Dream! with Dr. Randy Lewis

As we announced last week, we will be  featuring reflections, responses, and ruminations on the 2012-2013 departmental theme—-“DREAM!”—-from AMS  faculty and assistant instructors who are integrating the theme in their classes in various ways over the course of the semester.

The following thoughts on the theme come to us from Dr. Randy Lewis:

Our departmental theme was an easy fit for my fall lecture course. After all, it would be odd to teach a course entitled “Main Currents in American Culture since 1865” without some reference to the American dream. The question is how to get at it? Langston Hughes’s dream deferred, Willy Loman’s inability to close the sale, Hunter S. Thompson’s “Savage Journey Into the Heart of the American Dream” amid motocross and mescaline in the Nevada desert?

Sure, but why not go back to the horse’s mouth, to Horatio Alger, whose late 19th century novels crystalized the rags-to-riches mythology that seems inextricably woven into our cultural history. Again and again, Alger showed young men (always men) pulling themselves out of poverty and “moving on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky.” Oh wait, that’s Sherman Helmsley… But the idea is the same, and quite frankly it can be surprisingly pernicious in its application. Too often, the American dream is wielded as a bludgeon to wallop poor people for not improving their lot, allegedly because of some deficiency of will, energy, or character.

I don’t buy it for a moment because the real impediments are structural. What my students and I wrestle with is the astonishing fact that the American dream is alive and well—in Norway, France, New Zealand, and elsewhere. If you look at comparative data regarding intergenerational class mobility, Americans are relatively locked into the social class to which they were born. It cofounds everything we’d like to believe about this country. Of course, some folks are loathe to accept this structural reality for reasons that are therapeutic or even anecdotal. As in: It’s too sad to trade the fantasy for the sobering reality–people would just give up. Or: My cousin knows a guy whose sister is friends with someone who went from rags to riches, so, you know, it’s totally possible. My students have very strong feelings about this subject, and I love exploring the rhetoric and reality of the American dream with them. It’s one of the most important things we can do in the American Studies classroom.

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