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.