"Reporting on the American Dream"

 

Nicholas Lemann

The New Yorker

 

Northwestern University "Literature of Fact" Lecture Series

March 6, 2000

 

 

Our title here is "Reporting the American Dream." The title is a little problematic, but in a way, it's interesting to talk about the subject. So, in a way, it's a good sort of entree. The American Dream is one those phrases that brings to life the divide in America between the popular world and the academic and intellectual world. Journalists sit in between those two somewhere, so it's an issue for us. In the popular world, the American Dream, which I will get to more specifically in a minute, is a highly, highly used phrase. You cannot get through a presidential campaign, for example, without the major candidates pledging to restore or renew or something the American Dream. It will get tossed out this year if it hasn't already. Newspapers love the American Dream, and they're always publishing series on the condition of the American Dream and so on. It finds its way into book titles, movies, et cetera.

 

Mostly, in this serious academic world, the American Dream is regarded as a kind of joke. It is not taken seriously as a sociological or historical concept. The actual words, "American Dream," were invented, and I can't remember the guy's name, by an American historian in the 1930s. Does anybody know his name? Say it again, louder? Yeah, James T. Adams. And am I right about the 1930s? So the salient point there being, America existed perfectly well for most of its history without the benefit of even having the phrase "the American Dream." So people who are trying to understand American society in a serious way do not regard the phrase the American Dream as being of much help, I think, these days. So, as a journalist if you're trying to report the American Dream, I think you find yourself caught in the middle. And you have to try to resolve to yourself, or at least  I have, the difference between the almost contempt in which this concept is held by serious thinkers and, on the other hand, the immense power it has in pop culture and American politics. How do we square that particular circle?

 

You could say, if you're a journalist, "Well, who cares whether intellectuals take the term American Dream seriously?" And I admit that journalists are not themselves, for the most part, practicing players in the intellectual world. But one thing you find, as you're working as a journalist more and more as you go on, is you're unwittingly working assumptions into your work. And you can do much better work if you understand clearly what the assumptions are that you're operating off of, rather than just pretend you aren't operating off of any at all, or just ignoring them or not learning about them. The phrase American Dream has certain assumptions, which I'll get to in a second, embedded in it. So if this is what you want to write about, you should at least know what they are, and to know what they are, requires knowing something of the debate on this subject.

 

I think that what people mean by the American Dream is something along these lines, that this should be a society in which each individual has opportunity to rise in the world. Rising in the world is defined, both economically and functionally. That is, you should be able to, if you want, make, if not a lot of money, at least more money than you were born into if you weren't born into a lot of money. But also, you should also be able to find your way to something that you like to do or find meaningful. And the idea is, this would apply to every single person born in the United States. The dream part is an aspiration of every citizen in the United States, to be able to, if they want, get to a different set of circumstances from the circumstances they were born into. And for the society, there is an implied obligation that the society has to provide that or make that possible to the individuals. A phrase that is more precise that I think is similar to the American Dream would be equal opportunity.

 

Another thing that goes along with this package of the American Dream is the idea that the society shouldn't have a rigid hereditary class system. In other words, to put it in sociology terms, we're talking about high social mobility and a relatively loose social structure, rather than a rigid hereditary class system. So a general point about each person and an overall point about the way that the society is structured. Now, what's interesting about the American Dream is not only is the phrase itself relatively new. In other words, what you would think is, that if it's the American Dream when the founders came to this country, they had this dream. Right? So you think, well let's go back and look at the Puritans and so on when the country was first settled and let's skip forward in time, 150 years or so, and look at the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, and then we'll find the American Dream as I've said it, in there.  On the whole, painting with a little bit of a broad brush, you won't find it in there. In fact, what I've just stated as the American Dream, which you could take to be this central principle of American life, is really not part of the founding documents of the country, either the Puritan or the founding of the American state side. This idea just wasn't Š It's a new idea. In the world of the 1600's and 1700s, it's just not part of the equipment of people when they're starting this country. There's a few phrases that resonate a lot to us that you can backwardly read the American Dream into, like John Winthrop saying "City on a Hill," like the line in the Declaration of Independence about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But many people have argued persuasively, that those lines, when they were written, meant things quite differently than what they've taken to mean today.

 

So the American Dream sprang up sometime in the early 19th century, without it being part of the official program. When Tocqueville came here, he clearly found stuff that seems pretty familiar as a correlate of what we would now call the American Dream, and was quite surprised to find it. But it's not written into a place. You can't say here is the written guarantee that we can then measure American society against always and forever. It almost bubbled up from the bottom of American society. When you read Jefferson's Notes on the History of Virginia, for example, he complained bitterly that he could not establish universal public education in the state of Virginia, even after the country had been founded. So we forget, there weren't public schools in the early United States. It took a long, long time for the country to fight for public schools. Yet another problem with the American Dream is, this is a less salient for the life of a working journalist, I'll just throw it out there, is a toolbox on social theory. And the toolbox of social theory that you would get on a course on that, would be mostly coming from Western Europe, and wouldn't include ideas that map onto the American Dream, with the central idea of equal opportunity. In fact, I would argue, not as a great expert on social theory, that the world of social theory is only know in catch-up mode on the American Dream. And only in the last say 20 or 30 years in the words of philosophers like John Rolf and Marquis S?? do you find high-end concepts that you can use to understand the American Dream as it's used conversationally in America today. But the big thinkers like Marx and Weber and Durkeim, etc. are not going to be much help to you if you're trying to understand the American Dream. Unless you understand it the way that intellectuals traditionally have in the United States, as a cruel hoax, or as a way of distracting attention from the real subject, which is class, etc.

 

So, all of this makes it hard to write about the American Dream, even if you're not aware of what I just said, and even if you just listened to what I just said and said "I don't need to know that stuff to be a reporter." It plays into your life because it's squishy what are the assumptions behind this resonant phrase the American Dream. And it's very hard to write about something if it rests on this squishy foundation of assumption, and you don't know exactly what it is, or where it was promised or where it was guaranteed or what it exactly consists of. To report on the American Dream, you first have to, at least in your own mind, think about  in an organized way. And think about, and I'd urge you to do this, because unstated assumptions are the bane of good journalism, what is the American Dream? Did it once exist and has it now been betrayed? Has it ever existed? Try to learn in an organized, factual way what this thing is and how you chart its stock through recent American history. And you really need to at least have clear in your own mind the answers to some of these questions before you can start dealing with it. That's one set of problems. Now, we'll get to the next set of problems.

 

Next set of problems is the American Dream is unstructured. Most stories that you do in journalism come to you in a packaged form. Or conversely, journalists choose to do stories on things that come in a packaged form. So in other words, you could say sports. There this sort of pre-built hierarchy of sports. Everybody in America is involved in sports and games and recreation of some kind. It's a universal activity. But it's been structured and built into sports. The sports are built into leagues. The leagues are ranked and then there are championship games. So as a journalist you can say, "Okay, if I find sports extremely compelling as a topic, then I really want to write about it at the highest level of drama, I can just go to the Super Bowl. And that way, I'm getting a pre-ordained super important sports event." Now the problem is, what's the Super Bowl? What's the story that you tell for the American Dream? That's the great difficulty of it. In other words, I don't think the American Dream is ridiculous, and I think, at the very least, it is a self presence in the lives of many or most Americans, and it shapes the experience of people in this country. So I think it's a really important story. But it's sort of like trying to write about sex, which is very difficult if any of you have ever tried it. It's everywhere and nowhere at the same time. In other words, I could take any single person in this room and say, "Okay, I'm going to write about you and the American Dream." And I would interview you and I could come up with something, I think, I'm almost 100 percent sure, some way in which your life story interacts with this concept of the American Dream, equal opportunity, class mobility, etc. I could do that.

 

But then the question is, I don't want to make it too hard because you can do that and say "Okay, fine, I've done it." And I can make it a good and interesting story. The problem is, it's anecdotal. It's one person's story. It's the story of somebody I've picked out of this room. So you when you write it, you don't have an automatic answer to the objection "Well, okay, that's one person's story. Why is it more than that?" How do you get this topic, that so much of the life of the country turns around, so many individual lives turn around, and turn it into, give it structure of a kind that, again,  a lot of what journalists do has. How do you find the Super Bowl? How do you find the presidential elections or the American Dream? Let me stop for a second. Any suggestions, now that I've posed that question? Well, you're just being coy, but I'll go on a little while longer and then I'll stop for good.

 

A lot of my work of recent years, or my last two books, have consisted of me trying to answer the question I've just posed. Which is, to take a topic which touches on this idea of opportunity in America and find a structure for it. And I mean structure in two ways. One, the narrative structure, because I like writing in the narrative form. Another advantage of the Super Bowl, is it's a built-in narrative. The story has a beginning, middle and an end. It's exciting. Something happens in the end. So on one hand, you want things about the American Dream that can be told in story form. And then the other thing, that in a way it's even harder, you want somehow to rise above the level of individual, anecdotal experience and get to, you obviously want to get that material into your work, it's crucially important and brings it to life, but you also want or I also want to say "Besides telling you an individual story, or a group of individual stories, I'm also telling you a real historical development that happened in the world. It wasn't just the life this person happened to live." I want to find institutions or events or big stuff that changes over time and discuss those changes in light of this theme of opportunity in America.

 

Of these last two books, what I did in the first of the books was I settled upon the great migration of millions of African-Americans from the old traditional Confederate South to Northern cities and, to some extent, the Western cities, and a real thing that happened in the world that plays on this theme of opportunity. I think it works in that sense, because, again, rather than saying "This is just some stuff that happened to happen to somebody who happened to be born in America, so therefore it fits the model of the American Dream." You have that, but you're also saying, in addition to that, "This is a one-time only, big mass historical event that started at a certain time and ended at a certain time and has observable consequences." So it structures the maddeningly, vague, important ever-present theme of the American Dream. You really, really need that to write about it.

 

An additional advantage of the black migration is that, I think plausibly in the book I was able to not only to tell the story of the migrants in this context, but also tell the story of the public policy makers in Washington trying to deal with the migration and its consequences. Which works well because you have one group of people living the experience and another group of people in another place perceiving, misperceiving slightly, the development and trying to understand it, which makes for a good story but it's also an opportunity to talk about the underlying concepts in that digestible form. If you see what I mean? In other words, what I don't want to do is say "Now I will discuss the meaning of this story and what it says about our country." Because that's kind of boring and preachy. If instead you can say, "Now I'm going to discuss the way that the national establishment perceived this story and its meaning, and the arguments they had about it, then, suddenly, you're in the realm of a story and characters and you're really getting somewhere. So I like that as a structure.

 

In my new book, The Big Test, the similar structure is the establishment of the Educational Testing Service. You all, if you're in a place like this, I don't need to tell you what it is probably. What appealed to me about it as a subject was I saw it as at least potentially, it did turn out to be this, as an attempt, and I go to another sociological concept. There's a great theoretical sociologist now almost 90, who helped me a lot with the book named Robert Merton. And he had this concept of opportunity of structure, which is somewhat what I'm talking about. ETS, I don't use this lingo in the book because it's underlying, ETS, I'm treating it as an opportunity structure. In other words, it's an attempt to take this big important, but from a journalist's standpoint, very squishy and gooey and hard to get your handle on, thing and give it an organizational form. Which is great. Just selfishly for my purposes as a writer, this is great. Because instead of saying "Here's opportunity in America and here are my general thoughts about it," I can say, "Here are a specific group of people who sit down one day and say Let's take opportunity in America and build this company and a regime of these wacky tests. And through that, decide who has opportunity and who doesn't, or somehow give everybody opportunity." Then you've got something you can get your hands into, because you can have your ideas and all those political moves they made to set up this organization and then, of course like everything, it didn't quite turn out in a way they thought it would turn out, so it took as a system but it turned out to be a very different system from one the founders envisioned, now we're getting somewhere. Then you have Affirmative Action, which is a political response to one of the flaws of the system and you've got that. So again, I hope this is applicable more widely than in just my own work, but for me, it's really important to find these larger structures that get you to theme of the American Dream, and I can suggest more later if anybody's interested in it.

 

So what I try to do in my work is take this theme, find this larger structure or story, but also take advantage of the individual drama and universality of it by taking people, telling their stories and weaving them into the book. Those of you who were at the last class, I'm now going to repeat myself a little bit, but we're with a different group, so if there's any overlap, I apologize. The next problem with reporting on the American Dream is, once you've found the structure for it and figured out what you think it means, finding the people you're going to write about. It's hard for me to imagine writing well about this subject without getting into the details of people's lives as they interact with this powerful concept in America. So the question is, how do you find the people, how do you work with them as a journalist and how do you fit them in your book? This is what I've spent a lot of my life doing and it's fun but difficult. It's not an easy thing to do, and it's not an easy relationship once you get it going. Let me just talk a little bit about a few issues that come up as you're doing this.

 

One, how representative do the people have to be? There is a continuum from choosing characters who are perfectly the statistical median of the phenomenon you are writing about, to choosing characters who have unusually interesting stories. And people fall somewhere on that continuum. I would go more than half the way toward the people who have the interesting stories. To go all the way to that side, I would cite the new book by Susan Faludi on men where she opens and says, "I'm writing about men in America and I refuse to pick typical people as my subjects and I believe the extreme illuminates the center. So therefore, you are going to read about men just by reading about men of the kind that you don't personally. And if you've got a problem with that, you've got a problem with that." And she makes it work, I think. And I'm less far on that side of the divide than her, but basically on that side. People who are average in every way don't make good stories, and as long as you find someone who fits the basic model, I think that you can sell them as having to do with the theme, even if their story is somewhat unusual. To use the example that I used this morning, I don't think I could have gotten away with having a white character as one of the migrants in the Promised Land. That's just too far out of there, the paradigm.

 

On the other hand, I think you can play with it. I had a lot of this problem with the Big Test because, and I have gotten some criticism for this although, mostly people seem to approve. One of the characters in the Big Test is somebody who is very much a creature of the system I'm writing about, the ETS system. But as far as the American Dream goes, this is a person whose father is extremely rich and she goes through life and then finds out in adulthood how rich the father really is. So several of the reviewers have said, and I thought about this a lot while I was doing the book, "You cannot use this person as a character because how they can represent meritocracy or the American Dream if they're so rich?" To me, the real reason I picked this person because she had this wonderful, interesting dramatic life story. I liked that. But another reason is, I thought that that's the whole point. Some people are reading it that way and some people aren't reading it that way. In other words, the fact that these ideas about how our country works, the ETS system, are so powerful that even people who have billions of dollars and don't have to work, are just deeply, psychologically bound up in the idea of entering the testing meritocracy and getting some positions that they can feel they've earned. That tells you a lot about America. And it also tells you a lot about America that a lot of the top layer of the society that thinks of itself as totally self-made, in fact isn't. Anyway, I'm trying to make all these points through this example. But I throw that out as an example of the problem of picking representative characters. Again, I think the danger of picking the perfectly representative character is that they're going to be too dull on the page. So you need somebody that's going to fit the model, but is a little off the model enough to make it an interesting story. Both books, the Promised Land and the Big Test, I had a lot of problems with that as I found these characters.

 

And then of course you need people who are good storytellers, good memories, you can trust them. You can't make a reluctant person a character in this sort of exercise. So they have to think about and want to do it. You have to be able to go back to them dozens and dozens of times and interview them over and over again. And even after all that, the relationship, even if it works very well up to publication, can fall apart after publication. And that's happened to me. That's yet another challenge with reporting on the American Dream.

 

I'm about to finish, I'll just mention one other challenge, and then we'll go to talking back and forth. Although, as we do so, if you want to get into a specific discussion of where do I go looking for the American Dream? I would like to talk about that. The last problem in writing about this is basically getting perspective. Has anyone here ever taken a fiction class? Well, if you did, you would know that you go to class on the first day and the teacher says "Write about what you know. Don't write stories about in which you're telling in the first person about life as an Eskimo. Write about what you know because you're going to have a familiarity." I think it's quite hard as a journalist to write about what you know. Or I find it's easier, and this may or may not be a general principle, to write about what you don't know. Because the whole way journalism works is you're allowed to ask people all these questions and go to all these places that the average person can't. It clouds your ability to do this if what you're writing about is part of your own experience. So that's the last thing that's hard about writing about the American Dream. It's a subject that pre-exists in your own mind and that you have had experiences that relate to, and they shape your thinking on it. It's very, very, very difficult, or it was especially for me, to understand that about yourself and pull out of the prison of your own experience and your own assumptions. Most people don't even realize how many assumptions they have, so you have to ruthlessly learn what your assumptions are before you can distance yourself from them. Again, particularly on this last book, I found that quite difficult and time consuming and it's what makes the topic especially hard is, you already know what you know. And as a journalist that's very dangerous and it must be handled with extreme care. Because what you always find as a journalist is "what you know" you don't know nearly much about it as you think you did after you've done the ordinary research. IT speaks to the power of journalism, but you have to let the power of journalism play itself out by resisting the temptation to think you already understand the subject because it touches on your own life. The end.

 

Thank you.

 

 

Q: Question inaudible

 

A: I think I can square that particular circle.

 

Q: (cont.) inaudible

 

A: Well let me come back to you on both of those. The first one, it's not as much of a contradiction as you think. Because you can say, people aren't talking about there will be no classes in America. The idea is unattainable, but the ideal is no generational transmission of class. In other words, every generation was scrambled, starts equal and then new classes are formed on your own individual efforts. And there wouldn't be bridging classes. In the Big Test, the big daddy of the meritocracy is James Bryan Conant, he says it explicitly in his writing and quotes from his manifestoes, we want to upend the class system once a generation in this country. So he specifically says I don't care if there's a class system as long as we clean the books out every generation. So that's not that big of a contradiction. Your second point I just want to correct you more, because I think you're showing some of the problems I was talking about. You say there are all these social structures that affect your subjects. And then, I'm not disagreeing, I'm just pushing you. In the cases you mention, what are the social structures? In other words, let's say you're revisiting the Jungle, and you want to follow it upstream beyond the stories of the individual characters. Were do you go looking?

 

Q: inaudible

 

A: Let me correct you, though, for a minute on this again. I'm not trying to give you a hard time because I think this would be a useful exercise on how to think about this and how to do it as a journalist. Remember, we're speaking as journalists here. Okay, you can go upstream to social theory, right? You can say here's the individual and then now I'm going to discuss the work of ?? but try to take it in a different direction, if you can. And say, instead of going from upstream to the individuals and the theory, can you go to institutions or to historical events or to leadership in the society?

 

Q: inaudible

 

A: Wait, wait, fine, but I'm trying to take it to the next step. You're writing a book. Who are the characters? Are Dick and Jane the characters?

 

Q: I think it's not a question of the characters, I think it's the audience in the book.

 

A: I'm sorry to disagree. It is a question of who's the characters, at least for me. This is what I do, I understand the ideas and I understand the audience, but then maybe I excessively make myself speak in narratives. But if you're committed to that, then you need to find the character. I'm trying to get you away from the move of saying "Here are the people doing their stuff. Now here is the explanation of what they're doing." Is that making any sense?

 

Q: Kind of. Rest is inaudible.

 

A: I just want to say one more thing about this and I'll couch this more on how I work and not advice for anybody else. In terms of how I work, it's really important to me in my work to find the structural way of talking about the ideas. When I started working on the Promised Land, I read everything on the subject. What I would find is, they would have these books where people would go in the ghetto and describe people's lives, then they would have that last chapter where they describe what it all means. There's this theory, there's this theory, there's this theory. And I thought can we find a way to get the theoretical discussion into the form of the reported narrative. Again, this is my personal cause, I'm not saying it's the only right way to do things. That is why when I got to Conant as a character in the Big Test, I was so happy because there you have the guy who has the theory, starting the organization. So you can say, here's this guy who sits down and writes this essay. And then he starts this organization that affects the lives of millions and millions of people every year. So you show the real life consequences of the ideas, instead of  having a jump-shift from the specific reported detail of people's lives to an unattached, but interesting, theoretical discussion. What I'm talking about doesn't advance you intellectually that much, but it just links the material together in a single narrative. And that at least to me is very important.

 

Q: inaudible

 

A: Answer yes. I think I was saying that. I'm a big believer in understanding the larger context of what you're writing about. It's easy for me to say because I write books and stuff like that. It's much harder to do it in newspaper stories, but yes.

 

Q: inaudible.

 

A: No. Because, in a contractual sense, when you write for magazines and newspapers, you are under their total protection. When you sign a book contract, you have to legally commit yourself to bearing the responsibility for legal repercussions from your work.

 

Q: inaudible.

 

: Two lawsuits after the Promised Land, that, as I was discussing earlier, mean I'll never get any royalties from the book or anything like that. That would be the closest example. The subtler examples would be characters who, I've had some experience with a character who will read the book in manuscript and love it, and then decide a year later, after talking to friends, that they were mishandled or mistreated and become very bitter, which bothers me. And then, this is the classic author stuff, feeling that your book was misunderstood by this or that person. That sort of thing. With magazines and newspapers, there isn't any reviewing process.  Essentially, you're the reviewer viewing the world and no one's reviewing you. When you write a book, there's a very extensive process where you're being commented on and that's unfamiliar to people. And some parts of it are interesting and some parts are bothersome or it's the kind of thing that various things will happen during that process. I can go into chapter and verse if you want.

 

Q: inaudible

 

A: That's a really good question. That's the whole problem. I think what you've done is you've stated one of the big dangers in doing this kind of work. I strongly disagree with these theories like Janet Malcolm's in the Journalist and the Murder where she says all relationships between journalists and sources are suffering from the following crippling problems. It's a different crippling problem from the one you mentioned. I think your problem is actually a smarter one than her problem.  And it's more of a real-live issue in your life. It's just a challenge that you have to try to meet. Some people meet it more successfully than others. Think about novels, the great novels. Many novels that are truly great, some would say most and some would say all, express some larger, contextual, historical, cultural ideas. It's not just a yarn about one person the author made up. So in the great novel model, the author is coming up with a story of people who live and are compelling and are non cardboard and enriching with the historical and cultural context. And I think you can try to get there in non-fiction. It's harder, but you can pick, depending on your writing skill, depending on your level of intellectual honesty, depending on how you select, you can pick people who are just totally wooden and woodenly walk through the various stations of the cross that you've set up in the book. Or you can pick people who are alive and have to do enough with your theme that they fit in the book, but are individual enough that they come alive and speak to readers as people. So I'd say you're absolutely right that that's a danger, in fact it might be the biggest danger for this kind of work. But I think if you're at least aware of it as a danger, it's healthy and you can try to avoid it, which some of us do more successfully than others. But it's a real issue, clearly a real issue.

 

Q: inaudible

 

A: James Bryant Conant. Educational Testing Service. Another person who has that same function in the Big Test and therefore is much welcome to me as a character is Clark Kerr, president of the University of California.

 

Q: inaudible

 

A: I'm going to have to respond by saying a couple of things that I said before. And I guess I didn't say them right or I've already come to the answers to the questions you've raised. Point number one, although yes it's normative and yes it's part of everybody's mental equipment to how they think of their life. The American Dream is a level of self masked individual experience. It's, I would argue, way in front of the American Dream as a theory you can understand. In other words, if you're dealing with a legal issue, you can say the law says this, and this is what's actually happening. It's very easy to put them against each other. It's harder to do that with the American Dream because it's not written down or encoded somewhere, except in political speeches and slogans. Therefore, I'm intensely aware of the problem of who do you pick and each individual's story will turn out differently and you'll get a picture of the whole thing based on which individuals you choose. It is to get around that that I've engaged in this long search for public events, large public events or policy making events or structural events that pertain to the American Dream. Attempts to structure it or direct a flow. Because then you have a story you can tell that rises above the level of individual, anecdotal, the bias of what anecdote you have to choose. I think, in the last two books I've done that. But I'm intensely aware of the danger of it depends on who you talk to.

 

Q: inaudible.

 

A:  It's not that it's complicated, it's simple. It's not complicated enough in a sense. It's simple, but there isn't. It's a non-codified, pop cultural concept that's very important to people. In a way the Supreme Court plays off the Constitution. In a way that religion plays off the literal words of the Bible, there isn't that thing to play off of in the case of the American Dream. And I feel that lack as a writer trying to write about it. I wish there were such a thing. This is exactly  what we're talking about. Congress passed the American Dream act in 1822 and it says this.

 

 

 

Copyright 2000 Nicholas Lemann. All rights reserved.