America prides itself on being the place where a common man has the best chance at making a life; a place where opportunity is widely available. While this was especially true in times like the first half of the 19th Century and in the 1950s, SMU Political Science Professor Calvin Jillson argues the American Dream is in decline.
Jillson gave a lecture at the Tower Center, “The American Dream in the Age of Donald Trump,” discussing his newest book The American Dream in History, Politics, and Fiction March 20. He argues that great American literature portrays the dream in a dimmer light than politicians do in their campaign rhetoric and promises. With social mobility in decline and income inequality on the rise, a common person does not have the same access to opportunity as was offered before.
Jillson argues there are three images or ideas that must be realized for the American Dream to be accessible. First, is the idea of America as “The City on a Hill.” A home for all people who must have freedom. He quoted Ronald Reagan’s 1989 Farewell Address, in which Reagan described a shining city: “And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
The second idea is the balance between the dollar and the man. A small man needs to have the chance to start, and this is not possible if the dollar is too strong. President Trump understood this idea, according to Jillson, and was able to direct his messaging at people who have felt the imbalance for decades. The third idea is the need to have a fairly-run race.
In his research of great American novels, Jillson found that literature treats the idea of the American Dream dismissively. The novels are a cautionary tale of those who pursued the dream and lost it. Chance and fate can crush aspirations, as can cultural restrictions for certain sectors of the population such as women and black Americans.
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is an example of fate, which according to Jillson, “grinds you in a certain direction towards destruction.” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter illuminates the constraints of culture with the story of Hester Prynne who is cast out of the Puritan culture due to her status as a woman who had an affair. He quoted Bigger Thomas, the main character of Richard Wright’s Native Son, saying: “Why should I want to do anything? I ain’t got a chance. I don’t know nothing. I’m just black and they make the laws.” He feels hopeless as a black man convicted of a crime in Chicago.
“These novels provide insight to the hurdles that come with pursuing the dream, but little of how to get over them,” Jillson said. Overcoming the hurdles is a question answered by social science, in books like Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone.”
For further reading, here’s a list of the other novels Jillson alluded to and authors he read in his exploration of the American Dream:
Billy Bud, Herman Melville; Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner; Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser; Sula, Toni Morrison; The Rabbit Series, John Updike; Babbit, Sinclair Lewis; Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe; The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck; American Trilogy, Philip Roth; and Mark Twain.
Listen to the lecture here: