Understanding ‘The American Dream’ But we cannot ignore the many American Nightmares. The slaughter of native Americans, enslavement of African Americans, exploitation of immigrants, indifference to the poor, hostility towards workers’ organizations, subordination of women, consumerist glut, environmental destruction, and imperialist aggression – were these aided and abetted by some interpretations of the Dream? Can faulty dreams lead to personal or ethnic despair and even crime when individual or group expectations are more than reality will allow?
Here is a selection of extracts and writings that in different ways express individual author’s views of the ‘American Dream’. You could read also the novels, ‘The Great Gatsby’ (Scott Fitzgerald) and ‘Of Mice and Men’ (John Steinbeck) along with the play, ‘Death of a Salesman’ (Arthur Miller) – all different responses to the failure of the dream.
James Truslow Adams (who coined the phrase, “The American Dream)
[The American Dream is…] 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. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. [The Epic of America, 1931]
Emma Lazarus, inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty ‘Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempesttossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.’
Langston Hughes (19021967): ’Let America be America again’ Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free. (America never was America to me.) Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed – Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above. (It never was America to me.) O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe. (There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’) Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars? I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek –
And finding only the same old stupid plan Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak. I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that ancient endless chain Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one’s own greed! I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil. I am the worker sold to the machine. I am the Negro, servant to you all. I am the people, humble, hungry, mean – Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today – O, Pioneers! I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years. Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream In the Old World while still a serf of kings, Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true, That even yet its mighty daring sings In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned That’s made America the land it has become. O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas In search of what I meant to be my home – For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore, And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came To build a ‘homeland of the free.’
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose – The steel of freedom does not stain. From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives, We must take back our land again, America!
The free? Who said the free? Not me? Surely not me? The millions on relief today? The millions shot down when we strike? The millions who have nothing for our pay? For all the dreams we’ve dreamed And all the songs we’ve sung And all the hopes we’ve held And all the flags we’ve hung, The millions who have nothing for our pay – Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath – America will be! Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain – All, all the stretch of these great green states – And make America again!
O, let America be America again – The land that never has been yet – And yet must be – the land where every man is free. The land that’s mine – the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME – Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plough in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again.
William Carlos Williams (18831963): ‘Burning the Christmas Greens’ Their time past, pulled down cracked and flung to the fire –go up in a roar
log’s smouldering eye, opening red and closing under them and we stood there looking down. Green is a solace a promise of peace, a fort against the cold (though we
All recognition lost, burnt clean clean in the flame, the green dispersed, a living red, flame red, red as blood wakes on the ash–
did not say so) a challenge above the snow’s hard shell. Green (we might have said) that, where
and ebbs to a steady burning the rekindled bed become a landscape of flame
small birds hide and dodge and lift their plaintive rallying cries, blocks for them and knocks down
At the winter’s midnight we went to the trees, the coarse holly, the balsam and the hemlock for their green
the unseeing bullets of the storm. Green spruce boughs pulled down by a weight of snow–Transformed!
At the thick of the dark the moment of the cold’s deepest plunge we brought branches cut from the green trees
Violence leaped and appeared. Recreant! roared to life as the flame rose through and our eyes recoiled from it.
to fill our need, and over doorways, about paper Christmas bells covered with tinfoil and fastened by red ribbons
In the jagged flames green to red, instant and alive. Green! those sure abutments . . . Gone! lost to mind
we stuck the green prongs in the windows hung woven wreaths and above pictures the living green. On the
and quick in the contracting tunnel of the grate appeared a world! Black mountains, black and red–as
mantle we built a green forest and among those hemlock sprays put a herd of small white deer as if they
yet uncoloured–and ash white, an infant landscape of shimmering ash and flame and we, in that instant, lost,
were walking there. All this! and it seemed gentle and good to us. Their time past, relief! The room bare. We
breathless to be witnesses, as if we stood ourselves refreshed among the shining fauna of that fire.
stuffed the dead grate with them upon the half burnt out
Walt Whitman (18191892): from ‘I Hear America Singing’
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong, The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam, The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work, The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deck hand singing on the steamboat deck, The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands, The woodcutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown, The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing, Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else, The day what belongs to the dayat night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
Mari Evans – ‘I Am a Black Woman’ I am a black woman the music of my song some sweet arpeggio of tears is written in a minor key and I can be heard humming in the night Can be heard humming in the night
Now my nostrils know the gas and these trigger tire/d fingers seek the softness in my warrior’s beard I am a black woman tall as a cypress strong beyond all definition still defying place and time and circumstance assailed impervious indestructible Look on me and be renewed
I saw my mate leap screaming to the sea and I/with these hands/cupped the lifebreath from my issue in the canebrake I lost Nat’s swinging body in a rain of tears and heard my son scream all the way from Anzio for Peace he never knew....I learned Da Nang and Pork Chop Hill in anguish
John Crowe Ransom – ‘Dead Boy’ The little cousin is dead, by foul subtraction, A green bough from Virginia’s aged tree, And none of the county kin like the transaction, Nor some of the world of outer dark, like me.
With a noble house. But the little man quite dead, I see the forbears’ antique lineaments. The elder men have strode by the box of death To the wide flag porch, and muttering low send round The bruit of the day. O friendly waste of breath! Their hearts are hurt with a deep dynastic wound.
A boy not beautiful, nor good, nor clever, A black cloud full of storms too hot for keeping, A sword beneath his mother’s heart – yet never Woman bewept her babe as this is weeping.
He was pale and little, the foolish neighbours say; The firstfruits, saith the Preacher, the Lord hath taken; But this was the old tree’s late branch wrenched away, Grieving the sapless limbs, the shorn and shaken.
A pig with a pasty face, so I had said, Squealing for cookies, kinned by poor pretense
Harry Chapin – American singer/songwriter (inc. comment from fan) “I MISS AMERICA” In many ways this is one of Harry’s saddest songs. I see its main theme as that of exploitation and the destruction of the American dream. So many novelists and musicians over the years have tried to dissect and discuss this ‘American Dream’. Harry to me is one of the few songwriters/poets to come anywhere near its real meaning. The destruction of the American Dream means different things to different people. There are no answers only questions.
Here Harry is stating that all that glitters is not gold. There are so many recognisable themes within this song. Outward beauty is there for all to see, but what about the inner soul? In this song Harry is tortured by the expectations of others. Sad people, who are clutching at their dreams through others ‘Please be our American Dream.’ But the dream becomes sullied. The beauty queen wins her titles not because of what she is but because she is willing to sell her soul to the judges. Into the scenario enters the all American guy. Bulging muscles, the sports star personified. The O.J. Simpson of his day. And the same scenario is played out again. The great sportsman is simply saleable merchandise, treated like a king not because of humanity but because of the monetary asset. So surprise surprise the two come together. It is their destiny. But can there ever be happiness for such mass moulded people. Harry leaves us in no doubt that the answer is no. He speaks of being in separate beds with a borrowed dream. The imagery is stark and tough. But wait. Is there hope in the last verse. Once again Harry uses the innocence of children in order to hold on to the dream. To me this song ends on a note of hope. While there are children in the world all is not lost.
By the time I was thirteen I started taking shape. At eighteen I was so beautiful That the strangers started to gape. They said ‘Enter the ultimate contest If you’re as gorgeous as you seem.’ They said ‘Please, please, please Be our American dream.’ But late that night beneath the grieving moon There’s a dazzling sight in my motel room For a grunting judge with his bulging eyes I give my all for his cherished prize.
Sweating on TV The winner’s joy from the battered boy For everything’s where it should be Oh say can you see, ah say can you see. At last we’ve come together Call it marriage or civil war. If it brings us to battle, babe It must be worth our fighting for. Though today came up cloudy There will be other days. ‘Ah, please, please, please, please What else is there to say?’ But in plywood spread By a plastic stream And in separate beds with a borrowed dream And with questions wide and the silence deep We take two pills so at last we’ll sleep.
Oh why, oh why? I’m Miss America Crying on TV Silver clad in satin rags, But everything’s where it should be Oh say can you see, ah say can you see.
Oh why, oh why? Mr. and Mrs. America Our story’s on TV Can you hear canned laughter For everything’s where it should be Oh say can you see, ah say can you see.
After they showed me the game ball They told me put on weight. They told me I’d be powerful They told me I’d be great. And my Uncle Sam he would coach me His helmet on my head And they said ‘Please, please please, please Please win and beat the spread.’ But the new game plan that the owners had made Meant that win or lose there would be a trade. For the team’s become a real gold mine And the kid’s sold off for the bottom line.
Well, my little boy he told me something Just the other night. He whispered it as I kissed him Before I turned out the light. And of course he said it simple As only children can He said ‘Daddy, daddy, daddy, please I’m ready to dream again.’
Oh why, oh why? Mr. America