For a long while, the story we told ourselves as Americans was a simple one: This was a country of unlimited promise and potential. The keys to success weren’t wealth, power, or connections, but ability, ambition, and drive. A job, a family, a home with a yard to mow and gutters to clean: All these things were attainable to anyone, from anywhere, in exchange for a modicum of sweat and a quantity of tears. Life was a ladder, there to be climbed.
In the last few decades, a darker story has taken root. In this version, the American dream is really more of a contract, one larded with fine print and onerous clauses. The life you’re working toward, the one so much “better and richer and fuller” than what you’ve experienced, is always just out of reach — hiding, perhaps, behind that next promotion, that next child, that next wife. From the writings of John Cheever and Richard Wright to the travails of Don Draper and D’Angelo Barksdale, these stories suggest an America built on a bill of goods, not a bill of rights. It’s a cruel trick, realized too late: Someone has tipped the ladder sideways, the rungs casting shadows tall as prison bars.”