the ranks in his secure office job in the city while his wife was made to leave the workplace to return to her place at home. In addition, the middle class American Dream was propelled by the developing “consumer culture” and families strived to be the envy of the neighborhood. The American Dream seemed to be within the grasp of the American family.
This version of the American dream however, is fiercely rejected in contemporary time. In fact, it faced serious opposition from the start. The conformity sought by families led to backlash, embodied by rebellion and the counterculture – evident in Rock and Roll, James Dean and a changing set of values in the youth. Betty Friedand and other feminists condemned gender roles. The comfortable concentration camps of the suburbs, they claimed, held back women and kept them from reaching any fulfillment. But the 1950s was not a regressive era with regressive dreams. Much of the thought and dreams that characterized the 60’s – reform, progressivism, racial reform – was rooted in the changes of the 1950s, and the simple dream of a good home and a happy family is still a main component of many American Dreams.

Now, can we say that any one of these American Dreams is attainable? Had you asked me just a couple of weeks earlier, (and had I answered honestly) I would have laughed and said no. But now, I am finding I am more inclined to agree with my aunt’s enthusiastic reply of hell yeah!

“Of course it’s attainable. Work your [rear end] off and anything is going to be possible.” she says, echoing the principle my family has raised us on.

She takes out a small collage she made with her children a couple years back. It has pictures of a two story house, a car, herself with her husband and daughters. Looking over it, we see that most of what she had put on her “Dream Board” is in her possesion now. All you need is to add another story on top of this place, and upgrade your car and, all set! I joke.

“To me,” she says, thoughtful once more, “the American Dream meant never settling. You have no reason to settle”

“America is no ‘El Dorado’” she continues at my probing, “but it is a land of opportunity.”

I reflect on what I have heard for the following couple of days; it has certainly had some impact on my opinion of this “American Dream.” As I am walking up the stairs to my class across campus, something brings my mind to politics and it hits me again: we have a black president. I’m not so dense that this revelation has barely come to me, but it still gets me, every now and then. I’m living through history. How appropriate that I am writing an essay about the American Dream. One of the “fundamental truths about the country,” shot at us since Jackson began the era of the common man, is that “anyone can grow up to be president.” Up until the latest election, the promise had not come through very well; we had remained in the hand of aged white males. Then, it seemed we might have either a woman or a young, black man as our next president, and the public chose to come through with the promise of this American Dream.
Of the definitions I was presented throughout my research, the one that seemed most clearly to explain the current and essential meaning of the American Dream is that as described by Adams, the man who first presented the idea. His definition went something like this…
[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.”

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Lorena said...
May 15, 2014 at 10:20 pm
I had to write a research paper on The American Dream this semester and I am so thankful I found this post! I am a sophmore in highschool and this is what I was looking for through all of my research. The mom's quotes fit perfectly into what my paper was about and gave me my dierct quote. My teacher loved it so I thought I would pass it on.
Heather said...
Apr. 1, 2013 at 10:29 am
To the author of this article~ This article is great. I am actually reffering to it for a highschool assignment that I am writing about the American Dream and how it evolves. Your grandmother and mother's quotes helped me describe how it evolves and it would be great if I could get your opinion on what the American Dream is so that I have 3 generations with different opinions.  Thank you! Heather (Highschool Student)
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