American Dreaming in the 21st Century

Last April, Vanity Fair published a fascinating article on the evolving nature of the American Dream. Author, David Kamp, researched the history of this ideology and found that the term originated from a book written in 1931 by James Truslow Adams. It was called The Epic of America. In it, Adams traces the path of the Puritans sailing from England to a new world where they will be able to practice religious freedom. That was their American Dream. It then evolved, as they needed further freedom from the taxing of the British government and the monarchy system, as a whole. They wrote the Declaration of Independence with the hope that all men—despite whatever class they were born into—would be free to become whatever they desired.

Kamp then speaks of the Wild West vision, filled with gold mines and railroads. He mentions Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s State of the Union Address in 1941 when he successfully rallies the American people to join WWII so that they may fight valiantly for the “four essential human freedoms”: “freedom of speech and expression;” “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way;” “freedom from want;” and “freedom from fear.” Yet, by the end of the 1940s, Kamp notes that the definition of the American Dream begins to shift in a slightly different direction. Rather than being characterized by beliefs and goals and inalienable rights, the American Dream slowly began to seep into a long list of materialistic entitlements.

With the introduction of three key inventions—the suburb, the television set, and the credit card—society couldn’t help but long for more. And more, and more, and more. The mass production of houses meant that everyone should be able to own one. The T.V. brought us all smack dab into the lives of idyllic American families that everyone felt obligated to emulate. As the decades went by, each iconic family seemed to have obtained a higher level of affluence than the one before it. The Cosby’s had a higher standard of living than the Brady’s who had a higher standard of living than Ozzie and Harriet, and so on and so forth. Kamp believes all this upward mobility was directly linked to the invention of the credit card. He writes, “the unaffordable became affordable.”

Yet, the irony of it all is that in the midst of widespread technology and a booming economy, from the 1990s onward, the American people seemed to view the American Dream as being less attainable than ever. In 2006, way before the recession hit, a poll done by CNN showed that 54% thought the American Dream was unachievable.

So what gives?

Well, Kamp believes (and I tend to agree with him) that it is because the definition of the American Dream has shifted even further in the wrong direction. Rather than being defined by owning a house and holding a job that would one day lead to early retirement, the American Dream is now characterized by obtaining a successful career, a flat screen, an iphone, a luxury vehicle, a home that has been remodeled to fulfill HGTV standards, nice clothes, a college education, a gym membership, and perhaps even the freedom to afford to put an all-organic meal on the table, because everyone knows that good parents don’t just feed their kids McDonald’s anymore. (That’s my synopsis, not Kamp’s, just in case you were wondering.) And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. That doesn’t even begin to consider things like vacations and annual passes to Disneyland. It’s no wonder the American Dream feels more out of reach than ever before.

In the Vanity Fair article, Kamp invites us to reconsider our priorities, and to examine not only what we are striving for, but why we are striving for it. Yet, the one aspect of all this that I find compelling and that Kamp does not directly address, is that our predecessors seemed to have been content with working towards and earning their American Dream. They almost expected it to be hard; whereas, our on-demand society seems to have less patience with that concept. We want to win American Idol and gain instant stardom. Or better yet, have money and fame handed down to us, like Paris Hilton, the Kardashian sisters, and the many other celebutantes who currently populate our cultural landscape.

Psychologists call this phenomenon the “Narcissism Epidemic.” Dr. Drew Pinsky interviewed several hundreds of people born in my generation—from the early 1980s to the present—and found that we are more narcissistic than any generation that has ever come before us. Meaning, that many of us seem to have a massive sense of entitlement and are overly self-involved. He says our narcissism is characterized by a lack of patience and a desire to be recognized. According to Dr. Drew (and a few other psychologists), our chief aims are wealth and fame. We want it all and we want it now and are feeling frustrated and disillusioned by the fact that we are not getting it.

Yet, they admit it is not entirely our fault. Apparently, we are the product of a media-saturated society that relentlessly encourages us to do narcissistic things, and this narcissism is slowly spreading outward and permeating all aspects of American Society. Doctors Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell argue that evidence of our narcissistic society can be identified through things like credit card debt, increased plastic surgery rates, the popularity of social networking sites, the inability of young people to maintain successful romantic relationships, and recent studies showing that high school and college students want good grades, but are not as apt to work for them.

In the wake of all these blanket allegations—the spread of narcissism, the breakdown of the American Dream—I thought I might take my students back to the basics and allow them to revisit one essential component of the American Dream, which is and always has been very simple: it’s hard work.

For their first essay of the semester, I asked them to analyze how we define failure and success in American society. They have to take theses societal beliefs/ideologies and apply them to the life of a successful person that they admire. They also have to research how many times that person has failed in his or her life. Their ultimate goal is to do what Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, advocated in a speech she gave last year called “The Danger of a Single Story.” She calls for society to stop telling one story over and over again, as though it is the only story of a nation or a people, but to instead take that story and tell it from a different perspective—start it at a different place, observe the situation from a different angle. That is what I want my students to do. Take all the people that we put up on pedestals, and instead of worshipping their success, to take a long hard look at how they got there. It’s not a revolutionary idea, but it’s something I feel we don’t do enough of lately.

In reading their rough drafts, as I did all last weekend, I got to hear all sorts of new and interesting stories—not of Donald Trump and his ever-expanding empire—but of a younger Donald Trump, who at one point in his life was one billion dollars in debt, and who pointed at a homeless man on the streets and said, “See that bum? He has a billion dollars more than me.”

I read stories of Oprah Winfrey who grew up on a farm in Mississippi and wore dresses made from potato sacks. I like these stories because they take the stereotypical slush that the media churns out on a regular basis about status and power and mansions and fame and they enrich them. It’s these stories of struggle that actually provide depth to all of the other nonsense.

And ever since I decided to pursue writing—to actually dream of one day getting paid for it—I’ve found that I need stories like these more than ever before. Every week, after I post my new blog, a small voice inside me wonders whether or not I will come up with anything to post the following week. What if nothing interesting happens? What if I don’t have time to write? What if I don’t get inspired by Taco Tuesday conversations, or rainstorms, or video footage of mission trips to Haiti?

What then?

And every week, on multiple occasions, I have to tune those voices out, pry myself out of bed, make my cup of coffee, and sit down and write, all the while reminding myself that any act of creativity is always, first and foremost, an act of faith. Steven King calls these creative acts “ordinary miracles.”

He’s got an interesting collection of failures all his own. When he was a teenager, he started submitting his short stories to thriller and mystery magazines across the U.S. and for years, he got rejected. In his memoir, On Writing, which is technically the only book by Stephen King I have ever read, he says that he took all of his rejection slips and hung them on the wall above his desk where he wrote each day. He fastened them all with one nail, and just kept adding one on top of the next. After a few years, his stack of rejection slips became so thick that a single nail could no longer hold them up. He writes, “So I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.”

When I tell this story to my students each semester as I’m introducing the failure essay assignment, I generally bring in a nail as a visual aid—to help them imagine just how thick his stack of rejection slips must have been. Then I read the part about replacing the nail with a spike, and I usually say to them, “I don’t have a spike to show you and I’m not even sure where to go about getting one. Although, it doesn’t surprise me that Stephen King had a spike. In fact, he probably had a whole collection of them.”

This usually gets a laugh. That’s part of the beauty of teaching—getting to recycle the same jokes one semester after the next. But this story about Stephen King never fails to amaze me. Stephen King, who has written dozens upon dozens upon dozens of novels, most of which appear on the New York Times Best-Sellers List and then are promptly turned into movies, received nothing but rejection slips for a significant portion of his life. But, being the dedicated fellow that he is, he continued strong and maintained his daily goal of writing five full pages. Yes, you read that correctly, according to his memoir, he locks himself in his office every day until he has written five full pages. Then he lets himself out. This sounds somewhat torturous to me, but it also sounds like a different variation of what Elizabeth Gilbert advises. When asked how she became the successful author she is today, she states, “I made a vow to writing. I became Bride-of-Writing. I was writing’s most devotional handmaiden.”

After reading these words, along with all 27 of my students’ rough drafts about tenacious Olympic athletes, about fathers who moved to the U.S. from Thailand and who now own multiple 7-11 franchises, about single mothers whose sons are so moved by their years of sacrifice and devotion that they choose to write essays about them for their college English class—it is at this point that I recognize quite clearly that it is not going to be the easiest of paths, this road to writing that I suddenly find myself traveling on. But for some reason, it doesn’t really faze me. Whatever struggles I encounter, I guess I can just start by writing about them. That’s what I would want to be doing anyway. And as far as the American Dream goes, I suppose in many ways I already have it. It all depends on whose definition I choose to go by.

· Since I referenced half a dozen different authors and articles, here they all are: