Success and the American Dream during the 1950s

by Wendy Thowdis

Essential Question

  • How did conformity apply as a value to the living and working choices of Americans during the 1950s?
  • How did the notion of success during the 1950’s relate to the “American Dream”?



Conduct a class discussion with students about times in their lives they have conformed to others’ standards. Set the lesson in historical context by describing the post-war boom in domestic spending to rebuild America as we struggled with the fallout from the Cold War era at home. Define the term “American Dream” and relate it to the changes occurring throughout the decade of the 1950s.

Have students identify the historical context of the excerpts from Death of a Salesman by making a chart of what was taking place socially, economically and politically at the time of its publication.

Questions for the three documents:

  • How was success defined during the 1950s?
  • How is Willy Loman a victim of corporate America?
  • How has the concept of “the American Dream” changed over time? Why do you think it has changed?
  • What does Harold Clurman mean when he says that salesmen have to “sell their personality”?

Have students answer the following questions independently, and discuss as a class:

  • Lorraine Hansberry identifies three values people in the 1950s lost sight of: industriousness, usefulness, and humanism. Have we still lost sight of these three values today? Cite at least three pieces of evidence or examples to support your position.   
  • What does Herbert Block mean by “Split-level Living?” What does this tell you about American society during the 1950s?

Show the film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), which is the story of a man who is working his way up the corporate ladder and who has to deal with progress, greed, and the status quo. Compare the stories of Willy Loman and Tom Rath to paint a picture of how many defined success during the 1950s. Develop a visual representation of a working man trying to achieve success during this era. Make sure you include visual references to the struggles of progress, greed, and the desire for conformity.

Have students write a journal entry where they identify a message, lesson, or reflection from any of these documents that is applicable to their lives or circumstances.

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