Everyone wants to write the definitive definition of the American Dream

In the beginning, there was land ownership. American colonists understood the concept, American Indians didn’t, and the result was a nation that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Now we have air rights, a concept that allows property owners to profit from the nothingness above them. Speculators buy the empty space above buildings, parking lots, and highways in the hopes of filling it with concrete and glass. In many American cities, it’s even possible to buy the air rights over one property and transfer the weightless real estate somewhere else, allowing for taller and taller skyscrapers without violating height restrictions.

We try to capture the dream just as surely as we’ve split the atom.

If we can buy and sell the air around us, there’s no reason to accept the idea that a dream must be ethereal, floating beyond our grasp. Certainly not the American Dream, which is about the tangible: homeownership, college diplomas, ample paychecks, and any number of material possessions that help us along in that “pursuit of happiness” guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence. Even the loftier goals of the American Dream–equality for all citizens, opportunity for all immigrants–are measured by these tangibles. We try to capture the dream just as surely as we’ve split the atom.

It wasn’t so long ago that the American Dream was considered something of an oxymoron. The phrase dates back to James Truslow Adams’s The Epic of America, written in 1931. Adams uses the term he coined more than 30 times in his one-volume survey of US history, capturing it as “that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.” Adams’s publishers talked him out of using the term as the title of his book, fearing that it would turn off the famously pragmatic citizens of the United States, yet the phrase caught on almost immediately. So says pop-culture historian Jim Cullen (Born in the U.S.A.: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition), in his new book, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation (Oxford University). Cullen set out to write a general history of “American patriotism” but the book evolved into an inquiry on the American Dream. His publishers may have had nothing to do with the change, but it’s unlikely they tried to talk him out of it.

Indeed, the American Dream seems as marketable today as it turned out to be 70 years ago. Cullen’s search of a library catalog produced more than 700 books with American Dream in their titles. Amazon.com currently sells dozens of them, most published within the past decade, but the online bookstore’s collection does little to clarify the concept. It’s hard to imagine Living at Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream on the same bookshelf asMadonna As Postmodern Myth: How One Star’s Self-Construction Rewrites Sex, Gender, Hollywood and the American Dream. A few authors take the phrase at face value (A Daily Dose of the American Dream: Stories of Success, Triumph, and Inspiration), but most are ironic (Crooked Ladder: Gangsters, Ethnicity, and the American Dream), alarmist (Declining Fortunes: The Withering of the American Dream), or downright paranoid (Who Stole the American Dream: The Book Your Boss Doesn’t Want You to Read). Though nearly all of the books associate the American Dream with some kind of financial success, the meaning of the phrase seems to stretch a little further every time it pops up in Publishers Weekly.


Still, the American Dream hasn’t been so overexposed as to lose its currency. In January, US Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut used the phrase four times in his brief announcement that he would be running for president. The American Dream is also a key phrase in the mission statement of MassINC, publisher of this magazine, defined there as “equality of opportunity, personal responsibility,” and a means of expanding a “dynamic middle class.” As in the Lieberman and MassINC definitions, a strong work ethic remains part of most people’s idea of the Dream (see the book No Free Lunch: One Man’s Journey from Welfare to the American Dream), but Cullen explores the growing faith in short cuts to happiness, from lottery wins to overnight celebrity. If the get-rich-quick approach ever becomes the primary definition of the term (see Cashing in on the American Dream: How to Retire at 35), some of the strongest proponents of the American Dream may want to find another horse to ride.

Cullen is an admirer of the American Dream, and throughout his book he emphasizes its nobler aspects–hope rather than fear, a spirit of generosity rather than a ruthless individualism. In his chapter on upward mobility, for example, he portrays Benjamin Franklin as “the patron saint of doing well by doing good,” a man whose appetite for personal wealth was inseparable from his enthusiasm for philanthropic projects (including the founding of the first fire department, lending library, and public hospital in Philadelphia). If Cullen’s efforts to keep the American Dream on a higher plane seem strained at times, they prove that the idea is still a fragile one. For the American Dream to work, it can’t soar so high as to be unattainable, but it also can’t scrape the ground paved by isolationists and extreme libertarians. Most important, it can’t be static. In contrast to the Bible or the Constitution, there are no arguments about fundamental truths or original intent associated with the American Dream. It has changed with each generation–largely for the better–and even now there are Americans of diametrically opposed views trying to claim the phrase.

As we go through the first decade of the 21st century, the American Dream may be even more resilient than we imagine. Indeed, Cullen asserts that the Dream existed almost 300 years before it entered the American vocabulary. This may seem like a neat trick, but Cullen makes his case by breaking down the American Dream into constituent parts–such concepts as the Dream of Upward Mobility and the Dream of Equality–suggesting the pieces existed before the whole. He also gives himself wriggle room by stressing the elasticity of the term. (“Ambiguity is the very source of its mythic power,” he writes.) Thus the American Dream becomes an amalgam of lesser dreams.

One drawback of such a conception is that critics will complain when Cullen’s expansive definition doesn’t extend to their own ideas of what makes America great. Indeed, Weekly Standard senior editor David Brooks, reviewing the book for The Wall Street Journal (which once advertised itself as “the daily diary of the American Dream”), protests that Cullen has “almost nothing to say about modern business,” and ignores evangelicalism and Pentacostalism, which he calls “arguably the most influential creed of the 20th century.” (The latter complaint seems to have become an all-purpose one for Brooks. A few weeks after the book review appeared, The Atlantic published an essay by Brooks titled “Kicking the Secularist Habit,” in which he complained that few journalists know the definition of Pentacostalism.)

Cullen’s book–short but not always concise, with plenty of apt anecdotes but also a few puzzling tangents–is strongest when he sticks to the theme of upward mobility, which almost everyone agrees is at the core of the American Dream. He argues that Americans were greatly responsible for changing the definition of daily labor, from something to be endured as a prerequisite for a blessed afterlife to a means of making things more comfortable here on earth: “Hard work was no longer a (hopefully useful) distraction from the dictates of fate but rather an instrument of fate itself, a tool for self-actualization.” And in his exploration of American politics, Cullen notes that it’s become almost mandatory for our leaders to project an image of working their way up the ladder, or at least overcoming adversity. President Andrew Jackson, for example, though he was “the product of an elite bloodline,” went out of his way to hide any signs of a refined upbringing. “Modest beginnings were no longer a somewhat embarrassing obstacle to be overcome but rather the indispensable bedrock of distinction,” Cullen writes of what has become known as the Age of Jackson. Recent supplicants to this bedrock include Richard Nixon, the son of a failed grocer; Bill Clinton, the product of a household torn apart by alcoholism; and George W. Bush, who, despite his privileges of birth, overcame the effects of being young and irresponsible when he was young and irresponsible.

But there’s a more specific definition that overshadows all others, and it’s right there in the cover illustration for The American Dream: a dad in 1950s-style business attire being greeted by his wife and son outside a single-family home with an expansive front lawn. No front porch, no sidewalk, and no other house is visible in the drawing. If a home in the suburbs seems an intrinsic part of the American Dream, the suburb itself–neighborhood, community, fellow American Dreamers–does not.

Indeed, there has long been an element of privatism, even separatism, lurking in the American Dream. The house on Cullen’s cover sits behind a white picket fence, itself a piece of suburban iconography. But it is also, perhaps, a forerunner of the exclusive communities studied by sociologist Setha Low in Behind the Gates: Security and the New American Dream (Routledge). The dream of the Plymouth colonists was to seek improvement by escaping the creeping secularism of England and founding a society “of, by, and for the Puritans,” in which the government shielded its citizens from the sight of backsliders and nonbelievers. The same spirit can be detected in the gated communities of Low’s book, with all their regulations to protect residents from offensive aesthetics. Is there a connection between the freedom not to hear blasphemous language and the freedom not to look out one’s window to see a house painted in neon pink?

A year after The Epic of America was published, Greta Garbo starred in Grand Hotel and uttered her most famous movie line: “I want to be alone.” In many ways, the actress was the embodiment of the American Dream. She was an immigrant who gained wealth and celebrity by presenting a glimpse of the good life to American audiences during the worst years of the Great Depression. On a personal level, she used her financial resources to seal herself off from the rest of the world, living in her own gated community (not in a tract house but in a well-protected New York apartment) for most of her life.

Cullen and other high-minded American Dreamers might see the Garbo example as a perversion of the American Dream, but the concept’s inventor might not agree. James Truslow Adams became a bitter opponent of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies (which introduced the concept of a safety net for those without hope of realizing a better, richer, and happier life), calling them a “betrayal” of the American tradition of personal autonomy. By that time, however, Adams had already lost his role as sole interpreter of the American Dream.

Still, the quest for personal satisfaction that is at the core of the American Dream forms a shaky foundation for community, which involves shared values and mutual obligations. Cullen recognizes this tension early on, noting that “the American Dream still straddles–perhaps it’s more accurate to say it blurs–the tension between one and many.”

So far, the “one” has never fully taken possession of the dream. In Behind the Gates, several homeowners express disappointment in the lack of community spirit around them, despite their conscious decision to move into walled-off enclaves. (After showing her home to Low, one woman returns a blown-away trash can lid to the house next door, lamenting, “See, here I am doing a good deed for my neighbor. Not that they will ever know.”) Looking at the past, Cullen points to the Salem witch trials as “a grotesque effort to recapture a sense of lost cohesion,” or a backlash to the geographic dispersal of the original Puritans (a foreshadowing of the flight to suburbia?).

Whatever our longing for community (MassINC, drawing on local tradition, sounds this note in its commitment to “a strong commonwealth,” and echoes it in the name of this magazine), it’s the emphasis on autonomy–spirits freed from the weight of class, caste, and custom–that makes the American Dream principally an individualistic one. If it’s a little tough to swallow the conformist Puritans as exemplars of freedom, Cullen appropriately pinpoints the Declaration of Independence and its guarantee of the “pursuit of happiness” as the charter of the American Dream. This is the uniquely American aspect of the Dream, Cullen argues; individuals in other societies have made decisions large and small “on the basis of the greater glory of God, the security of their nation, or obligations to their ancestors.” The idea that happiness should override such considerations remains anathema to much of the world, particularly since, as Cullen admits, it can so easily slide into mindless materialism: “[W]e Americans often act as if we believe there really isn’t anything money can’t buy.”

Even the Dream of Equality, which Cullen considers a component of the American Dream, has been more about opportunity than parity. Cullen credits Abraham Lincoln with articulating why slavery was incompatible with the promise of upward mobility, concentrating wealth as it did in the hands of slave owners and forcing white workers to compete against unpaid labor. In an Independence Day speech shortly after the Civil War began, Lincoln argued that the core objective of the United States must be “to elevate the condition of men…to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”

But Lincoln’s martyrdom wasn’t enough to secure the dream of equality, and Cullen notes that the growth of industrial capitalism and its “survival of the fittest” ethos only lengthened the odds against it. It would take the Great Depression to convince political leaders that extreme economic inequality, and its accompanying feelings of despair and resentment, was a threat to the pursuit of happiness for all, even those in the upper classes. As Cullen puts it, “hopeless people have fewer compunctions about destroying fine things they don’t believe they can ever have.” (At that time, the idea of putting gates and guardhouses between middle-class citizens and hopeless people hadn’t yet caught on.)

After that realization, the concept of “separate but equal,” which had codified racial segregation for decades after the Civil War, was on thin ice. Adding another figure to his American Dream pantheon, Cullen calls Martin Luther King Jr., born into a socially prominent family, “an unlikely hero–and an even more unlikely prophet of the dream of equality.” In his early major speeches, King repeatedly used the term American Dream, at one point defining it as “a dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men no longer argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character” (emphasis added by Cullen). Though the rhetoric is soaring, King’s was one of the most refined definitions of the American Dream since the term was coined 30 years before, if not a redefinition. Certainly Adams’s original formulation (“a better, richer, and happier life for all”) does not imply any sense of equality; it merely says that all people should be able to improve the circumstances they were born into, whatever they were.

King’s co-opting of the term American Dream for the cause of equality has ramifications that continue to this day, especially when it comes to that specific dream of a house in the suburbs. Cullen confesses that his family moved out of an apartment in Queens not out of desire to own a home but to escape the desegregation of New York City’s public schools. “I feel shame about my essentially segregationist beginnings,” he writes.

He also ties the dream of homeownership to the rise of the automobile, which allowed middle-class Americans to flee the urban centers where they’d grown up. Many of the gated-community residents in Low’s book are voluntary exiles from the city, and their attempts to re-create the American Dream on a few guarded acres may reflect the belief that the dream has been extinguished elsewhere.

Furthermore, the mobility provided by the automobile leads to Cullen’s final variant of the American Dream, which he calls “The Dream of the Good Life.” The West is the proving ground for this concept, which wipes away the last vestiges of Puritanism and “focuses on getting something for nothing.” Cullen’s examples of this strike-it-rich culture include the California Gold Rush, the “Great American Playground” known as Las Vegas, and the economics of Hollywood, where one hit movie can make its star set for life. There’s a dose of sourness in Cullen’s judgment on this new take on the American Dream. While the dreams of Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln were based on character, the Dream of the Good Life–personified, for Cullen, by the 1920s movie-star couple Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, with their Beverly Hills mansion–is based on mere personality: “They were celebrities, people whose fame rested not on talent …but on simply being famous.”

Cullen has mixed feelings about suburbanization, but others celebrate it as the essence of the American Dream. Take “Preserving the American Dream of Mobility and Ownership,” a national conference held in Washington in February. The conference was billed as the kick-off of a national movement against high-density zoning and other “smart growth” policies the conveners see as thwarting the spread of a suburban lifestyle they see Americans striving for.

Smart growth advocates aren’t conceding any American Dream ground to the sprawl-mongers. In Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck’s 2000 book Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (North Point Press), a manifesto of New Urbanist principles, the authors claim that, for the car-dependent suburbanites they interviewed, “the American Dream just doesn’t seem to be coming true anymore.” In Behind the Gates, Low argues that sealed-off communities “are transforming the American dream of owning a suburban home in a close-knit community…into a vision that includes gates, walls, and guards.”

Neither of these books makes one forget that Americans have been putting distance between themselves and their fellow citizens, when conditions permit, ever since the nation was founded, but each makes a case for putting the American Dream on a more communitarian track. Low paraphrases sociologist Richard Sennett as lamenting “the loss of a public realm where strangers come into contact and observe an accepted code of tolerance for difference and eccentricity,” a loss that’s exacerbated by the “Not in My Backyard” philosophy that drives local politics. She also points out that gated communities are particularly popular among higher-income immigrants from Latin America, who are accustomed to housing segregated by income. Low’s warnings of “an increasingly bifurcated class system” imply that the American Dream, if it doesn’t evolve to take into account 21st-century realities, could turn this country into a banana republic.

Oddly enough, Cullen devotes little space to the subject of immigration, covering the “Dream of the Immigrant” in just a six-page coda to his book. But what one could call the “Dream of a New Start in a New Land” has been an intrinsic part of the American Dream since the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower.

New complications in the immigration dream are explored in William A.V. Clark’s Immigrants and the American Dream (Guilford), a statistics-driven study of economic conditions among the more than 20 million legal and undocumented immigrants who have arrived in the US over the past three decades. Clark, a professor of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles, points to a “bifurcation” among more recent immigrants, who are both “slightly less likely to have a high school education and slightly more likely to have a college degree” than were immigrants who arrived before 1990. Most recent immigrants, however, are in the less-educated category, and, unlike new arrivals in the early 20th century, they’re entering a society in which almost all native-born citizens have a high school education.

Clark notes that many sociologists are skeptical that the newest immigrants will ever “catch up” to the American Dream, but he leans toward a more optimistic view. “Taking jobs at the bottom” has always been part of the immigrant experience, he writes. “The United States, historically and in the present, has always been a place of opportunity.”

Homeownership is chief among these opportunities, and immigrants have pursued this piece of the American Dream with great passion. Clark notes that 48 percent of the foreign-born heads of families own their homes, not too far below the 66 percent among the native born. According to the Web site Data Quick Real Estate News, Garcia and Nguyen are now tied as the most common surname of California homebuyers (when Clark did his research last year, Smith still ranked second to Garcia). Clark calls this great news for civic life: “[I]t is ownership which increases the affiliations that unify people at local scales.”

Clark also sees the suburbanization of immigrants as a hopeful sign, both economically and socially. “Latino immigrants in Southern California first rent in the urban core, and then after one or two decades they disperse to the suburbs, where they buy homes and ‘assimilate’ into those suburban communities,” he writes approvingly. Clark even puts a positive spin on low voting rates among subsequent generations of immigrant-Americans: “The later generations are perhaps behaving more like the native born, who are less likely to participate than are new immigrants.”

Meet the Author

Like practically everyone who writes about the American Dream, Clark believes it is still evolving, even taking on a Latin American cast. The “Americano Dream,” as he calls it, has “a slight and important addition–hard work, individual reliance and parental guidance and ethnic identity.” This is a provocative definition, given that many people associate the American Dream with the next generation transcending their immigrant origins. “At the core of many American Dreams,” writes Cullen in his book, “is an insistence that history doesn’t matter, that the future matters far more than the past.”

This “don’t look back” philosophy is usually meant as a positive American trait, but Cullen has bittersweet feelings about it. Near the end of this book, he nominates F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as “the quintessential expression of the American Dream.” In that novel, the redeeming characteristic of shady businessman Jay Gatsby is his “extraordinary gift for hope,” even if his hope–to recapture a long-lost love–is futile and unrealistic. Cullen argues that what makes the United States special is that it is “a place where one can, for better or worse, pursue distant goals.” Conservatives like David Brooks may object to the word “distant,” with its implication that upward mobility is out of reach for many of our citizens. But the American Dream wouldn’t have much meaning if it were easy to fulfill.