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

by Jim Cullen

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1808

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.

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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 reformulated the legacy of the declaration and adapted it to the circumstances of a nation divided over slavery and the sovereignty of states. Cullen identifies Lincoln, who was born in a log cabin but died lord of the White House, with the phase of the American Dream that exerted the strongest appeal throughout the nineteenth century, a faith in the possibility of upward mobility. It was manifestly untrue that any child could grow up to become president of the United States, but the belief that the United States was a land of opportunity where the possibilities of individual achievement were limited only by talent, will, and effort was reinforced by stories, true and fictional, of waifs who morphed into moguls. In his crucial chapter about the dream of the self-made man, Cullen notes that it was Lincoln’s commitment to this dream, rather than ethical or political considerations, that led him to oppose slavery. Human bondage limits the possibilities of achievement not only for slaves but for everyone else as well. Cullen also notes Lincoln’s skepticism about the human ability to shape individual destiny.

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Cullen examines the historical strains between freedom and equality and observes how a commitment to equality of opportunity has often led American dreamers to tolerate and even relish inequality of condition. He documents the developing realization that freedom without equality is tyranny. Identifying Martin Luther King, Jr., as the iconic figure of another kind of American Dream, one that is a yearning for equal treatment under law, Cullen traces the history of the resistance to racism through landmark court decisions and the campaigns of the Civil Rights movement. He notes the tensions that remain unresolved between the egalitarian aspirations of the United States and its faith in meritocracy. The delusion that class—a factor that Cullen, too, mostly ignores—is absent in the United States coexists with individual determination to ascend the social ladder.

The author becomes most personal in discussing what he calls “The Dream of Home Ownership.” He recalls how his working-class father moved his family from an apartment in Queens to a one-family house on Long Island, in fulfillment of widespread post-World War II aspirations for a home of one’s own away from the city. Cullen links the twentieth century suburbanization of American life to the 1862 Homestead Act, which granted 160 acres of Western land to anyone willing to work them, and to the notion that national identity was shaped by the existence of a frontier. He presents the mass migration toward bland suburban tracts as the betrayal of the American ideal of a nation of independent freeholders and notes the 1960’s rebellion against “suburban values of moderation, conformity, and the pursuit of happiness via a plot of land.” He suggests that the desire to acquire private residence in a desirable neighborhood trivializes the dream of upward mobility and repudiates the dream of equality.

While acknowledging that the Puritans, too, were gamblers, Cullen identifies a modern form of gambling, symbolized by Las Vegas, with a secular dream of getting something for nothing. Destabilizing the complacencies of home ownership, the premise of the casino is that the order of the world is, like the roll of the die, arbitrary, uncontrollable, and unpredictable. The American Dream of achieving the good life through the luck of the draw is a challenge to the dream of achievement through pluck. Cullen also identifies another modern American Dream of the good life with California, the Golden State. Unlike the Las Vegas dream, what he calls “the Dream of the Coast” shuns uncertainty; it “rests on a quest for placidity, not the thrill of risk.” Cullen links this dream to the 1849 Gold Rush and to Hollywood as well as to dreamers who would succeed in business without really trying. He laments the elevation of leisure into a supreme value and the way a culture that prizes celebrity has displaced dreams rooted in character with dreams rooted in mere personality. His book ends up being an elegy for how a noble dream degenerated into a shabby fantasy.

While differentiating among versions of the American Dream, Cullen never quite defines exactly what he means by “dream” in the first place. Most of the time, he seems to use the term not in its literal sense of a sleeping reverie but to refer to a widely shared aspiration—toward virtue, freedom, self-assertion, equality, home ownership, or comfort. At other times, it seems like an ideal, a standard one might not expect to attain but against which one measures one’s achievements. A dream is also an illusion, even a delusion, and, while critical of recent distortions of the ethic of individual achievement, the author might have examined the way in which any version of the American Dream has been a collective chimera.

Cullen offers brief discussion of the “Dream of the Immigrant,” which he claims is “a subset of the Dream of Upward Mobility.” Those who choose to abandon other lands to settle in the United States provide perhaps the purest testimony to the power and the nature of the American Dream and often to the process of disillusionment. Like characters in a Shakespearean pageant, Americans are such stuff as dreams are made on; so, too, are those of every other nationality. Although American exceptionalism, the conviction that the United States is uniquely endowed or even chosen, has been the subject of extensive scholarship, it is merely assumed, not analyzed, in Cullen’s account of the American Dream. A systematic examination of his subject would acknowledge that Australians, Brazilians, Canadians, Indians, Israelis, Japanese, Russians, South Africans, and others also construct their national identity out of communal ideals and ambitions, and it would attempt to distinguish what is particularly American about the American Dream. The implied dreamer in most of Cullen’s discussion is a white middle-class Protestant male, and a comparative taxonomy would also distinguish the dreams of women, Latinos, Muslims, and other Americans.

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Latest answer posted February 17, 2016, 7:06 pm (UTC)

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Characterizing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s melancholy novel The Great Gatsby (1925) as the locus classicus of unattainable aspiration, Cullen presents American dreaming as a utopian enterprise, fated for failure. For him, it is largely a futile exercise in hope, an ingenuous belief that the future counts for more than the past. For all its omissions, Cullen’s succinct book is a stimulating reminder that dreams have consequences as well as rich histories.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 12 (February 15, 2003): 1034.

Chicago Tribune, February 23, 2003, p. 3.

Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 24 (December 15, 2002): 1816-1817.

Library Journal 128 (March 1, 2003): 102.

Publishers Weekly 250 (January 13, 2003): 47.

The Times Literary Supplement, June 13, 2003, p. 27.

USA Today 132, no. 2700 (September, 2003): 80-81.

The Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2003, p. D10.

The Washington Post, January 26, 2003, p. T04.

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