Елена Гомзина. «American Dream VS American Dreamers»

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Chapter I «The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation»

      In his book Jim Cullen proceeds from the fact that while being something up-to-date and representing «an immediate component of an American identity» (2004: 5) the American Dream  is at the same time «a part of a long tradition» (2004: 5). Having analysed everything that has been done so far, he claims that «the American Dream requires a more thorough reckoning than we customarily give it» (2004: 6) In his opinion such kind of reckoning begins with a recognition that «the Dream is neither a reassuring verity nor an empty bromide but rather a complex idea with manifold implications». (2004: 6)

      In the course of exploration the author repeatedly marks the ambiguity of the American Dream, which sometimes rises to paradoxicality. Cullen regards this feature as «the very source of its mystic power». (2004: 7)

      The first and, perhaps, the greatest paradox, if not irony, of the American Dream is that it has its origin in the ideology of the Puritans who vigorously rejected a belief that they did have control over their destinies. However, this is what the author of the book begins with.

      The Puritans descended from the Calvinist branch of Protestantism because of religious contradictions. In their opinion the Anglican Church of that time lacked discipline, as well as the government of English Queen, Elizabeth I, did. The movement took only the basic statements from the main religious stream. The Puritans believed that, firstly, individuals’ fates were entirely in God’s Almighty hands; and secondly, despite being a corrupted and poisoned place the world could still be reformed. This strong desire of reformation forced them to leave for a remote continent considered to be the «Promised Land». So, the Puritans brought to the New World its first dream — the dream of freedom. The very understanding of it was close to ours by no means. The believers craved for the true freedom to the subject to the will of Lord and were eager to surrender to Godly clerical and civil authorities that ruled in His name.

      The free new world gave Puritans an opportunity to build a perfect community with deep emotional bonds that united people with the shared belief, goals and values. They regarded themselves as Profits, who were to build the legendary biblical «city upon the hill». The Pilgrims were characterised not only by this united impulse but also by their common fear of the possible failure of the idea. This factor together with all the other difficulties of surviving in the new land played the crucial role in the dispersal and split which took place inevitably. The course of further events was influenced by material conditions, human impulses and aspirations which pulled once united people apart. The vision of even shared dreams differed. The Puritans failed to create and maintain a harmonious community, succumbing to all human foibles as well as technical and intellectual disagreements. The building of the «city upon the hill» is now estimated as that of an empire on the continent. This empire got stronger along with the tyranny of Puritan faith directed to unconverted Indians. Notwithstanding their mistakes and the fact that Puritans’ dream, however strange or even repellent it may seem, turned sour, it had tremendous consequences. Many of their good intensions did pave the road to hell; however, some of the most important reforms in American life derived from the conceptions of community and morality central to the Puritan worldview. The aspirations of religious bigots gave the American Dream a powerful belief in reform and the strong desire of a better future for children and future generations in general. Moreover, as Cullen states, the Puritans «accomplished the core task in the achievement of any American Dream: they became masters of their own destiny» (2004: 18).

      Cullen then proceeds to examine what he calls the charter of the American Dream: the Declaration of Independence. The key phrase survives in the collective memory: «We hold these Truths that to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness» (Urofsky 1994: 4). These words speak to the Americans. This document has a tremendous meaning for the nation, as it shapes the way Americans live their lives and underwrites their Dream. Despite its original prosy meaning the Declaration helps to maintain the beautiful and powerful myth about the Dream. Due to it life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness became not the prerogative of God, but that of individual fulfillment. Ever since then every American is believed to have treated happiness as a concrete and achievable objective.

      The appearance of this manuscript was not only the endpoint in the American Revolution and the cornerstone in building of the USA, but it also made once clear Puritans’ dream even more complicated. By giving sharp definitions to abstract notions of life, freedom and happiness, the authors of the Declaration put the basis for subsequent changes in political and social life. Partly, what this manifesto did was consolidating the gained liberty the first Colonists were striving for. However, Cullen states that the Founding Fathers understood the ambiguities and implications of the document incompletely. (2004: 55)

      From there, Cullen turns to one of the most familiar American Dreams: that of the upward mobility, a dream typically understood in terms of economic and/or social achievement. Several generations of readers have followed the race of poor boys (and, later, girls), who with nothing but audacity and ingenuity, created financial empires that towered over the national imagination. The power of this dream lay in a sense of collective ownership: anyone can get ahead.

      The first yardsticks that measured the upward mobility were economic self-sufficiency, a secure and esteemed profession and the leisure to pursue a career in politics. The steps from this flat view were made by Benjamin Franklin, who may be considered «the prophet of American capitalism» (Cullen 2004: 64). He claimed that virtue and happiness were achievable through hard work. If that was efficient enough and bared its fruit, then it could be regarded as God’s favour. So the orientation was shifted from spiritual to secular one. Work ethic of Puritans now served for temporal gain. Money used to be the product of hard labour for afterlife; Franklin turned it to be the goal for many people. He was the first example of the upward mobility: his humble beginnings did not prevent him from a successful career. Money for him was not the end, but the means to a greater aim: public service and fame. His own dream was fulfilled: truly, he became the first American celebrity. Moreover, the core components of his dream reflected the core convictions of a great many Americans of his time. These were trust in the basic decency of human beings and a serene confidence «that both earthly and heavenly rewards were consonant». (Cullen 2004: 65) In the decades after Franklin’s death his convictions were embraced to an even greater extent. Another successful «dreamer» was Andrew Jefferson, who became great because he was poor. Modest beginnings were no longer an obstacle but the bedrock of destiny. He fulfilled the new born American dream; and his irons will, toughness and strength helped him gain people’s support. So, the Dream evolved, though not completely. One of the most telling indicators of this process was a number of new words and phrases that entered the language around this time. For instance, one well known «self-made man» phrase first sounded in 1832.

      Despite the popularity of the Dream there were several obstacles that, as Cullen mentions, limited the area of its spreading. Slavery was the most dangerous of them. «Newborn baby» of Franklin and Jefferson, their lovely Dream, was under a threat. The true savior, the doctor who diagnosed the pathology was Abraham Lincoln. He also suggested the treatment mode: abolition of slavery. That was what he dedicated his life to. His career, one more vivid pattern of the upward mobility, is typically understood in terms of the end of slavery, notwithstanding, Cullen claims that it was done only for reaching a greater aim: sustaining the American Dream. He found slavery to be wrong regarding not to slaves, but to those white men who could not afford having them. This may be proved by his statement from the message to Congress in 1862: «In giving freedom to slave, we assure freedom to the free». (Annual message to Congress, December 1, 1862, quoted by Cullen 2004: 92) But if it was not Lincoln’s stubborn struggle the American Dream of Upward Mobility would not have lived on. If Franklin and many others were its Old Testament prophets, then Lincoln became its Jesus Christ. In the following decades the Good News was spreading: that in America it was possible to make your own destiny.

      Moving on to the post-Civil War era, namely the notorious Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1896, Cullen discusses what he considers to be one of the most unsuccessful of all American Dreams: the quest for equality, focusing specifically on the struggle of African Americans. The Dream of equality was an obvious, logical and inevitable continuation of Lincoln’s undertakings.

      Since the society was not prepared to go against his audacious idea, compare itself to non-Europeans and accept them as full members a specific situation arose in the state in the following decades after Lincoln’s death. De jure all the people living on the territory of the USA were proclaimed equal however de facto local authorities of every state tried their best in separating people of colored skin from white men. This situation was called «separate but equal» (Cullen 2004: 105) In a short time such state of affairs led to floods of assizes concerning infringers of laws about segregation. All the energies of Homer Plessy, Dred Scott, Rosa Parks and other important figures of the incipient movement would have been futile but for King’s social and political activity. He again adverted to the Declaration and the idea of the Dream. He also suggested a constructive dialogue between races and universal soul-searching for the both opposing sides. It was his genius to define his struggle in terms of a series of shared ideas that in its turn helped to define the American Dream in the popular imagination. It was also his achievement to compellingly define the dream as something more than individual fulfillment. The reason why people did heed to King’s voice lay not only in his stunning oratorical ability. He managed to show equality as the binding core of everyday American life and the basis for the American Dream without which its major underpinning, which is that everyone is eligible for the Dream, turned out to be unsound.

      Cullen then looks at the most widely realised American Dream: home ownership. He emphasizes that this is an old dream and pays special attention to the way it took shape in the years from the passage of the Homestead Act (signed by Lincoln in 1862) to the flourishing of suburbia in the second half of the twentieth century. This dream seemed to be the uniting idea for all Americans wherever they happened to live. It was supported by several interrelated factors. Firstly, the land abounded in forests which had not been denuded. Secondly, the advent of the balloon frame house in the 1830s in Chicago revolutionised American architecture by making housing far cheaper and easier to construct. Thirdly, the USA at that time was a country of high salaries, which not only stimulated labor-saving technological innovations but also gave workers sufficient wages to buy houses, which furthered economic development even more. Finally, «the elaboration of a transportation infrastructure efficiently brought more land within the purview of a metropolitan area, creating an ever-widening radius of housing within commuting distance of cities» (Cullen 2004: 149). Thus the era of suburbia began. To crown it all, the last element having transformative effect appeared on the scene: the automobile. It is difficult to overestimate its impact on the American society in general and on suburbs in particular. As Cullen states, «it is hard to believe that suburbs were really suburbs without it» (2004: 149). The house and the car were typical emblems of democracy even for those who had not yet acquired them. Car and home ownership may be regarded as signs of one more distinctively American trait: relative wealth. The triumph of the suburban dream has had consequences that have been both deeply reassuring and deeply troubling.

      All the previous reflections bring Cullen to the final American dream in his list. This is also a dream of personal fulfillment and good life, as well as the two precursors: the dreams of Puritans and Abraham Lincoln. However, this time the idea has little in common with heaven or hard labour for the sake of success. Despite the American Dream being a national, even global, phenomenon, the most of its varieties have a strong geographical orientation. This dream became not exception; finally it was named the dream of Coast because its homeland is California.

      This dream popularises the secular fulfillment; and it should also be mentioned here that morality plays, if at all, an insignificant role in the approach to the achievement of the goal. The ways to pursuit «happiness» were prompted by the style of life itself. Cullen mentions gambling in Las Vegas, Nevada, the gold rush in California which was superseded by vast railroad campaigns and farming. All this indicates a change of priorities: now it was more attractive to «get something for nothing» (Cullen 2004: 167) rather than earn for living physically. People’s minds were captivated by the untold wealth laid on investments and profits not on salaries. The prospect of seemingly effortless riches led Americans to move mountains in pursuit of this dream. Its true stronghold became Hollywood and the cinema world on the whole. On the first place there were fame and fortune and personality rather than human character and virtues. People were living together with idols of that time. For instance, the star couple of gifted actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, glamorous producer, and, by the way, the founding father of this shimmering new American Dream of Hollywood David Wark Griffith, seductresses like Theda Bara and Greta Garbo — the list of national cult figures is really never-ending. 

      It goes without saying that most of Americans failed in achieving their bright triumph. However, the dream of Coast has become the most desirable because of its brilliance, accessibility and the vivid trace of Bohemia. It was also the most insidious and dangerous for people’s minds, and for that it is reflected in works of art in corpora.

      There is little doubt that models presented by Cullen exhaust the list of dreams living in minds of Americans. Indeed, while reading it one may note any number of additional varieties omitted in the narration. This, in Cullen’s words, is the best indicator of the book’s success and topicality, as its goal has been suggestive not exhaustive (2004: 9).

      Cullen gives much consideration to the background of every dream’s development in order to make the impact of the age spirit evident. Unfortunately, the researcher does not draw any parallels between the dreams of different periods of American history apparently leaving this up to his readers. Though Cullen’s book lets us derive some general and principles connecting the dreams of the previous periods. This in its turn will be helpful in determining the traits of the contemporary American Dream. The common features of all the dreams are as follows:

  1. every Dream was dictated by needs of the society in which it took shape;
  2. every Dream was in effect front-office, something that was sent down by the leaders of the community, be it a Puritan priest or a member of a Party;
  3. all the Dreams were taken as basic for the development and living;
  4. each Dream had to be accessible which guarantied its promises would extend to everyone;
  5. all the Dreams included the idea of some noticeable progress: to end up with more than it was started with.
  6. all the Dreams had their own geographical homeland. For instance, Puritan dream was born in New England; Dream of equality came from South; «the Dream of Upward mobility has a strong Midwestern accent» (Cullen 2004: 160)  Consequently, the American Dream being on the one hand a national, global phenomenon on the other hand has traceable origins determined first of all by needs of certain areas in the USA.

      Thus the idea has been shaping the nation of freedom-loving, ambitious and enterprising masters of their destinies over several centuries. All of them have made the American Dream look more like a common principle regarding the fact that every dream was the combining element for the multinational community of the USA. Thus basing on the literary materials of analysed in the present work we will proceed from the conclusion that the American Dream is the ideology or the basic guideline.

      The contemporary American Dream, to which Cullen pays less attention, is examined in the final chapter of the book with relation to immigrants. According to their statements we may conclude that the modern American Dream has absorbed all the best and useful from the predecessors: a strong faith in success, the urge toward self-actualisation on the assumption of freedom of the upward mobility and primordial equality for everyone. Unfortunately, not many are still able to see pure and lofty goals of the national conception, and the immigrants are the ones of them. Non-Americans see only the material, secular shell of this idea, being unconscious of the fact that the American Dream used to be also a spiritual appeal to freedom and eagerness and personal challenge to make one’s destiny better. Foreigners usually criticise the idea for its seeming shallowness and consumerism. Americans have been disappointed with such twisted vision. However, just recently, people have sounded the alarm seeing their once beautiful and pure Dream of «city upon the hill» turning into the vicious and frivolous «dream of the Coast», people have sounded the alarm. Nowadays the American Dream has been criticised severely not only in Old World’s countries by not well-informed people but also in the US by those who are aware of the true meaning of what the phenomenon really means for the nation. The increased interest toward the universal dream has evoked many complicated and arguable but still important and vital questions clarify the attitude to it and its place in modern society that to some extent.