“All our activity depends upon what we expect from the future, upon the picture we form of chances and certainties. The goals of our activity are set within the area of that which we deem possible.” Philosopher Karl Jaspers, who wrote those words in 1949 in The Origin and Goal of History, was not referring to the American Dream. But he might have been. The Dream, a powerful and durable myth of a better tomorrow, has long framed the picture Americans form of their chances, of what they deem possible.
The Dream has meant many things—equal opportunity, upward mobility, home ownership, personal fulfillment, fame and fortune—and has been deployed to many purposes (see Samuel’s review). As a myth, it exists in deep tension with the messier realities of lived experience, marked by despair as well as success, including some people yet omitting others. For many Americans, its animating ideals have often been only a “promissory note,” in the memorable words of Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, for all that, King still retained an elemental hope that equality might one day be realized (see the Rieder conversation).
In recent years, hope in the future has competed with a pervasive pessimism. As other nations develop versions of their Dream, the emphasis in much U.S. writing has been on diminishing expectations. The “self-made man,” long the symbol of rags-to-riches mobility and personal initiative, has fallen on disfavor, displaced in part by talk of forces beyond our control (see Cullen’s essay). In popular culture, hopes of progress have given way to apocalyptic visions, where the Dream of self-reliance can only be imagined after institutional destruction (see Cantor’s essay).
But as Jaspers reminds us, our activity depends on what we expect from the future, and so our acts of faith and imagination are consequential and risky. They can be promising or perilous, as illustrated by the experience of immigrants exposed to the Pentecostal “gospel” of the American Dream (see Lin’s essay). But they are inescapable. And if the old versions of the Dream have worn thin, its basic ideals have not. Sustaining and living those ideals requires a new articulation.