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On the origin of the term "the American Dream"

E-Mail to H-Net List for American Studies: >Date: Monday, July 29, 2002 8:00 PM HST

>From: Rob Vaughan <robvaughan@hawaii.rr.com>

In _Made in America: Self-Styled Success from Horatio Alger to Oprah Winfrey_ (University of Minnesota Press, 1992) Jeffrey Louis Decker writes of the origin of the term the "American Dream." He states that "the term was not put into print until 1931, when middle-brow historian James Truslow Adams coined and used it throughout the pages of a book titled _The Epic of America_. ... The American Dream is to be understood as an ethical doctrine that is symptomatic of a crisis in national identity during the thirties. The newly invented dream calls out for a supplement to the outmoded narrative of individual uplift, which had lost its moral capacity to guide the nation during the Depression." [92]

Adams was fully aware that the "American Dream" was a new term and had argued that his editor, Ellery Sedgwick, allow him to use it in the book's title. Sedgwick refused, allegedly saying "no red-blooded American would pay $3.50 for a dream." Adams argued that "Red-blooded Americans have always been willing to gamble their last peso on a dream ...." [n.154-155]

Clearly, the notion of such a dream as a core belief, even a guiding principle, predates Adams' first use of the term in the 1930s. But an interesting idea to kick around, I think, is that it was not until there emerged a profound sense that America had LOST something that the term was actually coined. What was it that folks in the Depression felt they had lost? Perhaps the same things that people still list when describing the American Dream today: individual freedom, social justice, the ability to participate in the consumer economy, and the hope of a better place for one's children. 

Selected Bibliography 2000-2010 

Bormann, Ernest G. The Force of Fantasy: Restoring the American Dream. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2001.

Christensen, Paul. West of the American Dream: An Encounter with Texas. College Station: Texas A&M UP, 2001.

Diggins, John P. Eugene O'Neill's America: Desire under Democracy. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007.

Ellis, Robert R. They Dream Not of Angels but of Men: Homoeroticism, Gender, and Race in Latin American Autobiography. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2002.

Gordon, Andrew M. Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.

Hume, Kathryn. American Dream, American Nightmare: Fictions since 1960. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2000.

Keller, Florian. Andy Kaufman: Wrestling with the American Dream. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005.

Lennon, J. Michael. Norman Mailer's Letters on An American Dream, 1963-1969. Shavertown, PA: Sligo, 2004.

López-Lozano, Miguel. Utopian Dreams, Apocalyptic Nightmares: Globalization in Recent Mexican and Chicano Narrative. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue UP, 2008.

Mensh, Elaine and Harry. Black, White, and Huckleberry Finn: Re-Imagining the American Dream. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2000.

Jiang, Tsui-fen. The American Dream in African American, Asian American, and Hispanic American Drama: August Wilson, Frank Chin, and Luis Valdez. Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 2009.

Nance, Susan. How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790&endash;1935. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2009.

Winn, J. Emmett. The American Dream and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. NY: Continuum, 2007.

Zeitz, Joshua. Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern. NY: Crown, 2006.

Selected Bibliography 2011-Present

Brode, Douglas. Dream West: Politics and Religion in Cowboy Movies. Austin: U of Texas P, 2013.

Buell, Lawrence. The Dream of the Great American Novel. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, Harvard UP, 2014.

Jain, Anupama. How to Be South Asian in America: Narratives of Ambivalence and Belonging. Philadelphia, PA: Temple UP, 2011.

Dery, Mark. I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2012.

Frost, Leslie E. Dreaming America: Popular Front Ideals and Aesthetics in Children's Plays of the Federal Theatre Project. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2013.

Knight, Alisha. Pauline Hopkins and the American Dream: An African-American Writer's (Re)Visionary Gospel of Success. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2012.

Osteen, Mark. Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2013.

Lieu, Nhi T. The American Dream in Vietnamese. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2011.

Meizel, Katherine. Idolized: Music, Media, and Identity in American Idol. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2011.

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "PAL: Appendix S: The American Dream." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL: http://www.paulreuben.website/pal/append/axs.html (provide page date or date of your login). 

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