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The American Dream: A Cultural History by Lawrence R. Samuel (review)
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James Truslow Adams coined the term, “American Dream” in his book, The Epic of America (1931), which explores how the concept of “American” evolved throughout our history and argues for a vision of what the American Dream should be. In The American Dream: A Cultural History, Lawrence R. Samuel takes up where Adams left off to present a myriad of perspectives that have shaped and reshaped the definition of the American Dream over the past eighty years.

Samuel acknowledges not only the existence of the American Dream prior to 1931 but also its tenacity, arguing “that the term ‘American Dream’ was created in the darkest days of the Great Depression was all the more interesting given that many feared it no longer existed” (p. 13). Given that the nation is experiencing the next-worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the American Dream is a timely topic to revisit. In The American Dream, Samuel has created a chronological collage of quotes and discussion on the subject, as presented by journalists mostly in print media.

Between the introduction and the conclusion, Samuel has divided the years from 1931 to 2011 into roughly “six eras of mythology” covering six chapters. “The Epic of America” is the era of the Great Depression, which left Americans dreaming for some version of “Sunnyville,” a mythical place with few social or economic problems. “The Status Seekers” era is the postwar drive towards financial gain and materialism, as Americans tried to forget years of thrift and sacrifice. “The Anti-Paradise” is an era of counterculture resistance to the strains of the Vietnam War, economic recession, the energy crisis, and racial issues. “Born in the U.S.A.” is an era of renewed patriotism and optimism sparked by the Reagan years, when recessions were persistent and yet expectations continued to rise. “The Anxious Society” is an era of the 1990s boom times that, ironically, left Americans feeling less in control over their lives. Finally, “American Idol” is the era that ushered in the highs-and-lows of the early twenty-first century, with the resilience of the American Dream as its theme.

Samuel’s predominant use of discussions in the popular media as the barometer of the Dream clearly indicates an attempt to appeal to a mainstream audience less interested in complex analysis than in a practical synopsis of trends in American culture. Most of the citations within the work come from print sources, especially major newspapers. The New York Times dominates the discussion with more than one hundred citations. The next-most-cited source is the Los Angeles Times, with less than fifty references, followed by the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and the Hartford Courant, with less than thirty references each.

Published commentary about the “American Dream” is the focus of Samuel’s study, rather than editorial and advertising content appealing to the ever-shifting Dream. By limiting his sources to these discussions, rather than analyzing more tangible manifestations of the American Dream, Samuel’s own discussion becomes at times difficult to follow. He does try to clarify abstract concepts by reverting to material symbols; for example, the achievement of racial equality is discussed in terms of whether barriers to suburban neighborhoods are removed so that African Americans can buy houses there.

In his effort to take on the whole concept of the American Dream over such a long time frame in such a short work, rather than focus on one aspect or one moment in time, Samuel presents an entertaining, if surface-skimming, overview. Yet The American Dream is a timely effort to generate discussion about the future of the Dream in a nation still reeling from recent economic setbacks.

Tess Evans  

Tess Evans graduated from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, in 2012 with a PhD in rhetoric and composition. Her dissertation, “The Persuasion of Many within a Moderate Length of Time,” examines the intersections of classical, religious, and scientific rhetoric during the rise of modern advertising and product branding in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

Copyright © 2013 Kentucky Historical Society
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Tess Evans. "The American Dream: A Cultural History by Lawrence R. Samuel (review...



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