James Truslow Adams, the "American dream", and America as "A Nation of Immigrants": nothing to do with New Englanders

What the man behind the ‘American Dream’ really meant

WE All FEEL drawn to the “American Dream.” For millions, immigrants especially, the phrase has evoked the full promise of the United States. What it means exactly, though, has shifted significantly over the years, and that accordion-like expansiveness has only increased its usefulness.

The man credited with first crafting the “American Dream” had, in some ways, lived it out himself. James Truslow Adams’s story was not one of rags to riches, but he did reinvent himself mid-career, becoming a writer after an unfulfilling stint in finance. Ironically, however, Adams’s new life landed the inventor of an all-inclusive phrase as a specialist in a very cloistered niche, the Colonial history of New England, for most of his writing years. There he seemed a familiar type: the antique New Englander writing about New England antiquity.

That was not a type normally given to wild-eyed celebrations of immigration, especially in the 1920s. At the time, the trial of Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti had awakened intense local controversy, admissions quotas were widely in place at local universities, and prominent Bostonians dominated a national organization, the Immigration Restriction League, whose purpose was all too clear from its name. But Adams routinely defied expectations. Indeed, this seeming Yankee was not a Yankee at all, but a Brooklynite — with a Venezuelan grandmother to boot. As Adams wrote his acclaimed histories of New England, he did it in a way that subtly recast the familiar story, teasing out democratic elements that were not always in the earlier versions.

Adams's father was half Southern (his family was from Maryland and Virginia, and unrelated to the presidential family) and half Venezuelan. His mother was born in New York, and her ancestors appear to be mid-Atlantic (including some French and with no New England ancestry that I was able to identify).
In the 1920s, Adams circled back to the beginnings of America’s global might, which he located in the first settlement of New England. The time and place were well known, but he found a way to enliven them, with some emphasis on the backsliders who did not fit squarely into the Harvard-centric version of New England’s past. Specifically, he did not disparage Rhode Island and New Hampshire — as so many earlier historians had — and even found much to praise there, including a higher level of religious freedom and a strong democratic ethos that often resisted Boston’s demands. His approach would eventually be called social history, and find favor later in the 20th century, even if he was a bit too rarefied to be completely at home with the raffish elements he celebrated.

Adams’s books were a critical and popular success. In 1921, he won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Founding of New England,” the first in a trilogy of New England histories. He never strayed far from this region, eventually moving to Southport, Conn., and creating some confusion by writing about the Adams family, to which he was not related.

But his own family was interesting enough, particularly the fact that his father was born in Caracas. That strand of DNA must have helped. Unlike some peers, he saw economic and social factors as essential to the story and disdained the traditional emphasis on Puritans fleeing persecution. In other words, he saw the earliest New Englanders as immigrants, seeking their version of the American Dream. He created a precedent for the New England historians to come who would celebrate immigration as vital to the American experience — Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., Oscar Handlin, Bernard Bailyn, and John F. Kennedy, among others.

Of the immigration-celebrating "New England" historians mentioned, three are Jews and one is an Irish Catholic whose seminal contribution to American immigration history, commissioned by the ADL, was ghostwritten by one Myer Feldman, in cooperation with "Arthur Mann, a historian supplied by the Anti-Defamation League."

Update: Steve Sailer has an article on "Benjamin Franklin’s American Dream". Franklin's vision for America was dead opposite the ADL's:

Hodgson explains Ben Franklin’s American Dream:
Living in the mid-eighteenth century, [Franklin] had a vision of a middle-class society that was necessarily one in which the majority owned and worked their own lands. . . . His dream was of a prosperous and middle-class America, peopled largely by the English, that spanned a continent and confidently assumed a preeminent place among nations.
In 1964, four decades after mass immigration had been shut down, the country looked rather like Franklin’s vision. But the mechanisms Franklin had identified as crucial to American happiness have been increasingly forgotten during the ensuing Nation of Immigrants nostalgiafest.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh Lindsay...