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Garden vs. Wilderness
What is the American Dream?

October 24, 2002
The Iranian

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 work, The Epic of America (1933) coined the term, the American Dream and defined it as

... 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 also perils.

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 America.

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 travel literature.

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 life.

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 to employees.

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 of Providence."

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 loss.

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 individual.

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 idealism.

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 ideals.

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 for people.

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.

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