Term Paper, 2006
13 Pages, Grade: 1,3
2 The American Dream
3 Analyzing the American Dream’s concept and values
3.1 Why is the American Dream a key concept?
3.2 Changes in the values of the American Dream
4 The American Dream turning into an American nightmare
4.1 Critical interpretation of the American Dream
4.2 Influence of the American Dream’s success mythology on popular imagination
“We were brought up to succeed, weren’t we?” (Arthur Miller “The Price”, 109). Is this true? Were we really brought up only to succeed in order to achieve material plenty and is this what the American Dream is all about: Success as the reason for living? In my research paper I will try to find an answer to these questions by looking at the origin of the concept of the American Dream, the critical interpretation of the American Dream referring to itschange of values. Furthermore, I am going to discuss the influence of the American Dream on popular imagination and, as a conclusion to my paper, I will briefly state the effect it has on political rhetoric. So, the main purpose of my paper is to show that the notion of the American Dream has not always been identified with materialism but with success primarily as a God given task intended for self-salvation. Therefore, I will point out how this aspect of a success in religious and moral terms changed into an aspect of material success only. Further, I will show, according to this change that the aspect of material success promotes selfish individuals instead of a “Great Society” in which the American Dream is realized in the community since there is “nothing whatever in a fortune merely in itself” (Adams “The Epic of America”, 416). While the American Dream stands on the one hand for a land of opportunity where everyone is given the chance of attaining something according to one’s ability, the American Dream stands on the other hand for a struggle to succeed without much social or emotional support that eventually turns into an American nightmare.
In this chapter I will first refer to the originally intended meaning of the American Dream as a key concept and then discuss the reasons why the American Dream became a key concept that became crucial for people of lower classes and different ethnic backgrounds.
In the following, based on The Epic of America by James Truslow Adams, I will, as I mentioned before, define the general notion and meaning of the American Dream as a key concept with regard to the historical background.
The term of the American Dream was first coined in a study called The Epic of America by James Truslow Adams in which he deals with the basic fascination and promise of living America “with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement” (404). Therefore, according to J.T. Adams, the notion of having the opportunity of achieving something without being restricted by social borders developed out of a need of “being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman” (404). This need couldn’t be fulfilled in Europe because of social classes that had been established throughout history “for the benefit of classes” and so restricted those who were not privileged by birth in achieving something (Adams 405). America, in contrast to Europe, supports a republican form of government without any classes privileged by birth or by occupational class which characterizes the American Dream as a notion of a classless society “for the simple human being of any and every class” (Adams 405). This way the notion of living in America turned into a notion with a certain appeal for
lower class people of having the opportunity to achieve something. But if this concept of achieving something according to one’s ability and being respected as a human being regardless to one’s social stratification “is to be a reality”, as Adams argues, people “shall be
capable of wanting to share in it” without giving themselves up “as individuals to selfishness, physical comfort and cheap amusement” (Adams 411). In short, the notion of the American
Dream should ideally turn into a key concept by means of promoting not only material plenty but also living in society without being selfish.
In this section, based on John Fiske’s Key Concepts in Communication and Cultural Studies, John E. Schwarz’s Illusions of Opportunity and Roland Marchand’s Advertising the American Dream, I will first go on to illustrate the reasons why the American Dream came to symbolize success through hard work and discipline. Then, I will go on to analyse the reasons why the originally intended values of the American Dream that were said to guarantee success and economical prosperity by means of hard labour and discipline, changed.
In this paragraph I would like to discuss in more detail not only the reasons why the American Dream became a key concept for people of lower classes to achieve something but also state the difficulty of defining a concept’s basic content and meaning. In his book Key Concepts in Communication and Cultural Studies John Fiske explains that there are “differences between treating concepts as ingots of information with a given content and a known value … and treating them in terms of their possible meanings”, thus stressing that their value or meaning need not depend on their given contents (11; author’s emphasis). Therefore, Fiske points out that “without difference there is no meaning”, hence emphasizing his belief of concepts being defined as signs that by the tenets of structuralism are “understood only by reference to others in the same system” (12). Therefore, concepts have “no intrinsic but only established and rational meanings”, thus stressing that most of them have more than one meaning (12).
Further, I want to focus on the key concept of the American Dream considering the fact that on the one hand it represents financial prosperity and on the other hand giving lower class people the chance of being respected according to their ability regardless of their lower social class. In this sense, the concept of the American Dream “sets forth a standard of justice that holds each individual accountable, for it assumes that one’s fate is in large measures under one’s own control” (Schwarz 17). John E. Schwarz points out that the concept of the American Dream including virtues such as self-control, discipline, effort and perseverance dates back to the Declaration of Independence. In addition, he states that the reason why this concept is a key concept is because it does not only symbolize “some measure of success through actions” but it can also be regarded as a “moral foundation” that “unites the present with the past”, thus stressing the success and safety of a nation (Schwarz 17).
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