Chasing the American Dream

The American Dream continues to resonate in the American consciousness. But it is elusive.
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"I've spent my whole life chasing the American dream." --John Boehner (R., Ohio), presumptive Speaker of the House, election night, Nov. 2.

What is the American Dream? A home entertainment center, a hot tub, a week-end cottage on the beach? Or as a Republican campaign slogan once put it, updating a remark attributed to Henry IV of France: "A chicken in every pot, a car in every garage"? But that was back in 1928, just before the Great Depression. Most Americans - at least until the Great Recession of 2008 - would have felt shortchanged by the promises of 80 years before. "Surf 'n turf and two cars in the garage" would be closer to the modern mark. Our desires have inflated over the years, along with the dollar.

Or is the American Dream something more profound? The phrase "The American Dream" was popularized in 1931 in The Epic of America, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by James Truslow Adams. The author highlighted the phrase in the book's preface and epilogue, and many reviewers quoted it, thus propelling it into popular parlance.

Adams employed the phrase in a broad, Jeffersonian sense, characterizing it as "that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all of our citizens of every rank which is the greatest contribution we have as yet made to the thought and welfare of the world." Thus, Adams envisioned not so much a classless society as one in which everyone, John Boehner included, should have an equal chance of achieving prosperity. Concluding his book, Adams explicitly rejected a materialistic interpretation, asserting:

We cannot become a great democracy by giving ourselves up as individuals to selfishness, physical comfort and cheap amusements. The very foundation of the American dream of a better and richer life for all is that all, in varying degrees, shall be capable of wanting to share it. It can never be wrought into a reality by cheap people or by 'keeping up with the Joneses.'

Adams was by no means the first to use the words "American dream" -- and almost from the beginning the phrase embodied a tension between the materialistic and the idealistic. David Graham Phillips, a novelist as well as a muckraking journalist (his 1906 Cosmopolitan series on "The Treason of the Senate" inspired Teddy Roosevelt to coin "muckraker" in its journalistic sense) had the material element in mind when he wrote in Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise:

And the reading she had done -- the novels, the memoirs, the books of travel, the fashion and home magazines... had prepared her -- as they have prepared thousands of Americans... for the possible rise in fortunes that is the universal American dream and hope.

Phillips wrote this passage at least twenty years before Adams' book appeared. Susan Lenox was published in 1917, but Phillips most likely completed his text by 1908, the date of his introduction to the novel, and certainly prior to 1911, when he was shot to death outside the Princeton Club in New York City by a man who believed his sister had been traduced in another of the author's novels, The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig. If Phillips had lived another couple years, he would have had the satisfaction of seeing how his series on the senate helped pave the way for passage in 1913 of the Seventeenth Amendment, which provided for direct election of senators by the people instead of state legislatures.

In the nineteenth century, "American dream" appeared in idealistic contexts, with emphasis on the nation's political system rather than material wealth. For example, in the aftermath of the tight 1884 presidential election, an editorial in the Galveston (Tex.) Daily News warned on November 9 that if James G. Blaine, the Republican candidate, "and his coadjutors had the power... they would have all election returns sent to Washington to be counted by the Republican officials there and that would be the end of the American dream of liberty under representative government." (But the ballots were not sent to Washington, and Grover Cleveland became the first Democrat to win the presidency in nearly thirty years.)

Similar examples cropped up around the time of World War I. From the Chicago Daily Tribune, of February 6, 1916: "If the American idea, the American hope, the American dream, and the structures which Americans have erected are not worth fighting for to maintain and protect, they were not worth fighting for to establish." In the same vein, the Harvard Alumni Bulletin printed a letter in 1918 that a former student, fighting with the French Foreign Legion, wrote to one of his professors just before his unit went to the front:

If I get through safely, we'll laugh over it - and if I pass out, [his journal] will be sent to you... To be an American is to-day the proudest thing in this world. But even when one is not fighting as one of them - even though he wears another color, he is fighting with the American spirit and the American dream.

Anticipating Adams to some extent, Walter Lippman, writing in Vanity Fair in 1923, argued against restricting higher education to a small and selected class, saying "that proposal, once we adopted it, would mark the end in failure of the American dream." Others saw the dream through a religious lens. The Rev. Dr. Lewis Seymour Mudge, retiring in 1932 as moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., said in his parting sermon, the year after Adams' work was published:

The American dream will never be realized under the leadership of any statesman... of any political party... or as the result of any merely social readjustments. The American dream has come from the heart of God and can be realized only through the salvation provided by and in service of His only begotten Son.

Herbert Hoover - he who been elected on chickens and cars for everyone - also interpreted the dream idealistically, equating it with individual independence and freedom. Decrying what he saw as attacks by New Dealers on the Constitution and American institutions, the now former president concluded a speech in 1936 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, saying: "There are immutable principles of ordered liberty that cannot be allowed to die in America... From ordered liberty comes personal independence. That was the American dream. That was given us by the god of our fathers."

Four years later, stumping for Wendell Willkie in Salt Lake City, Mr. Hoover's idealism led him to give the dream an isolationist twist: "American needs a man who is truly devoted to the American dream. That is a nation of free men - a nation of peace. If he truly believes in peace, then peace will not be lost except by wanton attack upon us."

The "wanton attack" did take place, of course, and after the shooting - and the privations - were over, "the American dream" re-emerged in much more material form. An AP story by Hal Boyle in early 1947 was headlined: "American Dream Can Be Seen on Fifth Avenue." Boyle began:

The best way to forget your troubles in Manhattan on Sunday is to go window shopping on Fifth Avenue. They call it the "show window of America," and it is here the American dream and ["]the better life" are always on display behind innumerable panes of glass and neat price tags.

Real estate people also leaned heavily on "the American Dream." Fairly typical was a classified ad in a Texas newspaper in 2000 that proclaimed: "American Dream Come True!! Land/Home Financing with Low Down Payment and Low Interest."

And Sears went nationwide with the slogan, launching an "American Dream Campaign" in August, 2002, on the premise that "Owning a home is still the American dream."

Strong undercurrents of skepticism existed during the postwar years, however, as evidenced by the use of the phrase in titles by Edward Albee, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson. Albee's one-act play, The American Dream (1959), was intended as an attack, according to the author, on the idea "that everything in this slippery land of ours is peachy keen." Mailer's novel, An American Dream (1965) amounts to a nightmare of violence and evil. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) is true to its subtitle, A Savage Journey Into the Heart of the American Dream.

Minorities in particular had trouble dreaming the dream. William F. Buckley, Jr., began his "On the Right" column at the end of February 1965 with a report on his participation in a debate on the subject: "In England last week James Baldwin appeared before the Cambridge Union... to argue the motion that The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro. (I appeared as the negative guest speaker.)" Buckley believed that the notion of the motion was "preposterous," but he lost the debate by a vote of about 3-to-1.

Later that same year a headline in the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegram summed up the plight of many Native Americans: "Indians Can Gain American Dream If They Abandon Old Tribal Values."

The point here was that child-rearing practices of the Teton Dakota (Sioux) Indians did not, according to a two-year government-financed study, "prepare their children to adopt traditional American values."

Others also realized that everything wasn't peachy keen. Carol Kliman started a Chicago Tribune column in 2000 with: "Remember the American Dream. It promises that if we work hard, we'll get to the top - no matter what our origins are. Well, the American Dream still sounds good to me, but it's getting more difficult to achieve." Writing in March, 2008, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert asserted that "The cornerstone of a middle-class life in America (and that means the cornerstone of The American dream) is a good job. The American dream is on life support because men and women by the millions... are unable to find a decent job." The downside also was emphasized by Roxanne Warren in a letter on March 30, 2009, to The New York Times: "The 'American Dream' - promulgated through advertising media - of owning a detached house, a lawn and the requisite one, two or more automobiles - has fostered the habit and acceptance of borrowing as a way of life."

Still, the idealistic connotations have never gone away. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told 200,000 civil rights marchers at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1963: "I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed - we hold this truth to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

Then there is Barack Obama, whose second book, The Audacity of Hope (2006), bears the subtitle, Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. The "Reclaiming, etc." also had been used before - and by someone with quite a different take on the dream. Richard Cornuelle's Reclaiming the American Dream: The Role of Private Individuals and Voluntary Associations (1965) contended that public needs should be met by the independent sector, not government. He later became executive director of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Mr. Obama invoked the dream repeatedly while campaigning for the presidency. The economic plan that he announced during Democratic primaries in 2007 was billed as "Barack Obama's Plan to Reclaim the American Dream" (which had a better ring to it than Hillary Clinton's comparatively clunky "Re-Building the Road to the Middle Class"). Campaigning for the presidency in the spring of 2008, he declared in an Op-Ed piece, "Most Americans have simple dreams... But today, the price of the American dream is going up... We have to put the American dream on a firmer foundation... It's time to reclaim the American dream." His winning his party's nomination and then the presidency itself was hailed widely as "the realization of the American dream" and he himself as the embodiment of it. In May 2009 he introduced Judge Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee to replace Justice David Souter on the United States Supreme Court by saying she "has lived the American dream."

Mr. Obama's opponents have opposed his idealistic dream with material objections. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Neil Cavuto, host of Your World on Fox News - fair and balanced, as always - defended Republican candidate John McCain's inability to remember how many homes he owned, by asking, "Well, instead of slamming McCain, is Obama really bashing the American dream?" And leading up to Tea Party rallies in 2009 and 2010, the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation issued a fact sheet, headed "Tea Party Talking Points: Obama's War on the American Dream." The Foundation's "American Dream" was for smaller government, of course, "TEA" sometimes being an acronym for Taxed Enough Already.

So the American Dream continues to resonate in the American consciousness. But it is elusive. Like ordinary dreams, it is sometimes hard to remember on waking just what the dream was all about. It shimmers in the mind's eye, oscillating between the idealistic and materialistic. And what is remembered may tell us more about the dreamer than the dream itself.

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