American Dream in Literature
The definition of the American Dream is something that has perplexed writers since the emergence of a distinct style of American literature in the 19th century. From the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger, through the corruption of wealth in The Great Gatsby to the crushing failure of the existence of the American dream itself in Death of a Salesman, writers have examined nearly every aspect of the American dream in literature.
In some ways, the definition of the American Dream can be traced to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, with its promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. During the 19th century, writers such as Washington Irving and Herman Melville attempted to define the unique character of America through their literature. Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, for example, explores the corrupting influence of Wall Street, while Moby-Dick is often seen as an extended metaphor for America. During the excess of the Gilded Age, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed the dark side of the American Dream crushed by industrialism.
The Great Depression helped foster the sense that the American Dream was dead, represented in The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Since the 1950s, the American Dream has been one of existential crisis, often represented in modern works of literature such as in the novels of Philip Roth.