Friday, May 31, 2013

The Source of the American Dream

My Grandparents, LaPenne and Clare
In 1816, long before the Irish Potato Famine, my great-great-great-great-grandparents, John and Alice Carroll, and their two children Biddy and John, left Ireland for New Castle County, Delaware. Their passage was paid for by John’s new employer, the E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, now known as DuPont. John joined other Irish immigrants working at DuPont’s gunpowder mills along the Brandywine River. The work was dangerous, as the powder mills were known for flash fires and unexpected explosions. But the pay was good, and if a worker were to die on the job, DuPont maintained a widows and orphans fund to protect his family.
After only a few years, John Carroll had saved enough money to purchase land, farm animals and a wagon. He paid to bring his brothers over from Ireland. He and Alice had more children, who had many more children. A hundred years later, his great grandson (my grandfather in the photo above) LaPenne J. Guenveur was awarded a Rhodes scholarship, which sadly was cancelled because of World War I. Their descendants went on to become teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers and writers, like me.
The American Dream-- that uniquely American ethos that hard work will lead to a fulfilling and prosperous life --came true for John Carroll and his family, my family. But many ask whether the American Dream still exists today. Or was comedian and social critic George Carlin correct when he said, “it’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it?”
Over the next few weeks I will discuss the American Dream. Does it exist? What does it mean? Has it changed over time? Is it threatened more by poverty or prosperity? Or terrorism and globalization? Does it exalt individualism over the community? Are their different versions of the dream? Why is it called the American Dream and not the Scottish or Turkish dream?
But let’s start at the beginning. Where did the phrase come from?  What is the source of the concept?
Some credit historian James Truslow Adams for coining the term “American Dream” in his 1931 book “The Epic of America.” He described “that American dream of a better, richer and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.” The publication of his book coincided with the blossoming of mass culture (movies, radio, national newspapers), and the phrase quickly came into common use.  Today, a search of “American Dream” on Amazon brings up almost 15,000 titles.
The concept underlying the phrase--the belief that one is the master of one’s destiny -- goes back further than that.  The American Dream was born in a land without a history of monarchy or the myth of royal blood. It was born in a land of people starting new lives.
In 1630, John Winthrop preached to Puritan colonists about a land where everyone would have the chance to prosper as long as they worked together and followed Biblical teachings. Virginia was founded by businessmen looking to gain fortunes from tobacco and other crops, and the Spanish sacked the land in search of gold.
In 1776, the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Abraham Lincoln’s journey from a log cabin to the White House was held up as a model of the American Dream even before the phrase was in common use.
On the western frontier the concept of the American Dream flourished. Whether it was railroading, gold mining, rustling cattle or farming homesteads, the wide open land offered millions the opportunity to make their own lives their own way. The dream lived on, at least until the frontier was settled in the early 20th Century.  I set my novel, Coyote Winds, in the 1930s when families clung to the American Dream through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.
Most Americans do not realize how different this mind-set was from traditional European and British social structures. In Europe, the circumstances of one’s birth sharply limited choices and ambitions. Royalty and rank counted far more than ability, ingenuity or diligence. With its trade guilds and laws controlling land ownership, Europe's hierarchical or aristocratic society blocked individual aspirations. And children paid for the sins of their fathers and forefathers.
In contrast, America drew adventurers, speculators, and freedom seekers escaping the restrictions of the old world. As one German immigrant explained, “there are no princes and corrupt courts representing the so-called divine 'right of birth.' In such a country the talents, energy and perseverance of a person ... have far greater opportunity to display than in monarchies."  Source Wikipedia American_Dream citing  F. W. Bogen, The German in America (Boston, 1851), quoted in Stephen Ozment, A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People (2004) pp 170–71
Even Henry David Thoreau wrote in his famous WALDEN in 1854, “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."
Was he correct? Then? Now? Ever?

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