Garden vs. Wilderness
What is the American Dream?
October 24, 2002
America, from the view point of many young Iranians, is the land of dreams. The
people in our country, along with people of many other underpriviledged nationalities
and developing countries, cherish the dream that America is the land of golden opportunities
and that it is, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, the place "where fowls fly
about ready roasted crying, 'Come! Eat me'." To these people, the American Dream
signifies a vision of people as consumers, and the American story is the story of
an inveterate struggle to embody this dream in the institutions of American life.
Traditionally, we think of the American Dream as owning a home and having a happy
family, with some undefined financial success often referred to as "comfortable
and high-standard living". The dream aspect of the American Dream, however,
connotes a traditional and national vision, despite some of the mundane aspects of
the dream as it is often defined. Immigrants in particular have seen America as a
promised land, with the dream as an integral part of this vision. On the other hand,
some see the American Dream as an unfulfillable vision, especially those whose race,
ethnicity or gender the mainstream uses as an excuse for excluding them from dreaming.
Others see it as relentlessly competitive and material and ruthless.
For the first time in American history, John Truslow Adams, in his monumental
Epic of America (1933) coined the term, the American Dream and defined it
... that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller
for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement....
It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order
in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of
which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless
of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
Adams believed that
the American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores
in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has
doubtless counted heavily. It has been much more than that. 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 older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders
which had developed for the benefit of classes than for the simple human being of
any and every class. And that dream has been realized more fully in actual life here
than anywhere else, though very imperfectly even among ourselves.
In the poem, America Was Promises (1939), Archibald MacLeish described
America as the land of promises. He wrote: "America was always promises. / From
the first voyage and the first ship." When one looks at America from the view
point of Europeans in the early days of her discovery, one realizes that America
was, from the very first voyage and the first ship, full of not only promises but
It seems that the foundation of the myth of the American Dream was first formed
out of those early promises and was shaken by those perils. Therefore, the myth of
America which still resides in the memory of many people throughout the world can
be traced back to the American past, and the time when America was first discovered.
From the early days of America's discovery, Europeans received contradictory accounts
of the New World. In the beginning, to Europeans, American nature signified the absence
of European culture, like "Paradise before the Fall". Part of the myth
Columbus created was the image of great odds against a few puny men, unknown distances,
elemental forces, and unpredictable hazards.
From the view point of the Elizabethans, especially after hearing accounts of
storms and shipwrecks like those of William Strachey's, the New World was sometimes
thought to be an uncivilized place.
The New World was considered to be, as William Bradford wrote in Of Plymouth
Plantation (1620-1647) a "hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild
beasts and wild men." He described the whole place to be "full of woods
and thickets, [that] represented a wild and savage hue. If they looked behind them,
there was the mighty ocean which they had passed and was now as a main bar and gulf
to separate them from all the civil parts of the world."
In those early stages of America's discovery there were some horrifying reports
coming from the pen of Europeans themselves of the White Man's looting, slaughtering,
raping, burning, scalping and disembowelling of the natives of America. These reports
counterbalanced the rhetoric of those who described the New World as uncivilized
and exposed the slave traders and exploiters' atrocities in the New World.
One eyewitness of the European massacres of the natives, Bartolomeo de Las Casas,
for example, reported how extraordinarily cruel the Spaniards were towards the Indians.
He recorded, in detail, how the Spaniards would dismember the natives and test their
swords and their manly strength on captured Indians and place bets on the slicing
off of heads or the cutting of bodies in half with one blow.
There are also some accounts of the Englishmen's genocidal killings of the natives.
A seventeenth-century British general, called George Percy, described how he "cawsed
the Indians heade to be cutt of. And then dispersed my fyles Apointeinge my Sowldiers
to burne their howses and to cutt downe their Corne groweinge aboutt the Towne."
In the colonial stage, however, the Europeans' conception of America appeared
to be positive because at this stage the subject was not the discovery of America,
but its exploration and settlement. The colonizers' tracts and the travelers' accounts
exaggerated the romantic attractions of the New World. The vast and abundant resources
of the New World were admired, in a propagandistic and persuasive discourse.
Another reason for some of the explorers' high praise of the New World was the
tendency to criticize the Old World. This inclination led some people to describe
America as a virgin land as opposed to the corrupt Old World. In these descriptions,
the Old World appeared as "Paradise lost" and the New World as "Paradise
regained". From the very start, America symbolized man's dream of freedom from
tradition, conformity and authority.
When one studies the bulk of literature related to the discovery of America, one
learns about different groups of writers who created the conflicting images of America
that continue to inform American culture and literature to this day.
On the one hand, one comes across the Europeans' nightmarish and nauseating accounts
of the explorers' slaughtering of the Indians and the destruction of the newly-discovered
lands. On the other hand, one reads accounts of writers and voyagers whose descriptions
of the New World formed the bedrock of the myth of the American Dream.
First, among the proponents of the American Dream, there were those in Europe
who, in their utopian schemes, visualized a better world in the new world of America.
These utopians were, in fact, thinking about social reform, and their main concern
was the social and intellectual amelioration of their own countries.
Sir Thomas More, who set his Utopia in the New World, was, apart from satirizing
the Old World, opening up the idea of political, religious and economic freedom.
The New World induced Montaigne to contemplate political and social enhancement and
that his ideas are reflected in Gonzalo's portrait of an ideal state in The Tempest.
The Elizabethan pastoral spirit was due to the thrill felt about the discovery of
The simultaneity of the discovery of America and the publication of Edmund Spenser's
The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), Philip Sidney's Arcadia (1590), and
Michael Drayton's Poemes Lyrick and Pastorall (1606) was not coincidental.
America as Arcadia or a site for a new golden age was a recurrent image in Elizabethan
Second, the desire for riches appears as another motive behind the exploration
of America. To use James Truslow Adams's words, some explorers were most interested
in "the little rings of gold which the natives, otherwise stark naked, wore
in their noses." There were people in the Elizabethan age, like Sir Walter Raleigh,
who envisaged America as a land of golden opportunity. This materialistic side of
America's exploration is echoed in plays by Jonson, Massinger, Middleton and Marston
where America is depicted as the place to make a fortune.
One group of people who, in their religious teachings, contributed to the American
Dream and laid the moral basis for the pursuit of success and wealth were the Puritans.
The Puritans' Protestant work ethic endorsed the pursuit of wealth as a religious
activity and considered the amassing of wealth as a reward from God.
Cotton Mather was one of the Puritans who laid the foundation for the myth of
success and the Protestant work ethic as he justified the pursuit of wealth and success
with this assumption that the Christian's pursuit of his own individual economic
success will contribute to his social usefulness rather than clash with it.
Mather advised his people, "You must Preserve your own Place and Life and
Bed and Wealth and Name: You must, with the same Sincerity, befriend your Neighbours
also in theirs." He told parents to teach their children a trade, or business
that lies in the way of gain.
However, when the Puritans noticed the rapacity and the greediness of the settlers
and heard about the unorthodox views of people, like the free-thinking Thomas Morton,
and when they realized that, in some quarters, success was spelt mainly in materialistic
terms, they began to voice their concern. The Boston Synod of Churches declared that
an unquenchable desire for land has driven the people away from the church.
In early New England the protestant ethic was preached to restrain the capitalistic
spirit and, from the view point of the Puritans, economic activity was subject to
both moral and social considerations. Thus the Puritan work ethic, which remains
as one of the most important component parts of the myth of success, was created.
Hard work, moral and social considerations, self-improvement, industry, self-control
and moderation were set forth by the Puritans as ethical maxims for the conduct of
It must be noted here that during the course of American history, different social
and economic upheavals have landed punches to the Protestant work ethic. For example,
industrialization was a severe blow to the American Protestant work ethic because
it weakened people's devotion to work as the country turned the self-employed individuals
Another group of myth-makers who defined the American Dream in those early days
were writers, intellectuals and travelers who, in their writings, described the American
way of life and set out the principles of the American Dream. Robert Beverley's The
History and Present State of Virginia (1705) which described America as Paradise
and American life as paradisiac is a case in point.
In his Letters from an American Farmer (1782) St. John de Cr'coeur defined
an American as a hard-working, independent and responsible family man and a free-thinker,
and America as the land of freedom and abundance.
Cr'coeur described America as a place where the gap between the rich and the poor
was not as wide as it was in Europe. He pointed to the absence of privileged classes
of people such as aristocrats and courtiers. He referred to Americans as a people
of cultivators who were "united by the silken bands of mild government, all
respecting the laws, without dreading their power, because they are equitable."
In Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1780-1785) America is depicted
as the land of plenty in such a way that it reminds one of the bucolic settings of
pastoral poetry, and the typical American is presented as a self-reliant farmer who
is inextricably bound to the land.
Benjamin Franklin who is the personification of the rise of the common individual
and of American practicality, shrewdness and rational morality has also contributed
to the myth of the American Dream. When one reads Franklin's maxims in such essays
as "The Way to Wealth" (1757), one realizes that labor, accumulation of
wealth, frugality, and self-discipline were of primary importance to his way of thinking.
In his "Information to Those Who Would Remove to America" (1782) Franklin
gives a fairly realistic description of America. In an attempt to debunk the already
existing myths that the streets in America are "pav'd with half-peck Loaves,
the Houses til'd with Pancakes, and where the Fowls fly about ready roasted, crying,
Come eat me!" He calls America "The Land of Labour", a place
where bad examples to youth are uncommon.
Franklin's description of America appears to be more realistic and reliable than
those given by the promoters of colonization such as Governor James Glen in the eighteenth-century
who depicted America as the land of "Ease and Plenty" and invited the deprived
people of Europe to a country where "the Rivers are crouded with Fish, and the
Forests with Game; and no Game Act to restrain them from enjoying those Bounties
The image of America as a bountiful Eden is retained in the nineteenth-century
by people like Alexis de Tocqueville, who portrayed America as a prosperous country,
and Hugh Swinton Legar, who believed that America was going to set up a democratic
paradise of liberty, prosperity and public uprightness.
At the same time that these writers and intellectuals were fascinated with America
and the American way of life, some of them appeared to be disillusioned with the
American Dream and expressed reservations about America's promises. For example,
the founder of Georgia, James Edward Oglethorpe, whose original idea was to turn
Georgia into a refuge for the unfortunate and the outcast, was disappointed with
life in that colony because it lost its original utopian mission.
Cr'coeur, in Letter IX., entitled "Description of Charles-Town; Thoughts
on Slavery; on Physical Evil; a Melancholy Scene", depicts the darker side of
America by describing slavery in the South that he viewed as a persistence of unpleasant
old European habits.
Juxtaposing scenes of happiness and misery in Charles Town, Cr'coeur observes
that the "the chosen race" are indifferent towards the miseries of the
slaves "from whose painful labours all their wealth proceeds." He complains
why no one thinks with compassion of those "showers of sweat and of tears which
from the bodies of Africans, daily drop, and moisten the ground they till."
Other writers, like Michael Chevalier, tried to disclose the true nature of American
institutions. In order to show the American concept of liberty in its true light,
Chevalier compared the French and the American ways of life during the 1830s and
wrote that liberty in America does not mean the liberty to outrage all that is sacred
on earth, to set religion at defiance, to laugh morals to scorn, to undermine the
foundations of social order, to mock at all traditions and all received opinions.
The American Dream incorporates some other related myths that eventually become
an integral part of the original myth itself. One such popular myth is known as the
myth of "rugged individualism". James Fenimore Cooper, who created the
forerunner of backwoods heroes in his Leatherstocking Tales, is one who was instrumental
in creating the myth of "rugged individualism" and pointing to its poignant
American popular culture has also played an important part in shaping this myth.
One possible source of inspiration for the creation of this myth is the emergence
of stories known as "dime novels" from the middle to the end of the nineteenth-century
that presented the romanticized image of the dashing and fearless frontiersman in
conflict with the outlaws and the Indians. The Western, which is an offspring of
the dime novel, is another medium through which American popular culture retains
and reaffirms the Frontier values and contributes to the myth of rugged individualism.
Biographies of famous individuals appear as another contributor to the myth of
rugged individualism. In the nineteenth-century, Francis Lieber published the Encyclopaedia
Americana in which he defined the myth of the free and rugged individual in the
biographies of famous personalities such as Daniel Boone and Zebulon Pike which set
out the pattern for the myth of the free individual in America.
According to this myth, while the individual developed his capabilities in the
pursuit of his own happiness, success for the individual came only if he served his
society. Therefore, it is assumed that people like Boone succeeded, not because of
their individual pursuit of wealth, but because of hard work and public service.
On the other hand, self-indulgence and unrestrained freedom, as reflected in the
story of Benedict Arnold, become the vices which ultimately lead the ideals of the
free and independent individual astray. Therefore, we learn from these stories that
the idea of individualism in America is drastically different from the mere pursuit
of individual happiness. American individuality is, in fact, the very opposite of
singularity. In America individualism is a collective individualism, not the isolation
of one human being, but the intercourse and cooperation of many.
It must be noted that the myth of rugged individualism encapsulates in itself
the myths of the Frontiersman, the Pioneer, and the Cowboy. The Frontiersman is considered
as a man skilled in natural life. He is a man who knows the wilderness well and is
the heroic survivor, the adapter, the ambitious and greedy hedonist, the jack-of-all-trades
who cleared the wilderness and made it accessible to civilized society. The Pioneer
is a tough individual; sociable, versatile, roaming and ambitious for himself, his
family, and his community.
One of the offsprings of the Frontiersman and the Pioneer is the Cowboy. In American
heroic mythology the Cowboy is considered as the harbinger of civilization, an independent
loner who saves people, eliminates the villain, and serves the community. The Frontiersman,
the Pioneer, and the Cowboy's self-reliant individualism is closely associated with
a sense of collective usefulness. Despite its sense of collectiveness, the American
idea of self-reliance is still individualistic, a togetherness of several and not
the isolation of one, or the absorption of all into a higher unity.
It is to be disputed, however, whether rugged individualism has its roots in reality
or it is only a myth. Many white Americans got rich off the labor of their slaves,
all the while waxing lyrical about the virtues of self-reliance. The image of the
self-reliant pioneer is a stereotype that bears very little resemblance to reality.
From the very beginning, the West was not conquered by rifle-toting pioneers,
but by the American government and, at the farthest edges of the frontier, the settlers
were actually uncontrollable and gun-fighting was widespread. This is a conviction
that is also reflected in James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tale, The
Prairie (1827) in which the Pathfinder escapes the encroaching civilization and
the lawless settlers.
The millionaire class that emerged after the Civil War altered the meaning of
success and the myth of rugged individualism. According to the old formula, the competitive
economic system was justified not on the ground of the great profits which it would
bring to some individuals, but with the claim that it would assure economic vigor
for the society.
After the emergence of this new class, the virtues of patience, hard work, and
prudence were being undermined by the spectacle of men who seemed to blossom into
millionaires overnight. Thus, selfishness took the place of human virtues in the
mythology of heroic individualism, and for the first time, in 1891, in American linguistic
history "success" was defined as "the gaining of money".
It was here that "Success Literature" emerged as the savior of American
pioneer ideals of hard work, self-reliance, honesty, frugality and prudence. Horatio
Alger's stories attempted to preserve the above traditional ideals associated with
rugged individualism and the myth of the self-made man. They reiterated the theme
of the achieving of fame and fortune through courage and graciousness.
At a time when Social Darwinism justified the extermination of the weak, a teacher
in one of Alger's stories commends her class because they sympathize with the broken
and the weak. None of Alger's heroes exhibits the aggressive acquisitiveness of the
time. Instead, his virtuous heroes display the ideal bourgeois of ante-bellum time.
The central motif in Alger's stories is not the idea of making a fortune but the
idea of struggling upwards to achieve success.
When success writers' traditional associations of virtue and success appeared
to be feeble and unconvincing, there emerged another group of writers and thinkers
known as "New Thoughters" who, instead of reiterating moralistic views
about the myth of success, resorted to psychology, spirituality and positive thinking
in their new cult of success.
Frank Channing Haddock, Helen Wilmans and Ralph Waldo Trine, were among major
contributors to this field. The mind-power authors restated the economic power of
personality and tried to preserve the American trust in equality of opportunity.
They believed that everyone could succeed because everyone could exercise personal
charisma. These writers believed that individuals who open themselves to the flow
of the divine spirit could obtain its qualities. They referred to man as a storehouse
of unfulfilled potentialities and with this definition gave mystical expression to
the traditional American sense of abundance.
During the nineteenth-century another group of writers brought the
myth of the self-reliant individual to life. These writers declared that the American
Dream was achievable. These were the American Transcendentalists who rendered the
German ideals of God, freedom, and immortality into the American idiom of natural
law, liberty, and the infinite potentiality of the individual. Ralph Waldo Emerson
was one of the Transcendentalists who praised American democratic ideals and wrote
about the idea of self-culture.
In his essay, entitled "Self-Reliance", he criticized the society that,
instead of self-reliant creators, venerates only names and customs. Emerson translated
the biblical notion that the kingdom of God is within the individual into an American
idiom and contributed to the myth of the independent, self-made and self-reliant
Emerson also created a pastoral vision of America that is based on the myth of
the garden. This pastoral vision is later retained in Henry David Thoreau's Walden
(1854) and his idea of living in simplicity and harmony with nature. Thoreau described
Walden as an ideal place where one could "live deliberately to front only the
essential facts of life" away from the boredom of everyday life.
Thoreau's philosophy is that the American venture into the wilderness was to learn
the markedly American virtues of freedom, independence, isolation, equality, democracy
and true happiness from the wilderness and bring them to civilization. At the same
time, Thoreau criticized the seamy sides of the American way of life and lamented
the decline in American ideals, the ideals destroyed by a luxurious style of living.
Walt Whitman is another American myth-maker who appears as the embodiment of the
American dream of popular democracy. In his poems he limned America as an idyllic
and peaceful land. In "Long, too Long America" he wrote about America's
"even and peaceful" roads. In "A Farm Picture" he depicted a
"peaceful country barn, / A sunlit pasture field with cattle and horses feeding"
and in "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun" he wrote about an idyllic America
in which "nights [are] perfectly quiet as on high plateaus west of the Mississippi"
and "a garden of beautiful flowers where I can walk undisturbed" and the
"sweet-breath'd woman of whom I should never tire."
American politicians and political documents have also
contributed enormously to the myth of the American Dream. There are a few personages
in American political history who, despite disparaging reports about their treatment
of their slaves and their hostility towards the Indians, still embody American liberal
Thomas Jefferson is considered as the personification of American revolutionary
and liberal ideals and the embodiment of American democratic principles and agrarian
spirit. He was an intellectual who promoted an agrarian republic and was concerned
with democracy and matters of national interest. George Washington, the aristocratic
farmer who shared the sufferings of his people and left his land to fight for his
country, is another hero who is a multi-faceted symbol of American virtues and revolutionary
American political history has also incorporated the story of Abraham Lincoln
into the myth of the American Dream. Lincoln and his image reside in the American
Dream because they conform to some of the already existing images in that myth. Lincoln,
first and foremost, qualifies by the myth of the self-made man and the formula of
"from log cabin to the White House". Lincoln is considered as an unancestried
and unprivileged man whose success followed from practising the proven virtues of
honesty, kindness, temperance, industry, and pluck.
One important political record which bears a crucial role in the formation of
the myth of the American Dream is the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration
of Independence is an important document which announces as plain truths that people
are "created equal", and that they are given the "inalienable rights"
such as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", and that it is the
duty of the governments to preserve these inalienable rights.
This momentous political document not only asserts some
of the essential principles of the myth of the American Dream, it also points to
an important paradox of American history. The coexistence of slavery and concepts
of liberty and equality expounded by the Fathers of the American Revolution is a
contradiction in American history. The Founding Fathers' use of slave labor and their
views on liberty and equality are inconsistencies that are still a matter for debate
in American political history.
Lincoln, in his famous Gettysburg address of November 1863, draws on the Founding
Fathers' declaration that "all men are created free and equal" and, in
another, the "Cooper Union Address" of February 1860, examines the views
of the thirty-nine signers of the Constitution, noting that at least twenty-one of
them believed that Congress should keep slavery under control.
At the time when the Declaration of Independence was composed, "created equal",
applied to the political, social, economic, religious and educational processes in
America (although, in reality, it did not wipe out the nefarious aspects of life
in America such as slavery and the elimination and Europeanization of the Indians).
With regard to political processes, the phrase aims at restrictions on the suffrage
for men and women. As for the social processes, it confronted every demonstration
of class difference. As for the economic and religious processes, it helped build
an open economy, and abolished the idea of a conventional church. And finally, with
regard to educational processes, it advocated the idea of providing equal opportunities
The phrase, "pursuit of happiness" also
states one of the basic principles of the American Dream. Jefferson, who put together
these phrases, was, in fact, inspired by the British Utilitarian philosophers and
by the idea of the greatest happiness of the greatest number and considered "public
happiness" to be more important than "self-interest". Jefferson, in
his letter of June 13, 1814, strongly shows his disapproval of the philosophy of
self-interest and states that the phrase "pursuit of happiness" was meant
to be a social undertaking for the benefit of all people.
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are two other important documents which,
in American history, established some of the basic assumptions of the myth of the
American Dream. The Constitution set up a strong government to protect the right
of the individuals from any internal and external threats and the Bill of Rights
assured individuals of their own rights.
One can clearly observe that in those documents the two conflicting elements of
self-interest and government control are carefully balanced and resolved in order
to help individuals create a free society. Therefore, in this democratic system,
both the government and the free individuals are supposed to act as a check to each
other's destructive aspirations and eventual corruption in creating a healthy society.
In conclusion, when one studies the development of the myth of the American Dream
in the course of American history one realizes that the contrasting images of America
created during the early days of America's discovery exist side by side and persist
throughout American history. The fact is that the image of America as the Garden
versus the Wilderness and the American Dream versus the American nightmare fluctuate
from time to time as America grapples with different social and economic forces such
as slavery, economic depression and the experience of war.
At the same time, we notice that the different motives
for emigrating to America expressed in those early days still linger as people continue
to emigrate to America, some for economic and some for religious and political reasons.
The image of America as the land of plenty and golden opportunity, a place where
people can make a fortune, has always run parallel to the image of America as the
land of political, social and religious freedom and a democratic utopia of liberty
and public virtue.
As for the secular aspects of the American Dream, it should be noted that, although
economic success and accumulation of wealth are regarded as essential and inseparable
parts of the American Dream and were endorsed by the Puritans, they are inextricably
bound to moral and social considerations. The means through which success is to be
achieved are industry, hard-work and a set of well-defined rules of conduct which
are considered to be conducive to moral goodness and social usefulness.