Short Stories About the American Dream

These selections feature characters or families that are trying to better their lives, for themselves and their children. They often pursue the American Dream of home ownership and upward mobility through work and education. Some stories illustrate the same attitudes and behaviors, but take place before the term “American Dream” was used. Some characters are seeking a life of wealth and glamour. See also:

“The Egg” by Sherwood Anderson

A thirty-five year old farmhand gets married, has a child, and decides he should rise in the world. The family raises chickens and opens a restaurant to meet their goals.

This story can be read in the preview of Great Short Short Stories.

“Shiloh” by Bobbie Ann Mason

Leroy has been off work for four months since getting hurt. His wife, Norma Jean, supports them both by working at a drugstore. Leroy is glad to be home with his wife, but he’s worried that she’s drawing away from him—maybe his presence reminds her of their son who died as a baby.

This story can be read in the preview of Shiloh & Other Stories.

“Borough of Cemeteries” by Irwin Shaw

A group of cab drivers gather at Lammanawitz’s Bar and Grill for a drink before going home. Elias tries to get a beer on credit or get one from his friends. He complains about how long he works and how little he makes. The men talk about how good things were in 1928 during the boom time.

Read “Borough of Cemeteries” (second story in preview)

“The Legend of the Rubbish Heap” by Lillian Jackson Braun

Moose County was booming in the mid-nineteenth century. Otto and Carl, fifteen-year-olds, arrived from Germany. They stuck together and worked, learned and tried to rise in the world. In their thirties, they had become very successful.

This story can be read in the preview of Short and Tall Tales: Moose County Legends(43% in)

“An End to Dreams” by Stephen Vincent Benet

James Rimington is under anesthetic for an operation. He dreams of his personal and professional history, including all the stepping stones in his path to success.

“America and I” by Anzia Yezierska

Despite wanting to live a life of creativity and self-expression, an immigrant encounters disappointments and injustice in America.

“The First Seven Years” by Bernard Malamud

Feld is a shoemaker who wants his daughter, Miriam, to marry Max, a young man pursuing his education. After Feld tries to set them up, his assistant, Sobel, quits.

Read here

“Sophistication” by Sherwood Anderson

The Winesburg County Fair is on, bringing many people into town. George doesn’t feel a connection to his fellow townspeople but he is interested in Helen, who wants to escape small-town life, as he does.

Read “Sophistication”

“The Patented Gate and the Mean Hamburger” by Robert Warren Penn

The Yorks own their own house and like to go into town on the weekends. On one visit, Mrs. York asks about the cost of buying her favorite hamburger place.

“Falling Off the Empire State Building” by Harry Mazer

Lenny’s father doesn’t seem to be proud of him and they have trouble bonding over stickball, a game Lenny likes to play. When he grows up, Lenny is going to leave his father behind and live the American Dream.

“Two Kinds” by Amy Tan

The mother of a young Chinese American girl believes that people in America can be anything they want. This mother has high hopes for her daughter. One night while watching the Ed Sullivan Show, she figures out what her daughter should do.

Read here

“In the American Society” by Gish Jen

Callie Chang’s parents are Chinese immigrants who started a successful pancake restaurant. Her family is adapting to American business standards and society.

“King of the Bingo Game” by Ralph Ellison

A black man sits through a movie, waiting for the bingo game to follow. He falls asleep and dreams about an incident from his past when he was almost killed and the white people laughed at it. The man could really use the jackpot for his family.

“Snapshot, Harvey Cedars: 1948” by Paul Lisicky

A man and woman—young and attractive—are on a vacation at the beach. He is thinking about work and making a name for himself.

“Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Dexter Green is a fourteen-year-old caddy, working for pocket money. He quits one day when Judy Jones, a beautiful eleven-year-old, treats him as an inferior. Years later he goes into business and becomes a success. He has another meeting with Judy Jones.

Read here

“The Son from America” by Isaac Bashevis Singer

A Jewish man who went to America when he was fifteen returns to his home village in Poland forty years later. He has become a millionaire and plans on helping his parents and the village.

Read “The Son from America”

“Dearly Beloved” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Beauty Boy and Lilymary get married. They work to better themselves. They have a child and things get tough.

Read “Dearly Beloved”

“Ace in the Hole” by John Updike

Fred “Ace” Anderson is a married twenty-six-year old. He’s just lost his job. He was a basketball star in high school, but is struggling with post-school life. His wife, Evey, is concerned with practical things, including succeeding in business and rising in the world.