“My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to in America. You could open a restaurant. You could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a house with almost no money down. You could become rich. You could instantly become famous.”
Thus begins “Two Kinds,” a short story by the acclaimed Chinese-American author Amy Tan. Telling the tale of two cultures, the story tells of Jing Mei, a young American girl whose mother, having lost everything in China, wants to realize her own dreams through her daughter, whom she hopes will become a child prodigy. While this story of parent-child conflict is universal, the mother’s unfailing belief in her daughter’s destiny is distinctly American. Pervasive throughout our entire culture, the idea of the American Dream can be seen in the songs of such musicians as Elvis and Bruce Springsteen, the literary works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams, and many of our Hollywood movies. Sometimes it is endorsed as something positive and worth striving for; at other times it is harshly criticized. Members of marginalized or minority groups in the US, such as African-American folk singer Tracy Chapman and Latino writer Junot Diaz, seek to show how it is not. But, no matter how people choose to view it, what exactly is this dream that looms so large in American consciousness?
The basic idea that most people have of the American Dream is the one which Tan expresses at the beginning of her story. It is the idea that a person can go from rags to riches, beginning with nothing and ending up with a big house, a stylish car, and enough wealth to ensure an even better future for one’s children. However, the dream is actually more complex than this. In Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, which is one of the most famous literary explorations of the American Dream, we meet Willy Loman, an aging salesman who has fallen into a depression and ultimately commits suicide due to his conflicts with his family members as well as his own feelings of inadequacy. He is a man who has sought the American Dream and failed to achieve it. However, while Willy is indeed preoccupied over financial matters (his family is in deep debt), we soon realize that money is not what he yearns for. We learn that as a young man he chose to become a salesman not for material gain, but for recognition and affection. He recalls seeing an old salesman who was loved by all his clients and, after his death, was honored with a splendid funeral attended by hundreds of salesmen and buyers. For Willy Loman the American Dream consists not in wealth or even fame, but in honor, respect and love. Instead, he ends up with only failure and pity from the tiny smattering of people who attend his meager funeral. However, while Arthur Miller criticizes the American Dream by revealing the havoc it wreaks on a man and his family, he also expresses some admiration for it and suggests that there is a degree of nobility in the way Willy has lived and died. “A salesman has got to dream,” says Willy’s neighbor Charley at the funeral. “It comes with the territory.”
In order to better understand the origins of this dream and its role in our history, we need only look at on object we use everyday: our money. Examining the US dollar bill, we see three mottos written on the seal. One of these is “E pluribus unum,” which means “Out of many, one.” This is the classic idea of democracy handed down to us from ancient Greece, the idea of uniting a diversity of people into the single entity of a nation. This idea is common to all democratic nations and is not unique to the United States. However, the next motto, “Novus Ordo Seclorum” (“A new order of the ages”) brings us closer to the idea of the American Dream. The United States was founded not merely because of colonists’ disputes with Britain over taxes, but on ideas of justice and liberty. In declaring independence from Britain and later drafting the world’s first written constitution, the founding fathers were essentially creating a new nation from scratch, a new order. This required a great deal of optimism, imagination, determination, and indeed a great deal of dreaming. However, it is the last motto – “Annuit Coeptis”- that most clearly reveals the American Dream at its essence. Translated into English, it means, “He has favored our endeavors,” and this “He” is implied to mean God. Needless to say, this motto is perplexing and indeed more than a little disturbing, for it implies that there is something exceptional about the United States, that our actions have some sort of divine sanction. However, looking at our country’s history of expansion from coast to coast and intervention in world affairs, we definitely see that this is the exact attitude behind many of our actions and decisions. And while the US is by no means the only nation in the history of the world to have held this belief, it has perhaps taken it to heart more than most others.
Far from being a simple desire for riches or advancement, the American Dream is a complex phenomenon that has produced many reactions and counter-reactions in people. In the last century it led some people to support and give their lives in a very controversial war—the Vietnam War—and inspired others to march in protest of that same war. It has led some to ignore questions of ethics in their pursuit of wealth and fame, while it has led others to devote their lives to the task of making a difference in their country and the world. It is the dream of Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel and also the dream of Martin Luther King. It may be interpreted in hundreds of ways, criticized, rejected or pursued. But, no one can question that it is an integral part of our culture’s foundation and invariably is here to stay.
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