Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Remembering the forgotten ...

... James Sallis recalls three Great unknowns. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Regrettably, Sallis continues the misunderstanding about the American Dream: "Among the bleakest, most resolutely existential novels ever written, it belongs up there on the shelf with James M. Cain's 'The Postman Always Rings Twice,' Hammett's 'Red Harvest,' and a handful of others that serve as landmarks of the time when the truth of the great American dream first began burning holes through the paper."
The American Dream is not a dream of crass materialism. The phrase was coined by James Truslow Adams in The Epic of America. He describes it thus: "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." This is the dream Martin Luther King was referring to in his great speech. It remains a worthy dream. And it is unworthy to identify it with the cheap hopes of low characters.

3 comments:

  1. Willis Wayde2:09 PM

    Sallis does a nice take on the noir novels; thanks for linking to it. In the end it does not matter so much what the original intention or conception of an idea or notion might have been, however high-flown or noble. What signifies is what is made of it down the road, and, sadly or not, the popular idea of the American Dream is largely material. For the middle class or middle-class hopefuls it is the house, then the bigger house, and the "good life" in general (which, of course, is scarcely good for us at all). For those hopelessly stuck in Poverty Row, such as the denizens of novels by Horace McCoy and his ilk, it is nothing but a horse laugh. In one of my favorite noir novels, Charles Willeford's "Pick-up" (1955), the American Dream is referred to as the Great American Tradtition. "The Great American Tradtion," says its main character, Harry Jordan, mockingly. "You can do anything you think you can do! All Americans believe in it. What a joke that is!"

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  2. Susan Balee3:53 PM

    and "a hero ain't nothin' but a sandwich," as another not-making-it-American character put it.

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  3. Incurable bourgeois that I am, I see nothing wrong in wanting the house, the car, the whatever. I don't think there is either anything wrong with the idea of material advancement or anything necessarily damaging to the spirit about it. Maybe that's why I'm a Wallace Stevens fan. At any rate, I think we who deal in information have an obligation to remind people of the facts of the matter. And the phrase "American Dream" was coined by a particular writer in a particular book and James Sallis can look it up just like I did.

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