The term “American Dream” gets tossed around a lot. Politicians promise to deliver it. Pollsters poke and prod it, asking for the public’s opinion on its attainability. The American Dream is a handy metaphor for journalists writing on a subject’s upward ascent, and the concept gets namechecked in countless songs across every genre, often with an overtone of aspiration or braggadocio. Yet no matter who’s invoking the American Dream, they almost always misuse it by framing it in material terms: two cars in every garage; exceeding the previous generation’s wealth—owning a home is a perennial favorite, too.
Only last week, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who’s thinking of running for president, provided a fine example of our collective conception of this idea, telling the Morning Joe crew, “I’m self-made. I grew up in the projects in Brooklyn, New York… I thought that was the American Dream.”
Schultz—and most of us—thought wrong, because the original American Dream—that is, the term’s first usage, in author James Truslow Adams’ 1931 history The Epic of America—was far more nuanced, and far more radical, too.
Adams’ American Dream was more than a conceptual fantasy; it was a call to action for the complete realignment of American society, including the redistribution of wealth: “There is no reason why wealth, which is a social product, should not be more equitably controlled and distributed in the interests of society.” That left-leaning truth is often left out of American Dream-centric remarks. It’s time we put it back in.
Adams was either the perfect or perfectly ironic person to coin “American Dream” — it depends on your perspective. Born to a wealthy Brooklyn family in 1878, he studied at Yale. He then went into banking and made even more money—so much, in fact, that he retired at 34 to focus on writing. And here too Adams had dream-like success: his first book, The Founding of New England, won him the Pulitzer Prize. That was in 1921, the dawn of the roaring ’20s, as many Americans tucked into post-Great War abundance. One would think a man in Adams’ position would be right there with them. But rather than enjoying his spoils, Adams became revolted. Why should so few have so much wealth when so many suffer? It was unjust, to be sure, and thus Adams’ writing shifted from the past glories to the present inequality. To that end, Adams in 1929 published Our Business Civilization: Some Aspects of American Culture, in which he chastises our nation’s obsession with money, materialism, and other capitalist distractions.
Adams believed our nation’s fixation on wealth and consumption would consume us all. “Is it worthwhile to gain the whole material world and lose your own soul?” he wrote, laying the foundation for ideas he would explore more fully in Epic and via the American Dream. That said, Adams’ American Dream didn’t rise from the ashes of the Great Depression, as the publication date suggests. It was born from the age of excess that preceded it, and the concept was a warning, not a lodestar.
Adams’ central American Dream thesis is that America had vast potential to uplift the masses but instead devolved into a materialist, competitive slug fest where morals were sold out to make a buck. More or less. By his telling, the American Dream came into being the moment European emigrants first cast off for the New World; “[It was] largely inchoate and unexpressed, but it was forming.” And it continued to form as the years and decades passed, becoming propulsive, compulsive force that inspired and inspires millions to come hither.
Adams admits there’s an economic aspect to the American Dream—“The economic motive was unquestionably powerful, often dominant, in the minds of those who took part in the great migration”—but he’s explicit that the dream’s more precious element is and should be the intangible promise of self-determination, of liberation from social castes or orders.
Again and again he makes this distinction: The American Dream “is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely,” he says; and then: “The American dream… has not been a dream of merely material plenty… It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations.” Money matters to the American Dream, sure, but it should be of infinitesimal importance when compared to the American Dream’s incorporeal components. In a perfect world, says Adams, the American Dream includes “the hope of a better and a freer life, a life in which a man might think as he would and develop as he willed.” But, alas, things didn’t quite go as planned.
The American Dream was thrown off course almost immediately, done in by precisely the same factors that made it possible: the New World’s endless resources and dearth of official social barriers. Anyone could come here and create their own kingdom. Theoretically, at least. So, millions of people came over to have a go. Yes, there were indeed some gutter-to-glitz accents. And, yes, these proportionately rare successes were great for colonial and, later, national growth, but there were no efforts to create a new socioeconomic system to equal the exceptional uniqueness that was the American experiment.
European-style capitalism wasn’t redesigned for America; it was simply amplified to a scale only possible in America. “We were willing to stretch economic change to the breaking point, [but] we were unwilling… to alter in the slightest our social and political arrangements to correspond with the new economic ones.” Even after independence, there were no efforts to right past wrongs. Competition was simply rebranded as “self-reliance” and allowed to spawn an ever-growing chasm between rich and poor that, again, was only possible in America: “Never before had such colossal power concentrated so rapidly into the hands of a few.”
As such, lofty talk of life and liberty for all was largely eclipsed by zero-sum self-interest, meaning “success became a free-for-all race, and so intensified the fierceness of competition to the nth,” according to Adams. “The desire to make things grow ‘bigger and better,’ to make his village into a town and his town into a city, came naturally to be a game… Size, like wealth, came to be a mere symbol of ‘success,’ and the sense of qualitative values was lost in the quantitative, the spiritual in the material.”
As social values became increasingly “simplified and materialized,” art, culture, and intellectual pursuits were tossed aside. “Time was money and could not be wasted on what did not produce money,” says Adams. “Just as money-making had become a manly and patriotic virtue, so an interest in art and letters tended to become a feminine minor vice.”
Most horribly, but distinctly all-American, money became a virtue. Building a house was not just about providing your family shelter; it was about building the country. Growing a business wasn’t about opportunity; it was an obligation: “It was the duty of every man to assist in the development of the nation—that is, to go into business of some sort and to ‘make business.’” It’s unclear whether “make business” meant, well, that other thing, but something tells me Adam wouldn’t have minded the double meaning.
He goes on, “Superimposed on the old Puritan and pioneer raising of work [to] a virtue, was the new conception of business as somehow a social and patriotic duty.” Thus, wealth became a “badge of personal merit in the eyes of the public.” In America’s uniquely skewed value system, to be good at business was to be a good American, and to be better at business—well, that made you a better American, too.
With so much emphasis on money-gaining, business became America’s ultimate moral authority.
“It was no longer controlled by the virtues.” Justice and honesty became secondary when dollars and cents were concerned; one side was weighed against the other, with money typically coming out on top. In time traditional conceptions of right and wrong were completely subsumed in the “tumbling waters of materialism.”
And it’s here that Adams’ timeless text sounds most familiar: “Tired of idealism,” Americans “place our destinies in the hands of the safe realists, hard-headed business men who would stand no nonsense about ‘moral issues,” leaving us with a “a wasteful and unjust” society.
“A system that steadily increases the gulf between the ordinary man and the super-rich,” Adams wrote, “that permits the resources of society to be gathered into personal fortunes… is assuredly a wasteful and unjust system.”
It was—and remains—"as inimical as anything could be to the American dream.” It was—and is—“a cancer that ate [and eats] deep into the vitals of our life,” one that “demoraliz[es] our whole attitude toward law and public life.”
But, hark, hope is not lost. The American Dream can be saved from itself; the cancer can be removed. Not by politicians and business leaders. Growing fat and happy off of injustice, they have no incentive to truly change. (“No ruling class has ever willingly abdicated,” Adams reminds us.) It’s therefore up to the American people to manifest our own destiny. “If the American dream is to come true and to abide with us, it will, at bottom, depend on the people themselves.”
Adams knows this won’t be easy. We have centuries of conditioning to undo, and not to mention an innate fear of social change—“A fear which the fortunate beneficiaries of the system exploit and inculcate to the utmost”—but we must face those fears as we each embark on “a genuine individual search and striving for the abiding values of life.”
To make the American Dream a reality, we Americans must redefine success. If we the people are happy being defined by material goods, so too will be our lawmakers and leaders. Says Adams, “Just so long as wealth and power are our sole badges of success, so long will ambitious men strive to attain them.” We must make clear to the powers-that-be that we’re motivated not by bottom lines and GDPs, but by absolute necessities, like universal healthcare and GPAs. We can’t just talk about equality; we must enact it.
To make the American Dream a reality, we must be willing to share the wealth, literally. “In a modern industrial State, an economic base is essential for all,” Adams writes in Epic’s epic conclusion. “We point with pride to our ‘national income,’ [but] when we turn from the single figure of total income to the incomes of individuals, we find a very marked injustice in its distribution. There is no reason why wealth, which is a social product, should not be more equitably controlled and distributed in the interests of society.”
People can’t develop to their fullest potential when they’re hustling to make others rich. One can’t “think as [they] would and develop as [they] willed” when trying to make ends meet. Artists can’t create, writers can’t write, and intellectuals can’t think when they’re forced to scrimp and save and work and toil—and this brings us to Adams’ most important point.
If we want to make the American Dream a reality, we must celebrate art and culture, education and imagination—all of the creative endeavors our business culture devalues. “If we are to have a rich and full life in which all are to share and play their parts, if the American dream is to be a reality, our communal spiritual and intellectual life must be distinctly higher than elsewhere,” he writes. “We cannot become a great democracy by giving ourselves up as individuals to selfishness, physical comfort, and cheap amusements…. It can never be wrought into a reality by cheap people or by ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’”
Today, in an America ruled by a reality star president who lavishly elevates economic gain above human rights; in an America whose pop culture is dominated by chasing Kardashians and wealthy housewives; in an America more economically, politically, and socially divided than in any other time in our history, all of us who care about the nation’s future must ask ourselves, “Am I living the American Dream?” And if so, which one? Is it one merely of motor cars, or is it deeper? Do your actions help only yourself, or do others benefit, too?
Today, as a new presidential campaign begins, as Americans decide who will lead us next, all Americans—and everyone across the world—must remember Adams’ words: “If we are to make the dream come true, we must all work together, no longer to build bigger, but to build better. There is a time for quantity and a time for quality.”
Now is the time for quality.
We can indeed realize the American Dream. We just need to redefine it first. We must realize that the American Dream is not about individual success. It’s about being united as a whole and succeeding as a whole. Anything else becomes an American nightmare.