The Nuances and Hard Truths of the American Dream

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The 30th president of the United States, on January 17, 1925, remarked, “The chief business of the American people is business!” While the quote has been paraphrased throughout the decades, Calvin Coolidge’s initial meaning has stayed largely static. Indeed, business was, and still is, the beating heart of America: the buying, the selling, and the growing prosperity of all American people. The quote also shows how true progress is made through the people, and the people’s determination to better themselves and their country.

This, in essence, is the core of a principle known as the “American Dream”. When Calvin Coolidge uttered these words, no one could have known of the economic downfall that was to come in four short years. On October 24th, 1929, known as “Black Thursday”, America’s stock market crashed, plunging the country into its worst economic depression in history. During this Great Depression, the concept of the “American Dream” started to take root, not just out of optimism, but out of necessity. Citizens needed something to hold onto: a belief that if they worked hard enough and persevered through hard times, they might be able to regain what they had lost.

And thus the “American Dream” truly blossomed. Two works in particular heavily relate to these ideals, and how it affects those who pursue it. In In Cold Blood, Truman Capote retells the gritty and haunting murder of the Clutter Family in 1959, while also exploring deeper concepts, such as vengeance and loss. Additionally, Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, shows the tragic downward spiral of a man simply trying to live out his own “American Dream”. It can be concluded from these two works that the notion of “work hard and you will succeed”, otherwise known as the “American Dream”, is too formulaic for real-world situations.

The reality is that life, especially in business, is too unpredictable to guarantee long-term success for any one person. However, if an individual approaches the “American Dream” with realism, logic, and a strong work ethic, they have the opportunity to not only bring success to themselves, but also to the people around them. The first and larger of the two works that will be analyzed is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. This non-fiction work is a chilling, comprehensive account of the Clutter Family murders of 1959. Capote writes from the perspective of many people, describing the Clutter’s daily lives, the sleepy town of Holcomb, Kansas, and the approaching threat of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. As the novel progresses, the readers get a clearer picture of the Clutters, the murderers, and what forces motivate and drive them both.

Eventually, both murderers are caught, tried for murder, and hung. So, the question is: why do the duo decide to kill the Clutters? What had Mr. Clutter achieved that made him such a target? Herb was, as described by Andy Erhart, “a modest man but a proud man, as he had a right to be. He raised a fine family. He made something of this life’” (Capote 79). Herb was the model American as described by the “American Dream”: hard-working, self-sufficient, family-oriented, and above all, prosperous. What does this say of the murderers?

Capote writes about Dick, “Envy was constantly with [Dick]; the Enemy was anyone who was something he wanted to be or who had anything he wanted to have” (Capote 200). Capote also writes from Dicks perspective, “Why should that sonofabitch have everything, while he had nothing? Why should that ‘big-shot bastard’ have all the luck? With a knife in his hand, he, Dick, had power. Big-shot bastards like that had better be careful or he might ‘open them up and let a little of their luck spill onto the floor’” (Capote 201). Dick was an individual who sought to bring down those who he felt had “all the luck”: perhaps, those who had accomplished the “American Dream”, such as the Clutter Family. What would give Dick such reason to be so vengeful? Capote writes, quoting Dick’s mother, “After [Dick] graduated from high school—June, 1949—he wanted to go on to college. Study to be an engineer. But we couldn’t do it. Plain didn’t have the money.

Never had any money” (Capote 166). Perhaps Dick felt cheated at his lack of opportunity to achieve the “American Dream”. Without college, and a steady way to make money, his check-writing and thievish tendencies would arise. His accomplice, Perry Smith, shares some similarities in this respect. Capote quotes from Perry Smith, “’You think I like myself? Oh, the man I could have been! […] But you, Bobo, you went to school. You and Jimmy and Fern. Every damn one of you got an education. Everybody but me. And I hate you, all of you—Dad and everybody’” (Capote 185). Both Perry and Dick share the same feeling of vengeance towards successful people.

They both desire to make up for what they could never have by targeting those who have it. In this case, they targeted a family who had, in large, achieved the “American Dream”. Capote writes, quoting Perry, “’And it wasn’t anything the Clutters did. They never hurt [Perry]. Like other people. Like people have all my life. Maybe it’s just the Clutters who had to pay for it’’ (Capote 290). It is also important to consider how the author himself seems to feel about the American Dream since it is a force that drives many of his novel’s events. He writes, of the Clutters, as their earthly possessions burn, “…how could it happen, Erhart wondered as he watched the bonfire catch. How was it possible that such effort, such plain virtue, could overnight be reduced to this—smoke, thinning as it rose and was received by the big annihilating sky’” (Capote 79)?

Capote is expressing that, even as accomplished as the Clutters were, no one is truly invincible, no matter how respected or successful they may be. Not only is this idea expressed with regards to the Clutters, but also with regards to Perry Smith and his family. Capote writes, “Strong character, high courage, hard work—it seemed that none of these were determining factors of Tex John’s children. They shared a doom against which virtue was no defense” (Capote 185). These quotes seem to directly subvert the idea that if you work hard, everything will turn out right in the end: The “American Dream”. Life simply isn’t that clear-cut.

However, this isn’t to say that pursuing the “American Dream” is a futile cause. Capote writes, “[Mr. Clutter] was, however, the community’s most widely known citizen, prominent both there and in Garden City, the close-by county seat, where he had headed the building committee for the newly completed First Methodist Church, an eight-hundred-thousand-dollar edifice. He was currently chairman of the Kansas Conference of Farm Organizations, and his name was everywhere respectfully recognized among Midwestern agriculturalists, as it was in certain Washington offices, where he had been a member of the Federal Farm Credit Board during the Eisenhower administration” (Capote 6). Based on this, a reader understands that not only was Mr. Clutter stable enough to provide a living for himself, but his outreach in church and government meant that he was able to help foster the same success in others. Truman Capote is making a statement that the pursuit of the “American Dream” is not fruitless and that it can bring success. Conversely, he also makes a point to clarify that succeeding in this endeavor does not necessarily make a person impervious to all hardship, either. The next work, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, is a very different work than Truman Capote’s.

Death of a Salesman is a play, telling the story of the Lowman family. Willy Lowman, the head of the house, is a salesman encountering rough economic times and difficult realizations about the business world. When his two sons return home after not finding themselves in a profession, Willy’s psyche reaches a deadly boiling point, driving him to suicide after he realizes how little he truly has. This work is explicitly about the “American Dream”, particularly the negative and gritty side. Willy Lowman is the definition of an optimist, always ready to make a deal with a smile on his face. “[Willy]: …because it’s not what you do, Ben. It’s who you know and the smile on your face” (Miller 86). He believes that if he can muster up enough charisma and elbow grease, the whole industry will be at his feet.

The “American Dream” hinges on this belief; A person can be anything in America so long as he or she has the determination to get there. However, as a reader continues, these hopeful concepts begin to crumble. “[Willy]: There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don’t grow anymore, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard […] Remember those two beautiful elm trees out there? When I and Biff hung the swing between them” (Miller 17)? Ultimately, Willy is unsatisfied with his lot in life, longs for the simpler past, and is working under the belief that it will all be alright if he can simply make it past the hard times. Part of the reason Willy continues to act under this delusion due to his brother, Ben, who has passed away. Ben was everything that Willy could’ve ever hoped to be: self-sufficient, rich, and successful.

After striking diamond in the Africa’s jungles, Ben flourished the way Willy never could’ve. Willy had the opportunity to go with Ben to Africa and is deeply regretful of the fact that he declined. “[Willy]: God! Why didn’t I go with my brother Ben that time! That man was a genius, that man was success incarnate! What a mistake! He begged me to go” (Miller 41). This makes Willy all the more of a tragic character. Readers know that he, at one point, had the chance to achieve his own “American Dream”, but passed up the opportunity. Now, Willy is left trying to compensate for what he could’ve had. Not only that, but the dynamic between Ben and Willy helps a reader understand how Willy himself defines “being successful”: it’s all monetary. Tangible wealth is the ultimate indicator of achievement and status to Willy.

The idea of physical assets being so important is also crucial to the American Dream, especially after the Great Depression. Money was seen as the only way to alleviate a person’s burdens, even if that wasn’t necessarily the case. To Willy, no money means no worth. This way of thinking is expressed in a masterful metaphor near the end of the play. “[Willy]: I've got to get some seeds. I've got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing's planted. I don't have a thing in the ground” (Miller 122). After Willy is fired, and Biff reveals that his one chance at success (in Willy’s eyes) has gone bad, he realizes just how little he has to show for his dozens of years of toil: money nor satisfaction. The American Dream has failed Willy, who realizes that even if you’ve got a great personality, there is nothing guaranteed in the business world. “[Charley]: Willy, when’re you gonna realize that them things don’t mean anything? You named him Howard, but you can’t sell that.

The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that” (Miller 97). It is also important to consider the dynamics of the rest of the Lowman Family. Biff Lowman, Willy’s son, is a character that relates to Willy in insightful ways relating to the “American Dream”. He, contrary to Willy, has no taste for the world of business. “[Biff]: And it’s a measly manner of existence. To get on that subway on hot mornings in summer. To devote your whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella. And still—that’s how you make a living” (Miller 22).

If the American Dream were centered around business, especially making money, then by all accounts, Biff should be considered a failure. And yet, Biff still finds true satisfaction in his life out in Texas. it seems that Biff has a more realistic worldview than his father does. Sure, Biff doesn’t have a steady supply of income, but at least he acknowledges this fact instead of clinging to the past. “[Biff]: I just can’t take hold, Mom. I can’t take hold of some kind of life” (Miller 54). Biff also sees through Willy’s delusions and helps bring him back to reality. “[Biff]: I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash like all the rest of them” (Miller 132). Biff has seen the futility of blind optimism in the American Dream. On the other hand, Happy, Biff’s brother, is more like Willy. Happy is also in business, and is, in Biff’s eyes, a success. “[Biff and Happy]: Are you content, Hap? You’re a success, aren’t you? Are you content? / (Happy): Hell no! / (Biff): Why? You’re making money, aren’t you” (Miller 23)? Happy strives for more concrete things in life, as oppose to Biff. Happy, at the end of the play, also vows to live out his father’s dream, so that Willy’s struggles are not forgotten as Biff suggests they will. “[Happy]: All right, boy. I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have—to come out number one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I’m gonna win it for him” (Miller 138-139).

Perhaps Biff fears that Happy will end up just like Willy: someone who will drive himself to the edge because he won’t be able to come to reality soon enough. Linda, Willy’s wife, is portrayed as loyal and loving towards him. She supports him as a way to live out her supposed “role” as a wife. However, she is aware of her husband’s downfalls and begs Biff and Happy to sympathize with him. “[Linda]: I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Lowman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So, attention must be paid. He’s not allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog” (Miller 56). Altogether, the Lowman Family is used to show the damage that the American Dream can cause, especially to people like Willy. Even though he is a fictitious character, Willy is used by Miller to represent the “common man”, as if his downward spiral can happen to anyone who puts too much faith into the “American Dream”. Arthur Miller is trying to express to his audience that the “American Dream” is not as clear-cut as it seems.

An American is not guaranteed success or satisfaction just because they work hard, which is a complete contradiction of the “American Dream”. He is trying to express that blind faith in the “American Dream” can lead to failure, and, in Willy’s case, a complete loss of hope. After examining both works in their entirety, it’s now important to cross-examine them, noticing what one can lend to another and vice versa. The characters in both In Cold Blood and Death of a Salesman are affected by the “American Dream” in different ways. For instance, Truman Capote shows a success story of the “American Dream” through the Clutters. Herb Clutter worked for everything he had with a square head on his shoulders. Arthur Miller, on the other hand, only shows a success story through Willy’s dead brother, Ben;

He never directly shows his main characters succeeding, even as they try to work towards it. However, one could say that both the Clutter Family and Ben give the rest of the characters something to relate to and to strive for. The Clutters gave the whole town of Holcomb a gold standard, while Ben gave Willy (in Willy’s mind) part of his conviction to be the best salesman. Both authors also show that the pursuit of the “American Dream” does not make a person invincible, as Capote shows the quadruple murder of the Clutter Family, and Miller, a tragic suicide. Conversely, the manner in which both characters fail relates to the “American Dream” differently. The Clutters died after achieving the “American Dream”, and they were relatively happy beforehand. Indeed, the role of the “American Dream” itself didn’t play a huge role in their murder until you bring Perry Smith and Dick Hickock into the picture.

In Death of a Salesman, however, the pursuit of the “American Dream” directly causes Willy his grief and, eventually, suicide. Taking both of these conclusions into consideration, a careful reader could conclude that both works lend themselves to the idea that the “American Dream” isn’t so black and white. Different things happen to different people based on different circumstances. All of those people can strive for the “American Dream”, but it is unrealistic to assume that everyone will succeed. Ultimately, not every American can achieve the “American Dream”, even if they all work for it with everything they’ve got. Now, does this mean that pursuing that “American Dream” is a pointless endeavor? In this area, I believe the authors might disagree. Truman Capote would argue that even though they were murdered, the Clutters lived a happy and productive life, all due to their hard work and rationality. Arthur Miller might argue against that and say that the “American Dream” is a façade, trapping overly-optimistic businessmen like Willy Lowman, and wearing them thin before throwing them out.

However, there is a key difference between the characters of Willy Lowman, who failed, and Herb Clutter, who succeeded. Willy Lowman was overly-optimistic and placed too much faith in the “American Dream”, while Herb Clutter approached the matter with a clear and objective rationale. What does this ultimately mean? It means that, yes, everyone can attempt the “American Dream”, but only those who do so wisely and most rationally have the best chance of success. And, especially in such a virulent market as selling, having a square head on your shoulders can mean the difference between success and failure. In essence, both authors have done a difficult thing by encompassing both the nuances and the direct truths about the “American Dream”. All of these ideas discussed are not merely arbitrary, however.

Many of these hard truths about the “American Dream” were realized all over the country, by people from all walks of life. Simply reading about them and thinking about what they mean is one thing, but when a reader considers the real-life implications that these works represent, it can be chilling. It can be hard to think about all of the failures that people have endured, as Willy has. It can be equally as hard to imagine someone working as hard as Herb and the rest of the Clutters did, only to end up dead in their own home. However, when one also thinks about the accomplishments of millions of Americans who worked day in and day out, bettering themselves and their country, it’s hard to believe that the “American Dream” is dead in any fashion. It is not fool-proof, nor is it completely concrete, and things don’t always go as planned. And yet, America was and still is built on the perseverance of its people, who, knowing the odds, undertook challenges anyway. America has thrived on this spirit. Overall, when a person has got a hard-working spirit, rationality, and perhaps a little luck on their side, they’ve got great chances to improve themselves, and the people around them, even when nothing is guaranteed to anyone.

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The Nuances and Hard Truths of the American Dream. (2021, Nov 29). Retrieved November 30, 2023 , from

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