American Dreaming

This Norman Rockwell magazine cover, showing Thanksgiving on Walton’s Mountain, is a perfect illustration of The American dream.  The power of Rockwell’s vision of an American earthly paradise is so compelling that we long to believe it even though we know life was never like that and certainly isn’t now.  I started thinking about the power of the dream after reading an excellent article in Time Magazine:  “The American Dream:  A Biography” by Jon Meacham, in the July 2, 2012 issue).  Meacham’s conclusion supports what all of us know but wish we didn’t – the dream is in danger like never before.

The phrase, “American Dream,” first appeared in James Truslow Adams’s The Epic of America , an optimistic history published in 1931, as we neared the depths of the great depression.  Adams wrote of:  “that American Dream of a better, richer, and happier life of all our citizens of every rank which is the greatest contribution we have as yet made to the thought and welfare of the world.”

Even in 1931, there seemed to be cause for optimism:  the day Adams finished his manuscript, President Herbert Hoover turned on the lights of the Empire State Building.  Technical marvels coincided with the Time article as well, but they didn’t belong to us.  On Sunday, three Chinese astronauts manually docked a spacecraft to their orbiting space station, a key milestone in their quest to reach the moon.  On the same day, a Chinese deep sea craft set a national diving record, reaching a depth of 7000 meters in the Mariana Trench.

It took two centuries and a civil war before the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was officially extended to everyone, and yet for a time, America offered a better chance to reinvent oneself, to start again, to rise above the limitations of birth than any other place in the world.  Abraham Lincoln called himself “a living witness” that any child could grow up to be president.  Somewhere along the line, things changed.

One interesting point that Meacham makes is that “there is a missing character in [the] popular version of the story of America’s rugged individualism:  the government, which helped make the rise of the individual possible.”  The Pacific Railroad and Homestead acts, signed by Lincoln, had much to do with knitting the country together and making allowing dreamers to “go west” or “light out for the Territory” like Huckleberry Finn as well as his creator.  It was government, under a southern president, that enforced the Civil Rights Act, and during the 60’s, launched the drive that put men on the moon and started us on the road to a micro-electronics revolution.

In the end, dreams do not depend on facts and figures, but more on a sense of hope and possibilities.  What was different in 1931 that allowed James Truslow Adams to write The Epic of America?  In it, he said, “If the American dream is to come true and abide with us, it will, at bottom, depend on the people themselves.”

If it did then, it does now.  What happened over the last eighty years?  There aren’t any easy answers, but there are many things we can and should be thinking about.

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6 Responses to American Dreaming

  1. Rosi says:

    Interesting post as usual, Morgan. I agree with the Meacham’s contention that government helps to make the American Dream possible, but the caution is that too much government can easily kill the individual drive that that allows it to thrive. It’s a delicate balance.

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    • Successful government intervention seems to demand the right action at the right time. Several years ago I read an article talking about policy oscillation between more and less financial regulation since the 60’s. At times it was very beneficial, e.g., in the 80’s, clearing the way for venture capital to flow into tech startups. At other times, like during real estate bubble of the last decade, deregulation was disastrous. It certainly is a tightrope across an ever changing landscape.

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  2. Excellent post, Morgan and much food for thought (Rockwell brought that phrase to mind!). I think about this a lot – between my escapes into history and wondering if it’s time to move to Canada. And yet…I see recently arrived Mexicans in my parish still believing in the dream, wanting to be Americans. I would like to believe that we deserves their faith. Maybe immigrants can remind us of what is of value here and what is not.

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  3. Adam says:

    “If the American dream is to come true and abide with us, it will, at bottom, depend on the people themselves.”

    What happened? I would argue that at some point the dream of a better life shifted from being a hope that all Americans had to an expectation. The idea of a “better, richer, happier life” is desired so strongly that most people live outside of their means to try and achieve it. The end result is mounting debt and further unrealistic expectations placed upon the next generation.

    The dream still exists, but not in the way Adams described it. (Perhaps with the exception of immigrants as Lois mentioned in her reply.)

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    • In the Time article, Meacham noted that 90% of Americans call themselves “middle class.” This, he says, is a matter of aspiration rather than facts and figures. The costs of housing, medical care, and education, three key pillars of that aspiration, are rising much more rapidly than income. Inflation adjusted median income has been falling since 2000.

      Part of the dream has long been upward mobility, or the hope that if people work hard, they can have a good life and their children can have a better one. By a lot of objective measures, that hope is eroding. A personal example: in 1984 I needed to change careers. With a two year technical degree from a state community college where I paid $15 a unit, I got very good entry level position. Gone are the days!

      You’re right that certain hopes have become expectations or a sense of entitlement, and that leads to foolish choices, but I also know responsible people who have played by the rules and gotten screwed.

      Hopes and dreams, intangible things that motivate some people to meet defeats with renewed effort, seems a lot like morale in sports – it can make all the difference.

      The difference between “give it one more shot” and “what’s the use?” is huge on the personal as well as collective level, and I think the gist of the article is that a lot of the messages we are getting now are less than conducive to hope for a better future.

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  4. JT says:

    I agree with Adam’s sentiments above, along with the need for visionary leadership which it seems has all but disappeared from American Politics. I think what Adam said about “hope that all Americans had *changing* to an expectation” unfortunately is profoundly true. Balance on a personal as well as a national level appears to be elusive. Great Post Morgan!

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