America is, or has been, one big Horatio Alger Story.
If you’re under 85 years old, you may never have heard of Horatio. He was a real person — an author, who is often confused with his characters: teenage boys, mostly, who overcome poverty and other obstacles to lead happy and productive lives.
Alger wrote more than 100 books with similar themes in the late 19th Century. Generations of Americans, including my mother, simply referred to achievers as “Horatio Alger stories.” Their characters were synonymous with “success stories”: the epitome of the American Dream.
Long after Horatio Alger, Jr. faded into obscurity, the idea that there’s an American Dream lived on. It became the theme, or an optimistic undercurrent, of hundreds of American books and movies. In his 1931 best-seller Epic of America, historian James Truslow Adams described it as a vision “of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”
If women also had such dreams, people back then weren’t taking much note of them.
To this day in the United States, politicians looking to get elected, and car dealers and banks looking for business milk the “American Dream” theme for all it’s worth.
But the idea of a valiant Horatio Alger striver overcoming all odds to achieve great wealth and honor is a myth. Alger’s heroes did not get rich; they merely survived adversity and blended into the middle-class mainstream.
In today’s economically tenuous, and politically fractious, times, many writers — and other citizens, too — have come to believe the American Dream is unattainable fiction.
In fact, in a January essay in the Washington Post, Michael F. Ford identified five common assumptions about the American Dream that he says are myths.
If anyone should know, he should. Ford is the founding director of a scholarly center that studies nothing but the American Dream, at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.
It has even completed two national surveys of Americans’ attitudes about the “Dream,” with a third in the works.
So I had a long talk with him.
Ford reminded me — and I could hear echoes of “give me your tired, your poor” from Emma Lazarus’s “New Colossus” sonnet etched on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty as he spoke — that the American Dream is at its heart an immigrant’s dream, of a better, freer life.
“You can trace it to the very first immigrant Americans who came here seeking opportunity, with a belief that the more effort they put into it, the greater the reward,” Ford says.
They were Horatio Alger stories before there was a Horatio Alger.
By trade, Michael Ford is not a politician exactly, but he spent 35 years in politics — as a top assistant to a Cincinnati mayor and an Ohio governor, as well as a campaign strategist for nine presidential campaigns and more than 100 congressional races. And he’s the first to admit that politicos, no matter their place on the liberal-to-conservative continuum, “co-brand” the American Dream at every opportunity.
They wrap themselves in the flag, as the cliché goes, offering themselves as the agents who can bring the city or the state or the country — or the voter — to that better life.
Never mind that politicians, like all current U.S. institutions save for the military, score badly on the trustworthiness scale in the minds of Americans.
What fascinates Michael Ford — and me, as he mentions it — is that voters don’t necessarily believe a word of what even their own favorite candidate might be saying, or necessarily believe that the country is doing well.
The Center for the Study of the American Dream’s own survey finds that the American people strongly believe that the United States “is in rapid decline” as it loses economic power and influence to other rising nations. But people still believe in the American Dream for themselves.
Ford likens it to a combat situation:
“In battle, a soldier fights to survive, and for the guy next to him,” he says.
“It isn’t about some mythical achievement or bigger idea. In the greater sense, it’s about ‘here we are, fighting for the American Dream,’ which in this case means, primarily, a better life for my family.
“If the government isn’t going to cooperate, if the politicians aren’t going to cooperate, if big business isn’t going to cooperate, it doesn’t matter. We still dream, but we don’t rely on others to achieve it.”
How can you say the American Dream persists if people truly believe the country is in decline? I asked him.
“Again,” he replied, “you have to try to understand the difference between a national dream or aspiration and a personal dream.
The nature of the American dream is our character more than our ambition. The character of striving. The Dream does not conflate with the economy. We say, “OK, things are bad, but I’m going to beat it. I’m going to college or I’m going to start my business. I’m moving forward! Bring it on! Mr. Blandings will still build his dream house. The fact that times are tough doesn’t mean we won’t keep fighting to get what we believe is better for our families.”
“Mr. Blandings” is a reference to another of those overcoming-all-odds novels — later made into a movie — from a more upbeat time.
In the 1948 film, Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, as Jim and Muriel Blandings, are determined to trade their cramped New York apartment for a prototypical, American-Dreamish house in the suburbs.
The Blandings even had the requisite two kids. I don’t know about the dog, and whether their dream house had the standard white-picket fence.
Michael Ford says the American Dream lives on in no small measure because it remains an immigrant’s dream.
“If your heart’s desire is to come to America, you have a striver’s personality, and you’re willing to risk leaving the comfort and safety of your life and pick up and go to a country where it’s likely you don’t speak the language and may not know a soul, just the possibility of a better life for your family is enough to drive you.”
America “needs that constant infusion of new strivers,” Ford says. “It marks the character of our country, and it was brought here. We didn’t create it.”
But what about those myths — five of them, no less — about the American Dream, that Ford wrote about in the Washington Post?
• The American Dream is about getting rich. Nope. In its survey last year of 1,300 adults, only 6 percent of Americans listed “wealth” as their top or second definition of the American Dream.
Their preferred definition (45 percent): “a good life for my family.” Second (32 percent) was “freedom.”
• The American Dream is uniquely American. We’ve already discussed the immigrant roots of the dream. But Ford and I also discussed whether the “melting pot” that is America can claim sole or primary ownership of the attributes that we associate with the American Dream. No again. They’re not unique to America, Ford told me. “But we have an awful lot of people who have the characteristics, who believe in our individual chances, our individual possibilities.” No matter the situation, “we still believe it’s worth trying” to get ahead.
• Economic decline and political gridlock are killing the American Dream. Wrong again. Roughly 4 of 5 Americans told the American Dream Center’s surveyors that they have less trust in politics and politicians than they did 10 or 15 years ago. Yet, Ford wrote in the Post, “63 percent of Americans said they are confident they will attain their American Dream.”
• China threatens the American Dream. The Center’s study did find that Americans believe many nations — China foremost among them — now “represent the future.” Even so, Michael Ford observes, “the United States remains the world’s land of opportunity.” The largest international group of foreign students (157,000) in the 2010-11 academic year came from China, he noted.
A bigger threat to the American Dream than China, Michael Ford believes, is “civic illiteracy.” “Keeping the dream alive relies on engaged citizens, and if we are civically illiterate, we’re in trouble,” he says.
His organization’s next survey will attempt to measure the degree of our civic illiteracy.
“All I can think of is Benjamin Franklin walking out of the constitutional convention,” Ford says. “A woman asked him, ‘What do we have?’ And he answered, ‘We have a republic, madam, if we can keep it.’”
I saved the fifth of Michael Ford’s “myths” about the American Dream for last, because it is the piece of that dream that I had always held highest. My mother and grandmother were able to buy our tiny home outside Cleveland, Ohio, but barely.
And in my generation, my family and I have moved to many rented apartments and small homes before we could afford to buy a house. The first deed, to a little house on 6½ hectares (16 acres) with — I can still remember — 24 pecan trees in Wichita Falls, Texas, felt like the most precious piece of paper I had ever held in my hand.
But Michael Ford says striving to own a home is no longer central to the American Dream.
“I’m not denigrating the idea,” he says. “It’s just a material fact, a financial decision right now, that home ownership is less important that it used to be.”
If one in four Americans are willing to walk away from their mortgages, whether they’re ‘under water’ or not, that’s a decision beyond the mythological dream of the house with the picket fence and so forth. A lot of people are saying a house is not a good investment right now. Its value doesn’t go up and up only. It goes down, too. Maybe it’s smarter to rent now.
Indeed, struggling to stay in a house is an ordeal for millions of Americans these days. But Ford points out that this doesn’t mean promoters of home ownership aren’t still pitching it as the essence of the American Dream.
“Even today,” he says, “we can look at most major Sunday newspapers, and they run full-page ads talking about buying a home as the American Dream. ‘This is the best time to buy,’ they say. And the people who talk about this more than anybody are the people who make money selling them or building them or lending money on them.”
So let’s cut to the chase for that American Dream. What is it, exactly, that we’re chasing?
Michael Ford of Xavier University’s Center for the Study of the American Dream reiterates that it’s “making a better life for me and my family. It’s the idea of opportunity, freedom, even in tough times.” It’s an individual thing, more than a national trait.
“I don’t think the American Dream will ever end,” Ford says. “It’s a tabula rasa. We just have to fill it in.”
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Conflate. To combine something. Usually it’s not something physical but rather conceptual, as in conflating two arguments or ideas.
Denigrate. To criticize something harshly or unfairly, to disparage something or someone.
Fractious. Irritable, bad-tempered, as in perpetually squabbling political parties.
Tabula rasa. A clean slate or fresh start. Something with no previous agenda or preconceived ideas. The term traces to Roman wax tablets, used for recording notes. When the notes were no longer needed, the wax could be melted, leaving a blank surface ready to record new thoughts.