There is an alarming realization in the concept of the American Dream. This realization is that it is, in fact, a dream. The idea that anyone from any walk of life or economical background can, without harming oneself or others, become independently wealthy and successful has been at the forefront of countless literary works and motivational speeches for decades. Equally, the American Dream has been criticized and approached with comedy and tragedy in the same genres. The extremities of the comparisons and contrasts of the approaches in which different authors, as well as different groups of Americans, address this dream can be found in Maya Angelo’s “Occupation: Conductorette” and “All My Sons” by Arthur Miller.

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Looking at the American Dream in terms of comparison in the literary world, both Angelo and Miller show through their works that one can achieve success depending on what they define success as and what avenue they are willing to pursue in order to achieve that success. This difference in definitions of success and the American Dream is based on the focus of “the centrality of financial success in comparison with other life domains” (Kasser and Ryan 411). With that noted, both Maya Angelo in “Occupation: Conductorette” and Joe Keller in All My Sons by Arthur Miller, both achieve and fail to achieve the American Dream.

Maya Angelo’s definition of upward mobility related to the concept of achieving what she was told that she could not achieve. As a young African-American woman, the concept of employee, especially in a position that one aimed for, was nearly impossible. Faced with inequalities due to both race and gender, Angelo aspired to move beyond the stereotypes and inequalities by doing the opposite of what she was told she could do. This was an important avenue for her as the financial success was not nearly as relevant as the other aspects of life. Being able to pursue a goal was as the key to the American Dream and she was more than willing to put in the effort. Her mother, Vivian Baxter had instilled this concept into her when she said “Life is going to give you just what you put in it. Put your whole heart in everything you do, and pray, then you can wait… God helps those who help themselves” (Angelo 228). She listened to that and kept focused on her dream until one day she could write “I was given blood tests, aptitude tests, physical coordination tests, and Rorschachs, then on a blissful day I was hired as the first Negro on the San Francisco streetcars (Angelo 227-29).

The concept of being able to work hard and have equality of opportunity was not the vision that Joe Keller had of the American Dream. Joe has also enjoyed the realm of upward mobility in that he is now “a business man these many years, but with the imprint of the machine-shop worker and boss still upon him” (Miller 58). That is where the similarities between the dreams end. Joe, unlike Maya Angelo, feels that he is entitled to this dream based on the idealized American Dream and does not feel that he is wrong for achieving it through harming others. He feels that merely being savvy in business is enough to justify whatever means it takes him to achieve financial success and explains this as “the only way you can lick ’em is guts” (Miller 80). Though Joe’s inexcusable business moved caused the death of soldiers through faulty equipment he believes that what he is building for his son, Chris, is a worth while legacy that he had not been handed himself. He describes this principle of the American Dream to Chris as “I’m going to build you a house, stone, with a driveway from the road. I want you to spread out, Chris, I want you to use what I have made for you” (Miller 87). What he has made, however, is a vision of the dream based on immorality.

This distorted view of what was once supposed to be an inspiring vision for the pursuit of upward mobility and goal oriented accomplishments is far more common than that of Maya Angelo. Studies show that the pursuit of financial success generally outweigh the intended personal achievements of the original American Dream. As a matter of fact “folklore and table side discussion often suggest that a darker side lurks behind the American Dream” (Kasser and Ryan 410). The confused blending of personal success and financial success has created a situation where “pursuing material wealth is sometimes viewed as empty or shallow and as precluding investment in one’s family and friends, self-actualization, and contributions to the community” (Kasser and Ryan 410). Maya Angelo suggested that one could benefit financially through the pursuit of the American Dream so long as they held true to personal beliefs and strong work ethics. Arthur Miller’s character insinuated that the one only achieved the American Dream through financial success and that morality was insignificant in that pursuit.

As dreams themselves are personal, the American Dream can be individualized. However, the vision of success, when followed with little or no regard for another’s pursuit of the same, cannot be considered an entitlement. It is the opportunity of the pursuit that is the true American Dream.

  • Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Bantam Book, 1988. Print.
  • Kasser, Tim and Ryan, Richard. “A Dark Side of the American Dream: Correlates of Financial
    Success as a Central Life Aspiration.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
    1993,63(2) pp. 410-422. Web. June 23, 2014.
  • Miller, Arthur. Collected Plays. New Delhi: Allied, 1973. Print.