The American Dream

No phrase appears in a greater variety of ideological settings within our US politics than “The American Dream” – a guiding metaphor that hints at a dominant moral order.  But over the past century the everyday meaning of this iconic cultural frame has changed so dramatically that today our sense of an “American Dream” is far from what its inventor – James Truslow Adams (1878-1949) — had in mind.

James Truslow Adams was a wealthy and successful investment banker who, while still a young man, left finance behind to launch a career as a freelance writer.  Successful in this new venture, Adams wrote several well-received volumes of history aimed at a mass audience, and in 1931, as the Great Depression was deepening across the US, he published The Epic of America – a highly popular triumphalist account of the American experience.  Adams had wanted the book to be entitled The American Dream, but his publisher preferred the slightly more descriptive Epic….  Although absent from the title page, the newly coined “Dream” phrase appears dozens of times in the text and is defined and explicated by the author in a 12-page “Epilogue.”  It is here that Adams clearly states his view: that his “has not been a dream of merely material plenty…It has been much more than that.  It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman…”  For Adams, the goal is a high quality of life for all, not inflated bank accounts for a few.  In truth, any political leader who today conflates “The American Dream” with “wealth accumulation” is dishonoring James Adams vision and, more importantly, completely missing his point.

Today, as a still-raging pandemic and covid-19 disease reshape the American economy – very likely forever – it is worth revisiting Adams’s original argument, in part to absorb his inspiring insight into the potential of an American society that truly enables every citizen to flourish, in part to advance our national longing for some guidepost that leads away from the feverish, wealth-addled society that has empowered the rich while grinding down everybody else.

A few years back, while working on a project for Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, I returned to The Epic of America, paying special attention to the volume’s concluding “Epilogue.”  As part of that (unpublished) report, I produced this version of Epic’s final chapter, editing the author’s 12 pages down to about 1,200 words.  Read them.  This is what James Truslow Adams really had in mind when he gave life to his phrase, “The American Dream.”


The Epic of America
James Truslow Adams

Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. New York: Triangle Books, 1931, 1941. Excerpts from pages 403-415


The huge and empty land has been filled with homes, roads, railways, schools, colleges, hospitals and all the comforts of the most advanced material civilization.  The mere physical tasks have been stupendous and unparalleled.  Supplied at each important stage of advance with new implements of science which hastened our pace; lured by such rewards for haste and industry as were never offered to man before; keyed to activity by a climate that makes expenditure of nervous energy almost a bodily necessity, we threw ourselves into the task of physical domination of our environment with an abandonment that perforce led us to discard much that we had started to build up in our earliest days.

While thus occupied with material conquest and upbuilding, we did not wholly lose the vision of something nobler.  If we hastened after the pot of gold, we also saw the rainbow itself, and felt that it promised, as of old, a hope for mankind.  In the realm of thought we have been practical and adaptive rather than original and theoretical, although it may be noted that we stand preeminent in astronomy….In literature and the drama, today, there is no work being done better anywhere than in the United States.  In the intangible realm of character, there is no other country that can show in the past century or more two men of greater nobility than Washington and Lincoln…

In many respects…there are other lands in which life is easier, more stimulating, more charming than in raw America, for America is still raw, and unnecessarily so.  The barbarian carelessness of the motoring millions, the littered roadsides, the use of our most beautiful scenery for the advertising of products which should be boycotted for that very reason, are but symptoms of our slipping down from civilized standards of life, as are also our lawlessness and corruption with the cynical disregard of them by the public….Some are also European problems as well as American.  Some are urban, without regard to international boundaries.  The mob mentality of the city crowd everywhere is coming to be one of the menaces to modern civilization…

But there has been also the American Dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.  It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it.  It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

…The American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtless counted heavily.  It has been much more than that.  It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.  And that dream has been realized more fully in actual life here than anywhere else, though very imperfectly even among ourselves.

If we are to regard man merely as a producer and consumer, then the more ruthlessly efficient big business is, the better.  Many of the goods consumed doubtless make man healthier, happier, and better even on the basis of a high scale of human values.  But if we think of him as a human being primarily, and only incidentally as a consumer, then we have to consider what values are best or most satisfying for him as a human being.  We can attempt to regulate business for him not as a consumer but as a man, with many needs and desires with which he has nothing to do as a consumer.  Our point of view will form efficiency and statistics to human nature.  We shall not create a high-wage scale in order that the receiver will consume more, but that he may, in one way or another, live more abundantly, whether by enjoying those things which are factory produced or those which are not.  The points of view are entirely different, socially and economically.

The theory of mass production breaks down…when applied to the things of the spirit.  Merging of companies in huge corporations, and the production of low-priced products for markets of tens of millions of consumers for one standard brand of beans or cars, may be possible in the sphere of our material needs.  It cannot be possible, however, in the realm of the mind, yet the whole tendency at present is in that direction.  Newspapers are merging as if they were factories, and daily, weekly, and monthly journals are all becoming as dependent on mass sales as a toothpaste.  The result is to lower the quality of thought as represented in them to that of the least common denominator of the minds of the millions of consumers.

I take…little interest in the great gifts and Foundations of men who have incomes they cannot possible spend, and investments that roll like avalanches.  They merely return, not seldom unwisely, a part of their wealth to that society without which they could not have made it, and which too often they have plundered in the making.  That is chiefly evidence of maladjustment in our economic system.  A system that steadily increases the gulf between the ordinary man and the super-rich, that permits the resources of society to be gathered into personal fortunes that afford their owners millions of income a year, with only the chance that here and there a few may be moved to confer some of their surplus upon the public in ways chosen wholly by themselves, is assuredly a wasteful and unjust system.  It is, perhaps, as inimical as anything could be to the American dream.  I do not belittle the generosity or public spirit of certain men.  It is the system that as yet is at fault.  Nor is it likely to be voluntarily altered by those who benefit most by it.  No ruling class has ever willingly abdicated.  Democracy can never be saved, and would not be worth saving, unless it can save itself.

I have little trust in the wise paternalism of politicians or the infinite wisdom of business leaders.  We can look neither to government nor to the heads of the great corporations to guide us into the paths of a satisfying and humane existence as a great nation unless we, as multitudinous individuals, develop some greatness in our own individual souls.  Until countless men and women have decided in their own hearts, through experience and perhaps disillusion, what is a genuinely satisfying life, a “good life,” in the old Greek sense, we need look to neither political nor business leaders.  Under our political system it is useless, save by the rarest of happy accidents, to expect a politician to rise higher than the source of his power.  So long also as we are ourselves content with a mere extension of the material basis of existence, with the multiplying of our material possessions, it is absurd to think that the men who can utilize that public attitude for the gaining of infinite wealth and power will abandon both to become spiritual leaders of a democracy that despises spiritual things.  Just so long as wealth and power are our sole badges of success, so long will ambitious men strive to attain them.

The Writing of Rebuilding an Enlightened World: Folklorizing America

Gary Dunham, director of the Indiana University Press, contacted me in September 2015 about getting together at the October annual meeting of the American Folklore Society. IU is a major publisher in folklore studies, and I found Dunham and his associate, Janice Frisch, hard at work in the convention’s book display room. Not much small talk. Gary was direct: “Would you consider writing a book about the field of folklore using the approach of your other works – that is, a book that links folklore studies to public policy and broad political themes?” I answered “Yes.”

I was quick in part because the conversation was timely; I needed a new project. But more importantly I had for years wanted to write something for general readers about the important special knowledge folklore scholars bring to observations of cultural dynamics and the character of human behavior. My talented New-York-based agent, Sarah Lazin, quickly drafted a contract for the book and we were off and running.

But not so fast. What was I going to say? It wouldn’t be enough to just talk about folklore studies. And the essential linkage between what folklore scholars understood and the public policy environment in the waning years of our Barack Obama presidency was anything but obvious. No surprise: four months into the project and I hadn’t written a word and even worse had no clear idea of what I wanted to say. This was irritating, even vexing. Every writer has his or her own approach to getting the work organized, refined, and wrapped up. For me, the moment I say “Yes” to any assignment big or small, a tiny seed is planted in the back of my brain and it begins to grow; the mature plant fills my head by the time the final draft is handed in. A nice, linear model – the seed matures, the project advances to a natural conclusion. But if the seed is sprouting and I’m stuck, discomfort arises; I end up imposing my frustration on myself and others in my company.

As the presidential campaign of 2016 kicked off, one thing was clear – terrorism, Tea Party activists, and the rhetoric of Republican candidates (most obviously, Donald Trump) mixed disdain for science, suspicion of government and all established institutions, smarmy appeals to racist and sexist motives, distrust of foreigners. And something new: attitudes toward the “deep state,” immigrants, environmental activists, members of Congress were embedded in rumor and sensational tales believed but never proven – stories circulated by word of mouth and most-tellingly spread within the accelerated world of social media and the internet.

What forces lay beneath such destabilizing change? I had just ventured out on an early-spring walk on the road behind my Lake-Superior summer home when it came to me – an idea that could be expanded into a unifying frame for my argument and the book. Here’s what popped into my head: the modern world has abandoned, perhaps even rejected, principles established by the Enlightenment; the world of ordinary people has turned against the West’s “Enlightenment consensus.” One way or another, most of the public has chosen to ignore law and regulation, substituting a pre-Enlightenment mentality of tribal loyalties, legend, ancient custom, myth. In addition, a decade of work in China had convinced me that this rising country – modernizing absent both the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution – presented a cultural challenge to long-held Western assumptions. Folklore scholars understand alternative realities and have known for decades that woven throughout the sophistication and rationality of elite civilization, traditional values and practices remain as unacknowledged but powerful determinants of belief and behavior. It is folklore scholars have best-mapped the mechanisms of informal culture – especially informal culture that competes, cheek-by-jowl, with laws, regulations, and other “official” rules.

The IU Press wanted something short – Gary and Janice mentioned 40,000 words (note to non-writing readers: this would translate to about 125 typeset pages). There would be no room for redundant documentation – it would be, “here’s an idea, here’s some supporting evidence, here’s my conclusion.”

For me, once I know where I’m heading, organizing the project is almost a “fun” activity. Blueprinting the architecture of a book, I’ve got the satisfaction of “working” while not yet mired in the land of blank computer screens, word counts, notes, revisions. The structure for Folklore (the original working title) was complex and took a little time to figure: how to organize my big idea of Enlightenment’s stumble? After a few false starts, I divided my general “Enlightenment’s end” argument into sub-themes like “identity” and “stories,” and “listening.” This structure let me comment on current affairs while weaving in a high-points history of modern folklore studies – how had global disruption interacted with the insights and values of this relatively-obscure discipline become critical to the interpretation human behavior and current affairs?

I wrote a first draft (about 30,000 words), didn’t like it much (IU Press staffers didn’t either.) I re-entered Word and rewrote the manuscript completely, giving a little more emphasis to current affairs, moving the folklore-studies story slightly into the background. I boldly bookended the text with a decade-old opinion piece written by author Neal Gabler, published in the New York Times. Back in 2011, Gabler had lamented the absence of Really Big Ideas in current political discourse. I referenced his piece; simply by dragging Gabler into my argument, I was asserting that even if my “end-of-enlightenment-and-folklore’s-rise” idea proved contentious and to some unconvincing, it was at least legitimately “Big.”

Dunham, Frisch, and others at the Press liked this new rendition. Despite my “not-finished” protestations, in the fall of 2017, they declared the work complete and encouraged me to move ahead quickly. The project became a full-time day job, and I manage to wrap up my changes by March of 2018, and it was on to notes, dust-jacket, bibliography, revisions, final title, etc. Rebuilding an Enlightened World: Folklorizing America, had expanded to about 50,000 words – more than requested but still the short volume aimed for. I was pleased that even as I worked, a progression of other interesting books about “what has gone wrong” was published; multiple theories advanced. Democracy has stumbled, globalization has failed, fascism again threatens, America has gone haywire, the world is in disarray, our nation is in a tailspin – and more. But my book (the shortest) probably advances the biggest idea. America and the world are simply experiencing a time of painful, uncertain change, as the Enlightenment (or its first iteration) fades. Old tribal ways and informal, oral culture reassert authority, handing us a new, undefined, unsettling framework that confounds and stymies both understanding and action. We’re adrift in a time of transition, but one in which the stance of folklore studies can help.

“Rebuilding…” includes a large bibliography. This is partly defensive; my assertions are bold and I wanted to demonstrate that I had “read or looked hard at a lot of stuff” along the way. But the many titles included are also an opening for others to experience what my one-time teacher, author Marilynne Robinson, called a “sober delight” – an excursion into ideas and personalities from other times and other places; a chance to think long and hard and, I hope, imaginatively about where we are and how we got this way.

Inequality and Culture

“Inequality” is on the lips of philanthropists and policy actors.  But the term is rarely defined.  Let’s try: “Inequality is a condition marked by arbitrary, disproportionate constraints that limit access to valuable societal assets.”  Inequality is sustained by cultural tropes — often-hidden narratives that assign meaning to human attributes like race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and nationality.  These cultural narratives are deeply held and difficult to modify or marginalize.  Addressing the underlying forces sustaining inequality is slow, difficult work.

Guns and Culture

American society embraces gun ownership and there are something like 300 million guns in the US.  Definition: a gun is a mechanical device purpose-built for efficiently translating impulse into mayhem.  This transformation may be benign: punching holes in a paper target, or practical: taking down a deer to put meat on a table.  But it is always, always quick, and  too often the impulse is anger, hatred, depression or dismay, and then of course the very efficiency of the mayhem-machine becomes tragic.  Yes, you can kill someone with a knife or rope (or candlestick, playing the old board-game, “Clue”), and we understand suicide can be accomplished with pharmaceuticals or a leap from a high place.  But these tactics take time and time forces a measure of reflection and maybe hesitation.  Gun deaths are scary because the trigger process allows no space between impulse and catastrophe.  Confiscation is impractical; what can we do?  Car deaths were a problem; we couldn’t confiscate; society accepted seat belts.  Is there a “seat belt” for guns?  If the NRA won’t yield an inch on gun ownership, will it talk about gun deaths?  Will American culture accept a narrative of meaningful intervention?

Putin and Xi and Culture

The essential but false conceit of Marxism is housed in the assumption that economic systems shape culture.  In fact it is the other way around; the power of culture enables societies to outlast economic experimentation, even when conducted on an ambitious scale.  To observe the stickiness of cultural continuity we need look no further than modern Russia and China, where Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are best engaged not as enforcers of discredited communist ideologies, but instead as czar and emperor caught up in ancient concerns of global status, regional competition, and the preservation of hegemonic mechanisms of power and control.

The Presidential Election and Cultural Policy

Once again we are in a US presidential election cycle, and once again the nonprofit arts community is stirring with desire for candidate commitments in support of the NEA and of legislation that serves the interests of artists and arts organizations.  But perhaps it’s time for something new; a bigger, bolder, and more-fundamental policy agenda?  In the years since Barack Obama was first elected, two cultural issues have inched toward the center of the US public policy stage.  First is the tragic loss of cultural heritage in the wake of natural disaster or war.  Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Japan have all witnessed the destruction of historic sites and monuments, and experienced the tragic disruption of less-tangible cultural assets critical to community and quality of life.  Cultural Heritage Policy requires that cultural experts, aid agencies, and the US military work together to preserve and protect, a process that will inevitably elevate the standing of culture as a component of quality of life.  Second, although the “hard power” of military intervention has recently been ascendant in US international engagements, it is increasingly clear that the transactional character of military and economic confrontation must be abetted by international contact that advances an understanding of values, motivations, objectives.  Culture and cultural exchange are at the heart of this kind of “soft power,” and like heritage protection and preservation, represent an an arena of action in which the nonprofit sector can advance cultural work as a part of the US policy agenda.  It’s fine to encourage political candidates to support the NEA, NEH, and IMLS, but let’s take the opportunity of this presidential cycle to think bigger, ask for more.


It is convenient to live in a culture because culture absorbs ideas, attitudes, prejudices, and behaviors and tucks them away in an always-there backdrop, a backdrop that makes most risks ordinary, precluding the need to confront head-on each morning the multiple uncertainties of reality.  Thus culture defangs risk, and we head off in cars without worrying that nearly 1,000 die each day in crashes, without fretting that we will become one of the equal number of daily US gun deaths.  But American culture has not yet taken in terrorism, so despite the tiny real risk of dying in a terrorist attack, we worry.  Until culture catches up and positions terrorism alongside airline travel, light-ignoring street crossing, and sex with strangers, cynical leaders will be empowered to provoke maximum response to minimal danger.

Entertainment & Politics

Overarching cultural trends shape the context of politics.  At the beginning of our current presidential election cycle, it was assumed that the effect of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision — the entry of big money through unregulated SuperPacs — would reconfigure the primary process.  But money hasn’t mattered so much.  Donald Trump’s expertise as a television personality and new-media manipulator directed through the cable news industry’s gluttonous appetite for entertaining narratives have created a pathway to electoral success that sidesteps the advertising, robocalling, and polling that political money can buy.  But dreadful consequences are hinted; sensation replaces substance; outrage overpowers insight, as free access defeats paid-for messaging.  Once successfully mined, the cultural power of old and new media obviates big money.  Sanders goes small and gets big; no doubt the Kochs, eyeing Trump, look on in shock an dismay!


“STEM” advocates assume that their naive and intellectually-unsustainable concept (what, after all, is sixth-grade “Engineering”) somehow discredits and replaces centuries of learning that positioned art, humanities, and technical skills on an equal footing.  STEM claims to be a measured response to global competition, but what’s the need: despite a few notable, short-lived financial downturns, the US economy has done remarkably well for the past two centuries under leaders in business and government who could read and write, and who exhibited both knowledge of and respect for history, visual and performing arts, and literature.  STEM aims to make all learning technical, which if it comes to pass will conscript American youth into a dumbed-down army of worker bees incapable of critical thought.  Broad access to art and to knowledge offers meaningful social attainment to all, and STEM’s preoccupation with money and what is practical must be resisted at every opportunity.


Addiction is the ultimate stage of consumption — consumerism on steroids.  Capitalism will never be averse to addiction because it can be commoditized three ways, first through the sale of addictive substances, then in insurance-paid rehabilitation programs, and finally through incarceration in privatized prisons.

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