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Another pretty awesome photograph by Michael Gaida via Pixabay

The term “American Dream” has been so overused as to lose its meaning. Researching for my novel-in-progress, a story set just before WWII, I found Made In America: Self-Styled Success from Horatio Alger to Oprah Winfrey, in which author Jeffrey Louis Decker gives some background on the oft-used phrase:

The term [American Dream] was not put into print until 1931, when middle-brow historian James Truslow Adams coined it and used it throughout the pages of a book titled The Epic of America. The American Dream is to be understood as an ethical doctrine that is symptomatic of a crisis in national identity during the thirties. The newly invented dream calls out for a supplement to the outmoded narrative uplift, which had lost its moral capacity to guide the nation during the Depression.

So, out of extreme poverty and ruin, the collective American Dream was borne.

That dream was grasped like a brass ring by people in the Rust Belt—men and their wives and children, generation after generation of industry and uplift—from the industrial boom of WWII, onward. Prospering. That is, until the downturn of manufacturing in more recent decades.

Not to despair, in many places, the Rust Belt has risen again. On a recent trip to Ohio, I visited the lovely historic village of Milan (pronunciation rhymes with stylin’), the birthplace of American inventor Thomas Edison. Not an abandoned theatre, gutted warehouse, or crumbling façade in site (of the town square, anyway). No Ruin Porn subjects here.

Other Ohio towns—and townspeople—haven’t fared as well. Take, for instance, Chillicothe, Ohio, three hours south of Milan (along with too many places in between).

In an article with the startling quote as header, “All the Men Here Are Either on Drugs or Unemployed,” in The Atlantic, writer Alana Semuels describes the decline of Chillicothe in Ross County, Ohio:

Men were once the primary breadwinners in areas like Ross County, where they worked good manufacturing jobs and came home at the end of the day to wives…But today in Ross County, manufacturing jobs have been outsourced or automated, and men have more time on their hands and less income to support their families. Some have turned to alcohol or drugs—Ross County is one of the areas of Ohio hit hardest by the opioid epidemic…

The upshot of the article: women are left behind—to work the remaining low-paying service jobs, to raise the kids, to bear up under families laid low. Unemployment to opioid epidemic—the latest ruin-er of families.

Sounds like another crisis in national identity to me, a crisis so terrible it has us rolling our eyes at the outmoded notion of an American Dream and looking—to whom?—to decide on a new national narrative to lift us out of, or at least salvage, this mess.

Who do you look to? Who do you read?

Stay tuned for Part 3, coming soon…

~All best, Rebecca

 

 

 

 

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