Death of a Salesman is considered by many to be the quintessential modern literary work on the American dream, a term created by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book, The Epic of America. This is somewhat ironic, given that it is such a dark and frustrated play. The idea of the American dream is as old as America itself: the country has often been seen as an empty frontier to be explored and conquered. Unlike the Old World, the New World had no social hierarchies, so a man could be whatever he wanted, rather than merely having the option of doing what his father did.
The American Dream is closely tied up with the literary works of another author, Horatio Alger. This author grew famous through his allegorical tales which were always based on the rags-to-riches model. He illustrated how through hard work and determination, penniless boys could make a lot of money and gain respect in America. The most famous of his books is the Ragged Dick series (1867). Many historical figures in America were considered Alger figures and compared to his model, notably including Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.
But the Horatio Alger model of the American dream is not what's represented in Death of a Salesman. Rather than being a direct representation of the concept, or even a direct critique of it, Salesman challenges the effects of the American dream. This myth exists in our society - how does the prevalence of this myth change the way in which we live our lives?
Miller had an uncertain relationship with the idea of the American dream. On one hand, Bernard's success is a demonstration of the idea in its purist and most optimistic form. Through his own hard work and academic success, Bernard has become a well-respected lawyer. It is ironic, however, that the character most obviously connected to the American dream, who boasts that he entered the jungle at age seventeen and came out at twenty-one a rich man, actually created this success in Africa, rather than America. There is the possibility that Ben created his own success through brute force rather than ingenuity. The other doubt cast on the American dream in Death of a Salesman is that the Loman men, despite their charm and good intentions, have not managed to succeed at all. Miller demonstrates that the American dream leaves those who need a bit more community support, who cannot advocate for themselves as strongly, in the dust.