The evolution of the American dream
There's a sense of skepticism about it now.
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The collective dream of which we speak is a unique part of the American experience. I can think of no other country whose people asserted they have been chosen by God, except Israel.Skip to next paragraph
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Most others beyond our shores seem baffled by it; some call it presumptuous. There is no English dream, Brazilian dream, no French or Chinese dreams. Are we the exception, alone to enjoy the comfort of our own dream? Very nearly so.
It was James Truslow Adams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian with a foot in each of the past two centuries, who gave the name to the phenomenon he regarded as this country's greatest achievement: the American dream, a democratic standard for the world.
The American dream, he wrote, is a "dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."
In his book, "The American Epic," Mr. Adams not only described the phenomenon of this "social order," but acknowledged that many had turned against it or distorted its purposes.
He admitted to its fragility and specifically cautioned against allowing it to develop into "A system that steadily increases the gulf between the ordinary man and the super-rich, that permits the resources of society to be gathered into personal fortunes that afford their owners millions of income a year.…"
Certainly, just such a situation has evolved. Adams's words, published in 1931, early in the Great Depression, sound prophetic for our own times.
It seems that the American dream, indeed, has devolved into a "dream of motor cars and high [read: stratospheric] wages," and other excesses as he indicated. The future, as suggested by the disastrous collapse on Wall Street, does not look bright.
Even so, it is apparent that the American dream survives, at least in the bright mind of my barber, as her spontaneous and accurate description of it reveals.
She knows what it is and what it was: an ideal that grew out of an idea, maybe one waiting for its time to come again.
Richard O'Mara worked for 34 years as an editorial writer, foreign correspondent, and foreign editor of the Baltimore Sun.