Wednesday, August 25, 2010

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

Why I read it: Just loved the concept from the moment I read it.

Summary: The author traces the concept from the Puritans to the modern day, touching on the Declaration of Independence, upward mobility, home ownership and more.

My Thoughts: I agree with the author. The topic is certainly one worth researching, ruminating upon and writing about. Apparently, according to his own notes in the book, some of the academics to whom he spoke said he was dealing with a topic unworthy of a historian's time.

Phooey. Let's move on.

The American dream is, of course, personal in nature. Is it truly possible to trace the idea's history? Yes, in general terms. While not every Puritan may have had the same exact dream, they all had a general one: freedom from religious persecution. How they further interpreted that notion individually could fill a volume unto itself. But the author chose to follow the dream over time, through Thomas Jefferson's ideals to Abraham Lincoln's birthplace, to Plessy vs. Ferguson, to Martin Luther's King's assassination. The same strains can be followed: a place of our own, personal freedom, the chance to grow unbound by the repressive forces of governments.

Comedian Eddie Izzard once commented that the American dream is to make all the money in the world, stick it in your ears and blow raspberries at people. An interesting image, and not that far from the truth. Cullen states that a current general dream includes moving to the coast, particularly California, and making money without effort (i.e. being "found" in Hollywood). There's no doubt that many, many Americans think this way. Maybe Eddie Izzard is right.

The follow-up question to the book must be this one: has America filled the bill? Is it in actuality a place where one person can dream, and reach heights unachievable elsewhere in the world? Does it offer the freedoms for which we've always strived ("we" being a strange term in itself, used by everyone from the first settlers to last week's immigrants)? Or does that change with each presidential election?

Whatever the answer, I know I have my dream, and that thus far the only thing holding me back from reaching my goals is me. I believe in my personal version of the American dream.

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