In the 2011 film God Bless America, distraught and depressed Frank sets out on a murderous spree against those whom he believes have lost their sense of morality. Although his anger is dramatized, he cannot be blamed for his feelings about present-day America. The possibility of achieving a sustainable, easygoing life drives millions of immigrants and distraught citizens to pursue the American Dream, which says that those who work hard enough and believe strongly enough in the merits of the American economic system can attain a life that is “better and richer and fuller” in the words of James Truslow Adams, who coined the term in his 1931 history The Epic of America. Although the object of their pursuit is not one, but rather “many American Dreams, their appeal simultaneously resting on their variety and their specificity” (Cullen 7), the universal themes of freedom and economic opportunity unify them. If you wanted to be somebody, to improve your life, to be a part of the movement, to be free and freely live, you went to America.
America was the beacon of hope that downtrodden people throughout the world sought. The countries of Europe were controlled by “aristocrats and gentry who often scorned labor” (Malanga) and detested those who were less fortunate. Dissimilarly, in America “entails and titles of nobility” (Weinberg) ceased to exist. America came to represent a fair chance for anyone who was willing to give a fair shot, with special bonuses for diligence and innovation. This notion is deeply rooted within our country and has“[laid] a common set of civic virtues that praises our integrity and self-reliance” (Malanga). John Winthrop, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, believed that America was “a city upon a hill” (Meacham) while popular lore described American streets as “paved with gold.” Immigrants were pleasantly surprised at the supportiveness of the American government in improving quality of life, education, and economy (Obama). The first settlers of the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries came with “dreams of God and gold” (Meacham) and revered the wonderful “classless society where anyone could attain success through honesty and hard work (“Money and Success” 261). Abundant natural resources enabled nearly universal economic advancement and brought wealth to many, especially through industrial innovation. Writers such as Horatio Alger epitomized the Dream in rags-to-riches novels which the American people ate up like a supersized McDonald’s meal. The zeitgeist was clear and resounding confidence.
The American work ethic was reflected in popular culture. In Milton Bradley’s bestselling 1860 game “Life,” players are rewarded for completing school and working hard and chastised for falling into pitfalls such as debt, alcoholism, or gambling (Malanga). The Dream was not just about getting rich; morality and ethics were also important. A study showed that only six percent of Americans ranked wealth as the most important definition of the Dream, whereas forty-five percent cited ‘a good family life’ (Ford). From the inception of the new republic, its key offerings of freedom and abundant resources, combined with advances in technology, made the American Dream an overwhelmingly positive, fruitful, and unique phenomenon in the history of the world.
The Dream has undergone massive changes as America and the mindsets of its citizens have evolved, or rather, devolved. To the settlers, the Dream was about freedom and equality. But what was once an honest quest for happy living has turned into frenzied competition, with everybody seeking the largest and most immediate personal gain and gratification without regard to others. It is this “fatal circle of materialism” (Malanga) that has infected and begun to eat away at the Dream. Anyone with a TV or computer can see this today. Teen icons and reality stars are revered for their good looks and massive wealth, but