The American Dream

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

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"The American Dream" is one of the most familiar and resonant phrases in our national lexicon, so familiar that we seldom pause to ask its origin, its history, or what it actually means. In this fascinating short history, Jim Cullen explores the meaning of the American Dream, or rather the several American Dreams that have both reflected and shaped American identity from the Pilgrims to the present. Cullen begins by noting that the United States, unlike most other nations, defines itself not on the facts of blood, religion, language, geography, or shared history, but on a set of ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and consolidated in the Constitution. At the core of these ideals lies the ambiguous but galvanizing concept of the American Dream, a concept that for better and worse has proven to be amazingly elastic and durable for hundreds of years and across racial, class, and other demographic lines. Cullen then traces a series of overlapping American dreams: the quest for of religious freedom that brought the Pilgrims to the "New World"; the political freedom promised in the Declaration; the dream of upward mobility, embodied most fully in the figure of Abraham Lincoln; the dream of home ownership, from homestead to suburb; the intensely idealistic-and largely unrealized-dream of equality articulated most vividly by Martin Luther King, Jr. The version of the American Dream that dominates our own time-what Cullen calls "the Dream of the Coast"-is one of personal fulfillment, of fame and fortune all the more alluring if achieved without obvious effort, which finds its most insidious expression in the culture of Hollywood. For anyone seeking to understand a shifting but central idea in American history, The American Dream is an interpretive tour de more

Product details

  • Hardback | 226 pages
  • 160 x 208.8 x 21.8mm | 421.85g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • 0195158210
  • 9780195158212

Review Text

Prep school teacher and historian Cullen, who once recast Bruce Springsteen in the mold of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Born in the U.S.A., 1997), now argues that you can't have the American Dream without at least defining it for your own time. The author begins filtering components with the Puritans, whom he frankly anoints as "annoying" progenitors of the Dream, what with their extreme ideas that included the ever-frustrating concept of predestination, their witch-burnings, and their drive to save the souls of Native Americans in order to annihilate them. But still, Cullen proposes, the Puritans did have a dream. From there it's onward and generally upward as Jefferson struggles with what he knows is a contemporary paradox in basing the Declaration of Independence on the intrinsic equality of all men. Readers will further sense the elusiveness of the American Dream even as Lincoln finally hammers the "inalienable" into legislation eight decades after Jefferson penned it and wistfully wonders if "this, too, shall pass" in a speech given almost as if in a dream state. "Among the worst decisions the Supreme Court ever made," Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) socked the Dream right in the eye, but in doing so, Cullen asserts, opened the door for Martin Luther King Jr. and his adherents of all races to rehabilitate it and send it on its way in the '60s. The author takes something of an intermission from the stuff of pure ideas to visit home ownership as the principal material compulsion embodied in the Dream, locating its crowning manifestation in the prefab wonder of Long Island's Levittown. Finally, in dealing with the inevitable frontier complex of American aspiration, Cullen confronts "the Coast," symbolized by California (where the sun sets, etc.), as perhaps the most potentially heartbreaking yet persistently iridescent of the Dream's layers. This is the beckoning impossible-the one that gets Jay Gatsby killed in F. Scott Fitzgerald's rendering. One man's provocative, worthwhile, and stimulating summation. (Kirkus Reviews)show more

About Jim Cullen

Jim Cullen holds a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University and teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, in New York City. He is the author of Born in the U.S.A.: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition and The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past, among other more

Review quote

This book reminds us that politics is not merely a clash of interest but a clash of dreams. Wall Street Journalshow more

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153 ratings
3.47 out of 5 stars
5 18% (27)
4 33% (51)
3 32% (49)
2 12% (19)
1 5% (7)
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