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

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

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

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


"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 notes 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 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. 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 force.


I have learned this, at least, from my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854

THAT TITLE WON'T WORK, James Truslow Adams was told. No one will pay three dollars for a book about a dream.

Adams, author of a series of popular books on American history—think of him as the David McCullough or Ken Burns of the 1930s—was seeking to broaden his literary horizons. A man with elite bloodlines dating back to the seventeenth century, when one of his ancestors came to Virginia as an indentured servant and ended up in the landowning class, Adams, born in 1878, had nevertheless grown up under relatively modest circumstances. (His father was an unsuccessful Wall Street broker.) After graduating from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute in 1898 and earning a master's degree in philosophy at Yale in 1900, he went to work on Wall Street himself, making enough money to devote himself to writing. His local histories of Long Island brought him some renown and attracted the attention of presidential adviser Col. Edward M. House, who hired him to assemble data for the Paris Peace Conference following World War I, which he attended as a cartographer in the American delegation. After the war, Adams wrote his “New England trilogy”—which included the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Founding of New England /emph> (1921)—and gained scholarly recognition for Provincial Society, 1690–1763 (1927), a volume in the highly regarded . . .

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