The term “American dream” is widely used today. But what exactly does this concept mean? Where does the term come from? Has the meaning of the term changed over time? Questions like these can complicate a seemingly simple term and lead us to an even more important question: is the American dream a myth or a reality today?
The term “American dream” began to be widely used in 1867. The term was used in a famous novel written by Horatio Alger. The novel, Ragged Dick, was a “rags to riches” story about a little boy who was orphaned and lived in New York. The boy saved all his pennies, worked very hard, and eventually became rich. The novel sent the message to the American public that anyone could succeed in America if they were honest, worked hard, and showed determination to succeed. No matter what your background, no matter where you were from, no matter if you had no money or no family, hard work and perseverance would always lead to success.
Today, the message from Alger’s novel is still a prevalent one in this country. It is still used to define the American dream. A very basic definition of the American dream is that it is the hope of the American people to have a better quality of life and a higher standard of living than their parents. This can mean that each generation hopes for better jobs, or more financial security, or ownership of land or a home.
However, new versions and variations of the American dream have surfaced since Alger’s novel was published. For one thing, the basic definition I stated a moment ago — the idea that Americans are always seeking to improve their lifestyle — also suggests that each generation wants more than the previous generation had. Some people would argue that this ever-increasing desire to improve the quality of one’s life may have started out on a smaller scale in the past, but today has led to an out-of-control consumerism and materialism.
Another more benign view of the American dream is that it is about the desire to create opportunities for ourselves, usually through hard work. A hallmark of the American dream, some would argue, is the classic “self-starter,” the person who starts out with very little in life—little money, few friends, few opportunities—and works hard to make his or her way in the world. A classic example of this type of American dreamer would be former president Abraham Lincoln, who was born in a log cabin, was largely self-educated, and yet worked his way up in the world to eventually become a United States president.
This view of the American dream has also been associated with immigrants and their quests for a better life in a new country. Americans have long been fascinated by immigrant stories, and many feel great pride about their own families who may have come from other countries, worked very hard, and created a better life for future generations.
The American dream has also, historically, been associated with westward expansion in this country. Throughout most of the 1800s, the notion of the frontier—a vast expanse of largely unclaimed land in the West—symbolized new opportunities and a fresh start to people. Many a dreamer set off for the West in search of land, jobs, gold, or other opportunities, often with next to nothing in his pocket. Unfortunately, this idea of new opportunities in the West had a negative side.
The American West was not unpopulated; Native American Indians already lived there, along with other immigrant groups, and these people were often displaced — or met with violence — if they interfered with the visions or ideas of westward-migrating Americans.
A more recent interpretation of the American dream has to do with equality. Civil rights activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, used some of the rhetoric associated with the American dream to urge people to work for equal opportunities for all Americans, not just some Americans. A harsh reality was becoming clear to some people, especially in the 1960s and 1970s: not everyone had the same opportunities. If people were denied jobs, education, or other opportunities because of their race, ethnic background, or gender, was the American dream only a myth?