The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation Summary

Jim Cullen


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

If anything but the circumstances of geography and history connects its motley population and defines the United States, it is a complex set of shared ideals and aspirations commonly referred to as the American Dream. The United States is the land of citizens who project their unattainable communal desires onto the vast continental expanse. No one can begin to understand American culture without coming to terms with the American Dream. In his compact study, however, Jim Cullen, a scholar of American popular culture, limits his ambitions, as if mocking the grandiosity of his subject. Subtitling his book A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation, Cullen offers his take on half a dozen overlapping versions of the American Dream. He recognizes that his accounts of these are not exhaustive and that he has left other versions undiscussed. Nowhere in Cullen’s book does he mention one of the most influential of American dreamers—Horatio Alger, Jr., the prolific nineteenth century writer of popular novels about young men who, by dint of luck and pluck, rise above their modest origins to the pinnacle of worldly success. However, though not encyclopedic and sometimes oversimplified, Cullen’s insights and anecdotes fulfill his goal of being suggestive and provocative.

The American Dream, which evolved out of its author’s attempt to trace the history of American patriotism, is organized in rough chronological order—from the seventeenth century Puritans, whose biblical vision inspired a struggle to construct what Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop called a “city upon a hill” to modern Americans who yearn for an effortless life of leisure. Cullen distinguishes the Puritan model of the good life in the New England wilderness from the secular aspirations of the nation’s Founding Fathers. He identifies later variants of his subject in the dream of upward mobility, the dream of equality, the dream of home ownership, and the gambler’s dream of getting something for nothing. He argues that the most recent variant of the American Dream is a quest for placidity and, claiming that it is symbolized by California, terms it “the Dream of the Coast.” Summarizing the narrative arc of his book, Cullen contends that it

begins with people who denied their efforts could affect their fates, moves through successors who later declared independence to get that chance, to heirs who elaborated a gospel of self-help promising they could shape their fates with effort, and ends with people who long to achieve dreams without having to make any effort at all.

Despite the Puritans’ generally negative reputation as witch-burning prigs, Cullen admires them because of the power of their dream and the tenacity with which they set out to realize it. Cullen’s Puritans are settlers who strove to “live in the world, but not of it,” and much of their fascination for him derives from the energy of their contradictions. He characterizes them as moderates among early modern Protestants, less radical than the Pilgrims, Quakers, and Anabaptists, no more so than in how they negotiated an uneasy compromise between Calvinist predestination and the belief that things could and should be reformed. Conceiving North America as the Promised Land, they set out to make the world a better place, while denying human agency as the shaping force of history. While basing their faith not in corrupt institutions but in individual conscience, they sought to create a new community of solitary souls.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the American Dream had freed itself from religious discipline and had become a dream of freedom. Identifying the Declaration of Independence, with its ambiguous contention that all men are created equal, as the founding charter of the American Dream, Cullen notes the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of its framers. Their belief in a natural aristocracy allowed them to proclaim universal equality while abiding slavery and denying full citizenship to women. Cullen insists that the declaration, however, established the terms for American aspiration, not least in a national impatience with the status quo.

Several recent historians—including Garry Wills, in Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (1978), and Pauline Maier, in American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1997)—have argued that Abraham Lincoln consciously...

(The entire section is 1808 words.)