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Arthur Miller and the American Dream

The notion of the American Dream has now established itself fully into the mythological life not only of America, but of many nations around the world – including (arguably) our own. The term ‘American Dream’ was not a commonly used one until 1931, when the popular historian James Truslow Adams attempted to use it as the title for his short history of America. His publishers were not happy with the title, preferring the eventually chosen one of The Epic of America. Adams used the term ‘American Dream’ more than 30 times throughout his book though, and in the years to follow – during which the popularity of The Epic of America became immense - the term became commonplace. Now, Jim Cullen writes that the:

American Dream” has long since moved beyond the relatively musty domain of print culture into the incandescent glow of the mass media, where it is enshrined as our national motto. Jubilant athletes declaim it following championship games. Aspiring politicians invoke it as the basis of their candidacies. Otherwise sober businessmen cite achieving it as the ultimate goal of their enterprises. The term seems like the most lofty as well as the most immediate component of an American identity, a birthright far more meaningful and compelling than terms like “democracy,” “Constitution,” or even “the United States. (Cullen, 2003. p. 5)

But what do we mean by the term ‘American Dream’? Adams himself defined the term as:

that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank, which is the greatest contribution we have made to the thought and welfare of the world. That dream or hope has been present from the start. Ever since we became an independent nation, each generation has seen an uprising of ordinary Americans to save that dream from the forces which appeared to be overwhelming it. … Possibly the greatest of these struggles lies just ahead of us at this present time – not a struggle of evolutionists against the established order, but if the ordinary man to hold fast to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ which were vouchsafed to us in the past in vision and on parchment (Adams, 1931 )

It is tempting to see the concept of the American Dream as a specifically modern one – but this would be to ignore the cultural history of American which has spent many hundreds of years forging it. Without this historical context, we ignore the rich complexity of the idea, and perhaps, too, find it too easy to adopt a patronisingly critical tone when considering those who so whole-heartedly shape their social existence by the hopes and ambitions it fuels. Because ultimately, the question of the American Dream is the question of American social and cultural identity:

Over the course of human history, people have used any number of means to identify themselves: blood, religion, language, geography, a shared history, or some combination of these. (Japan comes to mind as an example that draws on all of them.) Yet the United States was essentially a creation of the collective imagination – inspired by the existence of a purportedly New World, realized in a Revolution that began with an explicitly articulated Declaration, and consolidated in the writing of a durable Constitution. And it is a nation that has been re-created as a deliberate act of conscious choice every time a person has landed on these shores. Explicit allegiance, not involuntary inheritance, is the theoretical basis of American identity. – Cullen, 2003. p. 6

The ways in which the myth of the American Dream has infiltrated American identity can be seen not just in the astonishing regularity with which its ideas and assumptions continue to emerge in films and books, but in the way its political life is shaped – the NHS, still, could never be a reality in America, because the very notion of it assumes that it is a very real possibility that you or I will never be wealthy enough to afford expensive private health care. For Americans, to admit this would be to admit defeat – to admit that they might never achieve the American Dream. For any government, to institute such a thing would be to admit it has failed to provide for its citizens the inalienable rights Abraham Lincoln himself cited as its ‘great principle’:

This progress by which the poor, honest, industrious, and resolute man raises himself, that he may work on his own account, and hire somebody else, is that improvement in condition that human nature is entitled to, is that improvement that is intended to be secured by those institutions under which we live, is the great principle for which this government was formed (Lincoln, 1859)

The origins of the American Dream, some have suggested, extend as far back as the Pilgrims who first travelled to American seeking to build a New World.

the Pilgrims may not have actually talked about the American Dream, but they would have understood the idea” writes Culler. “after all, they lived it as people who imagined a destiny for themselves (Cullen, 2003, p. 5)

It may be a little incongruous to think of these travelling puritans – a people famously described by Richard Rorty as “self-flagellating sickies” – as a people following a dream. But implicit in the notions of Puritanism was a belief that a New and better world was possible and – more importantly in terms of relating these ideas to the American Dream – that this New and better world could be made in America:

Amid all the various abstruse concepts that complicate discussions of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Puritanism – episcopacies and presbyteries, Arminians and Antinomians, covenants of grace and covenants of works – the irreducible foundation of all varieties of Protestantism was this: a belief that the world was a corrupt place, but one that could be reformed. How it could be reformed, of course, was another question, and one that provoked all kinds of squabbling. But that it could be reformed has been central, a belief – actually, there were times it was an aggressive assertion – that distinguished sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestantism from Roman Catholicism … This faith in reform became the central legacy of American Protestantism and the cornerstone of what became the American Dream. Things – religious and otherwise – could be different. (Culler, 2003. p.15)

The Puritanical version of the American Dream, it could therefore be said, was one in which they freed themselves from the bounds of a corrupt world, and found the freedom to construct a New (puritanical) one. The quality of this dream was one of genuine attainability, rather than far off, and unrealistic, vision. The echoes of this dream can be seen in the attitudes and mythological status afforded to the frontier lands in the modern mind – a wild a lawless place, a blank slate in which to give birth to a utopian society.

The seeds of this notion we can see emerge again in the mid to late eighteenth century, as the dream of a new and a free world inspired the Founding Fathers in their fight for independence. Integral to the fight for independence was a determination that America should be free to govern itself without being bound to the old beaurocracies of Great Britain. In defining this freedom in its Declaration, though, the Founding Fathers demonstrate an evolution in the idea of the American dream. Harking back to the 1717 complaints of New England clergyman John Wise that the government should be about promoting “happiness for all”, and “life, liberty, estate and honor”, they included the passage now more indelibly burned into the minds of Americans than, perhaps, any other:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, than among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Political freedom here becomes simply the practical means of achieving the potential of human individuals. The Declaration implies not only that all men are equal (and no amount of wealth, or power should be considered exclusive), but that all men as a right, should be happy. Throughout the history of America, social change has been defined in terms which derive straight from this passage of the declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal. (Seneca Falls Declaration, 1848)

Assembled upon the 116th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the People’s Party of America, in their first national convention, invoking upon their action the blessing of almighty God, puts forth, in the name of the people of this country, the following preamble and declaration of principles. (American Populist Party platform, 1892)

I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963)

Key to each of these interpretations of the Declaration, is they ways in which they determine the meaning of this ‘happy’ life which is such a fundamental right.

For the Founding Fathers, one definition of this happy life was as one which was integrally tied into the notions of life and liberty which clearly accompany them in the Declaration. What was a happy life? A happy life was a good life – a life which not only took advantage of the liberty which was its right, but ensured that same liberty for others.

But there was a less overty altruistic interpretation as well, recognised even at the time of writing. A happy life was a good life – not just morally, but materially. A good life, full of hard work and dedication, was a happy life not just because it would attain rewards in heaven – but because it would attain rewards on earth. Earthy rewards, here, had moved away from the puritanical definitions which saw them as a distraction from true, spiritual rewards. Earthy rewards, instead, were now being seen as the outward symbols and markers of a good life.

The puritans Calvinistic doctrines meant they believed that God had pre-destined their lives – and their only function on Earth was to live it. This new doctrine believed that God had pre-destined that all people should have the ability to carve for themselves a good life – by force of independent spirit to free themselves from the fears and whims of earthly fate. “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-realization” (Culler, 2003. p. 59).

In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of chance, and shall sit hereafter out o fear from her rotations,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. By hard work, it was possible for individuals to control their own destiny – and this was the Dream. This was what was interpreted as the meaning of ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’. The original Puritan doctrine had strongly emphasized the degree to which men and women could not know what God intended for them and faith as the single most important instrument of their salvation. Yet by the early eighteenth century it was possible for a young man like [Benjamin] Franklin to articulate a far more pragmatic – one might say self-serving – spiritual vision that emphasized the degree to which virtue and happiness were not only correlated but discernable and achievable. “I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded that he holds none that are dangerous; which I hope is the case with me” he told his parents in 1738. If, then, acting on a belief in the efficacy of hard work yields affluence, then surely this is a sign of God’s favor. Here, in effect, is an embrace of the old Catholic doctrine that works were more important than faith – except that the doctrine was now enlisted in the service of personal and social reform (which Franklin considered mutually reinforcing). A new form of common sense was emerging.

"Franklin thus became the patron saint of doing well by doing good" (Culler, 2003. p. 63). This interpretation of a happy life was perpetuated by a succession of prominent figures rising to prominence from humble origins – notable presidents Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom won elections with campaigns that strongly emphasised those humble origins – the American Dream evolved again, and took on the shape of a national myth which would drive national identity from that time to the present.

Death of a Salesman

Indeed, if one were forced to find a single quote which could be said to underlie the entire psychosis of Willy Loman, one could do a lot worse that go back to Lincoln himself, who once said: “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing”. To explore these themes in Miller's play, it is worth exploring the relationships between the central characters. Willy is a character who certainly defines himself according to his own interpretation of success - he defines both his successes and his failures according to a standard which reflects very much the idea of the American Dream. It is through the filter of this Dream that Willy responds to those around him.

For example, consider the opening scene of the play here:

  • Firstly, begin by asking yourself the question - 'What is the problem with Willy here?

  • Then ask yourself 'how does Willy see himself'? Look through the scene and consider in what ways Willy can be seen to create an image of who he thinks he is.

  • Ask yourself 'how does Willy see Biff'? Why does Biff seem to agitate Willy so much?

  • Finally, ask yourself 'how does Willy think about his own past'? Can you see any correlations between the way Willy sees his past, and the way Blanche du Bois saw hers?

Willy's sons Biff and Happy provide both an emotional centre for Willy's growing delusions, and at the same time a counterpoint to the life and values which Willy represents. Happy helps us to understand some of the motivating factors which lead to the kind of dream which is blighting Willy's view of himself, while Biff offers the possiblity of something different. In the following scene, we see Biff and Happy discussing their own lifes and aspirations:

  • What is Biff's dream, and do you think this dream is different from Willy's?

  • What is Happy's dream?

  • How do they describe their past, and where do they see themselves heading in the future?

In addition to his two sons, Willy finds counterpoints in other characters in the play. His neighbour, Charlie, is in many ways an opposite character to Willy. He seems to embody the contradition of both everything Willy desires and everything Willy scorns. We can see this contradition in the following scene:

In this scene we see some of thie things about Charlie which irritate Willy. It is interesting that this is the scene where the image of Willy's dead brother Ben comes to life.

  • What does Ben represent for Willy? What values does Ben embody?

  • In what ways is Ben contrasted with Charlie? What makes them different?

Willy asks Ben perhaps one the most pertinent questions in the play - 'How should I teach them?' In other words, what values should Willy instill into his sons Biff and Happy?

  • What values does Willy teach his sons?

  • What values does Charlie teach his son Bernard?

  • Which is proved right?

The American Dream would have no drama or mystique if it were a self-evident falsehood or a scientifically demonstrable principle. Ambiguity is the very source of its mythic power, nowhere more so than among those striving for, but unsure whether they will reach, their goals. Yet resolution may not afford clarity, either. Those who fail may confront troubling, even unanswerable, questions: Do I blame myself? Bad luck? The unattainability of the objective? Such uncertainty may be no less haunting for the successful, who may also question the basis of their success – and its price. (Culler, 2003. p. 7)

Q: In what ways can this passage be related to Death of a Salesman?

Citation:  Tulloch, J. (2013) Arthur Miller and the American Dream [Internet]. Available from: <> [Accessed 14 February 2013].


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