Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

American Dreams in Mississippi: Consumers, Poverty, and Culture, 1830-1998

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

American Dreams in Mississippi: Consumers, Poverty, and Culture, 1830-1998

Article excerpt

American Dreams in Mississippi: Consumers, Poverty, and Culture, 1830-1998. By Ted Ownby. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, c. 1999. Pp. [xvi], 228. Paper, $18.95, ISBN 0-8078-4806-9; cloth, $45.00, ISBN 0-8078-2479-8.)

In American Dreams, Ted Ownby dwells upon four goals sought but seldom realized in Mississippi's consumer culture since 1830: first, that abundance might alleviate poverty; second, that consumer activity might "flatten out differences among people of diverse backgrounds" (p. 2); third, that purchases might convey a pleasurable freedom of choice; and fourth, that shoppers might indulge themselves in the novelty of new goods. The author must concede the obvious fact that most Mississippians--whether because they were enslaved, chronically indebted in a declining agricultural economy, or women in a man's world of getting and spending--have been unable freely to partake of the ambiguous thrills of consumerism. Ownby discounts these clear material disadvantages by emphasizing the cultural prospects consumerism may have presented, He claims that it "is essential to see which American dreams were meaningful--to whom, how, and why--in a state which for so long has seemed to lie outside most American dreams" (p. 3).

Readers may wonder why Ownby reduces the talismanic phrase "American dream" to the narrow realm of things bought and sold. Mississippi's history in the long period Ownby treats in his book touched upon many elements of the American dream, yet one searches in vain for insights into such familiar topics as aspirations for life and labor free from bondage or coercion, guarantees of citizenship and political participation, and a prospect of social mobility without regard to race, creed, or previous condition. …

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