Excerpted from Rethinking the American Dream by David Kamp, 2009:
There was never any promise or intimation of extreme success in the book that popularized the term, The Epic of America, by James Truslow Adams, published by Little, Brown and Company in 1931. (Yes, “the American Dream” is a surprisingly recent coinage; you’d think that these words would appear in the writings of Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, but they don’t.) For a book that has made such a lasting contribution to our vocabulary, The Epic of America is an offbeat piece of work—a sweeping, essayistic, highly subjective survey of this country’s development from Columbus’s landfall onward, written by a respected but solemn historian whose prim prose style was mocked as “spinach” by the waggish theater critic Alexander Woollcott.
But it’s a smart, thoughtful treatise. Adams’s goal wasn’t so much to put together a proper history of the U.S. as to determine, by tracing his country’s path to prominence, what makes this land so unlike other nations, so uniquely American. (That he undertook such an enterprise when he did, in the same grim climate in which Hart wrote Once in a Lifetime, reinforces how indomitably strong Americans’ faith in their country remained during the Depression.) What Adams came up with was a construct he called “that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.”
From the get-go, Adams emphasized the egalitarian nature of this dream. It started to take shape, he said, with the Puritans who fled religious persecution in England and settled New England in the 17th century. “[Their] migration was not like so many earlier ones in history, led by warrior lords with followers dependent on them,” he wrote, “but was one in which the common man as well as the leader was hoping for greater freedom and happiness for himself and his children.”
The Declaration of Independence took this concept even further, for it compelled the well-to-do upper classes to put the common man on an equal footing with them where human rights and self-governance were concerned—a nose-holding concession that Adams captured with exquisite comic passiveness in the sentence, “It had been found necessary to base the [Declaration’s] argument at last squarely on the rights of man.” Whereas the colonist upper classes were asserting their independence from the British Empire, “the lower classes were thinking not only of that,” Adams wrote, “but of their relations to their colonial legislatures and governing class.”
America was truly a new world, a place where one could live one’s life and pursue one’s goals unburdened by older societies’ prescribed ideas of class, caste, and social hierarchy. Adams was unreserved in his wonderment over this fact. Breaking from his formal tone, he shifted into first-person mode in The Epic of America’s epilogue, noting a French guest’s remark that his most striking impression of the United States was “the way that everyone of every sort looks you right in the eye, without a thought of inequality.” Adams also told a story of “a foreigner” he used to employ as an assistant, and how he and this foreigner fell into a habit of chitchatting for a bit after their day’s work was done. “Such a relationship was the great difference between America and his homeland,” Adams wrote. “There, he said, ‘I would do my work and might get a pleasant word, but I could never sit and talk like this. There is a difference there between social grades which cannot be got over. I would not talk to you there as man to man, but as my employer.’”