The Age of Miracle and Wonders: Paul Simon and the Changing American Dream

By Fuchsman, Ken | The Journal of Psychohistory, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

The Age of Miracle and Wonders: Paul Simon and the Changing American Dream


Fuchsman, Ken, The Journal of Psychohistory


When the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite in October 1957, it burst the bubble of American technological supremacy and ushered in an era of self-questioning. Since the end of World War II, the U. S. had been transforming the way it lived. Affluence was spreading, families were moving to suburbs in droves; their homes became their castles. These dwellings became stocked with washers, televisions, high fidelity systems, and all sorts of mechanical marvels. More cars were being purchased than ever before, individuals were getting married younger; the country was in the midst of a baby boom, and a national celebration of itself. Yet all was not heavenly in the split-level paradise. A restlessness and unease was also part of these new wonders. That the Soviets could be ahead of us in direct competition was a narcissistic blow. Historian William Leuchtenburg captured something when he titled his history of post-World War II America, A Troubled Feast.

A few months after Sputnik, two teenage boys from Queens had a hit record entitled "Hey Schoolgirl." Fifty-nine years later, one of them, Paul Simon, remains a cultural icon. He garners attention whether in 2015 he is the closing act on the 40th Anniversary broadcast of Saturday Night Live, or he and his bride of two decades get arrested in 2014 for disturbing the peace in their suburban Connecticut home. Through it all, amidst our changing ideals, Simon has been chronicling the joys and angst of American life.

In the nineteenth century, as work became separated from home and immigrants flooded the country, the American dream had a distinctly male cast. It was centered around economic opportunity and career success for men. Women and families fit into this dream with wives taking care of home, hearth, and children. Males and females were usually seen as occupying separate spheres, and having different interests and natures.

With the rise of the consumer culture in the twentieth century, affluence spread into the home in new ways, and the scope of the American dream was expanding. An ideal of companionate marriage appeared. Husbands and wives were supposed to find fulfillment-material, spiritual, and sexual with their spouses. The pursuit of happiness spread from the boardroom to the bedroom. The popularity of movies, magazines, radio, television and records brought new horizons to many. The American dream now consisted of career success, family happiness, and romantic union. In the 1960s, a generational consciousness emerged among an influential segment of the baby boomers. The songs and singing of Paul Simon were a central part of this movement. This paper will examine the dimensions Simon brings to our understanding of how the American dream has fared.

Paul Simon was born on October 13, 1941 in Newark, New Jersey to Jewish parents who were both educators. His father was also a jazz musician. Paul's brother, Eddie, is four years his junior. The family moved to the Forest Hills section of Queens, where Paul met Art Garfunkel when they were eleven. After their initial success with "Hey Schoolgirl," there were no more hits for the duo before they graduated high school. Simon went on to major in English at Queens College, briefly attended law school, left to pursue a career in music, and reunited with Garfunkel. The duo recorded an acoustic folk album in 1964 for Columbia records that commercially went nowhere. Later, the album's producer added electric guitars and a rock backbeat to one of the tracks, "The Sounds of Silence." Released as a single in late 1965, the song made it to number one on the Billboard charts. Simon has been a prominent singer-songwriter from then until now. He is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, has been elected twice to the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, and has won twelve Grammy's, three of which were for album of the year.

An unstated undertone in Paul Simon's compositions connects the personal with the collective. He chronicles the ups and downs of the pursuit of happiness, including the ways our emotional beings intertwine with the state of the union. …

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