Cover: The Real American Dream in PAPERBACK

The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in American Studies 1999

The Real American Dream

A Meditation on Hope

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$30.00 • £24.95 • €27.00

ISBN 9780674003835

Publication Date: 09/01/2000


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, Delbanco 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.’The Virginia Quarterly Review

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, The Guardian

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, The New York Times Book Review

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, The Washington Post

Andrew Delbanco is one of America’s most acute and perceptive cultural critics… [This is] a beautifully written book.—Richard Rorty, The New York Times 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, Boston Book Review

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, The Times Literary Supplement

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, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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, The Christian Science Monitor

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.—Kassle Rose, The Columbus Dispatch

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, Willamette Week

This represents as fine a synthesis as can be found on hope and the longing for something more in the collective American soul.—Sandra Collins, Library Journal

[Delbanco] insightfully contrasts the sustaining force of hope with the melancholy that comes with its absence.Kirkus Reviews

Delbanco’s lecture-based essay is engaging and very timely.—Ray Olsen, Booklist

A close and passionate reader of American literature, Delbanco believes that contemporary American culture has lost its once vital sense of the transcendent… 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.Publishers Weekly

Awards & Accolades

  • Andrew Delbanco Is a 2011 National Humanities Medal Winner
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