Is the American Dream Dead?
Advanced Writing & Composition
May 20, 2014
Is the American Dream Dead?
The notion American dream is a fundamental part of the American society and culture, dozens of books, articles and songs deals with this topic, politicians often mention it in their speeches. Though the phrase has different meanings to different people, it suggests an underlying belief that hard work pays off and that the next generation will have a better life than the previous generation. Nowadays this belief is challenged and more and more concern is articulated in connection with the American dream in the 21st century. As comedian, author and social critic George Carlin have put it: "It's called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” In what follows I would like to explore the theme of the American dream as a whole and consider its juncture in the 21st century by elaborating on its past and present.
The evolution of the American dream
Historian James Truslow Adams is credited for being the first popularizing the idea of the American dream in his book The Epic of America (1931). He characterizes the American dream as "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.” But the same idea existed since the colonist times. In 1630 John Winthrop give a sermon to his fellow Puritan colonists in which he detailed his vision of a society in which everyone would have a chance to prosper, as long as they all worked together and followed Biblical teachings. Eventually, the hope for equality of opportunity evolved in colonists' mind into a God-given right. More than a hundred years later Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence asserted that every American – except the slaves – have the right to "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness." As grew America in the 19th century, so did the number of immigrants who saw the continent as a land of opportunity where anything could be achieved if a person dared to dream big enough. The words "American dream" gradually began to appear in newspaper articles and books in the mid- to late-1800s.
The first difficulties appeared during the Great Depression in the 1930s. It affected both the rich and the poor. The self-made millionaires lost their fortune, Americans of humbler means lost their jobs and homes. With the beginning of Roosevelt's presidency a new era begin in the American history and so did in the evolution of the Dream. In a 1941 speech Roosevelt visioned a new, government-assisted American dream, which included full employment, government help for the elderly and those unable to work, and "enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.” Previously the achievement of the American dream depended on the individual's ability and hard-work, now, due to the Depression the government's assistance was needed. The post-World War II prosperity meant for many Americans the fulfillment of the Dream, so that he faith in the American dream was restored least for the majority.
By this time the American dream was equal to amassing wealth, but the other important aspect sank into oblivion. In a 1964 speech entitled "The American Dream," civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr voiced this other aspect which Thomas Jefferson's statement: “All men are equal”. For King the Dream was that same rights and opportunities would be granted for everyone regardless of skin-color. In the 1970s, with the U.S. economy stalling, inflation on the rise and the nation torn by both racial strife and an angry divide over the Vietnam War the idea of the American dream got questioned once again. A french historian Ingrid Carlander in her book (Les Americaines) claimed that the American dream was dead. These circumstances lead to the transform of...
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