Can we still dream the American dream?
Apr 17, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 30 • By THOMAS HIBBS
Despite its author's best hopes, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, is decidedly a tale of decline. As Andrew Delbanco admits, it is "a history of diminution." In chilling prose, he depicts culture as "locked in a soul-starving present," where "hope has narrowed to the vanishing point of the self alone."
For a self-professed "secular liberal," Delbanco has a surprising and disturbing gift for conveying deprivation and loss. Just as he did in 1995 with his other major study, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil, he manages by the end of The Real American Dream to make the reader feel almost haunted by God's absence.
And yet, Delbanco still has hope for America -- hope for the return of hope. The problem is that he wants to bring back hope with the thing that is the major cause of hope's decline. His failure comes not in his convincing account of the origins of American hopefulness among the Puritans, nor in his tale of the decline of that hopefulness with the loss of the things that the Puritans and most of the succeeding generations of Americans believed. The failure of The Real American Dream comes in Delbanco's Emersonian desire to "rekindle the smouldering nigh-quenched fire on the altar" with the liberalism to which he is committed -- even as that liberalism continues to douse the flames of hope.
Like all respectable historians, Delbanco tries to avoid a simplistic tale of decline. Drawing upon impressive erudition, he shows that we have often thought of ourselves as in decay. He quotes Henry Adams's remark that the decline of the presidency from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant is "evidence enough to upset Darwin." And yet our current situation is unprecedented. We lack a "coherent symbology" to satisfy our "unslaked craving for transcendence." Delbanco breaks down the history of the American hope into three stages, but our own era eludes categorization. He speaks of "three ideas -- God, nation, and . . . what? the market? the recreational self? -- by which Americans have tried to save themselves from the melancholy that threatens all reflective beings."
In the past, Americans kept melancholy at bay by recourse to transforming narratives of hope. America began not with the absence but with the presence of God. Delbanco focuses on Puritan New England not because it encompasses the whole story of early America, but because it embodies the "purest strain . . . of the first American form of hope," a form that gave "meaning to suffering and pain alike and promised deliverance from death." Puritanism accentuates human hopelessness, leaves no room for chance, randomness, or the notion that human beings make "their own history." In this, puritanism seems alien to contemporary sensibilities. But, in its suspicion of tradition and external authority, puritanism also provides an early example of the "American hostility to inherited privilege." In its insistence, moreover, that beliefs are authenticated by the effects they produce in the individual's life, puritanism is an early form of American pragmatism.
In the nineteenth century, under attack from rationalism and deism, puritanism began to wane. In the 1830s, Emerson wrote that its "creed is passing away and none arises in its room." Not long after Emerson's lament, the country found a new creed in the form of America herself. In this, the second form of American hope, the sacred nation became the symbol and incarnation of transcendence. Walt Whitman described it as the era in which the "divine literatus" would replace the priest. The transference of the sacred from religion to the state is palpable in Herman Melville's insistence on the providential role of America and his reference to the "great God absolute, centre and circumference of all democracy."
Lincoln, of course, is the one most responsible for identifying the nation as the embodiment of transcendent ideals. To Lincoln, for instance, we owe the elevation of the Declaration of Independence to a sacred document. But Lincoln's shrouding of nationalism in the language of religion did not involve the celebration of a Volk or Patria rooted in ties of blood. Rather, he proposed a community based on universal human rights, counterbalanced by responsibilities and the opportunities afforded by free labor. Lincoln's vision of an entrepreneurial society whose participants are unencumbered by their origin dominates American culture from Lincoln's death well into the 1960s.