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20 Best Books About The American Dream

by Staff Writers

Despite the fact that American society and culture have experienced radical, dramatic changes over the centuries, the whole concept of a unique "dream" associated with it typically remains constant. Perpetuating good and ill alike depending on the individual, it often involves idealistic portrayals of opportunity, family, freedom, and economic prosperity, particularly home ownership. Whether or not these factors work for everyone is another story entirely. Recent graduates now faced with forging a life of their own will inevitably encounter many, if not all, of its tenets at some point, regardless of whether they ultimately end up fulfilled. As most of these books illustrate, The American Dream may not always prove to be the apple pie ideal everyone thinks it is. Maybe, just maybe, it’s best to follow one’s own bliss instead, provided nobody ends up hurt in the process.

  1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey into the Heart of The American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson

    Both one of the quintessential nonfiction novels and a sterling example of gonzo journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas sees author Hunter S. Thompson and his irascible lawyer bro embarking on the country’s weirdest road trip. One of their main goals involves attempting to seek out The American Dream while crammed with enough drugs and booze to turn a bull elephant inside-out. Instead of covering their assignments, the decidedly dastardly duo end up terrorizing Vegas searching for answers to vague, subjective conceptual questions instead.

  2. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming The American Dream by Barack Obama

    Written and printed before his successful 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Barack Obama blended memoir and reflections on his beliefs regarding America’s main values. He announced his candidacy with the Democratic Party three months after publication, and many fans and critics considered the book a detailed outline of what to expect from his platform. Regardless of whether you agree with what he has to say, the book still provides a glimpse into how some contemporary politicians interpret the concept of The American Dream.

  3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Jay Gatsby, on the surface, seems the physical embodiment of everything The American Dream supposedly entails: a bootstraps-pulling innovator with enough coin to throw lavish parties and probably to fill his pool with coins, Scrooge McDuck-style, if it weren’t destined as a grisly, watery murder scene. Considering F. Scott Fitzgerald meant for his now-classic to thoroughly skewer Jazz Age frivolities and fakeries, the glitz and glamour that citizens of the U.S.of A. are supposed to constantly chase ultimately signify nothing when its all lost in the end. Save for personal and intellectual emptiness and futility, anyways.

  4. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

    Published prior to the Civil Rights Movement, Invisible Man brutally deconstructed The American Dream as exclusive only to white men, and mostly rich ones at that. Ralph Ellison noted how so many supposedly ideal situations came about because of exploiting African-Americans and other marginalized demographics. The nameless protagonist rails against this unjust machine by turning their dehumanizing, underhanded methods right back on the oppressors.

  5. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

    Hollywood allegedly embodies everything Americans are supposed to want in life: exorbitant wealth and excess, slavish attention and fame, and conventional physical appeal. All of these things end up nurturing entitlement issues and narcissism, as horrifically depicted in this oft-overlooked novel by a former screenwriter. Like so many novels analyzing the concept of The American Dream, The Day of the Locust views the more lofty, self-centered components with utter contempt rather than fanciful wonder.

  6. How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis

    Published during the late nineteenth century, this heavy photojournalism work chronicled the grim lives led by immigrants in New York tenement housing. So many struggled their way to the States in order to pursue a more prosperous existence for themselves and loved ones alike. Values dissonance means contemporary audiences might pick out some unfortunate racial and ethnic stereotypes and commentary, but it remains an essential read for understanding some classist downsides to eking out The American Dream.

  7. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

    Willie Loman remains one of the most memorable central characters in American drama, owing largely to his sadsack reflection of how societal expectations can crush a man and his family. Financial and professional success mean so much to him that he cheats on his wife and marginalizes his sons, even though he wishes them to someday emulate him. All that despite the fact that Loman actually fails to accomplish much of anything both professionally and personally.

  8. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

    Two generations of Chinese-American women share their stories of family, loss, love, life, and plenty of other themes in one of the most notable examples of immigrant literature. Despite differing motivations for crossing the Pacific, the mothers still perpetuate the theme of starting over in America and hoping to take advantage of the available opportunities. As one can probably assume, the transition proves smoother for some than others, illustrating a number of possible outcomes.

  9. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

    Like so many novels concerning themselves with making sense of The American Dream, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt satirizes the many flaws present in the system. Specifically, the empty materialism and crushing pressures to conform, which both receive plenty of much-deserved acidic analysis here. Although the author illustrates how more traditional approaches do, in fact, work for so many, he decries moments when they impress what works for them onto their unwilling and often unlistening peers and offspring.

  10. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

    The rise and fall of a popular mambo band, comprised largely of Cuban immigrants, serves as an apt narrative of how some successful individuals sabotage their own opportunities at happiness. Brothers Cesar and Nestor Castillo go from playing on I Love Lucy to obscure casualties of a fickle musical fad, though the former’s extravagant habits certainly play their role. Anyone hoping to achieve their own unique goals in America or elsewhere might find some valuable lessons in staying humble and moderate after garnering fame.

  11. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

    When frustrations stemming from expectations of societal conformity and possession worship mount, a formerly quiet little American worker drone snaps. And in his increasingly violent rebellion against all things homogenous, he ends up organizing a terrorist organization as relentlessly (if not more so!) rigid than the system against which they fight. Destroying something beautiful isn’t exactly the most productive way to deal with the Dream’s downsides, by the way.

  12. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

    Investigative journalist Barbara Ehrenreich spent 18 months working one or more minimum-wage jobs, attempting to reveal the very real fiscal struggles behind policies ostensibly meant to keep them afloat. So often, their economic situations have less to do with laziness and an inability to "Grab those bootstraps, boys" and stem almost entirely from a flawed system. Published in 2001, it proves that even now, class disparities exist and The American Dream is still out of reach for so many who desire — and deserve! — a slice of it.

  13. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

    Not every read exploring The American Dream necessarily takes a negative stance or worms its way through its darkest underbelly. Some, like Tom Wolfe’s landmark work of New Journalism, prefer asking questions about what it takes to be considered a hero here in the States. The Right Stuff tells the very complex, even more human story of the astronauts chosen to participate in Project Mercury and the political climate that prompted it.

  14. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

    Published in 1961, Richard Yates meant for his novel to be read as "an indictment of American life in the 1950s," particularly the push for stark raving homogeny, usually with classist, racist, homophobic, and sexist components. Taking place in a seemingly idyllic suburb, a condescending, stuffy couple begins sabotaging their own lives through deception and adherence to a rigid conformist agenda. They dream of hauling off to Paris and escaping the damages they constantly inflict, but grisly, bloody mistakes render it nothing more than a passing fancy.

  15. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

    At the center of this essential family drama sits a $10,000 insurance check, which causes some degree of discord among the wife and children the deceased Mr. Younger left behind. Prior to his death, the patriarch and matriarch adhered to the facet of The American Dream promoting home ownership as the ultimate goal: a near impossibility for most African-Americans prior to the Civil Rights Movement. Despite some major setbacks, the survivors do manage to secure a new home, though their future remains rather uncertain.

  16. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

    Both an immigrant story and a very frank, insightful depiction of intersexuality, the Pulitzer-winning Middlesex takes a somewhat different approach to familiar immigrant narratives. Calliope’s (later Cal) oft-misunderstood medical condition can be traced back to her (later his) incestuous grandparents, who eventually eke out a comfortable middle-class existence while harboring their world-shattering secret. Here, their American Dream eventually veers on an unexpected course when the narrator receives a 5-alpha-reductase diagnosis.

  17. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

    Even a British writer can still provide incredible, provocative, and necessary commentary on The American Dream, as evidenced by one of the greatest graphic novels of the 20th century. Powerless superheroes and an alternate Cold War history shed light on the volatile emotions behind giving into political and social expectations so much that the citizenry snaps. "Heroes" of often questionable heroism — some of them lamenting the loss of a "simpler" time — simultaneously keep the peace and foster a more chaotic nation devoid of hope and drive.

  18. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

    Once the Great Depression hit, it challenged Americans to rethink their values and whether or not the goals and opportunities they were to ostensibly chase are worth it in the end. John Steinbeck’s English class staple follows a foreclosed family along Route 66 as they seek out employment and permanent shelter. Sometimes, the whole "American Dream" thing has to take a back seat to survival and keeping one’s family as safe from every stimuli meant to dissolve it as possible.

  19. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

    A creative pair of cousins harness their creativity creating popular comic books reflecting their respective inner and outer turmoil. One, a homosexual at a time when the community faced unfair arrest for no crime or sin, forces himself into the mold expected and ends up worsening the lives of his wife and son. The other ends up torn between his native Prague and America, wishing to provide them with everything The American Dream promises; love might not conquer all, but it certainly acts as a nice enough supplement.

  20. Pretty much everything Horatio Alger ever wrote

    Horatio Alger’s entire oeuvre pretty much embodies every single trope associated with The American Dream. But sometimes he’s exactly what a reader wants. Obviously, those turning an eye toward the serious problems and inequities present in the concept are absolutely necessary if positive change is to take place. There’s room for the ones painting it in a more lighthearted, optimistic manner as well.