The American Dream in History, Politics, and Fiction by Cal Jillson (review)
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The American Dream in History, Politics, and Fiction. By Cal Jillson (Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 2016) 368pp. $45.00 cloth $22.95 paperback

The thesis at the heart of this learned romp through American history and literature is that the nation’s great authors have never bought what its politicians were selling. On sale has been the “American Dream,” “the promise that . . . hard work and fair play will almost certainly lead to success” (6). In careful summaries, Jillson shows that America’s great novels doubt the Dream’s attainability for reasons of psychology, culture, gender norms, and racial bias. Although fully acknowledging the hurdles that these tales illustrate, Jillson prescribes a re-dedication to a version of the American Dream as a remedy.

Substantive chapters are organized chronologically, each describing the events of an era, the political thought of its leading politicians, and summaries of select novels of the time (or, in some cases, novels about the time). These chapters are bounded by the observations of social scientists at the beginning and the end of the book. An introduction summarizes and comments about major intellectual and cultural interpretations of the United States, and the final chapter presents findings about social mobility, American attitudes about opportunity, and the effects of race and gender on life prospects. The scope of the book is a tremendous undertaking, offering the temptation to pick at its edges for errors of omission or disputable literary interpretations. But such nitpicking would be a disservice to the book’s challenging view that writers and critics sometimes present a bleak picture of American life to compensate (or even over-compensate) for the routinely hollow promises of politicians.

Jillson demonstrates that the American Dream is also not a single concept. It has meant different things to different individuals, and it changes through time. Benjamin Franklin first articulated a basic version. The concept has endured throughout the centuries by employing three [End Page 277] compelling metaphors—the shining “city on a hill . . . , the balance between the dollar and the man, and the fairly run footrace” (262). Jillson admires the more inclusive and aspirational versions of the American Dream, which he attributes to the American founders and to Progressive-era intellectuals like Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann. Unfortunately, however, although “the American Dream still beckons our well-educated elites, it mocks most others” (287). Jillson offers a few policy suggestions as a corrective, but such is not the stock in trade of the book, which is rhetoric and cultural belief.

Jillson’s American Dream is worth a read even if only to gain a greater understanding of how American literature has dealt with the social and economic aspirations of the American people. That the book moves well beyond this subject to present a rare, unified theory of American politics and literature is what makes it special. As with any book so ambitious questions remain. Is there really something particularly American in the promises of our politicians, or are such promises endemic to electoral politics? Likewise, is American literature more fraught than that of other nations, or does great literature inevitably deal in pathos and unmet struggle? At issue is just how distinctive a tale is told in this book and whether there is a direct relationship between what politicians say and what novelists write—matters that lie outside the scope of this work. Nonetheless, Jillson’s literary and political history of the United States, with its plea to re-imagine a more humane American Dream, is an impressive piece of work.

David J. Siemers
University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh
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