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Robert Teitelman

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Jon Meacham's American Dream

Posted: 07/02/2012 11:53 am

Decline is hard. The struggle of once-dominant national media -- the news magazines, network news, Reader's Digest -- is painful to watch, like the regression to the mean of a once-great family. TIME magazine this week, in an attempt at a John Philip Sousa sendoff to July 4th, offers up its not-quite-annual-but-often-enough-since-1976 "The Making of America" issue, which suggests something big and important inside, maybe even a package of stories that will tell us something, anything, about our current plight. Well, forget that. Instead, the magazine offers up a wandering essay by former Newsweek editor, public-television fixture, Random House editor and popular historian Jon Meacham on "The History of the American Dream: Is It Still Real?" I have now read this essay three times and I can't come up with an answer to that question beyond, well, maybe -- if everyone sings "Kumbaya" and holds hands while the fireworks go off (see the giant, if smoky-as-a-Civil-War-battlefield, two-page photo of July Fourth in Independence, Mo., that opens the essay), maybe it is true. "We are stronger the wider we open our arms," concludes Meacham, wiping a tear away. "Our dreams are more powerful when they are shared by others in our time. And we are the only ones who can create a climate for the American Dream to survive another generation, then another and another."

All I can say is that I'm glad I wasn't in a canoe with Meacham during the Great Depression. Hug me! Meacham's point, beyond a recapitulation of American history that resembles one of those pageants small towns supposedly put on for July 4th, is that inequality, the issue du jour, is squeezing the life out of this glorious thing called the American Dream. Meacham is worried; so obviously is TIME. But they're not worried enough to actually dig deeply into the sources and debates over inequality, or indeed, to even acknowledge them. Inequality is an allegorical figure trotted out to elicit an emotional response. So too is the American Dream. Both, in fact, become, in the deadening hand of TIME, clichés, zombie ideas drained of life. In fact, the only interesting thing to be learned in Meacham's piece is that the phrase "the American Dream" -- a term promiscuously used by wild-eyed lefties, mild-mannered suburban progressives, old, new and crackpot conservatives, and by every politician with a microphone, all of which should give pause -- wasn't even coined until 1931 by a freelance historian named James Truslow Adams (no relation to the famous Adams clan), an investment-banker-turned-writer (thank you, Wikipedia) who published some popular histories, one of which won a Pulitzer in the '20s. In short, Adams was Meacham before Meacham, right down to the Pulitzer.

Meacham's introduction of Adams is classic news-magazine-style. "On Friday, May 1, 1931, James Truslow Adams, a popular historian, was putting the final touches on the preface to his latest book." Let us pause to admire the genius of that Friday -- and to recognize that somewhere, someone had to check that essentially meaningless fact. I also like "putting the final touches" as if it were a paint job. The Crash of 1929 has already occurred, and Meacham tries to convince us that Adams already knows how depressing the rest of the '30s will be. But Adams, not to say everyone else in America, was apparently imbued with a redoubtable spirit of optimism -- not like gloomypuss contemporary Americans. Despite economic distress, "There was also a spirit of progress, of possibility." Proof? On that very day, the great Herbert Hoover "pressed a button in Washington to turn on the lights of the newly opened Empire State Building at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, which at 1,250 ft., was to be the tallest building in Manhattan until the construction of the World Trade Center four decades later." More extraneous facts.

What is Meacham getting at? At the end of the paragraph you think that Meacham is drawing some connection between Adams' phrase "the American Dream" and the Empire State Building. (Did the American Dream exist before Adams coined the phrase? Just wondering.) In fact, there's no link; it's a total fake job -- except it does suggest that Meacham in a pinch identifies the American dream with big iconic buildings. Meacham can have no idea whether the "spirit of progress and possibility" was thriving -- hell, we're building the new World Trade Center now, what does that tell us about us? -- and he has no way to accurately compare today's mood with that of 1931. Reportage from the likes of Edmund Wilson (in The American Earthquake) or Time Inc.'s own James Agee (in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) hardly described an upbeat mood. In fact fashionable opinion was that capitalism had essentially destroyed itself; Roosevelt would sweep Hoover away in a few years; the Communist Party and homegrown fascism would thrive. Besides, neither Adams nor Hoover nor the man on the street had any clue about what was about to occur. Moreover, Adams' brand of consensus history, with its gospel of progress and uplift, became in the decades ahead increasingly unfashionable, until it was effectively dismantled in the '60s. But that kind of history-as-a-guide-to-American-exceptionalism migrated into the schools and the news magazines. TIME itself declared in its first "The Making of America" issue in 1976 that "this issue is an attempt to reconstruct, with the tools of both history and journalism, and in our distinctively news magazine format, at least part of the life and soul of the events that gave birth to our nation."

Combining journalism and history produces a past that is an inevitable progression to greater liberty, freedom and wealth -- the so-called Whig version of history. What really matters is right now or perhaps the future; writers can then ransack the historical record for convenient evidence of whatever zeitgeist point they wish to make. History has a direction: onwards and upwards. And it's full of lessons: Jamestown and Massachusetts; gold and God; slavery and the Trail of Tears; Horatio Alger, the pursuit of happiness, the frontier, civil rights. (Meacham waxes poetically over the transcontinental railroad, arguing that it shows government had a key role in the American Dream, making a very nice complement to the Union Pacific spread advertisement about that very episode two pages earlier. Funny how that works.) A Norman Rockwell painting appears -- of course. Martin Luther King Jr. shows up and so does John Updike, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton -- all, despite their vast differences, harnessed up to pull the great American Dream. But, really, it's up to all of us. You gotta believe. Hug?

News-magazine essays like this, like many political speeches and a lot of TV news, are not meant to be carefully read, pondered or deconstructed; they're to be inhaled, like the smoke from a barbecue or a bong. This doesn't tell us much about the state of America, but it does tell us something about the fate of mass media in an age of fragmentation. Those who know something will never read it, or scoff if they do. Those who don't know or care about American history will never read it unless they're stuck in a dentist's office with a broken TV. Who does that leave?

Originally posted on TheDeal.com.

Robert Teitelman is editor in chief of The Deal magazine.

 
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