Happy anniversary to the American Dream

by Joe Ferullo

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This year the American Dream turns eighty years old.

It's actually hard to imagine that the words "American Deam" have a birthdate, a creator, an inventor. But they do. Over the years, these words have become very elastic -- meaning whatever the speaker wants them to: a new home, a new car, a new life, a chicken in every pot.

But "American Dream" first was coined in 1931, by historian James Truslow Adams, in his book, "Epic of America." He was writing as the Great Depression gathered full steam, here at home and around the developed world. This is how he put it, in excerpts you can find at Wikipedia, as honestly, directly, and succintly as only an inventor can:

The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, also 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 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.

Later in his book, he added:

The American Dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as a man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.

What's startling here is how little of what Adams wrote about concerns material wealth or success. He even says flat out: "It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely." To him, the American Dream was just about being allowed to become whatever you were capable of -- with no artificial obstacles thrown up by where you were born, or who you parents were,

In his writing, we see an America that saw itself as class-less, in the Old World sense -- a place where you didn't have to "know your place" to succeed, a place where you made your own place in society. In the 1930s, that dream was less than a reality for so many: the unemployed, the migrants, and African-Americans. But that's what dreams are: an aspiration.

Today, this all seems very fresh. After eighty years, looking at what Adams orginally wrote strips it of consumerism, of nativism, of a lot of divisions and devices that have weighed it down. Glance eight decades back and you see the American Dream is really very simple and elegant: it's a chance -- just a chance -- to become the person you really are, no more and no less.

And what you really own, Adams seems to say, is very much beside the point.

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