The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope / Edition 1

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Overview

Since we discovered that, in Tocqueville's words, "the incomplete joys of this world will never satisfy the heart," how have we Americans made do? In The Real American Dream one of the nation's premier literary scholars searches out the symbols and stories by which Americans have reached for something beyond worldly desire. A spiritual history ranging from the first English settlements to the present day, the book is also a lively, deeply learned meditation on hope.

Andrew Delbanco tells of the stringent God of Protestant Christianity, who exerted immense force over the language, institutions, and customs of the culture for nearly 200 years. He describes the falling away of this God and the rise of the idea of a sacred nation-state. And, finally, he speaks of our own moment, when symbols of nationalism are in decline, leaving us with nothing to satisfy the longing for transcendence once sustained by God and nation.

From the Christian story that expressed the earliest Puritan yearnings to New Age spirituality, apocalyptic environmentalism, and the multicultural search for ancestral roots that divert our own, The Real American Dream evokes the tidal rhythm of American history. It shows how Americans have organized their days and ordered their lives--and ultimately created a culture--to make sense of the pain, desire, pleasure, and fear that are the stuff of human experience. In a time of cultural crisis, when the old stories seem to be faltering, this book offers a lesson in the painstaking remaking of the American dream.

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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post

One wishes that Delbanco had had more space to develop the nuances he plays like a cellist using vibrato...Delbanco, among the most astute and original scholars of history and literature, wisely and convincingly develops the point made by Tocqueville: 'Faith is the only permanent state of mankind.' By plumbing the faith of our fathers and mothers—its wrinkles and rosy cheeks—we can begin to rededicate ourselves to a new story of transcendence.
— Joshua Wolf Shenk

New York Times Book Review

An acute social critic surveys the soul of a country that believes first in God, then in nation (exemplified in the secular ambitions of Lincoln and Whitman), and finally in the narcissistic self, which has created a 'post-modern melancholy' in today's culture.
— Scott Veale

Boston Book Review

It must be terribly satisfying to hear Andrew Delbanco speak. The Real American Dream, a series of lectures he gave at Harvard in 1998, is filled with impressive oratory. He manages sermons and political speeches with facility, invoking great voices from our nation's history to contemplate the present state of the American Dream. Buttressing these far-reaching speeches with the quieter arts of poetry and prose, Delbanco builds a broad yet detailed 'history of hope' in the United States...Lucid empathy permeates Delbanco's chapters, and earns the book's subtitle, A Meditation on Hope.
— Doug Elder

Times Literary Supplement

The 'fundamental question' for the American mind, Andrew Delbanco says in The Real American Dream, 'has always been how to find release from this feeling of living without propulsion and without aim'; what he has written is a short but deeply literate history of this quest, one by turns witty and affecting.
— Andrew Stark

Philadelphia Inquirer

A fascinating, eminently accessible series of culture-forming 'stories' that focus on the pitched battle between the force of melancholy and that of hope. In the stories, Delbanco ruminates on American culture from the Puritans to the present. What binds the seemingly disparate stories of serious-minded ministers, secular politicians, and modern materialistic Americans is the struggle to find meaning in a world that often appears to be entirely random and spiritually incomplete.
— Sanford Pinsker

Christian Science Monitor

Self, Delbanco points out, will surely prove an empty, unsatisfying, and ultimately self-defeating object of worship. Unless we recover some sense of a common good, he suspects, we may be headed for moral collapse—or worse yet, the rise of some nefarious ideology or movement. Delbanco does not believe that the apocalyptic 'rough beast' of despotism is right around the corner—or inevitable. But he offers his jeremiad as a timely warning and a reminder of things that matter.
— Merle Rubin

Columbus Dispatch

According to Andrew Delbanco, today's consumerism exists to assuage our spiritual emptiness...Lurking behind our credit-card debt is the suspicion that our shopping sprees equate to nothing more than fidgeting while we wait to die. In [his] conclusion, Delbanco...[directs] to our attention the elemental human need to believe in something larger than the insular self, and identifies the solutions that filled this need in the past. These solutions are thoughtfully presented as guidance for us now.
— Kassie Rose

Booklist

Delbanco's lecture-based essay is engaging and very timely.
— Ray Olsen

Willamette Week

We're in what Andrew Delbanco has identified as the third phase of the history of hope in America—or, rather, the history of hope's disintegration...Americans, Delbanco says, have lost any sense of a common destiny. We have nothing larger than ourselves to worship...Unlike William Bennett and his ilk, Delbanco hasn't written a prescription for spiritual renewal. He simply charts the path to our current post-modern holding pattern: waiting for the next big idea, hoping for the return of hope. He might not have the answer for us, but his voice provides a quiet comfort in the empty darkness.
— Becky Ohlsen

The Guardian

God, Nation, and Self: through these, writes Delbanco in these essays (so brief, yet so pertinent), the citizens of the U.S. have given their lives meaning to ward off melancholy, that 'logical belief in a hopeless future.' Puritan Calvinism seems benign next to consumerist Calvinism. That's Calvinism as in Calvin Klein, where the free individual—the U.S.'s great gift to the world—is 'marooned in a perpetual present, playing alone with its baubles,' and the 'ache for meaning goes unrelieved.' But Delbanco's wit is itself the measure of the land of the free.
— Vera Rule

Virginia Quarterly Review
In a tour de force of thoughtful intellectual and cultural history, the author reflects broadly on the history of the American dream. Moving deftly from the Puritans to contemporary America, Delblanco laments the loss of a common culture in our modern commercialized New Age. As a "meditation on hope" he follows Emerson, who wrote: "let us do what we can to rekindle the smouldering nigh quenched fire on the altar."
Washington Post - Joshua Wolf Shenk
One wishes that Delbanco had had more space to develop the nuances he plays like a cellist using vibrato...Delbanco, among the most astute and original scholars of history and literature, wisely and convincingly develops the point made by Tocqueville: 'Faith is the only permanent state of mankind.' By plumbing the faith of our fathers and mothers--its wrinkles and rosy cheeks--we can begin to rededicate ourselves to a new story of transcendence.
New York Times Book Review - Richard Rorty
Andrew Delbanco is one of America's most acute and perceptive cultural critics...[This is] a beautifully written book.
Boston Book Review - Doug Elder
It must be terribly satisfying to hear Andrew Delbanco speak. The Real American Dream, a series of lectures he gave at Harvard in 1998, is filled with impressive oratory. He manages sermons and political speeches with facility, invoking great voices from our nation's history to contemplate the present state of the American Dream. Buttressing these far-reaching speeches with the quieter arts of poetry and prose, Delbanco builds a broad yet detailed 'history of hope' in the United States...Lucid empathy permeates Delbanco's chapters, and earns the book's subtitle, A Meditation on Hope.
Times Literary Supplement - Andrew Stark
The 'fundamental question' for the American mind, Andrew Delbanco says in The Real American Dream, 'has always been how to find release from this feeling of living without propulsion and without aim'; what he has written is a short but deeply literate history of this quest, one by turns witty and affecting.
Philadelphia Inquirer - Sanford Pinsker
A fascinating, eminently accessible series of culture-forming 'stories' that focus on the pitched battle between the force of melancholy and that of hope. In the stories, Delbanco ruminates on American culture from the Puritans to the present. What binds the seemingly disparate stories of serious-minded ministers, secular politicians, and modern materialistic Americans is the struggle to find meaning in a world that often appears to be entirely random and spiritually incomplete.
Christian Science Monitor - Merle Rubin
Self, Delbanco points out, will surely prove an empty, unsatisfying, and ultimately self-defeating object of worship. Unless we recover some sense of a common good, he suspects, we may be headed for moral collapse--or worse yet, the rise of some nefarious ideology or movement. Delbanco does not believe that the apocalyptic 'rough beast' of despotism is right around the corner--or inevitable. But he offers his jeremiad as a timely warning and a reminder of things that matter.
Columbus Dispatch - Kassle Rose
A critical premise of this remarkable book about creating hope in an absurd world is Delbanco's definition of culture. He refers to it as a sustaining narrative that provides stories and symbols 'by which Americans have tried to save themselves from the melancholy that threatens all reflective beings.' With this in mind, he then identifies and ponders our historical devotion to God, nation and self, trends that have come into fashion at different times in American history...The Real American Dream is a concise, provocative narrative essay.
Booklist - Ray Olsen
Delbanco's lecture-based essay is engaging and very timely.
Willamette Week - Becky Ohlsen
We're in what Andrew Delbanco has identified as the third phase of the history of hope in America--or, rather, the history of hope's disintegration...Americans, Delbanco says, have lost any sense of a common destiny. We have nothing larger than ourselves to worship...Unlike William Bennett and his ilk, Delbanco hasn't written a prescription for spiritual renewal. He simply charts the path to our current post-modern holding pattern: waiting for the next big idea, hoping for the return of hope. He might not have the answer for us, but his voice provides a quiet comfort in the empty darkness.
Columbus Dispatch - Kassie Rose
According to Andrew Delbanco, today's consumerism exists to assuage our spiritual emptiness...Lurking behind our credit-card debt is the suspicion that our shopping sprees equate to nothing more than fidgeting while we wait to die. In [his] conclusion, Delbanco...[directs] to our attention the elemental human need to believe in something larger than the insular self, and identifies the solutions that filled this need in the past. These solutions are thoughtfully presented as guidance for us now.
New York Times Book Review - Scott Veale
An acute social critic surveys the soul of a country that believes first in God, then in nation (exemplified in the secular ambitions of Lincoln and Whitman), and finally in the narcissistic self, which has created a 'post-modern melancholy' in today's culture.
The Guardian - Vera Rule
God, Nation, and Self: through these, writes Delbanco in these essays (so brief, yet so pertinent), the citizens of the U.S. have given their lives meaning to ward off melancholy, that 'logical belief in a hopeless future.' Puritan Calvinism seems benign next to consumerist Calvinism. That's Calvinism as in Calvin Klein, where the free individual--the U.S.'s great gift to the world--is 'marooned in a perpetual present, playing alone with its baubles,' and the 'ache for meaning goes unrelieved.' But Delbanco's wit is itself the measure of the land of the free.
Washington Post
One wishes that Delbanco had had more space to develop the nuances he plays like a cellist using vibrato...Delbanco, among the most astute and original scholars of history and literature, wisely and convincingly develops the point made by Tocqueville: 'Faith is the only permanent state of mankind.' By plumbing the faith of our fathers and mothers--its wrinkles and rosy cheeks--we can begin to rededicate ourselves to a new story of transcendence.
— Joshua Wolf Shenk
Philadelphia Inquirer
A fascinating, eminently accessible series of culture-forming 'stories' that focus on the pitched battle between the force of melancholy and that of hope. In the stories, Delbanco ruminates on American culture from the Puritans to the present. What binds the seemingly disparate stories of serious-minded ministers, secular politicians, and modern materialistic Americans is the struggle to find meaning in a world that often appears to be entirely random and spiritually incomplete.
— Sanford Pinsker
Booklist
Delbanco's lecture-based essay is engaging and very timely.
— Ray Olsen
The Guardian
God, Nation, and Self: through these, writes Delbanco in these essays (so brief, yet so pertinent), the citizens of the U.S. have given their lives meaning to ward off melancholy, that 'logical belief in a hopeless future.' Puritan Calvinism seems benign next to consumerist Calvinism. That's Calvinism as in Calvin Klein, where the free individual--the U.S.'s great gift to the world--is 'marooned in a perpetual present, playing alone with its baubles,' and the 'ache for meaning goes unrelieved.' But Delbanco's wit is itself the measure of the land of the free.
— Vera Rule
New York Times Book Review
An acute social critic surveys the soul of a country that believes first in God, then in nation (exemplified in the secular ambitions of Lincoln and Whitman), and finally in the narcissistic self, which has created a 'post-modern melancholy' in today's culture.
— Scott Veale
Times Literary Supplement
The 'fundamental question' for the American mind, Andrew Delbanco says in The Real American Dream, 'has always been how to find release from this feeling of living without propulsion and without aim'; what he has written is a short but deeply literate history of this quest, one by turns witty and affecting.
— Andrew Stark
Willamette Week
We're in what Andrew Delbanco has identified as the third phase of the history of hope in America--or, rather, the history of hope's disintegration...Americans, Delbanco says, have lost any sense of a common destiny. We have nothing larger than ourselves to worship...Unlike William Bennett and his ilk, Delbanco hasn't written a prescription for spiritual renewal. He simply charts the path to our current post-modern holding pattern: waiting for the next big idea, hoping for the return of hope. He might not have the answer for us, but his voice provides a quiet comfort in the empty darkness.
— Becky Ohlsen
Columbus Dispatch
According to Andrew Delbanco, today's consumerism exists to assuage our spiritual emptiness...Lurking behind our credit-card debt is the suspicion that our shopping sprees equate to nothing more than fidgeting while we wait to die. In [his] conclusion, Delbanco...[directs] to our attention the elemental human need to believe in something larger than the insular self, and identifies the solutions that filled this need in the past. These solutions are thoughtfully presented as guidance for us now.
— Kassie Rose
Boston Book Review
It must be terribly satisfying to hear Andrew Delbanco speak. The Real American Dream, a series of lectures he gave at Harvard in 1998, is filled with impressive oratory. He manages sermons and political speeches with facility, invoking great voices from our nation's history to contemplate the present state of the American Dream. Buttressing these far-reaching speeches with the quieter arts of poetry and prose, Delbanco builds a broad yet detailed 'history of hope' in the United States...Lucid empathy permeates Delbanco's chapters, and earns the book's subtitle, A Meditation on Hope.
— Doug Elder
Christian Science Monitor
Self, Delbanco points out, will surely prove an empty, unsatisfying, and ultimately self-defeating object of worship. Unless we recover some sense of a common good, he suspects, we may be headed for moral collapse--or worse yet, the rise of some nefarious ideology or movement. Delbanco does not believe that the apocalyptic 'rough beast' of despotism is right around the corner--or inevitable. But he offers his jeremiad as a timely warning and a reminder of things that matter.
— Merle Rubin
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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 sections--"God," "Nation" and "Self"--Delbanco 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 intersects--or doesn't--with their deepest desires and hopes. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Tapping into that unique American angst so perceptively captured by de Tocqueville more than a century ago, Delbanco (humanities, Columbia Univ.) here finds that any history of hope in America "must make room at its center for this dogged companion of hope--the lurking suspicion that all our getting and spending amounts to nothing more than fidgeting while we wait for death." Drawing from U.S. history, he charts this Hegelian swing between optimistic energy and melancholy chaos, characterized most dramatically by the Puritans, Lincoln, Whitman, and Emerson. Yet amidst that melancholy there remains a hope focused on our "unshakeable craving for transcendence." Thus, says Delbanco, to be truly American is to live a life of hope, contributing some transcendent good beyond ourselves; otherwise, we condemn ourselves to a lifetime of despair. For the historically literate, this represents as fine a synthesis as can be found on hope and the longing for something more in the collective American soul. Recommended for public and academic American history and religion collections.--Sandra Collins, Univ. of Pittsburgh Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Andrew Stark
It is certainly possible, as Delbanco suggests, that Americans are now on the verge of some fourth, wholly new stage beyond God, nation and marketplace. It seems more likely, though, that God, nation and marketplace have always braided themselves together in imperfect ways that admit of continual improvement.

One can, of course, imagine a nation without a consumerism that divided religion intensively into individual market segments. Or a constitution that ardently enlisted religiosity to sanctify its symbols of overarching social unity. Of a progressivism that sought to bring God too much into the world. Or a capitalism that pushed him too far away. In such a nation, the "ache for meaning", as Delbanco calls it, might have found the relief about which he writes. But that nation would not be—and never could have been—America.
The London Times Literary Supplement

Merle Rubin
Self, Delbanco points out, will surely prove an empty, unsatisfying, and ultimately self-defeating object of worship. Unless we recover some sense of a common good, he suspects, we may be headed for moral collapse&#8211or worse yet, the rise of some nefarious ideology or movement. Delbanco does not believe that the apocalyptic 'rough beast' of despotism is right around the corner&#8211or inevitable. But he offers his jeremiad as a timely warning and a reminder of things that matter.
—Merle Rubin, Christian Science Monitor
Kirkus Reviews
Reflections on American conceptions of happiness and hope—and of how they have grown weak. Originating in the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard, this slim volume has the characteristics of the civilization about which its author reflects: it is large with desire and disheveled in its pursuit. Delbanco, a professor in humanities at Columbia (The Death of Satan, 1995; Required Reading, 1997), writes of the function of hope in creating the Christian and national narratives of American life. And, without adequately developing the juxtaposition, he insightfully contrasts the sustaining force of hope with the melancholy that comes with its absence. He does so through a quotation-filled review of much of American history—citing everyone from John Winthrop to today's pundits. While he tries to distinguish himself from the Jeremiahs of right and left, in the end he lands about where they stand: deeply troubled by our inability to imagine a common destiny and to reattach our lives to a sense of moral progress. Confidence in such progress, he insists in his most striking assertion, nourished the pursuits of our greatest forebears, from the Puritans through Lincoln into figures of this century. But now such hopes are weak because our narrative and symbolic life, previously sustained by belief, first in God, then in nation, has become so impoverished. To have hope in ourselves alone is to have lost "the real American dream," which was to share in some public responsibility, whether it was founding the kingdom of God on earth, preserving the Union, creating true equality, or pursuing more modest programs of reform, succor, and help.Unfortunately, the book possesses the attributes of the lectures from which it originated: it can only suggest and not demonstrate. Ranging learnedly and widely, this is less a work of scholarship, on which it is deeply based, than a personal testament to the melancholy to which learning has led its author.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Andrew Delbanco is the Mendelson Family Chair of American Studies and Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University.
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Table of Contents

Prologue

GOD

NATION

SELF

Notes

Index

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