“The American Dream” is one of those phrases that’s so familiar that it’s borderline embarrassing to realize one doesn’t quite know where it came from. Yet there I was, a few months ago, crossing the border into embarrassment as I realized that I could not call the etymology of the phrase to mind.
The meaning I knew well enough — the future is supposed to be better than the past, and we can make it so by hard work — but the coinage itself was a mystery. And so discovering that it was a product of the early 1930s — a time of enormous crisis — was illuminating. The coiner, the historian James Truslow Adams, was writing at a disorienting moment in the years after the Crash of 1929, an era in which the future of democratic capitalism was in doubt.
That the power and clarity of a phrase that captured so much of what had — and has — set America apart in terms of liberty and opportunity could come from the gloom of a Great Depression made me feel rather better about things in our own time.
Here’s hoping a dream born in adversity will sustain us through these dispiriting days.