The American Dream is older than America. Even the first settlers from Europe had an American dream - to be free of the oppression they were experiencing at home. But the phrase only became widely used in the 1930s. Then it quickly became a phrase that refused to sit still and be pinned down. Everyone has a different definition of the Dream.
Historian Lawrence Samuel surveys the use of the phrase from the Great Depression to the 21st century and finds it "(m)utable and amorphous, . . the Zelig of mythologies, able to transform itself to fit virtually any situation or cause." It's whatever we want it to be, but like any dream, not quite real.
Samuel examines an entertaining variety of uses of the phrase, but the one that gets to the heart of the American Dream has to be that of Horatio Alger. Alger's stories for boys were wildly popular in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, stories of poor boys who became wealthy through hard work and ingenuity. He wrote over a hundred books and, Samuel says, made a fortune, squandered it, and died penniless. But his fictions trumped the reality of his life, and Samuel finds it "ironic that [Alger's] name would be forever equated with the American Dream of success."
Samuel follows the phrase decade by decade, in movies, TV, advertising, and politics, and finds that every generation experiences a national setback that makes it question the Dream. New immigrants come with their own interpretations of the Dream. And through it all, the politicians and advertisers twist the Dream to suit their own purposes.
Whether we understand the American Dream to be financial security for working hard and playing by the rules, or perhaps spectacular fame and fortune via lottery or reality show, it's a dream apparently almost impossible to attain. Almost without fail, when Americans of any income level are asked how much income they think will make them feel satisfied and secure, it's always about half again what they earn. Non-monetary interpretations of the Dream are just as elusive - an America without poverty or racism or crime. The American Dream is a slippery devil.