You are on page 1of 13

The American Dream as the Cultural Expression

of North American Identity


Key-words: American dream, cultural narrative, immigrant experience,

racial segregation
The mythic meaning of America as an embodiment of a new paradise on earth
that would fulfill all human aspirations and dreams existed before Columbus and,
after Columbus discoered the !ew "orld, the ision of America materiali#ed with
the $ourneys of the first explorers, settlers and coloni#ers% The discoery of America
gae substance to an old belief, whose earlier ersions placed it in &den, Arcadia or
Utopia, or in some country of the imagination where the religious prophecies of
Isaiah and 'lato(s )epublic might be real
*riginally a creation of the &uropean thought, the concept of the American
dream defies any coercie definition in the field of American cultural studies%
According to +rederic Carpenter, the American dream ,has neer been defined
exactly, and probably neer can be% It is both too arious and too ague- .Carpenter
/0123 45% 6oweer ague and undefined it has proed to be, the dream has had an
unconscious influence in American mentality, crystalli#ing a specific forma mentis
and, at the same time, differentiating it from the &uropean tradition% +rom the
'uritan enterprise and their dream of religious freedom and a good life to present
day American dreams of home ownership and attaining success, or the 6ollywood
fame and glory, the American dream, born in the collectie imagination, lays the
foundation of American culture and literature% Carpenter furthermore obseres that
,American literature has differed from &nglish because of the constant and
omnipresent influence of the American dream upon it- .Carpenter /0123 45%
Although the American dream had long existed before, the term was coined
by 7ames Truslow Adams, in The Epic of America, published in /04/% Adams
extensiely defines the American dream as3
that dream of a land in which life should be better and fuller and richer for
eeryone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achieement% It is a

,Alexandru Ioan Cu#a- Uniersity, Ia8i, )omania%
This wor9 was supported by the &uropean :ocial +und in )omania, under the responsibility of the
;anaging Authority for the :ectoral *perational 'rogramme for 6uman )esources Deelopment
<==>?<=/4 @grant '*:D)UA22A/%BA:AC>1C1D%
E'hilologica 7assyensia-, An FII, !r% < ./C5, <=//, p% 414?4>=
difficult dream for the &uropean upper classes to interpret adeGuately, and too many
of us ourseles hae grown weary and mistrustful of it% It is not a dream of motor cars
and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each
woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable
and be recogni#ed by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous
circumstances of birth or position .Adams /04/3 C=C5%
Adams(s definition of the dream idealistically encompasses the elements of a
functional democracy3 social order, opportunity for eeryone irrespectie of the
social ran9, financial comfort, and public recognition% 7%T% Adams referred to the
American dream in the period of the Hreat Depression, when American identity was
in crisis, and since then it has become a catch phrase in American public discourse,
but its definition and significance are often ta9en for granted%
The American dream is the cultural expression of !orth American identity
and, een if it was occasionally transformed into the American nightmare, it remains
one of the most motiating forces of American ciili#ation and a still iable to9en of
American exceptionalism% The American dream cannot be interpreted as a myth in
the traditional sense of the word, but as a metaphor of translation of the diasporic
sub$ect from an old cultural space to a new cultural space% This metaphorical
translation can be considered at the indiidual(s leel .the immigrant5 or, in a larger
sense, at the collectie leel, as a sort of translatio imperii, that is the succession of
power or the shift of meaning from &urope to America, the modification of the old
&uropean alues and their distillation in order to found a new .perfectible5 society,
the American one% ;oreoer, it constitutes a cultural narrative with manifold
implications in the multiple and distinct immigrant stories that created America%
Cultural narraties are to be understood as stories from a collectie memory that tell
us what happened in a particular culture, explaining cultural occurrences and
eeryday phenomena% They deelop from a common understanding of what is worth
remembering and what should be forgotten or omitted% They help structure and
explain the world by mapping cultural, social and political spaces and by
constructing mental framewor9% Arguing along postmodern lines that language does
not reflect but actually constructs reality, cultural narraties are seen as stories that
constitute of ,truth- in a particular culture in that they shape beliefs, alues and
concepts of self and other% A cultural narratie establishes the patterns of a specific
culture and forges a figuratie space in which an ordinary story ma9es sense% Thus a
cultural narratie is not totali#ing and is not directly told, but it is embedded in a
specific cultural formation%
As a cultural narratie, the American dream was born and transmitted through
stories% The American dream is a narratie of a collectie or indiidual experience
that shapes and distinguishes the American nation% Iesides coining the term in The
Epic of America, 7% T% Adams made the important remar9 that ,the epic loses all its
glory without the dream- .Adams /04/3 C/<5% In this way, the concept has become
part of the cultural identity of the United :tates, the creed of all immigrants that
came to the !ew "orld and a sort of moing force that symbolically holds together
seeral nations in ,the !ation-% The American dream, a phrase reached for most
often, has existed to remind the Americans that they should be doing better when
they hae failed to lie up to the ideal it describes%
The American Dream as the Cultural Expression of North American Identity
:tarting from the premises that eents build up history and history builds up
culture, the origins of the American dream can be easily traced in American history%
The American dream was first a creation of the &uropean imagination% 'eter
+reese argues that America appeared in the world imagination first as a ision and a
dream, then as a continent and then as a country% Thus, before Americans began to
spea9 about the American dream as their national motto, &uropeans of all origins
enisaged an America of the mind, and later an America that slowly too9 shape
from the narraties of the first explorers and settlers% Christopher Columbus strongly
belieed that he had discoered a terrestrial paradise and people of all races dreamt
of an imagined America, a land pro$ected into myth, a space of all possibilities,
comparable to the !ew Canaan, &l Dorado, ;ecca, and Arcadia% Thus the !ew
"orld was inented before it was actually seen%
The early Americans created a specific "eltanschauung or ision, based on a
dichotomy between a sinful &urope and an innocent America% This is isible in the
writings of one of the founders of The ;assachusetts Iay Colony, 7ohn "inthrop,
who arried in /14= aboard the flagship Arbella, where he prepared and deliered
his famous sermon, ,A ;odel of Christian Charity,- in which he introduces the
concept of Manifest Destiny% "inthrop prophesied that America should be ,a citty
upon a 6ill- with the eyes of all people directed towards it ."inthrop apud Ioorstin
/0B23 45% The 'uritans compared themseles with the children of Israel and
separated themseles clearly from the &uropean tradition, trying to restore the old
7erusalem on American land% This sense of destiny was an important part in the selfJ
consciousness of a people who tried to define itself through the reJinention of
history% The 'uritans resisted the temptation of utopiaK they were less interested in
theology itself than in its applicability to societyK they were 9eener on building
institutions that functioned than running after illusions that glittered% Therefore, the
'uritan sermon deeloped among the colonists a strong sense of community and
communion and the first accomplished American dream was the 'uritan one%
After the 'uritans( ideas, another root of the American Dream was the
Declaration of Independence ./>>15, which, after the )eolution, too9 on the aura
of a sacred scripture, and which engrained into the American consciousness a series
of life principles that later laid the foundations for sweeping social moements such
as the struggle to end slaery or the ciil rights moement and thus created a
recogni#ably modern United :tates% The most significant part that still suries in
the cultural memory and which underpins the American dream is the opening
clauses of the second paragraph3
"e hold these truths to be selfJeident that all ;en are created eGual, that they
are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable )ights, that among these are
Life, Liberty, and the 'ursuit of 6appiness .apud Carpenter /0123 25%
This represents an embodiment of the highest political expressions of
humanity and it also emphasi#es America(s creatie destiny3 happiness is not
conceied as something already existent in nature, nor is it to be found somewhere,
but it should be made% +or the +ounding +athers, ,the pursuit of happiness- meant
action in the public and priate spheres in order to create a better society% Any
The American Dream as the Cultural Expression of North American Identity
dream of achieement reGuires action and the American dreamer has been uniGue,
The American Dream as the Cultural Expression of North American Identity
from the beginning, among other dreamers for he has often been a doer, by
necessity, ambition or compulsion% American dreams hae been materiali#ed in
facts3 the discoery and exploration, the settlement of the frontier, the inention of
the steam engine, the building of railroads and bridges, the motion picture camera,
the perfection of space roc9ets, etc%
The transcendentalist doctrine as postulated by )alph "aldo &merson, 6enry
Daid Thoreau and ;argaret +uller was a faith inherited from the 'uritan past and it
also shaped the American dream% As a pragmatic philosophy and a form of
spirituality, transcendentalism was based on the belief that the indiidual is the
spiritual center of the unierse, on the idea that indiidual irtue and happiness
depend upon selfJreali#ation, and on the concern for this life rather than the after
life% ;oreoer, it laid emphasis on human thin9ing and on the belief that power is to
be obtained by defying fate or predestination% )alph "aldo &merson clearly stated
that any indiidual can become great through thin9ing, action, spiritual, and moral
strength% )eolting against past tradition and especially against the ,courtly- or
,feudal- history of &urope, &merson highlighted the need for intuition and selfJ
reliance for the !ew "orld people% In Walden, Thoreau expressed his idea of the
selfJmade man3
I learned this, at least, by my experiment3 that if one adances confidently in
the direction of his dreams, and endeaors to lie the life which he has imagined, he
will meet with a success unexpected in common hours .Thoreau apud "erner /0>=3
Throughout the centuries, the United :tates has become a place for
immigrants of all nations, it has been referred to as a melting pot, a salad o!l, a
"aleidoscope or a mosaic% 6oweer, not all narraties of the American dream are
stories of success% The immigrant experience sometimes becomes metaphorical for
the indiidual(s sense of placelessness, of finding oneself socially and intellectually,
as well as physically in a hostile enironment and feeling a great discomfort arising
from a sense of discrepancy between one(s insufficient resources and the abundance
of goods $ust beyond reach%
As the cultural expression of !orth American identity, the American dream
cannot be fixed into a single signifier, but it undergoes arious historical mutations%
+or the &uropean or Asian immigrant, the American dream might mean something
completely different than for the AfroJAmerican depried of his freedom and
indiidual rights, for the )ed Indian depried of his land, or the ;exicanJAmerican
with a long heritage of racial discrimination, restricted ideals and a long struggle for
cultural surial in the southern borderlands% 'eter +reese argues3
The American dream is nothing but an Limage( because as a combination of
national foundation myths and collectie hopes and aspirations, it is supposed to
express peculiarly American traits .+reese /00C3 /C5%
;oreoer, he establishes a pattern of the constitutie elements of the
American dream, and among these are3 ,the belief in progress,- , the belief in the
general attainability of success,- the idea of ;anifest destiny, ,the continual
challenge of perspectie frontiers,- ,the belief in the American form of goernment
of the people, by the people and for the people as the sole guarantor of liberty and
The American Dream as the Cultural Expression of North American Identity
eGuality,- .+reese /00C3 /=25, the idea that they can lie peacefully together without
abandoning the culture of origin that is, the belief in cultural pluralism, multiJ
ethnicity, or multiculturalism%
"hat does identity mean in the United :tates and why is it important in a
multicultural societyM At the beginning of the </
century, the term identity has
become a catchJphrase in politics, in the media, in eeryday language and also in
scholarly discourse% Contemporary American cultural studies are ery much
interested in Guestions of cultural identity% ;ay9el Fer9uyten called it ,a modern
cultural bu##word- in his boo9, The #ocial $sychology of Ethnic Identity
.Fer9uyten <==B3 C=5% This explosion and the different conceptuali#ations concern
the constitution of indiidual and collectie identities, of social categories li9e race,
ancestry, religion, alues, ethnicity, class, gender and age, identity politics or crisis%
In a period of important social changes, issues of identity are in the spotlight and
concepts such as identity crisis and the search for one(s own identity are freGuently
brought up% According to ;ay9el Fer9uyten, ,Guestions of identity are iewed as
the result of a continuing process of construction, choice, and negotiation-
.Fer9uyten <==B3 /<5% Identity mar9s the way in which one is the same as other who
shares that position, and the ways in which one is different from those who do not%
In this way, it is closely lin9ed to culture% Identity is a cultural expression%
In %etters from an American &armer, 6ector :t% 7ohn de CrNecoeur answers
the Guestion ,"hat is an AmericanM- and states that he is either a &uropean or an
American who leaes behind all the old pre$udices and customs and embraces a new
way of life, the American way3 ,6ere indiiduals of all nations are melted into a
new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in
the world- .CrNecoeur apud 6ouse /0113 <45% CrNecoeur(s notion of the ne! man
touches upon the Adamic theme, which is the belief that America was paradise on
earth and that the American is the new Adam, who must brea9 away with the old
&uropean tradition and forge himself a better destiny% +or Creecoeur, America is
inherently 'uritanist and Arcadian, for Arcadia is the middle ground between the
wilderness .the frontier5 and the threatening, corrupt ciili#ation for which &urope
American identity is deried from adherence to particular beliefs and
principles, such as constitutionalism, indiidualism, liberalism, democracy and
egalitarianism, which ma9e up an American creed, all haing their roots in the
Declaration of Independence% The role of indiidual freedom is a defining
characteristic of an American identity and institutionali#ed forms of oppression and
in$ustice such as slaery or ethnic segregation are considered alien to the American
Contrary to a fixed set of beliefs that immigration represents a threat to the
national integrity of the United :tates and that America loses the sense of belonging
moing in a acuum, there is a continuing faith in the concept of a discernible
American identity% The American dream is an issue of ,Americanism%- As :amuel
6untington points out3
It is possible to spea9 of a body of political ideas that constitutes Americanism
in a sense which one can neer spea9 of Iritishism, +renchism, Hermanism, or
The American Dream as the Cultural Expression of North American Identity
7apanism% American is to the American @OD not a tradition or territory, but a doctrine%
To re$ect the central ideas of that doctrine is to be unJAmerican .6untington /02<3
The American Dream as the Cultural Expression of North American Identity
The "estern frontier and the melting pot, two salient ,ingredients- of the
American dream, hae occupied a particular place in American historiography and
helped in building up collectie memories, attachment to place and a general sense
of belonging in America%
Conersely, I would argue that in a postmodern world, conceptuali#ations of
American identity are ery protean% American identity is sub$ected to change in
times of globali#ation and massie migration% :tuart 6all considers that identity is
,an artificially imposed self which a people with a shared history and ancestry hold
in common%- 6e accepts that identities are neer unified, but ,fractured- and
,fragmented- .6all <==23 C5% In the light of this idea I can argue that American
identity has an open and inclusie character and, gien the patchwor9 history of the
!orth American continent, the adherence to a set of common alues and principles
mar9s the unity and distinction of a nation% The American dream helped form the
American nation and it has nourished the aspirations and beliefs of the U%:% citi#ens
for centuries% In this way, it has become the cultural narratie which mirrored the
history of the American people%
6oweer, despite the melting pot rhetoric, for many ethnic groups in the
United :tates, the American dream has been a dream deferred% In /001, political
scientist 7ennifer 6ochschild published the boo9 &acing 'p to the American Dream,
the most important contribution in the field of cultural studies regarding the ision
of the American dream ersus racial discrimination% 6ochschild obseres that the
ideology of the American dream is not eGually distributed among ethnic groups in
the United :tates and it represents a sort of 'rocustean bed, an ,inchoate fantasy-
.6ochschild /00B3 xiii5 whose reali#ation is entwined with racial antagonisms%
;any Americans hae seen the dream as ,selfish indiidualism- and beliee that
success comes only at the expense of others% :ince the /01=(s and the ciil rights
moement, African Americans hae started to define their identity in comparison
with white middleJclass alues identity and their rights and opportunities%
"or9ing hard, saing money, acceding to authority, doing well in school,
maintaining a stable twoJparent family ? all those mainstream, 'rotestant, bourgeois
alues that are precisely what the ideology of the American dream is about became
for some blac9s associated with illegitimate white dominance and intolerable blac9
submission .6ochschild /00B3 /4<5%
In this way, for many African Americans, the fulfillment of the American
Dream meant the successful attempt to oercome indiidual and institutional racism,
as well as other forms of segregation .class, religion, gender, etc%5% In /014, at the
Lincoln ;emorial in "ashington, ;artin Luther Ping 7r% expressed his personal
ision of the Dream, highlighting the Ilac9JAmerican struggle for liberation and the
potentially friendly coexistence of people of all nationalities and races in the melting
I hae a dream that one day on the red hills of Heorgia some sons of former
slaes and the sons of former slae owners will be able to sit down together at the
table of brotherhood% I hae a dream that my four little children will one day lie in a
nation where they will not be $udged by the color of their s9in, but by the content of
their character .Ping apud "erner /0>=3 /B=5%
The American Dream as the Cultural Expression of North American Identity
The racial segregation of such minorities, an old struggle in the American
society, has made of America a sort of schi#ophrenic personality, tragically diided
against herself%
+or ;exicanJAmericans, the achieement of the American dream has also
been hindered by racial pre$udice and tal9s of underclass, as well as by
socioeconomic cleaages% Ietween /B/0 and /2</, ;exico held the territory which
is now the American southwest% "ith the signing of the Treaty of Huadalupe
6idalgo in /2C2 after the U%:%J;exican war, ;exicans in the southwest became
;exicanJAmericans oernight% The United :tates had illegally crossed its own
borders% Iy recogni#ing their mesti#o heritage, both Indian and :panish, ;exicanJ
Americans had to put up with racism and discrimination in the American public life%
After /01=, they created institutions and organi#ations to secure their ciic rights
and began using the name Chicano% Chicano literature, the most ob$ectie
manifestation of the ;exicanJAmerican difficulties of assimilation in the U%:%
society, reflects mostly failures of the American dream and it also represents a
challenge of the contemporary discussion of cultural heritage, race, hybridity,
miscegenation, and blurred boundaries%
)ichard )odrigue#, considered nowadays America(s best essayist, argues that
the multicultural heritage of the United :tates should be interpreted as strength and
not as wea9ness and asserts that his personal ision of the American dream is that of
a common language and culture% )odrigue# explores the dilemmas of American
ethnicity and cultural identity in (ro!n) The %ast Discovery of America, and coins
the concept of the ro!ning of America in order to undermine the notion of race%
(ro!n celebrates mixed blood, impurity, confusion and contradiction% America
started browning as the Indian, the African, and the &uropean met and dwelt on the
I thin9 brown mar9s a reunion of people, an end to ancient wanderings% )ial
cultures and creeds conspire with :pring to create children of beauty, perhaps of a
harmony, preiously un9nown .)odrigue# <==<3 xiii5%
If ,history is a coat cut only to the &uropean- .)odrigue# <==<3 <5, the
browning of America diminishes this unilateral perspectie, eliminates paradoxes
and ma9es up a mixed consciousness of identity% As a man who has an Indian
complexion, a :panish surname and an &nglish name, the Chicano writer moes
metaphorically between cultures% Irown has offered the American indiidual the
possibility to disregard the tragic dialectic of race, the blac9 and white conersation,
to integrate oneself into the melting pot and to dream of a common .brown5
language and culture%
Despite these ,racial failures,- the American dream has still suried and has
made American identity able to coexist with an almost unbounded range of cultural
traditions and expressions of ethnic diersity% The American experience has
produced both dreams and nightmares but, between these polar conceptions, as a
cultural narratie, it has gien coherence and substance to the immigrant experience,
and it still persists as an ideal in mass media, or in the popular notion of the
American democracy% The American dream has accompanied the ancient American
The American Dream as the Cultural Expression of North American Identity
tradition of conGuering frontiers, from &urope to America, from the east coast to the
"ild "est, from nature to ciili#ation, giing the common man the chance to
The American Dream as the Cultural Expression of North American Identity
become exceptional through transcending his own boundaries% 7ames Truslow
Adams asserts that the American dream, as a belief in the alue of the ordinary man,
,was not a logical concept of thought,- but ,a religious emotion, a great act of faith,
a courageous leap into the dar9 un9nown- .Adams /04/3 /025%
After the terrorist attac9s from :eptember, //, <==/, and after the economic
crisis of <==2, the American dream was transformed from a simple to9en of national
identity into a powerful means of national and social reitali#ation% The multiple
experiences and aatars of the dream of the immigrant, stretched and deeloped
across time and space, ma9e up the cultural narratie of the American dream, a
concept that historically articulated the American nation% The symbolic access of the
indiidual to American identity through the American dream implies a metaphorical
translation at the leel of consciousness from the *ld "orld culture to the !ew
"orld culture, as a process of recognition, acceptance, and symbiosis of self and
other in the great melting pot%
Adams /04/3 7ames Truslow Adams, The Epic of America, Ioston, Little, Irown, and
Company% Ioorstin /0B23 Daniel 7% Ioorstin, The Americans) The Colonial Experience,
!ew Qor9,
Fintage Ioo9s, )andom 6ouse Inc
Carpenter /0123 +rederic I% Carpenter, American %iterature and the Dream, +reeport, !ew
Qor9, Ioo9s for Libraries 'ress%
+reese /00C3 'eter +reese, *America)+ Dream or Nightmare, -eflections on a Composite
Image, Ferlag, Die Ilaue &ule, &ssen%
6all <==23 :tuart 6all, ,Introduction3 "ho !eeds IdentityM- in .uestions of Cultural
Identity/0/ &d% :tuart 6all, and 'aul Du Hay, London et al%, :age, pp% /?/>%
6ochschild /00B3 7ennifer L% 6ochschild, &acing 'p to the American Dream) -ace, Class,
and the #oul of the Nation, 'rinceton, !ew 7ersey, 'rinceton Uniersity 'ress%
6ouse /0113 Pay :% 6ouse, -eality and Myth in American %iterature, !ew Qor9, +awcett
'ublications Inc%
6untington /02<3 :amuel '% 6untington, American $olitics) The $romise of Disharmony,
Cambridge, The Iel9nap 'ress%
)odrigue# <==<3 )ichard )odrigue#, (ro!n) The %ast Discovery of America, !ew Qor9,
'enguin Ioo9s%
Fer9uyten <==B3 ;ay9el Fer9uyten, The #ocial $sychology of Ethnic Identity, 6ae and
!ew Qor9, Taylor and +rancis Hroup%
"erner /0>=3 :tanley a% "erner 7r%, The American Dream in %iterature, !ew Qor9, Charles
:cribner(s :ons%
The concept of the American dream was first used in /04/ by 7ames Truslow Adams
in The Epic of America/ Later, ;artin Luther Ping 7r% spo9e about a dream of freedom,
eGuality, and $ustice and 'eter +reese about a society in which people had control oer their
lies% This paper analyses the American dream, as a cultural narratie that founded and
shaped the American mentality% ;oreoer, it starts from the hypothesis that the American
dream is the cultural expression of !orth American identity and deelops the multiple
aatars that constitute this collectie American identity from a Cultural :tudies perspectie%
There is no uniGue American dream, but different immigrant stories, deeloped in time, and
space, reealing the cultural complexity of the United :tates, being regarded as meaning in
The American Dream as the Cultural Expression of North American Identity
moement, always in search for its originality%
Copyright of 'hilologica 7assyensia is the property of Institutul de +ilologie )omana A% 'hilippide and its
content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listser without the copyright holderRs
express written permission% 6oweer, users may print, download, or email articles for indiidual use%