For citizens of other nations, the creation and embracing of a national identity is fairly simple. Frenchmen speak French, appreciate fine wine and have a penchant for quoting “vive la France.” For those of German decent, a near-worship of autobahns and machines as well as beer, pretzels and bratwurst are traits that make one identify with being a German. For both these cultures, speaking the official language, French or German respectively, further add to one’s sense of identity and patriotism to one’s country. However in America, a melting pot of cultures, pinpointing precisely the characteristics that create the American identity can be more difficult and challenging a task. Indeed, the feeling of being an American varies from person to person-from the ancestors of the Founding Fathers to immigrants to refugees. Whether one is born in America and speaks fluent English or is an immigrant escaping religious persecution who never properly learns the language, both will feel American at a certain point in their lives begging the question of what exactly creates the American identity.
Hector St. Jean de Crevecoueur, in his essay “What is an American” attempts to answer this question. He proposes that the binding thread that pulls all Americans, despite race, background, or religion together is the pursuit of the American Dream. Crevecoueur proposes that all peoples bring into America their own ideals, language, culture and nationality but all share the same expectation-it is this same hope and goal that blur the lines of race and language, history and culture to create something that all Americans can identify with. Crevecoueur offers the idea that whether born on American soil or immigrants from far away countries; people hold an idealized perception of America-of what she is and what she has to offer. This idealized hope (i.e. the American Dream) is internalized, driving the individual to pursue their hope and in turn, creating a place where ideas such as happiness, liberty and justice thrive. Subsequently those who come after view this fantastic utopia or equal opportunity, internalize their own American Dream, and pass it on to another generation. According to Crevecoueur, it is the embodying and cultivating of the hope and idea of the American Dream that forms the basis for the American identity.
Americans come from many backgrounds and cultures. Many have escaped religious persecution or seek political asylum. Many have immigrated from afar with the hope of having better opportunities and the chance to turn one’s dreams into a reality. Still others have a long history of American ancestors who have fought and perhaps died for the freedom and justices enjoyed in this nation and so feel obligated to love what has been fought for in the past. There exists a language barrier for many immigrants which sometimes is never truly overcome. And when one comes to America, despite efforts to cling to one’s personal history and embrace one’s culture, that individual identity is always left behind, replaced by the American Identity which seemingly encompasses everything. The shared hope and dream is the unifying thread of all Americans, the expectation of better days and the optimism that outlines each person’s actions and goals. What makes someone American and creates for them an American identity is the shared hope of the American Dream, the desire to pass on the dream to future generations, and the stubbornness to let go of the dream even when it is unattainable.
Believing in the dream and the promises it offers is the first part of forming the American identity. Whether born on American soil with a long line of ancestors dating to colonial America or a newly immigrated patriarch seeking peace from political repression, to be American one must believe that there is a hope of a better future and a way to fulfill their own American Dream. People immigrate to America in hopes of better opportunities and a brighter future. Those born here are ingrained with the idea that they can have opportunities that were denied to their parents, that with hard work, anything is possible and no class system, economic disadvantage or religious repression will hold them back. Unlike other countries, in America anything is possible-and believing in this basic fact is a foundation of the American identity.
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The desire to believe in the dream so much that one wants to pass on the spirit of hope to others and perhaps their children is also a characteristic of the American identity. Not content with the promise of the dream for themselves, the need to share it with others and have others partake in the wealth of opportunity is part of the collective identity, enabling others to solidify the existence of the American Dream for themselves by encouraging and making certain that others are equally vested in the same expectation. Knowing that the American Dream is shared by other fellow Americans further sets in stone one’s own belief in the possibility of its promise and reinforces the American identity.
Lastly, the stubbornness to admit defeat and let go of the American Dream is a part of the endlessly hopeful American identity. Even if one cannot make the American Dream a reality for themselves, there is a tendency to believe that it is not a flaw in the dream but one’s own misfortune or simply an unlucky streak. Not blaming the American Dream but rather blaming oneself for failing to reach one’s aspirations is a common thread that ties the American identity together. In the wake of such disappointment, many Americans will continue to encourage their friends and children to continue in their pursuance of the American Dream even though they themselves could never reach the promised blessings. Just as Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” so poignantly portrays, the American Dream is something that is inherent in the American identity and letting go is just as hard as losing yourself.
The American identity is nothing more than a stubborn hope in the revered American Dream-a dream of so bright a future, it blinds those who want it the most. It is this shared belief in “streets paved with gold” and “the land of opportunity” that creates the basis of the American identity-it is this common dream that acts as the peoples connection to one another and it is what helps Americans to understand one another. Americans might not share a cultural background or spoken language, but the sharing of an idea, the American Dream, creates just as strong of a national identity as any other factor and indeed, is what makes all immigrants who come to America, truly American.
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