I often see or hear the media refer to the "American Dream" as indicating the dream that everyone can own a house. If that was the case, the current downturn and massive increase in foreclosures would mean the American Dream is now a nightmare. I have seen that facile phrasing about the supposed American Nightmare used by a variety of news media here and there (example here).
However, I have never believed that the American Dream is dependent on house ownership or material wealth. That would be a sad and pathetic foundation for any nation. To re-phrase that interpretation of the meaning of "American Dream", it would be: our lives are all about owning a house. If a nation's shared aspiration is house and land ownership, what kind of a country would that be?
On the contrary, according to the Declaration of Independence the United States was founded in defense of innate human rights and human potential, as it states:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That is a noble foundation for a country, even though we know well that due to shortcomings of those times, slaves, women, and other categories were somehow omitted from "equality" by the founding fathers. But even with those shortcomings, the Declaration of Independence touches on the deeper motivating forces of life in language such as that above.
Well, I finally became bothered enough by the common, current corruption of the phrase "American Dream", and curious enough about its original, intended meaning, to look it up. My goal was to determine whether house ownership, or even wealth in general, was indeed that original, intended meaning. I was quite pleased, therefore, when I found that according to the Library of Congress:
The term was first used by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America which was written in 1931. He states: The American Dream 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."
I do note that economic stability or success is not excluded from this statement of American Dream, the defining description of the Dream. However, this definition of the American Dream would certainly include an apartment renter who works helping educate illiterate children, or who organizes oppressed workers into a union, and while rich emotionally by pursuing higher goals may have minimal material wealth. The original definition of American Dream also includes a home owner who builds a business that he or she believes in – to do good for society and to provide jobs for others. All of these goals and actions can create the "richer, fuller life" described in the Adams book. But owning a house, or material wealth, is not a requirement of the American Dream.
For that reason, far from experiencing an American Nightmare, possibly we are now experiencing a re-emergence of the American Dream. I believe we were closer to that inspiration of the American Dream when John Kennedy said "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" and when he did not stop there but sent Americans overseas to help other countries, via the Peace Corps. That is what the American Dream is about.
Can we take this pause in the economic engines as an opportunity to re-discover ourselves, and to come closer to living our own personal American Dreams? If that is the result of the current economic challenges, then indeed the old Chinese pairing of crisis as including both "danger" and "opportunity" is once again proved correct, not only on a policy level or political level, but also on a personal level.
I hope to hear or see one day in television, radio, print, and Web news reports, the phrase "American Dream" used in its original meaning. As I see it, use of that interpretation by mainstream writers would be a sure sign of societal progress.