The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope by Andrew Delbanco

Picked up The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope at Half Price Books awhile ago as I had heard good things about it.  It turned out to be an interesting short work on the larger trends of American history – from Faith in God to Faith in Democracy to Faith In Self. I read it in June and it would have been the perfect review to post around the Fourth of July Weekend but as you can plainly see I am way, way past that kind of thematic and timely scheduling.

It is an enjoyable exploration of ideas and themes that would be most enjoyed by those with a strong knowledge of American literature – and of course a familiarity with the broad strokes of history helps as well.  The last chapter seems a bit dated – the book was published a decade ago – but still contains some thought provoking ideas and questions.

Here is how Publishers Weekly described it:

A close and passionate reader of American literature, Delbanco (The Death of Satan, etc.) believes that contemporary American culture has lost its once vital sense of the transcendent. This book is, with very little alteration, a transcript of Delbanco’s William E. Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization, which he delivered at Harvard in 1998. “We live in an age of unprecedented wealth,” he writes, “but in the realm of narrative and symbol, we are deprived.” In three sectionsA”God,” “Nation” and “Self”ADelbanco sketches a broad history of American narrative and symbolic meaning, the nexus of ideas and stories “by which Americans have tried to save themselves from the melancholy that threatens all reflective beings.” According to this scheme, from Puritan times through the early 19th century, the dominant idea was God. Sometime around the Civil War, the idea of the nation became the transcendent value. The third part of the book becomes a lament as Delbanco posits that, since roughly the 1960s, “hope has narrowed to the vanishing point of the self alone.” Delbanco acknowledges that his conceit presents a “too neat division of American history into two phases of coherent belief followed by a third phase of incoherent and nervous waiting.” But his profoundly insightful readings of William Bradford, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln and other American writers, stretching from early colonial times to the present, should succeed in prodding readers to think deeply about how the idea of the nation intersectsAor doesn’tAwith their deepest desires and hopes.

I can’t say I came away with any “Deep Thoughts” but I did enjoy listening along as it were as the author talked about the arc of American history and identity.  If you are interested in American history, literature and culture it is certainly worth a read.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.