The American Dream in 20th Century American Drama

Bachelor Thesis, 2008

38 Pages, Grade: 1,7

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1. Introduction

2. What is the American Dream?

3. The Declaration of Independence

4. The Dream of Upward Mobility

5. The Dream of House Ownership

6. The Dream of Equality

7. The Frontier Myth

8. The Dream of Youth and Beauty

9. Conclusion

10. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Every year thousands of people from all over the world migrate to the United States of America. For most people escaping war, poverty, ecological destruction and other dangers, the United States constitute a safe harbor where their hopes of a better life come true. Ever since the settling of what is today the US, people came to live in the New World and to lead a better life than in their countries of origin. The hopes connected with this better and happier live are all joined in the concept of the “American Dream”, which became one of most powerful creation myths of a country.

People migrating to the United States have certain dreams or hopes of a better life but in reality these promises often turn out to be not as strong as people originally believed them to be. Only a very small amount of people achieve the famous idea of “rising from rags to riches” whereas many people fail to attain their goal of a better life. Hence it is not surprising that the American culture not only is shaped by the glorious American Dream but also by the grim truth of its failing or being flunked.

Of course, such an important concept deeply influences American culture. Continuously the ideas of the American Dream can be found in television, movies, literature, and arts for instance in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Gabriele Muccino’s film The Pursuit of Happiness.

This paper aims to examine the presentment and importance of the American Dream for twentieth century American drama. Drama in general was selected because of its importance as one of the three main literary genres. Temporal narrowing in form of 20th century was chosen because drama as a literary genre is characterized by experimentation with form and content in this period. Furthermore, some of the best known 20th century American dramas employ the American Dream as a central theme, for example Susan Glaspell’s Trifles (1916), Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) and Edward Albee successive plays The Sandbox (1959) and The American Dream (1960).

At first, a closer look is taken at what the American Dream actually is. Afterwards some constituents of the overall American Dream are distinguished and their prominence in some of most popularly known dramas of twentieth century American literature is extracted.

2. What is the American Dream?

The term American Dream is a universally known concept and people would name happiness, better life, or even beauty, youth and affluence as its constituents. But surprisingly there is no consensus in terms of a fixed definition what the American Dream is about. Robert A. Rosenbaum’s The Penguin Encyclopedia of American History describes the American Dream as

“a nebulous term, much abused by politicians, that seems to have evolved from the early immigrants’ and pioneers’ hopes for lives of political and religious and personal independence in the New World to a largely materialistic expectation of upward social mobility and ever-increasing affluence” (12).

This short characterization includes a historical reference as well as Jim Cullen’s disquisition of the American Dream that takes a closer look at the influence of the American Dream to American society.

Interestingly, the term American Dream was not coined until the twentieth century although the idea behind it was already apparent when the Mayflower landed in the new world in 1620. American historian James Truslow Adams is nowadays credited with having coined the term “American Dream” when he was writing a history of the United States of America (cf. Cullen 3). Following Adams, Jim Cullen describes the

“American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank, which is the greatest contribution we have made to the thought and welfare of the world. That dream or hope has been present from the start. Ever since we became an independent nation, each generation has seen an uprising of ordinary Americans to save that dream from the forces which appeared to be overwhelming it.” (4)

It becomes obvious that all approaches to the American Dream define it as an overall American Dream that is made up of several dreams which together form the “nebulous term” Robert A. Rosenbaum described as American Dream (12). Parts of the overall American Dream are the Dream of Equality, the Dream of Upward Mobility, the Dream of House Ownership, and more recent interpretation about the Dream of Beauty and Youth. Because these parts form an overall American Dream they overlap every now and then. Besides the glorious reputation the American Dream has, one must consider that it is achieved seldom. Many social classes and groups are partly excluded from the American Dream. Instead the American Dream is for most people more like a guideline to better one’s life at least in part.

A concept often brought into connection with the American Dream is the symbol of the Melting Pot. The term came into usage with the 1908’s play Melting Pot by Israel Zangwill, but was soon criticized as unrealistic because ‘melting’ implies that all sides have to abandon their cultures completely to create a new culture (cf. Fluck 712). However, since the founding of Jamestown in 1607 and the landing of the Mayflower in 1620 the predominant people of the British colonies and later on the United States were Anglo-Saxons. To be more precise, this dominant group of people was white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Early on, other cultures and identities were perceived as inferior or even unwanted (cf. Fluck 712). Black Africans were enslaved; Catholic Irish and Southern European immigrants were discriminated as well as Native Americans. Parts of African and Native cultures, like the words ‘banana’, ‘tobacco’ or contrivances like snow shoes, found their way into daily usage and influenced the people who would one day be called ‘Americans’.

In response to the criticism of the concept of Melting Pot, Horace Kallen developed the concept of cultural pluralism in 1915 (cf. Fluck 712). This concept incorporates that different ethnic groups can keep their cultures and that the people mutual enrich their culture (cf. Fluck 712). But the concept of the Melting Pot is still prevailing. People from other cultural backgrounds than the American often wrongly interpret melting pot as the peaceful living together of people from different ethnic groups. But in reality, ethnic groups or minorities in America are not equally to the white people. For example, Native Americans and Afro Americans were denied civil rights for decades. Even today, people with an ethnic background have inferior chances in education, employment, earning, and often are hindered to live out their civil rights. Therefore, great amounts of US citizens find it more difficult to achieve their dreams.

Melting Pot comprises assimilation, meaning a group has to give up its original identity completely. Until the middle of the twentieth century, minorities were expected to assimilate to the prevailing white American culture. One example of this assimilation is the forced oblivion of African heritage. Few people within the African-American population whose ancestors were brought as slaves can trace back their identities to certain countries, races, and religious groups. A well-known example is Malcolm X. As a mean to display his unknown heritage, Malcolm Little adopted an ‘X’ instead of his family name, which was a relict of slavery and referred to the family name of the slave master.

Furthermore, African Americans tried to assimilate themselves by adopting not only white ways of living but also by adjusting their fashion and hair styles. The character of Beneatha in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is an early example of new awakened pride in her African heritage. At the beginning of the play, she wears her hair plaited to resemble white hair fashion. When Nigerian student Joseph Asagai speaks to Beneatha about her “multilated hair” (Act I, scene two, page 62), she replies that is difficult to style in its crinkly and natural state thus indicating that she is ashamed for her hair. As Joseph Asagai responds that “Assimilation is so popular in your country” (Act I, scene two, page 63), Beneatha sharply repulses that she is no assimilationist.

However, Joseph Asagai rouses a strong interest in African culture and heritage in Beneatha. After his criticism about her mulilated hair, she cuts it off. As her sister-in-law Ruth and George Murchinson both see her new headdress, they react very shocked and George even dismisses the hair cut as “excentric” and her African heritage as “nothing but a bunch of raggedy-assed spirituals and some grass huts” (Act II, scene one, page 81).

Within the play, it is consistently indicated that the Youngers have no or little knowledge in African-American history or culture. For example, Mama Younger confuses Nigeria and Liberia, which was founded by former African-American slaves. Just as well, colonialism in Africa is addressed directly in the play. Mama Younger has no knowledge about the African struggle to end colonialism but she donates money for Christian missionaries to be send to Africa to salvage the people from heathenism. Beneatha names independence from the colonial powers as the solution to the problems on the African continent. Lorraine Hansberry compares the American independence from Great Britain and the British oppression with struggle to end colonialism. It is indicated that a precondition of pursuit of happiness is always independence. Therefore, to understand the American Dream it is necessary to take a closer look at the Declaration of Independence.

3. The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is perhaps the most important document of American history and self-perception. It is of central importance for each American Dream and as scholar Jim Cullen expresses, the Declaration of Independence “actually shapes the way we live our lives” (37). The Declaration not only marks the independence of the thirteen colonies from Great Britain in 1776. It also laid the foundation of struggles for ending slavery, achieving women rights, establishing gay rights and therefore played and still plays an important role in the American Dream. Minorities and women have repeatedly referred to the Declaration in their campaigns to achieve their very own goals like the right to vote in all elections or equal opportunities in everyday life. The Declaration of Independence is practically referred to implicitly and explicitly all the time in achieving these goals and to live a “better, richer, and happier life” (cf. Cullen 4, 39).

Although many Americans are disappointed and devalue the Declaration of Independence and its content as “empty slogans”, one has to consider that the Declaration was a product of its time (Cullen 40). The then prevailing perceptions in science and philosophy, conceptions about men, women and race have found their way into the Declaration of Independence. Therefore the actual content did not change over time but its interpretation which affected millions of people in the United States of America and also their individual American Dreams.

Originally, the most known passage “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” literally meant “men” – but only white men (Cullen 38). The Founding Fathers never thought about women, slaves, and Natives as having equal rights like white men of Anglo-Saxon descent. Some even did not recognize slaves and Native Americans as human beings and so the idea of ‘freedom’ was “a relative and racially limited term” (Cullen 44).

But, of course, the Declaration has been “subject to change and disagreement” (Cullen 53). But as one knows, it was often a long struggle for racial minorities and women to achieve their goals. Even today, although with voting rights and equal opportunity laws, many women, Afro Americans, and other racial minorities are still discriminated. As Jim Cullen formulated it, “if there is one constant in the Declaration of Independence, it lies in the way no version of the status quo is ever completely acceptable […] the Declaration of Independence was born and lives the charter of the American Dream” (58).

The dream of an independent and self-determined life motivated many people to migrate to the United States of America. Liberty allowed them to lead a better life and to climb the social ladder.

4. The Dream of Upward Mobility

The idiom “to rise from rags to riches“ inspired many people to work hard and to achieve their personal goal of a better life. The saying also implies a strong believe in this dream. People like Bill Gates, who started his career in a garage and nowadays is one of the wealthiest people in the world, or Benjamin Franklin, as a more historical example, both used their “modest resources” and “triumphed in the arts, sports, or other realms of human aspiration” (Cullen 60). This shows how ordinary people without special talents can achieve their goals of a good life by hard work (cf. Cullen 59).

The Dream of Upward Mobility is a “desire to achieve beyond one’s parents’ economic status or ensure a child’s greater success in life” and has inspired many “generations of Americans to study hard” and work industriously (Sawhill/Morton 7). The Dream of Upward Mobility is expressed by improving a family’s standard of living “from one generation to the next” (Sawhill/Morton 1). This can be best seen by Arthur Miller’s salesman Willy Lowman and his attitude toward his sons who should be better off. Already the protagonist’s name Lowman implies that Willy is a ‘low man’, i.e. he belongs to the social under class. He inwardly senses that he cannot achieve the goal of a better life and therefore projects his hopes onto his children. So Willy has put his whole life into his two sons and he thinks they have turned their backs on him because they did not follow his ideals respectively because they struggled to find their own way. Willy Lowman becomes fatuous about his sons. He dismisses Biff’s friend Bernard and his striving and learning and instead values Biff’s sport talents more valuable. But because Biff neglected schooling in favor of sport he never received a proper training or education. But Willy Lowman mistakes Biffs’ former hobbies radio mechanics and television as serious interest and training. Everybody besides Willy himself detect this as a lie.

Willy Lowman tried to prepare his sons optimally for life and allow them to be happy. But at the same time he indoctrinated them with his own dreams. He planned for his sons to fulfill his dreams. His sons could not develop their own personalities and careers but instead tried to satisfy their father. Hence, it is not amazing that Biff and Happy are miserable with their lives. In the first act Biff describes his condition and disappointment as follows:

“Well, I spent six or seven years after high school trying to work myself up. Shipping clerk, salesman, business of one kind or another. And it’s a measly manner of existence. To get on that subway on the hot mornings in summer. To devote your whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella. And still – that’s how you build a future.”

(Act I, page 19, ll. 19).

With the ongoing action, Biff realizes that he tried to live out his father dreams and that these dreams are hollow words and even lies. When Biff wants to get an appointment at his old company and nobody recognizes him, his life’s lie collapses: “How the hell did I ever get the idea I was a salesman there? I even believed it myself that I’d been a salesman for him! And then he gave me one look and – I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been” (111, 25ff.). Nevertheless, Willy holds on to this lie and does not want to understand that his beloved son, who symbolizes the failed implementation of his own dream, is a nobody:

Biff: “[…] Who ever said I was a salesman with Oliver?”

Willy: “Well, you were.”

Biff: “No. Dad, I was a shipping clerk.”

Willy: “But you were practically –“

Biff: “[…] I was never a salesman for Bill Oliver.” (Act II, page 114, ll. 10).

After Willy is confronted with the grim reality of his and his sons’ existence, he carries out his suicide plan so that his son Biff will get twenty-five thousand dollar insurance money to fulfill his dreams. However, Willy is corrupted by capitalism in such a way that he is not aware that money cannot compensate for a life. Instead Willy thinks that Biff again competes with his best friend Bernard, who is a successful attorney, for a happy life and an improved living standard: “Imagine? When the mail [with the insurance money] comes he’ll be ahead of Bernard again!” (Act II, page 146, ll. 3).

37 of 38 pages


The American Dream in 20th Century American Drama
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Department of English and American Studies)
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american dream, american drama, trifles, Susan Glaspell, death of a salesman, Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun, Edward Albee, The Sandbox, The American Dream, Nadja Klopsch, Nadja Kristina Klopsch, 20th century american drama, twentieth century american drama, Jim Cullen
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Nadja Klopsch (Author), 2008, The American Dream in 20th Century American Drama, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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