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Monday, Oct. 31, 2005


Is the American dream now a mirage?

NEW YORK -- Is the American dream just a mirage now? Earlier this year the Wall Street Journal ran a series called "Challenges to the American Dream," casting into doubt the "staple of America's self-portrait" that "a child born in poverty isn't trapped there." If that was putting the matter delicately, about the same time the New York Times questioned America's vaunted "upward social mobility" by putting it more bluntly in a series titled "Class Matters."

Actually, when you take a cursory look on the Internet, you readily find that the idea of the United States as a land full of Horatio Alger stories has been debunked by many and for quite some time now. Perhaps because of that, I decided to find out when and how the expression "the American dream" came into being. The answer came rather easily.

By consensus it was James Truslow Adams (1878-1948) who popularized, if not coined, the term, with his 1931 book, "The Epic of America." A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his 1921 history, "The Founding of New England," Adams went on to write at least three more books on early New England and its people. Then, whether or not the economic collapse in 1929 was the impetus, he wanted to write a one-volume history of the U.S. with special emphasis on "that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank, which is the greatest contribution we have as yet made to the thought and welfare of the world."

Two bits of information I found on Adams and the writing of "The Epic of America" intrigued me. One was a story that Adams wanted to call his book "The American Dream" but that his editor rejected the idea saying, "No red-blooded American would pay $3.50 for a dream." The editor's position made eminent sense to me. Hardcover novels sold for $3-$4 when I came to this city in the late 1960s, I recalled. My impression was confirmed in a recent issue of The New Yorker. An article in it referred to "The Rise of American Democracy," a 700-page tome that came out in 1938; its retail price was $1.72.

The other story said Adams was "deeply disillusioned" by U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal, and, though a popular historian, died a disappointed man. He believed that the ideal "vouchsafed" in the Declaration of Independence -- "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" -- was a personal matter, not the government's business. In other words, the New Deal was "a betrayal of American traditions of autonomy." Reminded by this that my parents-in-law, who struggled through the Depression and built a respectable life together, remained steadfastly anti-Roosevelt, I wanted to get hold of "The Epic of America," if I could. It proved easy, for a 1931 publication. Soon I received it, "almost new" as advertised.

The 430-page volume -- evidently priced $3, rather than $3.50, when it came out -- turned out to be a surprise. Yes, Adams says things one may expect from someone writing in the 1920s and 1930s, when notions like multiculturalism, let alone political correctness, were unknown. So, for example, he refers to what we call Native Americans today as "savages" and passes this judgment: "Cruel and vengeful, they could school themselves to stand pain as a matter of social convention, although when unsustained by that they were childishly lacking in self-control." I happen to be reading William Carlos Williams' "Patterson," where in a passage "white" soldiers gleefully lacerate to death two Indians accused of stealing a couple of pigs. Adams' description also makes me think of Ruth Benedict's characterization of the Japanese in "The Sword and the Chrysanthemum."

But "The Epic of America" is not a simple-minded narrative of how the American dream, here italicized, has made America great. Instead, a large part of the epilogue is a catalog of the "ugly scars" left by "our scramble for the untold wealth . . . at the foot of the rainbow." On the material side, it has created "the barbarian carelessness of the motoring millions" and, on the spiritual side, "our lawlessness and corruption, with the cynical disregard of them by the public."

Adams' bill of particulars is concise and cogent. There is America's insistence upon "business and money-making and material improvement as good in themselves," which "took on the aspects of moral virtues." In America, "size and statistics of material development" have become far more important than "quality and spiritual values." Although Adams writes elsewhere, "In the eighteenth century we had an established civilization, with stability of material and spiritual values," in this passage he does not mean by "spiritual values" religious values but "manners" that Americans regard as "undemocratic," just as they shun "a cultivated mind" as "a hindrance to success, a sign of inefficient effeminacy."

Americans have forgotten "to live, in the struggle to 'make a living.' " As a result, or as an inherent part of the struggle, there has developed in the U.S. the attitude that considers "an unthinking optimism essential." That manifests itself as the refusal to "look on the seamy and sordid realities of any situation," hence the automatic reaction to regard any "criticism as obstructive and dangerous."

One "scar" left by the American dream misconstrued has been the tendency of American education "to become utilitarian," Adams notes. The situation in this respect may have gotten worse since. Of late, higher education as a means of economic advancement has become "the gospel," as one American educator has warned.

So, what was "the American dream" for James Truslow Adams? A man whose "ancestors, in one line, came from Spain to settle in South America in 1558; in another . . . from England to settle in Virginia in 1658," and who had lived outside the U.S. for a number of years, he knew the answer. It was "a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations." It was only in that sense that America, for Adams, was to be "a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man."

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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