In describing Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced we’ve said Amir and Emily are confronted in the play with the compromises they’ve made to stake out a piece of the American dream. But what exactly is the American dream? Would it surprise you to know then that the phrase ‘American dream’ did not appear until 1931?
Author James Truslow Adams coined the term in his book The American Epic. According to his definition 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.” Adams was impressed with the unique resiliency of the American people in the midst of the Great Depression. Despite overwhelming challenges, Americans in general seemed to him to hold out hope that their circumstances would eventually change for the better. His explanation for this phenomenon – the American dream.
America has always been a country of ideas; one of the driving ones being that life can always be improved for everyone. You could look to the founding documents of America (The Declaration of Independence or The Constitution) or to the waves of immigrants who have come here to track the origins of this hope. Either way, Adams argues, the American people had, by the time he wrote his book, become so conditioned to this determined pursuit of improvements that it had manifested as part of the basic American spirit.
Since his creation of the term, the American dream has been a concept envied, pursued, defended, and argued about. Go and google the phrase right now. You’ll get a list of musings on whether the American dream still exists, or is even possible today. It’s a hot button topic as the country looks at the long-term effects of the recession. Alarm was raised in December 2014 when The New York Times reported that only 64 percent of the population still believed in the American dream. However, in that survey the dream was defined as the idea that “hard work could result in riches.” This consumption based definition of the American dream is very familiar and dominates our current discourse, but some argue, being a product of the mid-20th century, it’s losing relevancy today. When he created the term in 1931, Adams specified he believed the American dream was not about goods or purchasing power, but a certain level of personal happiness. In the post-World War II boom this image changed to one characterized by consumerism, external accolades, and monetary gain.
In another Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and arguably the most iconic of American plays, Death of a Salesman, playwright Arthur Miller uses his everyman Willy Loman to explore what it personally means to believe in and base the success of one’s life on this mid-20th century definition of the American dream. Like Disgraced, Death of a Salesman also examines a darker side of the dream. Willy Loman and Amir are vastly different characters separated by decades, but they both pursue a similar image of the American dream. In the late 1940s Willy believes by having worked hard as a traveling salesman for years he’ll be rewarded with a desk job at his company’s headquarters. In order to achieve it he has sacrificed his relationships with his wife and sons. In the 2010s Amir believes by hiding and denying his Muslim identity and working long hours he’ll eventually make partner at a prestigious New York law firm. Both of these characters maintain a staunch pursuit at all costs of success based on this idea of the American dream, and they both end up bringing harm to themselves and their families because of it.
The dominant opinion of what the American dream is has gradually been evolving since the term was invented. In her autobiography Eleanor Roosevelt said, “the American dream can no more remain static than can the American nation.” The world we live in today is very different than the world of 60 years ago so it makes sense that we might be reevaluating by what standard we measure our successes and confused as to what the American dream looks like now. However, plays like Disgraced and Death of a Salesman remind us that, in spite of its evolution, following the popular opinion of what this dream looks like is not always the right prescription for everyone. When looking to figure out what the American dream really is, the best place to look may be inward and the better question to ask may be: ‘How do YOU define the American dream?’