Depression and the American Dream in Art

Topics: Dorothea Lange

The Great Depression was a period that many American citizens struggled through. During their hardships, the people dreamed of a better life, which became known as the American Dream. The American Dream was thought to be achieved through hard work and determination, however, the reality of the American Dream was that it never happened. The American Dream was depicted in texts from the Great Depression era. This is shown in Dorothea Lange’s photograph, Billboard on U.S. Highway 99 in California, Leonard Harris’s poem, “Composite Picture”, and John Steinbeck’s novel, Of Mice and Men.

These three texts from during the Great Depression show how impossible the American Dream was for the average citizen, and each gives an insight look to the dream.

Images from the Great Depression the American Dream through their subject matter. In Dorothea Lange’s Billboard on U.S. Highway 99 in California photo, shown is a billboard with what looks like the average American family on it.

The family is in a car, with a mom, a dad, two kids, and a dog. The billboard says, “World’s highest standard of living, there’s no way like the American way”. This picture is ironic, because behind the billboard are run-down buildings, and dry farmland. This photograph depicts the impossibility of the American Dream because it shows a supposedly normal lifestyle, and then behind the dream is the reality of the situation the people are in. The happy billboard shows the dream, with the dead, dreary life behind it.

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The American Dream is impossible in this way because the dream is something that is so far out of reach. Other than pictures of dreams followed by reality, people also expressed the American Dream through poetry.

Poetry has always been a way to express emotion. During the Great Depression, a teenager named Leonard Harris wrote a poem about the Great Depression for his high school magazine. This poem, titled “Composite Picture”, uses imagery to describe America as it once was. The poem says, “You want me to show / green hills and unstained land / you want me to see a nation grow, / and see its star go up and up?” (Harris). The imagery also is formed by asking a rhetorical question, where the author is saying stating that he cannot see America like this because of its current state. The author states this in a sarcastic tone to explain the impossibility of America being perfect like how it once was. The impossibility of the American Dream is shown through this because the people dream for the land to be green again, but the climate makes that dream impossible. The American Dream was shown through literature in numerous ways during this period, including in books.

A wide known book titled Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, was written about the Great Depression, which is also the period Steinbeck lived in. In the novel, the two main characters George and Lennie have their own Acan Dream of getting their p so they would not have to work for anybody. The text says, “Lennie watched him with wide eyes, and old Candy watched him too. Lennie said softly, ‘We could live offa the fatta the lan” landtinbeck 57). Lennie says this because George is telling the story of their d. The impossibility of the American Dream is shown in this quote because Lennie says “we could” softly, as f the very idea is distant. The phrase “we could” show how the desire for the action of living off the land. The American Dream was proved yet again in literature to be impossible.

The American Dream was desired by nearly the entire population of the United States, all across the country. Through literature, the dream was shown as an impossible idea. The certaCertains different for each person, but the dream was always unachievable. For some, it was to gain a better home and not be under the control of others. For others, the dream was to have a beautiful country, and not a dry, desert-looking one. Through photographs, viewers were able to see the contrast between the dream and the reality of the country. The impossibility of the American Dream was depicted through all three of these texts from the Great Depression era.

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Depression and the American Dream in Art. (2022, Aug 16). Retrieved from

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