Book Review: Dreaming Up America


5-01-09, 10:30 am

Dreaming Up America by Russell Banks New York, Seven Stories Press, 2008.

Dreaming Up America tends toward an oceanic view of its subject as the collective unconscious into which all things flow, and then combine, to give the American dream its special salty flavor. What is missing is a proportionate regard for the strong historical current that runs through all this – exploitation of the many for the profit of a few. So, unsurprisingly, there is no sense here of an ever greater proportion of the ever-increasing populace of this continent struggling to tread water against this undertow, while a vanishingly-small privileged class sails merrily along in its ship of state.

Instead, Banks examines three dream currents that, from the end of the 17th century through the start of the 18th century, “come together, just as the colonies themselves begin to come together.” These three: The City of Gold, The City on the Hill and The Fountain of Youth, are cited as the basis of America's dream of itself. Fair enough. These are aptly chosen and arguably central to our mythologized colonial history. Yet when I read of the English colonists sailing here “in search of religious freedom” and that the author finds their City on a Hill fundamentally in conflict with “those seeking profitable opportunities,” I am left to wonder if I have strayed into Ronald Reagan's farewell speech extolling John Winthrop as “an early freedom man.” Why are we spared Winthrop's own words from his sermon titled 'A Model of Christian Charity?' The text of that tract is clear in his promise to his fellow colonists of a time at hand “when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies.” His repressive intent is underscored by his later writing “A democracy is, amongst civil nations, accounted the meanest and worst of all forms of government.” History has shown Winthrop to have been more faithful to his purposes of plunder, exploitation and repression than to the platitudes of “Christian Charity” that abound in his sermon.

To be sure, Banks does remind us that when the European “discoverers” arrived, this land “was inhabited already.” Likewise he points to enslaved Africans as our first wave of immigrants, and acknowledges that the work of disabusing ourselves of our racist heritage is far from complete. He also writes at some length to properly credit industrial workers, rather than their capitalist bosses, with providing “the strength of American industry.” And it should be said that, with his great writing skill, reading his book is as effortless as listening to an NPR broadcast. Yet all of this is dished up with reactionary views given the same unbalanced treatment that characterized his handling of Winthrop's New Jerusalem.

• “The Birth of a Nation is an extraordinary film-- one that's loathsome ethically, and that's politically and spiritually loathsome as well, and yet artistically it's great.”

• “We don't fear Communism.... The notion of an oppressive and restrictive totalitarian society doesn't have the same chilling vividness for us as the chaos of pure democracy.”

• “We've dismantled that City on the Hill that was largely spiritual and replaced it with El Dorado...”

• “You have to see the United States as the creation of a conflicting set of impulses-- spiritual, ethical, and materialistic.”

When these are mixed with a good dose of historical fact that is both clearly seen and well articulated, they seem to serve the mythic tradition of Dreaming Up America.

The weakness of the book can be traced to its fundamental assumption, clear in the text, but also made explicit in his statement from a recorded conversation about the book, that “we take our identity as a people from certain ideas.” Drafting a text based in this assumption, in an America where one percent of the population luxuriates in 40% of our national wealth while 40 percent of the population struggles to survive on 1%, can only lead to errors. Ours is a class conflict with a material basis, not a crisis of ideas. Our economy is not slightly out of kilter and needing to be tinkered into shape by tweaking “speculative growth,” “restriction,” or “money loaned to the US by Chinese and European investors.” Our economy is working as it is designed to work-- continually concentrating more wealth into fewer hands.

The depression of the 1930s may well provide an historical model for changing our material conditions. We did see changes then. Not through Russell Banks' fantasy image of Franklin Roosevelt sitting in a quiet room, reading a book, until his world view changed, but through concerted action of workers acting in solidarity to demand change from those who were loath to deliver it. Things changed not because Henry Ford's auto workers were waked from their fugue state by a better version of “the American Dream,” but because they, and other workers with them, decided “it's time to organize.”