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From the American Revolution onward, the United States has gained international recognition as a land of hope and equal opportunity. America’s founding fathers imagined the nation to be a place of widespread promise, operating under democratic rule and allowing for social mobility. The notion that any individual, regardless of circumstance, could achieve a goal by possessing determination became a belief known as the American Dream. Instilled at the core of American culture, and remaining there at present, the American Dream must be assessed for its validity. Using critical support to discuss the purpose and importance of this myth in the past centuries, I will examine the American Dream from a historical perspective to uncover its current function in modern America. In spite of its illusory nature, the pervasion of the American Dream into national thought serves to justify the myth’s perpetuation into 21st century. Overall, this paper will illustrate the necessity of a new ideology if America is to continue on the rise.
Incredibly popularized in the 19th century, during the period of expansion and Manifest Destiny, the American Dream became a predominant principle that guided society. The myth’s premise appeared straightforward: work hard and achieve greatness. A hopeful approach to the future, this idealistic outlook provided inspiration to adolescent America, a child in essence. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim explains “the most important and also the most difficult task in raising a child is helping him to find meaning in life” (3), which is essentially the conflict that led the youthful society to adopt a nationally recognized ideology. The people had the difficult task before them of economic, social, and cultural development, and they needed a path to follow that would assure a prominent, meaningful future.
The author of mid-nineteenth century children stories, Horatio Alger was a major influence in spreading the message of the American Dream through popular culture. Embedding the myth into American consciousness, Alger proposed that anyone could move from rags to riches (Kanfer). He provided a formula to the achievement of the American dream that corresponds to Joseph Campbell’s simplified formula of the monomyth. There are three stages to Campbell’s formula: “a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return” (35). Similarly, the Alger plot typically depicted a young boy separating himself from his poverty-stricken world, taking on a new routine characterized by intense work ethic, and coming forth with an improved status. Alger’s stories circulated throughout America at a crucial stage in its history, imparting a seemingly sensible approach to societal challenges and promising triumph. Alger truly had a substantial impact on the American philosophy for the upcoming century.
Although Joseph Campbell in his conclusion to The Hero with a Thousand Faces asserts that modern society no longer abides by a mythic approach to life’s difficulties, I see the situation as the reverse: too strong of a reliance on the American myth has served as a constraint in the progression of society. In Campbell’s formula, there comes “the stage of the trials and victories” (36). Continued hope in the American Dream has prevented the social body from overcoming these trials. Consequently, the modern world’s reluctance to throw away the American Dream causes the postponement of “the return and reintegration with society” (Campbell 36). An exclusive faith in the American Dream hinders society from utilizing other approaches to improving the status quo. While the American Dream is exhausted of hope, society reluctantly retains faith due to how ingrained the philosophy has become within the social fabric.
The American Dream myth consistently disappoints a large portion of American society; yet, for society to alter its attitude toward the myth proves difficult. Economist Lewis Corey uses the term “cultural lag” for this failure to change a popularized value, and he suggests that “ideals may persist….after the material conditions of their origin are no more” (qtd. in Tipple 268). Viewing the American Dream from this rationale, I see the myth’s current existence in popular thought as primarily a result of its longevity. Instead of hard workers realizing that their efforts do not necessarily bring the promised success, they do not know whether to believe the claims of the myth or the observations of reality.
Myth has the potent ability to blind its adherents from the nature of reality. By holding on to the myth, the believer suffers in a struggle without prospect. “Social myth functions in a complex and indirect system of rationalization,” (11) explains Joe Holland in The American Journey: A Theology in the Americas. Dominating the believer’s understanding of how society works, trust in the American myth only perpetuates the disillusionment in modern society. America does not recognize the myth’s falsehood, failing to confront the facts of the present social circumstances.
Despite Alger’s claims about the self-made man, United States history repeatedly shows that the American Dream lacks the promise that the people have projected onto it. A study of United States history, from the American Revolution to the present day, reveals many examples of class struggle, racial prejudice, and restricted social mobility. Various times in history emphasize a not-so idealistic reality for minority groups, including the Civil War, the Progressive Era, and the 1960s.
A key historical example, the period preceding and during the Great Depression in America, circa 1920s and 1930s, exposes the discrepancy between the American myth’s promise and the conditions of reality. In Crisis of the American Dream, John Tipple describes the carefree feeling among the people in the roaring twenties; it was taken as a truth that “man could realize his highest aspirations amid abundance” (13). The optimism, and naivety, of the American people reflects the stronghold that the myth of the American Dream had on our culture during a time of perceived affluence. The sudden collapse of the stock market crash, however, contradicted the myth’s promise: “the ensuing depression turned the dream of universal prosperity into a horrible nightmare” (Tipple 14).
Regardless of its deep historical foundation, the time has come to acknowledge that Alger’s myth lacks true basis. The out-dated American Dream does not foster social advancement, and it has become harder to find Alger’s rags-to-riches man in modern America. No longer are the days of Manifest Destiny; the adolescent years of our nation have passed. Consequently, America must undertake the most difficult rite of passage: giving up on old ideology and experiencing a rebirth by implementing a new faith. Modern society has the task of separating itself from the former myth and initiating a new philosophy if it is “to nullify the unremitting recurrences of death” (Campbell 16). Only by forming a new ideal can America prevent its demise and continue on an upward journey.
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