Subject Material

Self-Made Man - USA

Published: 04.06.2010, Updated: 03.03.2017
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Pre Reading: What is the American Dream? Make a list of as many words as possible which you associate with the American Dream. Compare your list with a partner’s.

Bail OutBail Out
Opphavsmann: B MOR Creeeative, Flickr

Self-Made Man – USAUnited States history is unique compared to European history in that the United States is a country developed by immigrants. This difference influenced the American mentality and dream because immigrants came to the new world to escape poverty and religious and political oppression, in hopes of a better life.

Whereas Europe was dominated by monarchs and feudal lords who limited the opportunity for social mobility and basic rights, the new world could guarantee those very rights and possibilities. The inscription by Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty expresses America’s promise and the immigrants’ dream: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Geography played a key role in understanding the development of the American Dream. With so much free or cheap land available, individuals were provided opportunities that did not exist in Europe. The idea was that free or cheap land gives opportunity and a possibility to make something out of one’s life rather than remain poor. Thus, there was the possibility for self-improvement which led to the idea of the self-made man.

Therefore economic opportunity and the chance for success were the prime reasons for many people to immigrate to the United States. Along with this came the other values such as freedom, independence, success, equality and individuality which together make up the American value structure. Freedom was not only freedom from religious and political oppression, but freedom from poverty. Independence came from the opportunity to make something of yourself. Given the opportunity, individuals were expected to succeed and were often judged by their level of success. Equality was one of opportunity, not condition. The idea was that since everyone had the same opportunity, it was up to each individual to see what he/she could make it. If some did better than others, success was their reward. If others failed, then it was seen to be their fault since they had had the opportunity to succeed.

Self-Made Man/Can Do Spirit

Opphavsmann: Nrbelex
Many of the original ideas behind the American dream still exist today including the idea of the self-made man. Because Americans believe in equality of opportunity, the individual should secure his own future. This idea is reflected in a less developed social welfare system than what we are used to in Norway. The recent battle over health care reform is a good example. A majority of Americans were against the reform because they did not want the government to interfere in their lives in spite of the fact that 47 million Americans did not have health care insurance.

The emphasis on the self-made man has a positive influence. Americans are very ambitious and have an optimistic “can-do” attitude which reflects the emphasis of making it on one’s own. The idea is that anything is possible if you just put your mind to it. This has resulted in a dynamic, creative society which is perhaps more exciting than a society where everything is provided for you. Americans encourage others to be inventive and “go for it.” The Nike slogan “Just do it” sums up much of American thinking.

The emphasis on being successful is American. Immigrants came to the United States to make something out of their lives. Economic success was one concrete way of showing that they had made the right choice in coming to the United States. Thus, materialism became part of the American way of life which is reflected in big gas-guzzling SUVs, nice homes and generally having the latest things.

The American Dream

A reality check

Opphavsmann: joelogon, Flickr
The question is whether the dream is still alive. As a result of the recent economic crisis eight million jobs have been lost. In addition, when people lose their job they often lose their health insurance and even their homes. A current figure shows that 2.2 million houses are being foreclosed on. Real wages, which are adjusted for inflation, have actually dropped over the last 30 years and the chances for social mobility, a basic part of the American dream, are limited. In addition, education has traditionally been seen as the source of self-improvement and thus equality. However, there is a huge gap in the quality of education in poor areas compared to richer suburbs. So while the dream may exist, the reality suggests something different.



  1. Why was the new world preferred over Europe?
  2. Why did geography play a key role in the American Dream?
  3. What five things were mentioned as making up the American value structure?
  4. Try to explain the two terms: “self-made man” and “can do it”. Can you think of examples?
  5. Why do some people believe that the American dream is fading? Do you believe the dream will eventually die out, and why or why not?

Research 1

The Statue of Liberty

  1. The inscription on Statue of Liberty by Emma Lazarus is written in the poetic form of a sonnet. Write down the definition of a sonnet.
  2. Find the full inscription on the Statue of Liberty by Emma Lazarus (The New Colossus). How is this reflective of a sonnet?
  3. Starting with “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….. fill in the remaining words of the inscription. Give an interpretation of these last lines. How do they relate to the American Dream?
  4. Find a picture of the Statue of Liberty. What is she holding in her right hand and her left? What is she wearing on her head? The object on her head has how many spikes? Is there anything special about the position of her feet? What lies at her feet? Discuss what do you believe each of these objects you have discovered represents? Research the answers on the Internet by going to Statue of Liberty Statue of Liberty

Research 2

Learn more about Emma Lazarus and her poem by listening to All Things Considered
(Emma Lazarus, Poet of the Huddled Masses).