One man’s provocative, worthwhile, and stimulating summation.

THE AMERICAN DREAM

A SHORT HISTORY OF AN IDEA THAT SHAPED A NATION

Prep school teacher and historian Cullen, who once recast Bruce Springsteen in the mold of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Born in the U.S.A., 1997), now argues that you can’t have the American Dream without at least defining it for your own time.

The author begins filtering components with the Puritans, whom he frankly anoints as “annoying” progenitors of the Dream, what with their extreme ideas that included the ever-frustrating concept of predestination, their witch-burnings, and their drive to save the souls of Native Americans in order to annihilate them. But still, Cullen proposes, the Puritans did have a dream. From there it’s onward and generally upward as Jefferson struggles with what he knows is a contemporary paradox in basing the Declaration of Independence on the intrinsic equality of all men. Readers will further sense the elusiveness of the American Dream even as Lincoln finally hammers the “inalienable” into legislation eight decades after Jefferson penned it and wistfully wonders if “this, too, shall pass” in a speech given almost as if in a dream state. “Among the worst decisions the Supreme Court ever made,” Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) socked the Dream right in the eye, but in doing so, Cullen asserts, opened the door for Martin Luther King Jr. and his adherents of all races to rehabilitate it and send it on its way in the ’60s. The author takes something of an intermission from the stuff of pure ideas to visit home ownership as the principal material compulsion embodied in the Dream, locating its crowning manifestation in the prefab wonder of Long Island’s Levittown. Finally, in dealing with the inevitable frontier complex of American aspiration, Cullen confronts “the Coast,” symbolized by California (where the sun sets, etc.), as perhaps the most potentially heartbreaking yet persistently iridescent of the Dream’s layers. This is the beckoning impossible—the one that gets Jay Gatsby killed in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s rendering.

One man’s provocative, worthwhile, and stimulating summation.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-19-515821-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2002

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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