The Importance of Ambition: The American Dream in Literature (Part 1)

The inexperienced idealist will have learnt to believe that the good will out, and the best rise to the top. An educated concept associated with youthful potential and big ideas simply waiting to happen. From generation to generation, let it be known: “the sky is the limit”.

However encouraging this notion appears to be, it is the overshadowing of the now predominant version of the American Dream that seduces the prospective individual. The reality presented is, that only through the acquisition of material possessions could one obtain happiness. This is the infamous rags-to-riches story, popularised by 19th century author Horatio Alger, claiming that hard work coupled with religious belief could permit any young American down the smooth road to a sweet success and a sweeter lifestyle. It is in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman that Willy Loman finds himself deceived by the mirage that is the American Dream, tricked by the concept that one could simply roam into the “jungle” and surface at a later date indescribably rich.

During 1949, the first Volkswagen Beetle arrived in the United States presented to New York by a Dutch salesman named Ben Pon, perhaps a man out to test the credibility of the American Dream theory? No dealers or importers find the Volkswagen feasible, causing Pon to sell the sample car in order to pay for his travel expenses.

Towards the end of that year only two cars had been sold in America, convincing the Volkswagen chairman that the car had no future. 1949 was the same year Death of a Salesman was released, a cutting attack on the American Dream and those who dare attempt to achieve it? Ironically, the Volkswagen Beetle has since gone on to become the greatest automobile phenomenon in American history, a real life illustration demonstrating human capability when challenging the Dream, a reminder that it can be done.

In both Death of a Salesman and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby the representation of the American Dream appears to be nothing short of the Holy Grail, purely for the reason that neither Willy Loman or Jay Gatsby appear to be content with their state of mind and to all intents and purposes, isn’t that the core meaning?

Tommy Hilfiger advertising campaigns from the late 90s pictured black people chilling with their wind-swept white contemporaries in that way too familiar country club of perfection in the sky, up against a backdrop of the over-exaggerated billowing American flag. The corporation says: “We promote…the concept of living the American Dream.”

In this day and age the gold at the end of the rainbow, as it were, is now apparently so rare that big name companies are able to brand it, just because it seems that unattainable. But this is only a cleverly marketed illusion; since what it actually boils down to is our major advancements in technology causing an immeasurable economic rise. With computers and the internet creating far more highly-paid job opportunities than ever before, our national standard of living has elevated to the stage where current celebrities “living the Dream” are occupying the higher plain as untouchables.

This is a far cry from the views of The Dream between 1607 and 1732, where during the founding of the Thirteen Colonies, America flooded with individuals risking their lives at the Atlantic crossing all in hope of finding a wealthy new life free from any sort of prejudice. These are key examples of how opinions on The American Dream have changed over the years, as a result of society’s escalating voracity.

Despite their main character’s lack of success, let us not conclude the writer’s portrayal of the general American Dream as impossible; this is not (even though it could be argued in support of Miller) their aim. Both Fitzgerald and Miller counter this pessimistic outlook by presenting their characters of less significance as blatant success stories to remind the reader that the American Dream is in fact an accessible ambition.

In Death of a Salesman, these specific individuals are Ben, Charley and Bernard: “[Bernard’s] gonna argue a case in front of the Supreme Court”, whilst in The Great Gatsby it is Jay Gatsby himself and Tom, in stark contrast with the failing George Wilson: “[George] is so dumb he doesn’t know he’s alive”.