The American Dream In The 1920s

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The American Dream In The 1920s

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The Great Gatsby vs The American Dream

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The story about Lindbergh and the Committee suggests that the phrase cropped out of nowhere, but that just isn't the case. The phrase was repurposed by each generation, until the Cold War, when it became an argument for a consumer capitalist version of democracy. It takes hold as people are talking about reacting to the first Gilded Age when the robber barons are consolidating all this power. You see people saying that a millionaire was a fundamentally un-American concept. It was seen as anti-democratic because it was seen as inherently unequal. That was thanks to the historian James Truslow Adams who wrote The Epic of America , in which he was trying to diagnose what had gone wrong with America in the depths of the Great Depression.

He said that America had gone wrong in becoming too concerned with material well-being and forgetting the higher dreams and the higher aspiration that the country had been founded on. They both started to gain traction in the American political and cultural conversation discernibly around They then came into direct conflict in the late s and early s in the fight over entering World War II. The echoes between years ago and now are in many ways as powerful, if not more powerful, than the echoes between now and the post-war situation.

What happens when we don't understand the nuances of these phrases? We find ourselves accepting received wisdoms, and those received wisdoms can be distorting and flat-out inaccurate. At best, they're reductive and oversimplifying. It's like the telephone game, the more it gets transmitted, the more information gets lost along the way and more you get a garbled version of, in this case, important understandings of the historical evolution and the debates surrounding our national value system. I hope that this history can be liberating to discover that these ideas that you think are so constricting, that they can only ever mean one thing—to realize that years ago it meant the exact opposite.

Anna Diamond is the former assistant editor for Smithsonian magazine.

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