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American Literary History 16.3 (2004) 566-573

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American Dreams

The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation. By Jim Cullen. Oxford University Press, 2003
A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Consumption in Postwar America. By Lizabeth Cohen Alfred A Knopf, 2003
Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History. By James Morone. Yale University Press, 2003

Different people have meant different things, often multiple things, by "the American dream." In her study of economic and social opportunity for blacks and whites, and the expectations blacks and whites have for the pursuit of happiness, political scientist Jennifer Hochschild defines the American dream as a set of "tenets about achieving success" (15). For her, the dream is best stated in President Bill Clinton's words that "if you work hard and play by the rules you should be given a chance to go as far as your God- given ability will take you" (qtd. in Hochschild 18). All people are free to pursue the dream, regardless of background, with a "reasonable anticipation though not the promise, of success" through actions under their own control—and doing so is worthy of deep commitment because "true success is associated with virtue" (Hochschild 18). The American dream is "the great national suggestion" (171) that anyone, with hard work according to the rules, has a reasonable prospect of succeeding in life.

But this is not the only version of the American dream. The originality of Jim Cullen's American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation, is that, despite "dream" in the singular in his title, he insists in the text that we are a nation of American "dreams" in the plural. Right across from the title page with its singular American dream, Cullen places a photograph of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald with a caption that says, "The photo is a virtual compendium of American Dreams: house, car, beauty, youth, talent." The six main chapters of his book are each devoted to a different American dream. Cullen begins with the Puritan dream of building an exemplary new society of believers; for Cullen, what is most lasting and characteristically American about the Puritan dream is not the particulars of a straitlaced and sin-obsessed view of life but simply the "faith in reform" (15) and the belief that, with effort, things could be different, and better than they are.

This links the Puritans to the second American dream, that embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are terms no less ambiguous and no less mythic than the phrase "American dream" itself but, for just that reason, this [End Page 566] founding charter has been a recurrent inspiration for peoples and movements the founders never imagined would be incorporated within the political nation. The democratizing of the founders' vision and the expectations of upward social mobility for people of humble origins is the third version of the dream Cullen takes up. The very phrase "self-made man" he traces to 1832 and to the rough and tumble world of commerce and westward expansion and frontier manners and morals of the nineteenth century. A fourth dream is that of social equality that he explores particularly through a rich discussion of Martin Luther King, Jr. Fifth, and seemingly a large step down in breadth and vision from the others, he writes about "home ownership" as the American dream—emphasizing here, in a discussion of suburbanization after World War II, that of all the American dreams this one is most widely realized. Finally, he takes up the dream of "the Coast"—California dreaming as another vision of the good life. Unlike the dreams of upward mobility and of home ownership, both of which emphasize hard work, the dream of the Coast grows out of the gold rush, the gambling epitomized by Las Vegas, the cult of personality (rather than character) that Cullen identifies with Hollywood and in particular with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

Cullen's well-written book persuades one that there are multiple American dreams, but...