- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Remembering the Original Meaning of the American Dream

In the 1999 film Fight Club, Tyler Durden addresses what he sees as the problem with the American Dream. “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars,” he says. “But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

Perhaps if Durden and his gang of angst-ridden males—as well as the rest of us—had paid more attention to the historical origins of one of America’s most famous expressions, we might not feel so aggrieved.

The phrase “American Dream” was originally coined in the wake of the Great Depression by historian James Truslow Adams, when he wrote a book titled The Epic of America [1]. (He originally called it The American Dream, but his publishers didn’t think the title catchy enough.)

“For Adams, the American dream included, but extended beyond, economic opportunity,” says Sarah Churchwell, a professor of American literature at the University of London and author of Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream. “It was about militating against privilege, rather than promising that everyone could be rich.”

Advertisement

Adams was no socialist, Churchwell notes, though he hoped capitalism could produce a more beneficent order, with businessmen considering the good of society as they salvaged their post-Depression livelihoods, discovering enlightened self-interest and paying better—an earlier version of today’s corporate social responsibility.

Adams’ ideas and writings about the American Dream found favor in a nation trying to rebuild after economic catastrophe. His phrase took off during the 1930s, when it was used to proselytize for the likes of state-subsidized education, national health care, and public housing (reading that as a Brit makes my heart swell—you maddening yet lovable American rogues once saw the light!).

Nowadays, the phrase’s original ideals seem long forgotten. Current invocations of the American Dream focus almost exclusively on acquisition, better material prospects, landing a juicy advertising deal with your Instagram or YouTube account.

The result has been a failing society where people focus on themselves and their advancement and ignore the struggles of others. Thus has the phrase American Nightmare found its place in debates about what’s gone wrong.

This collective amnesia about what the American Dream originally meant is troubling for Americans and foreigners alike. It was the BBC’s legendary America correspondent Alistair Cooke who noted that where America goes, Britain usually follows.

I see this whenever I return to the UK from the States, often in benign ways, such as fashion, food, and language trends. But I also see more troubling aspects: enthrallment to the profit motive and the elevation of self-fulfillment above service to the greater good.

Indeed, it seems no coincidence that increasing numbers of British voices are questioning the feasibility of keeping our National Health Service publicly funded. And of course, America isn’t a trendsetter for the UK alone.

It is arrogant and naïve for those in Europe to adopt an attitude of, well, we can leave those Americans to their own devices. There are big implications for pretending the world doesn’t need America, from the current wrangling over the future of NATO to the sustainability of the world order we’ve largely benefited from since the end of World War II.

Yet there’s also a striking similarity between the aftermath of the Great Depression and what followed the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. By 1931, it was clear that many of America’s wealthiest had escaped the depression unscathed. Sound familiar?

The New Deal reforms of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933 sought to rectify this injustice. But where have the reforms been since 2008? Instead a more ruthless form of capitalism has taken hold unchecked. A small group of individuals continue to do extremely well, while the majority languishes.

“I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables—slaves with white collars,” Durden fumes. “We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives.”

His character was well written and deserves our attention. The consequences of an increasingly amoral and unfair—and hence unhappy—society flailing around a demagnetized moral compass point are horribly tangible, and not just in America.

Studies indicate that the greatest cause of death in young people under 30 in the developed world is not the abuse of drugs or alcohol but suicide.

The reasons for this poor state of mental health are myriad and complex. However, as Hugh Mackay, the Australian psychologist and social researcher, argues in his book The Good Life, [2] happiness has become an industry that is selling us a lie.

The current misappropriation of the American Dream has fed into this, equating happiness with material gain. It’s increasingly evident that equation doesn’t work.

As dissatisfaction soars, populist parties and movements, mostly on the Right, are becoming a powerful force in both the United States and Europe. Democracy itself appears tarnished and suspect. But at least we can click on Amazon.com for same-day delivery or switch on Netflix for instant gratification and escapism.

“We have lost the power even of imagining what the ancient idealization of poverty could have meant: the liberation of material attachments, the unbribed soul,” wrote American philosopher William James, “the more athletic trim, in short, the moral fighting shape.”

That was written at the turn of the 20th century. The trajectory since then appears worryingly to have been sustained. America needs to remember what the dream originally meant—but perhaps more importantly, it needs to get back into moral fighting shape.

James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the Horn of Africa, the U.S., and the UK, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey [3].

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Remembering the Original Meaning of the American Dream"

#1 Comment By Whine Merchant On May 20, 2019 @ 2:46 am

Please allow me to add that the American Dream that lured the huddled masses yearning to breath free, who built the nation [and destroyed the lives and cultures of the indigenous inhabitants] was OPPORTUNITY. Opportunity to prosper and raise a family, equal before the law, unfettered by birth, position and codified rules that protected the privileged, and mostly a belief in fair and just reward for hard work.

Like all dreams, it wasn’t reality, but it was strong enough, and maybe close enough, that it worked.

Thank you –

#2 Comment By Kent On May 20, 2019 @ 6:55 am

And I was raised believing the American Dream was getting on the property ladder. Trying to make the world a better place? Sounds vaguely socialist to me.

#3 Comment By Liam On May 20, 2019 @ 7:26 am

The classic image from the Great Depression’s double-down in 1937 was taken by Margaret Bourke-White:

[4]

#4 Comment By Dan Green On May 20, 2019 @ 8:15 am

As a member of the so called silent generation, born of the Greatest Generation, I always feel fortunate I listened to their every word I coin wisdom. With my willing financial help, they enjoyed a great retirement all about the simple things our home they stayed in, their neighbors of over 50 plus years, backyard barbecues and card games. Point I make is having gone through the great depression and WW 2, that generation was happy with what they had. In turn they handed over to future generations excellent eithical markers . So having experienced the rigors of so called globalization fostered by our government as they only way to go we ripped out a whole segment of our society with no plan for that demographic to carry on. What was it that drove the Boomer generation?

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 20, 2019 @ 9:21 am

“That was written at the turn of the 20th century. The trajectory since then appears worryingly to have been sustained. America needs to remember what the dream originally meant—but perhaps more importantly, it needs to get back into moral fighting shape.”

Uncoupling the notion that “Good Morning America” and the rest of tech community don’t have integrity or good will in mind is a very tough sell.
—————
Speaking of moral fiber — the notion that we can import more people and maintain that identity of which you speak is more than part of that dissolution.

#6 Comment By mrscracker On May 20, 2019 @ 9:30 am

“It was the BBC’s legendary America correspondent Alistair Cooke who noted that where America goes, Britain usually follows.”

*****************
That’s certainly been the case for some things, but many more cultural changes cross over the water from the UK & Europe to take root in the States.

#7 Comment By Robert Claude On May 20, 2019 @ 10:25 am

It was the founding father John Adams who best summarized the meaning of the American Dream when he said
“I am a soldier so my son can be a shop-keeper and so his son can be an artist.”
Note that material gain is never mentioned. It is really about hope and the opportunity (especially for your children) to be the best and most authentic person they can be.

#8 Comment By g On May 20, 2019 @ 11:16 am

I’ve known what the American dream is intuitively for my entire life and a European studying some social scientist from the depression era isn’t going to understand it with their collectivist mentality. Trump is the hand Americans used to b!tch slap the collectvists from both the left and the right. Whether it’s the insane aspirational moral preening from the left or the tired moral preening from conservative inc, Americans had enough with the common good collectivist crap. Materialism is just how crony capitalists maintain power and the true antidote is opening markets back to entrepreneurs.
The American dream? Leave me the eff alone I don’t want your busy body ideology.

#9 Comment By hooly On May 20, 2019 @ 12:57 pm

Are you serious? Why don’t you ask the Native Americans if the American Dream wasn’t about material acquisition, namely their land. Why don’t you ask the Africans Americans if the American Dream wasn’t about material acquisition, namely their bodies. Nothing has changed since then. So please stop it with this Fake History.

#10 Comment By cka2nd On May 20, 2019 @ 4:03 pm

g says: “I’ve known what the American dream is intuitively for my entire life and a European studying some social scientist from the depression era isn’t going to understand it with their collectivist mentality. Trump is the hand Americans used to b!tch slap the collectvists from both the left and the right. Whether it’s the insane aspirational moral preening from the left or the tired moral preening from conservative inc, Americans had enough with the common good collectivist crap. Materialism is just how crony capitalists maintain power and the true antidote is opening markets back to entrepreneurs. The American dream? Leave me the eff alone I don’t want your busy body ideology.”

What a total crock. Many Trump voters support such collectivist programs as Social Security and Medicare, and want the government to work to bring back manufacturing jobs and to NOT send their sons and daughters to yet more wars. There’s a reason why Trump and Sanders had a fair number of crossover supporters between them, and it was exactly that “the common good collectivist crap.”

Also, Trump did NOT run on “opening markets back to entrepreneurs.” He ran as much on closing American markets as on opening foreign ones unfairly closed to American goods.

#11 Comment By mrscracker On May 20, 2019 @ 4:22 pm

Robert Claude says:

“It was the founding father John Adams who best summarized the meaning of the American Dream when he said
“I am a soldier so my son can be a shop-keeper and so his son can be an artist.”

************
Somehow that sounds to me like going from the necessary, to the useful, to the useless…
🙂 Sorry.
Not that soldiers should be always be necessary but human nature being what it is…

#12 Comment By Phil On May 20, 2019 @ 5:41 pm

Essays such as this one by Jeffrey should remind us all what is lacking in America’s political discourse: The American Dream is the promise *of* prosperity not for prosperity. Like all nations, Americans are a collective as a social and cultural fact. (Obligatory Ayn Rand retort goes here) And every nation collectively answers the question of what wealth should do for us, as individuals and as a society, and also what wealth can’t address. An old formula posits that liberals talk about rights and conservatives talk about duties. That’s the best place to start. Our malaise is not an economic one, at least not in terms of ends. As Christopher Lasch wrote in an essay called Communitarianism or Populism, “..it is our reluctance to make demands on each other, much more than our reluctance to help those in need, that is sapping the strength of democracy today.” Lasch goes on to describe our need for respectful, engaged discourse that matters, one opposed to the current dichotomy of “shout them down or agree to disagree.” Just imagine if we Americans could compel ourselves into this kind of conversation.

#13 Comment By FJR – Atlanta On May 20, 2019 @ 6:56 pm

It’s hard enough to agree on what it means to be American anymore let alone agree on an American Dream.

#14 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On May 21, 2019 @ 9:33 am

@FJR-Atlanta

A French-American gentleman named Hector de Crevecoeur asked the same question.

In 1782.

#15 Comment By Emil Bogdan On May 22, 2019 @ 8:36 am

In order to participate in the debate, pick a side. The other side is the opponent. Without the opponent, there is no debate. There is no trade, no war, no politics, no life without the opponent. We can’t all be meditating monks and holy men, and never will all of us be like that, forever contemplating and worshipping God–which is the only way to mitigate conflict, competition, disdain, contempt, anger. Not being holy and disregardful of the material world and its strategies and pursuits, we engage in the game of making and taking and shoving things around, but we can still try to remember one basic truth: the opponent is you. Not metaphorically, but literally you. Without the opponent whose ideas and actions you furiously counter, your self-definition is practically non-existent.

#16 Comment By Dr. Diprospan On May 22, 2019 @ 3:45 pm

Like it or not, but America is a country of migrants.
25 thousand years ago, in the place of the Bering Strait, the tribes migrated to Alaska from Eastern Siberia, gradually settled. in North and South America.
Having accumulated reserves of silver and gold, cultivated a number of valuable plants, organizing settlements, they prepared the ground for the future well-being of the next wave of migrants. Now from Europe.
The mechanisms and principles of migration are ancient and conservative. Fish, animals and birds are involved in migration processes. Man is not an exception.
Man’s dream is to move to a new place, where it may be better than in the old place.
Only the young dream of a new land, the elderly think about a different world..
The dream is not very combined with imperative verbs like need or must.
A man dreams because he wants and likes to dream.
Conservative American Justas Walker is very popular in Russia, the hero of several reports of the central television. For 25 years he has been living in Russia, migrating across Siberia from place to place. [5]
In his clip “Death of a Dream” he tells his like-minded people that he acquired 70 hectares of landin the south of Siberia. He planned to work on it with the help of horses like Amish, saving on the purchase of a tractor and fuel and lubricants, but could not do this due to a number of technical and organizational issues. He believes that his business project will nevertheless become self-sufficient and refuses charitable donations to his farm. [6]
This American dreams that with his help and the help of people like him, Russia will be able to feed half the world’s population.
In my opinion not bad for the original meaning of the American dream.

#17 Comment By mrscracker On May 23, 2019 @ 9:58 am

Dr. Diprospan says:
Like it or not, but America is a country of migrants.”

*************
Absolutely & that’s still the case. Immigrants seem to have greater ambition, better work ethics, & more grit. But to be fair, they largely hail from nations that don’t have the safety nets & social welfare programs the US does. They have more determination largely because without that back home they might not survive.
I appreciate that we can offer safety nets to those who are disabled or temporarily in need. That’s what a humane society does. But the downside is that it can become a way of life.