The American Dream

In History, Politics, and Fiction

Cal Jillson

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: these words have long represented the promise of America, a “shimmering vision of a fruitful country open to all who come, learn, work, save, invest, and play by the rules.” In 2004, Cal Jillson took stock of this vision and showed how the nation’s politicians deployed the American Dream, both in campaigns and governance, to hold the American people to their program. “Full of startling ideas that make sense,” NPR’s senior correspondent Juan Williams remarked, Jillson’s book offered the fullest exploration yet of the origins and evolution of the ideal that serves as the foundation of our national ethos and collective self-image.

Nonetheless, in the dozen years since Pursuing the American Dream was published, the American Dream has fared poorly. The decline of social mobility and the rise of income inequality—to say nothing of the extraordinary social, political, and economic developments of the Bush and Obama presidencies—have convinced many that the American Dream is no more. This is the concern that Jillson addresses in his new book, The American Dream: In History, Politics, and Fiction, which juxtaposes the claims of political, social, and economic elite against the view of American life consistently offered in our national literature. Our great novelists, from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville to John Updike, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, and beyond highlight the limits and challenges of life—the difficulty if not impossibility of the dream—especially for racial, ethnic, and religious minorities as well as women. His book takes us through the changing meaning and reality of the American Dream, from the seventeenth century to the present day, revealing a distinct, sustained separation between literary and political elite.

“Jillson provides historical context for understanding the basic values of freedom and equal opportunity for all, but the strength of the work is his use of contemporary literature to interrogate these ideas in the lives of American citizens. The work of James Fenimore Cooper, William Wells Brown, and Toni Morrison, among many, provides nuanced analysis of limits of the American Dream and of the necessity of agitation for changes to make the American dream relevant for all citizens.


“Everyone knows about the American dream—but no one has ever explored it quite like Jillson in this bold, luminous, smart, and splendid book. ”

—James A. Morone, author of The Devils We Know: Us and Them in America’s Raucous Political Culture

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The American Dream, Jillson suggests, took shape early in our national experience and defined the nation throughout its growth and development, yet it has always been challenged, even rejected, in our most celebrated literature. This is no different in our day, when what we believe about the American Dream reveals as much about its limits as its possibilities.

About the Author

Cal Jillson is professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.

Additional Titles in the American Political Thought Series