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A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation

by Jim Cullen

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-19-515821-0
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

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.