Is there any more important and misunderstood notion in our culture than the American Dream? What it means, how it’s distributed and to whom, and the gap we sense between it and our actual lives underlines a lot of the frustration and uncertainty Americans feel. In an important and provocative essay in the April Vanity Fair, writer David Kamp traces the evolution of the idea of an “American Dream,” and how it became the twisted pursuit of excess that seems to be the reigning interpretation of the phrase. Kamp recently spoke to Las Vegas Weekly:
What got you started on this piece?
I thought it was important because I’d heard this phrase, “The American Dream,” bandied about more than ever in the last few months, between the climax of the election season and the recession. Obama uses it in his rhetoric a lot, and then I heard Joe the Plumber using it a lot. In fact, that whole exchange between them began at an Ohio campaign swing with Joe the Plumber—the very first thing he said was, “Hey, Barack, do you believe in the American Dream?” And Obama said, “Yeah, of course I do.” And I wondered if they were even talking about the same thing.
It’s just this phrase I’ve seen used and really misused so often, and I wanted to stop and think about it: What does it mean? I had a sneaking suspicion that a pursuit of a specious version of the American Dream is what contributed to the endangerment of the American Dream that Obama talks about a lot now.
Did you have specific ideas about what it meant as you went into this story, or did your view of it change?
I did, but it was pretty vague. That’s the whole thing—it’s fundamentally a wonderful concept that we have a defacto official national dream. If you’ve done any traveling or met anyone from other countries, it really is indeed unique to us. I knew it was about a sense of possibility that exists in this country that doesn’t exist anywhere else, even in other so-called free Western societies. There’s a much more rigid sense of hierarchy and predetermination—you know, you’re born into a certain situation from which it’s very hard to break away, whether it’s a matter of class or profession or location.
And on the egalitarian level of anyone can work in any field they choose—on that level, that’s something that’s very different from European countries. It really is unique; as I say in the piece, there is no correspondingly stirring Canadian Dream or Slovakian Dream.
I knew it was about a sense of possibility, but I had no idea what the origin of this term was. I had no idea that the coinage was less than 100 years old. One thing I did have an idea of was that this latter-day conception of the American Dream as livin’ the dream, baby—basically striking it rich, going down the boulevard with your head out of the sunroof of a limousine, Cristal in your hand—was not remotely what whoever invented the term American Dream meant.
You close the essay with a call for us to regain perspective on what the American Dream really means. Are you optimistic that we’ll actually be able to do that?
I have confidence that we can regain that perspective because I think we have no choice now. I mean, people are talking about a historic and permanent contraction of the economy. Of course, it’s stupid for anyone in the Now to talk about anything being permanent. But at this moment, the reckoning has really hit home, even with delusional people. So it does force this re-reckoning.
I think the most important idea I put forward at the end of the piece is this idea that we should try to think not in terms of upward or downward mobility but of continuity. What I call the perpetuation of a contented, sustainable, middle-class way of life. Where the state of living remains happily constant from one generation to the next.
Even before the shit hit the fan, I was disturbed by this notion that inherent in living the American Dream was that each generation had to surpass the previous one in standard of living and in achievement. That’s a formula that’s bound to bring disappointment, both to the children and the parents. It puts an undue burden on the children to achieve beyond what might be realistic, and it puts an undue burden on parents to expect too much of their children. And that idea always bothered me. You know, it’s applicable to immigrants who are new to this country, it was applicable when there was a frontier, and it’s applicable to people who are struggling in poverty.
But to the middle class—and this essay is really about the American middle class—the American Dream, or the concept of it, has gotten out of whack, and that’s what I wanted to address in this piece. We really need to consider, in middle-class terms, that a lot of us were already living it before we started spending too much on our credit cards or borrowing too much against our houses. Let’s take stock and have a pleasant reckoning in a way that’ll actually foment optimism. If we just come to our senses again, it’ll be okay.