During the depths of the Great Depression historian James Truslow Adams released a book titled “Epic of America.” In it, he coined a term that has become a mainstay in our culture: “the American Dream.”
As Adams imagined it, the American Dream sprang from meritocracy. He peppered readers with the idea that advancement was possible for anyone willing to work for it. Adams wrote some 80 years ago, from times of despair but on the eve of America's coming greatness. Yet even then, he lamented a culture in decline, one that placed less emphasis on education than on material goods, one with higher crime rates.
In a review of the book, Carl Becker, president of the American Historical Association in 1931, wrote:
“For Mr. Adams the frontier is, in great part at least, the explanation for the ‘rawness’ of American civilization as well as for its strength and promise. ... the deprecatory note gives way to a strain of enthusiasm, and in many an aside he assures us that ‘there has also been the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should become fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.' It is as if Mr. Adams wrote the book to remind us of something that is in danger of being lost in the shuffle — to remind us of the ‘dream’ we once cherished but have forgotten.”
Adams' words ring fresh today, as America adjusts to the worst economy since the Great Depression, faces disturbing threats to harmony at home and abroad, and struggles to hold onto the dream.