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Another American bird, the osprey. Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

Lately, I’ve been American Dream-ing. My historical novel-in-progress interrogates the meaning of this term so overused as to be often scoffed at now, and questions what it means to be an American at peace, and at war on the Homefront. My short stories ask whether there is an American Dream to be found anymore in U.S. places defined by rust, and loss of industry, jobs, and people. Being a pessimistically optimistic Midwesterner by birth, I must say, um, yep.

Then there’s my own little dream, something like a lowercase american dream, not at all dire, to write: to dream on paper, I guess.

Recently, I ran across an interview with Crooked River Burning author and Ohio native Mark Winegardner, in which he talked about his start in writing as a journalist. The idea of being a “creative” writer was foreign and impractical, not done in his family and town–until, of course, he did it. Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood author and Pennsylvania native Paul Hertneky said much the same thing. Practical doesn’t trade in dreams.

My (late) mom, a child of the 50s and early 60s (when one could put a finger on just what was meant by “American Dream”), was lucky enough to attend college–if unlucky enough to do so when the prevailing idea was to send a girl to college to land a husband. Still, her love of art and literature stuck (as did the husband), and, of course, it grew in me. I guess I’m propagating dreams through the generations here, tending and growing them. Sounds kinda like gardening, which she would have liked. Really, I’d rather just have her back.

Maybe I’m feeling melancholy with remembrance because it’s Memorial Day weekend here in America, a time of remembering dreams secured and dreams dashed. I know who this day is really for and will send up a prayer for them.

I know I shouldn’t take for granted the freedoms we have–freedom to feel melancholy, to trade in the impractical, to dream on paper. I sometimes imagine living in a place where hitting “Publish” is truly terrifying, not trivially terrifying.

Luck has followed me to my own little spot in America, where my complaints are few.

Oh OK, here’s one, since you didn’t ask: these springtime days I am awakened from my real dreaming just around 5:40am by the loud, screeching calls of our favorite local raptors, the osprey, or fish hawk. First world problem, I know. They are beautiful and majestic, I have to groggily remind myself, like another American bird we know. And so I try to fall back to sleep and weave the call into my dreams for when I turn to writing it all down at a suitable hour.

So, while my characters are parsing “American Dream” so am I, in the America of our past, present, and future. Whether you are American or not, I’d love to know how you define the term.

I’m guessing there are as many different definitions as there are those to do the dreaming. The term is interrogated in a recent feature article (with fantastic b&w photography) on Bloomberg.com: “Why Do Americans Stay When Their Town Has No Future?” The gist of the piece: “Family and community are the only things left in Adams County, Ohio, as the coal-fired power plants abandon ship and the government shrugs.” Best quote:

“‘The American dream is kind of to stay close to your family, do well, and let your kids grow up around your parents,’ he says. It was a striking comment: Not that long ago, the American dream more often meant something quite different, about achieving mobility—about moving up, even if that meant moving out.”

What’s yours?

 

 

 

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18 thoughts on “American Dreaming

  1. Hey Rebecca— So, my Eng 11 (American Lit) students each year complete for me an “American Dream Project.” Their task is to research a pop culture “text” and present it to us, answering the question — what does pop culture “sell” as the idea of the American Dream? What can we tell about the viability of the American Dream from sitcoms? Rap? Country music? Board games? Musicals? Advertisements? Movies? etc. The answers, as you might imagine, are varied. But I, too, am very interested in this question and the idea of The American Dream, not the least because it does pervade much if not all of American lit.

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    1. Hey Patty–sounds like a wonderful course and project; fun to teach, I would imagine. When people write off American Lit. as boring I am always stunned! Are there a couple answers from your students this semester that stand out to you as most interesting? I’d love to hear a couple examples, if you’d feel like sharing. (Btw, such fun to follow on FB your journey as a writer–so exciting!)

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  2. My American Dream is simple – I want to retire and not struggle. That is truly a challenge in the 21st Century. My deceased mother and her late husband, my stepfather, worked factory jobs because they had no degree or technical skills to get better jobs. When that factory closed down, as many do, they struggled just to make ends meet. They both died prematurely – unhappy, lacking healthcare, broke, and without a dream. I am much better off than they are but the country is in much worse shape – we’ll see how it goes. Great post 👏🏻

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    1. The option to dream is a luxury in and of itself, isn’t it? Even if that dream is not for great wealth or fortune. To retire and not struggle sounds simple enough–but it feels like it’s all on the individual, now that many jobs no longer have pensions (and governmental officials–like those in that article I mentioned–say residents should follow the jobs, rather than the officials trying to bring jobs to the people. Will social security survive? So many variables to consider. Anyway, I hope you’re having a good weekend with family and friends. Thanks, as always, for checking out my post!

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  3. My understanding of the phrase and my own idea of what it means have morphed more times than I can remember. I would so love to hear what the kids of the teacher above wrote and I wish someone had given me that assignment as a young person! Right now my American Dream is for justice and the law to overlap, match, be as nearly the same as is humanly possible.

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    1. I like your definition! And I too would love to know what today’s young people have to say on the subject. Not too long ago, I think “American Dream” generally smacked of Manifest Destiny and “Go west, young man…” kind of ideals (at least for men). There’s still some of that moving up, moving out mentality. But for me, anyway, my dream has me staying put and gaining intellectual and creative fulfillment, rather than external fulfillment. Glad I have lovely blog followers and friends to help me in this pursuit. Thanks for checking in!

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  4. The “American Dream” is almost always defined in terms of economic goals. Do people ever consider that the American Dream should maybe just be being happy in America? To be fair, that’ll usually be tied to economic stability, but still.

    Great post!

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  5. Hmmm….as someone right in the thick of the rust belt (Pittsburgh), I can totally relate. It is good to see all of the new and innovative things happening in this city though! And although sometimes they’re a bit hard to find, there are lots of opportunities here for blue collar and white collar workers – and even writers and artists like us. I do love this city (I have its skyline tattooed on my forearm for God’s sake), so I don’t mind if I stick around, although I would like to relocate to one of the more rural areas. My wildest dreams involve a summer home in the Outer Banks of North Carolina and doing some sort of writing for a living. Ahhhh….

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    1. As a Cleveland area native, I know there was always something of a rivalry between our city and Pittsburgh. But I must admit I love Pittsburgh and am glad to hear of the revitalization in that city (and of your tattoo–very cool!). I haven’t been there in recent years–the closest I got last year was Aliquippa, where my cousin lives. Good to know that opportunities abound in the city for every kind of worker. I hear you on the OBX dream though. Funny, vacay-ed there once over spring break as kids (the ocean was freezing!), and we saw more Ohio license plates than at home! Loved your latest post on your blog, btw. My boys made their First Communion this spring, and there were definitely funny moments when preparing! Thanks so much for checking out my post!

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  6. I think of the American Dream in terms of stability. Both economic and in terms of the freedom to pursue artistic endeavors (or whatever else makes you happy) without constant worry of the rug being pulled out from under you. To settle someplace, build relationships and a community. I always laugh when I hear “American Dream” because it immediately conjures images of all those Norman Rockwell paintings, and the cynicism they can inspire these days. I think American lit is rightfully turning a critical eye on the Dream these days, but it’s still there. Unfortunately I think the majority of Americans need to dig a lot harder to find it.

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    1. Thanks for checking out my post! It would be so interesting to see what visual artists are doing with the “American Dream” these days–probably turning Norman Rockwell-type images on their heads!

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  7. I teach a lot of English and history and we discuss the American dream a lot.
    I think my own interest was spurred at college. I took two classes that were American lit and poetry. They stayed with me.
    I also adore historical fiction- just letting you know😎

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  8. The American Dream? To write, be happy, laugh, travel…Not big. But enough. I don’t think as Americans that the American Dream means as much to us as it does to someone trying to come here, especially people trying to escape war and/or famine. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, they are looking to fulfill the basics like physiological and safety (a place to live, food and water, clothes to wear.)

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