Maybe old buildings are in my blood. For forty years, my dad worked as a draftsman and designer for structural engineering firms, drawing up plans by hand. On trips into Cleveland for the art museum or bagels, Dad would point out the buildings he’d had a hand in. His job: ensuring they would stay standing.
So, it feels like a personal affront to watch buildings–especially beautiful historic places–go to ruin, abandoned.
I’ve talked on the blog before about “Ruin Porn,” a type of photography that glorifies falling-down structures, often in post-industrial places, like my native Cleveland. I’ve said before, that to me Ruin Porn looks like the American Dream on its knees with no dreamer in the scene. (I wrote a three-part essay you can read here, here, and here.) So, what do we do? How to salvage falling-down places?
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.”
Salvage. To reclaim, recoup. In an often very subtle way, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Michigan author of 2009 story collection American Salvage (finalist for the National Book Award) saves her characters—and us in the reading. Her characters and the predicaments in which they find themselves are not pretty; yet, Campbell provides a modicum of redemption—the American Dream renewed—I’m looking for in the writing of the Rust Belt.
Campbell’s stories center on everyday people with everyday struggles—from farmers to salvage yard workers, meth addicts to the unemployed—striving to make do with the hand they’ve been dealt in the tough Michigan landscape. These stories are what Ruin Porn could do more of: show us the despairing scene and then populate it with characters to care about.
One of Campbell’s young characters, a 14-year old girl (whose story Campbell expands on for her gem of a novel, Once Upon a River), encapsulates the heart of Campbell’s fiction. In “Family Reunion,” the reader understands that the girl will take revenge by shooting the uncle who violated her. One sentence speaks volumes:
She had to do this thing for herself; nobody is going to do it for her.
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.