When playwright Arthur Miller died last month, much was made in the obituaries about what his plays had to say about the so-called American Dream. Marilyn Berger, writing in the New York Times, said that Miller’s “work exposed the flaws in the fabric of the American dream.” CNN declared that his plays depicted “the American Dream gone awry.” The BBC called them “intricate musings on the darkness at the heart of the American Dream.” And Xan Brooks, in the Guardian, described Death of a Salesman, the play that won Miller the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1949, as “a savage assault on the American dream.”
Arthur Miller was decidedly a man of the left, and dissing the American Dream is a favorite pastime of the left. The complaint seems to derive from equating the American Dream with consumerism, the pursuit of material goods. Of course, the left is a bit inconsistent on this point. Only last year, in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank tried to figure out why a majority of the citizens in his native state continue to vote for Republicans, who he says only cater to their “values,” and not for Democrats, whose policies he says favor their true interests — which are strictly material.
Arthur Miller embodied this inconsistency: That a man who hit the jackpot on Broadway early in life (he was only 33 when he won his Pulitzer), who lived an upscale existence in suburban Connecticut, and married Marilyn Monroe should make a career out of denouncing his fellow Americans’ desire for creature comforts is, at the very least, odd.
Moreover, the quest for wealth and comfort hardly started in America. Neither did criticism of it. Recall that Jesus warned his followers against laying up “treasures on earth, where dust and moth consume and thieves break in and steal.” And William Wordsworth, in 1807, composed a sonnet decrying how “the world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”
In this country, such criticism appeared early and has been repeated often. Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, deplored “creeping down the road of life, pushing ... a barn seventy-five feet by forty.” From Henry Adams to Henry Miller, from Theodore Dreiser to Sinclair Lewis, criticism of the downside of America’s system of free enterprise has been so common as to almost amount to a cliché.
The American Dream itself, however, can’t be easily equated with crass materialism. As it happens, the phrase “American Dream” not only had a precise time and place of origin, it also had a specific originator: historian James Truslow Adams coined it in his 1931 book The American Epic. According to Adams, it is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of 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.” Small wonder the dream that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so famously had was, as he put it himself, “deeply in rooted in the American dream.”
In Time magazine’s obituary of Arthur Miller, critic Richard Corliss said that the playwright “saw the American Dream as a kind of curse, for it led us to mistake ambition for destiny, and to suffer the inevitable slump and crumble when reality makes mock of the dream.” I must beg to differ with my former classmate: It was Miller who was mistaken, not us. The glory of the American Dream lies in its challenging the very notion of a fixed and determining destiny for anyone. Americans prefer to shape their own destiny. Emerson, not Thoreau, sounded the authentic American refrain — when he admonished his countrymen to “hitch your wagon to a star.”