Bye-Bye American Pie

Works discussed:

Blue Sky Dream: A Memoir of America's Fall from Grace, by David Beers, New York: Doubleday, 273 pages, $23.95

The Tortilla Curtain, by T. Coraghessan Boyle, New York: Penguin, 355 pages, $11.95 paper

Independence Day, by Richard Ford, New York: Vintage, 451 pages, $13.00 paper

The Low Life, directed by George Hickenlooper

The Ghost of Tom Joad, by Bruce Springsteen, Columbia

The literary critic Lionel Trilling once suggested that novels "deliver the news," that they tell us "about the look and feel of things, how things are done and what things are worth and what they cost and what the odds are." Novels, said Trilling, encode "a culture's hum and buzz of implication"; they record our daily business of living, loving, working, and dying.

The same holds true for other forms of cultural storytelling, including movies, television shows, and pop music. And, of course, the "news" itself, which employs a wide variety of dramatic forms and techniques even as it strives to represent our world in a realistic, accurate way. All these stories deliver the news by giving voice and expression to our dreams and desires, our cares and concerns.

One of the most popular stories circulating today has to do with a variously described "death" of the American Dream, especially in its "middle-class" variation. All the key words of the pronouncement are fuzzy--What exactly is the American Dream? Just who qualifies as middle class?--but there is a palpable sense that we are living in a barren ruin of a country, a Hooverville from sea to shining sea. If we talk about the 1970s as manic-depressive, vacillating between interlaced extremes of personal gratification and national malaise, and the '80s as years of greed and go-getter optimism, the '90s are shaping up to be the decade of gloom and despair.

As we slouch toward the end of the American Century, the question on every storyteller's mind seems to be, to quote a multi-part series in The Philadelphia Inquirer, "America: Who Stole the Dream?" This sense of pilfered possibilities has a couple of particularly interesting characteristics. First, it represents a broad non-partisan consensus that includes young and old, rich and poor, liberals and conservatives. And it almost always interprets the American Dream in starkly economic terms (hence, CNN's recent shows on "downsizing the dream").

So who stole the dream? The answer, at least from an economic perspective, is: no one. In fact, it's a trick question. As Newsweek's Robert J. Samuelson noted in a recent column, "Statistics implying lower living standards are contradicted by what people buy or own.

Homeownership (65 percent of households) is near a record. In 1980, 11 percent of households owned a microwave oven, 37 percent a dishwasher and 56 percent a dryer; by 1993 those figures were 78 percent, 50 percent and 68 percent. People buy more because their incomes are higher. (Statistics understate incomes by overstating inflation's effect on 'real' wages and salaries.) As for anxiety, it exists--and always will. But America is not clinically depressed. The Gallup Poll reports that 66 percent of Americans expect their financial situation to improve in the next year." The portrait of the country on the verge of--or past the point of--an economic breakdown is an article of faith, not a pronouncement of fact. Virtually all relevant data, such as total compensation, income mobility, job tenure, median household net worth, inflation, unemployment, and educational opportunities, undermine the idea that we are living after the gold rush. As W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm wrote in REASON a year ago, "There are problems in these United States--no doubt about it--but the conclusion that we're not living as well as we once did is pure mythology....Today's Americans aren't orphans of history. Far from it, they are experiencing what previous generations worked so hard to achieve--rising living standards." (See "The Good Old Days Are Now," December 1995.)

Ironically, then, something other than economic privation is driving the market in middle- class despair. As the same story gets pitched at us from the television and the movie screen, the newspaper and the novel, it becomes clearer that the sources for this tale include good old- fashioned nostalgia, selective focus on negative trends, and a profound misunderstanding of the market forces that helped make America a land of plenty in the first place.

Curiously, some purveyors of the death of the American Dream admit that things are not as nasty as they want them to be. Earlier this year, for instance, TheNew York Times ran a widely cited, hugely influential, and highly arguable series called "The Downsizing of America." Even as the editors noted that the "series...concentrated on the people who lost jobs, not the many more who have gained jobs in a growing economy," they acknowledged that the country's economic system had engendered prosperity and freedom for "almost everyone," that the "United States...is the envy of other industrial democracies because of its recent success in creating jobs and subduing inflation."

Still, it's clear that death, like sex, sells, and the sensibility that the American Dream has come a cropper is ubiquitous even--or perhaps especially--in works whose claim to our attention is their "realism." Last year, for instance, Bruce Springsteen released The Ghost of Tom Joad, an album named for the protagonist of John Steinbeck's 1939 novel of the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath. (Not surprisingly, Steinbeck's cultural stock has risen of late. T. Coraghessan Boyle's recent novel of a maxed-out Los Angeles stripped of all glamour and most opportunities, The Tortilla Curtain, alludes to Steinbeck in its title and opens with an epigram from Grapes.) Tom Joad's title track describes "a new world order" filled with "men walkin' long railroad tracks...shelter line[s] stretchin' round the corner...families sleepin' in their cars...no home no job no peace no rest."

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