The American Dream by Jim Cullen
Updated: Jul 3, 2020
Rating - 7/10
Seeing as it’s 4th July, A.K.A - Independence day (in the US), I thought I’d read a nonfiction book about the birth of America. This is one of those books that is always on the book shelf but you never quite pick it up to read it. It isn’t even mine! Ha, but finally the timing felt right and I wanted to refresh my memory about American history. The last time I read anything like this was probably in high school! I also quite liked the title of it: ‘The American Dream’. That’s one thing a lot of people have in common, they’re always searching for the illusive ‘American Dream’.
The American Dream is one of the most familiar and poignant phrases in the American dictionary. It’s so familiar that we rarely pause and ask ourselves about its history and origins. Jim Cullen explores the meanings of the American Dream and the many American dreams that have shaped America from the Pilgrims to the present day. The blurb notes that "the US defines itself not on the notes of the facts, blood, religion, geography or shared history, but on a set of ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution". At the very core of these ideals, lies an unclear concept of the American Dream, that for better or worse has proven to be incredibly durable and fluid for hundreds of years and across racial, class, and other demographic lines. The description continues: "the current version of the American Dream that dominates our own time is what Cullen calls - The Dream of the Coast. It is one of personal fulfillment, fame, fortune and even more attractive if they are achieved without effort, which finds its own cunning expression in the exciting culture of Hollywood".
I quite liked the length of this book, it felt quite accessible and readable. It’s only 224 pages long so it’s not a heavy set read at all which was a plus! There are six chapters in the book and they all go in chronological order from the birth of America, to our present time. I definitely liked some chapters more than others, or at least in my case, I preferred hearing about particular subject matters than other less interesting ones. Jim Cullen’s descriptions of each chapter I thought was excellent, what he actually discussed and the core subject I thought, was quite impressive. For example, his first chapter titled: “Dream of the Good Life (I): The Puritan Enterprise” was extremely insightful and, even though I couldn't care less about the Puritans, I actually appreciated re-discovering how they came to this land. It was fascinating to read and to be re-educated about all of this. My knowledge of American History is mostly from my high school experience, as most people I’m sure are, unless you’re a history buff and know loads more than I do! It was nice to get in depth mini 411s in each particular subject matter of this book.
One of my favorite chapters was; Chapter 2 - “Dream Charter: The Declaration of Independence” It was truly enlightening to read about how the Founding Fathers came to be and how they had come to create this historical document. We all know phrases such as “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”, which is on the original 1823 Declaration of Independence, ingrained in our brains as the source code of the American Dream. Cullen mentions this in the chapter and delves into what this truly means. In this chapter you also get to learn more about our Founding Fathers and how they came to be such important figures in the history of America. I learned so much from reading this book, it was insane. Maybe because my brain was half switched off during high school, but it truly was just awesome re-learning all of this incredible history which has shaped the America that we have today. One of the quotes from this chapter in Cullen’s book, that really stood out to me and explained how Democracy back then, truly was created for just white men by the founding fathers is this:
(He explains the viewpoint of the founding fathers)
“But whether by nature or nurture, it was clear to them that many of the people who lived in the United States--slaves, women, Indians--lacked virtue, and that is why they were excluded from what became a democratic republic.
So you see, there is a logic to their American Dream. It wasn’t exactly our logic two hundred years later, but it made a kind of sense. When the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men are created equal, the writer of that document really did mean men, by their lights: not females, not some black- or yellow skinned “savage”, but civilized white males (a.k.a “men”). All those people were created equal--an assertion notable for both its inclusiveness relative to what came before and its exclusivity relative to what followed. Whether or not others, like slaves, were also created equal in terms of a theoretical capability for republican government was a matter of some uncertainty (and less debate). It was the obvious common ground, in any case, not the ambiguity of those on the boundaries, that was their focus.”
(Cullen - Chapter 2, Dream Charter: The Declaration of Independence - Page 51)
Let’s just take a minute to dissect that. It’s strange to read because it’s nothing new or groundbreaking. We know that they all owned slaves back then, and we know that they drove the Native Americans from their land, and we know that for anyone to have any rights as an American citizen, you had to be a white male to do so. But to actually read that the founding fathers truly believed this was quite eye opening. America and the Declaration of Independence, from the eyes of the founding fathers, was created only for white men. That is who they saw as their equal back then. As you now know, time changes all of this and soon after, black American citizens begin to slowly fight for their rights - often referred to as ‘The Civil Rights Movement’, in which Cullen covers in the chapter titled: “King of America: The Dream of Equality”. In this chapter Cullen covers what equality truly means within the American Dream, and that issues such segregation could only be achieved by what Martin Luther King Jr. preached over and over again, which is his dream of equality.
“Slavery, which was now dead, was conquered by freedom. Segregation, which remained alive, could only be conquered by equality”.
(Cullen - Page 125)
There are so many things that I learned while reading this book, such as how the Republican party came to be, and how it was formed by Stephen A. Douglas sort of accidentally. Funny thing is, not much has changed if you look at the Republican party now, from when it was created back then, it’s shockingly similar. It was created in a:
“Self-conscious homage to the ideology of the Founders. Its membership was a hybrid of old Whigs, nativists opposed to allowing immigrants into the country, and dissafected Democrats united in their distaste for slavery (and African Americans generally).”
(Cullen - Page 83)
It was also interesting to learn about Abraham Lincoln, his political ideals, and how he understood the Declaration of Independence. I learned about how a lot of the land in the US came to be owned and discovered, as well as attained more knowledge of the term ‘Redlining’. ["In the United States, redlining is the systematic denial of various services by federal government agencies, local governments as well as the private sector either directly or through the selective raising of prices"] - WIKI
“The explicit government policy of redlining certain towns, cities, and neighborhoods with high minority populations--declaring them too risky to insure--made them virtually worthless to bans and buyers. Nor could minority families escape such places, for reasons that included individual responsibility, government neglect, and the self-fulfilling prophecies of mass abandonment.”
(Cullen - Page 152, Chapter 5- Detached Houses: The Dream of Home Ownership)
I think it’s really important to understand why America is the way it is today, and when you read and learn about the history of how America came to be, you begin to understand why it took so long to have even the level of women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, African American rights, Native American rights and Immigrant rights that we have now. When you get right down to the core, you really see that racism and discrimination against anyone who isn’t a white male was built into the foundation of America by the Founding Fathers. As much as it does anger me to read about these facts, it is also important to get both sides of the story and learn about the history of America. Yes, I do agree America would not be the country it is today without the history of how we got here and the work of our Founding Fathers. But, it is also Okay to recognize that we are a completely different country to the one that was built by our Founding Fathers. We can definitely take some of the ideals that they instilled in the Declaration of Independence, because that is how America was shaped, by those ideals such as: 'All men are created equal', and our constitutional rights such as 'Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness'. Lincoln interpreted this in his politics. We all have a right to our opinions, and I think that’s what makes America so great. The endless possibilities and the idea of a freeing American Dream for everyone.
The American Dream was an interesting read. It covered a short amount of pages and summarized 'The American Dream' quite well. From the Puritans, to the civil rights movement, to equality, and to ‘The Good Life’ of the Californian coast with it’s Hollywood appeal. My only negative comment is I did get the sense that Cullen sort of over-glorified the Puritans and Founding Fathers. I also would have liked to read a bit more about the Native Americans, but I do understand that this is a book about The American Dream and how it came to be. All in all, not a bad overview of 'The American Dream'.
With that said, I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from this book:
“If there is one constant in the Declaration of Independence, it lies in the way no version of the status quo is ever completely acceptable. It provides us with (often imperceptibly shifting) standards by which we measure success but simultaneously calls attention to the gap between what is and what we believe should be, a gap that defines our national experience. A piece of wishful thinking composed in haste, the Declaration was born and lives as the charter of the American Dream. It constitutes us.”
(Cullen- Page 58, Chapter 2 - Dream Charter: The Declaration of Independence.)
Jim Cullen is a U.S cultural historian. His major works include- Born in the USA: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition (HarperCollins, 1997),The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford University Press, 2003), and Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions(Oxford, 2013).
To learn more about Jim Cullen's work, Click Here
Genre: Nonfiction | History | North American History
Publication Date: June 14, 2004 (First published in 2003)
The Great Gatsby, a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a perfect example of the American Dream. Many people were trying to succeed and prosper in their own version of the American Dream during the 1920s. This is why I chose a theme song from this Era. The perfect theme song to compliment this book for me, would be: 'Ain't Misbehavin' by Fats Waller released in 1929.