The year was 1930, a down one like this one. But for Moss Hart, it was the time for his particularly American moment of triumph. He had grown up poor in the outer boroughs of New York City—“the grim smell of actual want always at the end of my nose,” he said—and he’d vowed that if he ever made it big he would never again ride the rattling trains of the city’s dingy subway system. Now he was 25, and his first play, Once in a Lifetime, had just opened to raves on Broadway. And so, with three newspapers under his arm and a wee-hours celebration of a successful opening night behind him, he hailed a cab and took a long, leisurely sunrise ride back to the apartment in Brooklyn where he still lived with his parents and brother.
Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into one of the several drab tenement neighborhoods that preceded his own, Hart later recalled, “I stared through the taxi window at a pinch-faced 10-year-old hurrying down the steps on some morning errand before school, and I thought of myself hurrying down the street on so many gray mornings out of a doorway and a house much the same as this one.… It was possible in this wonderful city for that nameless little boy—for any of its millions—to have a decent chance to scale the walls and achieve what they wished. Wealth, rank, or an imposing name counted for nothing. The only credential the city asked was the boldness to dream.”
As the boy ducked into a tailor shop, Hart recognized that this narrative was not exclusive to his “wonderful city”—it was one that could happen anywhere in, and only in, America. “A surge of shamefaced patriotism overwhelmed me,” Hart wrote in his memoir, Act One. “I might have been watching a victory parade on a flag-draped Fifth Avenue instead of the mean streets of a city slum. A feeling of patriotism, however, is not always limited to the feverish emotions called forth by war. It can sometimes be felt as profoundly and perhaps more truly at a moment such as this.”
Hart, like so many before and after him, was overcome by the power of the American Dream. As a people, we Americans are unique in having such a thing, a more or less Official National Dream. (There is no correspondingly stirring Canadian Dream or Slovakian Dream.) It is part of our charter—as articulated in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, in the famous bit about “certain unalienable Rights” that include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—and it is what makes our country and our way of life attractive and magnetic to people in other lands.
But now fast-forward to the year 2009, the final Friday of January. The new president is surveying the dire economy he has been charged with righting—600,000 jobs lost in January alone, a gross domestic product that shrank 3.8 percent in the final quarter of 2008, the worst contraction in almost 30 years. Assessing these numbers, Barack Obama, a man who normally exudes hopefulness for a living, pronounces them a “continuing disaster for America’s working families,” a disaster that amounts to no less, he says, than “the American Dream in reverse.”
In reverse. Imagine this in terms of Hart’s life: out of the taxicab, back on the subway, back to the tenements, back to cramped cohabitation with Mom and Dad, back to gray mornings and the grim smell of actual want.
You probably don’t even have to imagine, for chances are that of late you have experienced some degree of reversal yourself, or at the very least have had friends or loved ones get laid off, lose their homes, or just find themselves forced to give up certain perks and amenities (restaurant meals, cable TV, salon haircuts) that were taken for granted as recently as a year ago.
These are tough times for the American Dream. As the safe routines of our lives have come undone, so has our characteristic optimism—not only our belief that the future is full of limitless possibility, but our faith that things will eventually return to normal, whatever “normal” was before the recession hit. There is even worry that the dream may be over—that we currently living Americans are the unfortunate ones who shall bear witness to that deflating moment in history when the promise of this country began to wither. This is the “sapping of confidence” that President Obama alluded to in his inaugural address, the “nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.”
But let’s face it: If Moss Hart, like so many others, was able to rally from the depths of the Great Depression, then surely the viability of the American Dream isn’t in question. What needs to change is our expectation of what the dream promises—and our understanding of what that vague and promiscuously used term, “the American Dream,” is really supposed to mean.
In recent years, the term has often been interpreted to mean “making it big” or “striking it rich.” (As the cult of Brian De Palma’s Scarface has grown, so, disturbingly, has the number of people with a literal, celebratory read on its tagline: “He loved the American Dream. With a vengeance.”) Even when the phrase isn’t being used to describe the accumulation of great wealth, it’s frequently deployed to denote extreme success of some kind or other. Last year, I heard commentators say that Barack Obama achieved the American Dream by getting elected president, and that Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel achieved the American Dream by leading his team to its first World Series title since 1980.
Yet there was never any promise or intimation of extreme success in the book that popularized the term, The Epic of America, by James Truslow Adams, published by Little, Brown and Company in 1931. (Yes, “the American Dream” is a surprisingly recent coinage; you’d think that these words would appear in the writings of Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, but they don’t.) For a book that has made such a lasting contribution to our vocabulary, The Epic of America is an offbeat piece of work—a sweeping, essayistic, highly subjective survey of this country’s development from Columbus’s landfall onward, written by a respected but solemn historian whose prim prose style was mocked as “spinach” by the waggish theater critic Alexander Woollcott.
But it’s a smart, thoughtful treatise. Adams’s goal wasn’t so much to put together a proper history of the U.S. as to determine, by tracing his country’s path to prominence, what makes this land so unlike other nations, so uniquely American. (That he undertook such an enterprise when he did, in the same grim climate in which Hart wrote Once in a Lifetime, reinforces how indomitably strong Americans’ faith in their country remained during the Depression.) What Adams came up with was a construct he called “that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.”
From the get-go, Adams emphasized the egalitarian nature of this dream. It started to take shape, he said, with the Puritans who fled religious persecution in England and settled New England in the 17th century. “[Their] migration was not like so many earlier ones in history, led by warrior lords with followers dependent on them,” he wrote, “but was one in which the common man as well as the leader was hoping for greater freedom and happiness for himself and his children.”
The Declaration of Independence took this concept even further, for it compelled the well-to-do upper classes to put the common man on an equal footing with them where human rights and self-governance were concerned—a nose-holding concession that Adams captured with exquisite comic passiveness in the sentence, “It had been found necessary to base the [Declaration’s] argument at last squarely on the rights of man.” Whereas the colonist upper classes were asserting their independence from the British Empire, “the lower classes were thinking not only of that,” Adams wrote, “but of their relations to their colonial legislatures and governing class.”