In 1961, right in the midst of the period Cullen described, Eleanor Roosevelt took to The Atlantic to voice this concern. In an essay called “What Has Happened to the American Dream?” the former First Lady wrote:
The future will be determined by the young, and there is no more essential task today, it seems to me, than to bring before them once more, in all its brightness, in all its splendor and beauty, the American dream, lest we let it fade, too concerned with ways of earning a living or impressing our neighbors or getting ahead or finding bigger and more potent ways of destroying the world and all that is in it.
Proclamations of the dream’s death haven’t really let up. “The fact is, the American dream is dead,” Donald Trump recently declared as he announced his bid for President. Alternet and Mic.com have dueling arrays of charts to show anyone who claims the dream is still alive. Here at The Atlantic, we’ve gone as far as to declare it dead in the South, at least. Four years ago, The Onion was actually on the scene reporting shortly after the official time of death.
Yet the octogenarian dream has proven remarkably hard to kill off. Again and again, its death has been noted, and mourned. Politicians promise they’ll revive it. (The second half of Donald Trump’s quote: “The fact is, the American dream is dead—but if I win, I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before.”) And yet somehow, a few years later, it turns out to have been alive enough to have its death proclaimed all over again.
The eternal story of the dream’s decline reflects a profound nostalgia. To believe the dream is dying, you have to believe it once flourished. But there’s an alternate story of the dream, in which the dream is an ideal that remains unobtained. It is not dead, so much as it is unborn. When the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. articulated his own dream, deeply rooted in the American dream, he wasn’t talking about a desiccated remnant of an idealized past, because to him, no version of that past could be ideal. He was, instead, imagining a better future.
Two years after King’s famous speech, James Baldwin met William F. Buckley in a debate at Cambridge University on the question of whether the American dream comes at the expense of the American Negro. For Baldwin, like King, a reckoning had to happen before the dream would even be thinkable: “Until the moment comes when we the Americans, we the American people, are able to accept the fact that my ancestors are both black and white,” Baldwin said, “that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other, and that I am not a ward of America, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the country—until this moment, there is scarcely any hope for the American dream. Because the people who are denied participation in it by their very presence will wreck it. And if that happens, it’s a very grave moment for the West.”