an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

The Search for the “American Dream”

Part 1

“American Dream”, as a sort of vaguely grand, invocation of a secular ideal of human life and achievement in America, is an expression used throughout the world today, and heard in post-Soviet Russia as well. Like the “Statue of Liberty”, or a few well-known words from the American Declaration of Independence, this phrase – and the images it evokes – is immediately and easily associated by people around the world with the United States of America. This very pervasiveness in our time tends to obscure the fact that in the greater course of human history, it is of comparatively recent origin; an origin the actual historical source and meaning of which is, unfortunately, but symptomatically, unknown to most of those who use it – including in America itself.

In spite of the widely-recognized, deeply troubled social and moral conditions in the USA today – including those which make it impossible to imagine the “American Dream” as in any way a realistic possibility for millions of Americans (such as the poor in the inner parts of most major cities) – the “American Dream” is nonetheless alive in America today. As an expression, as an ideal, it is a part of the national psychology and social conception: the “American Dream”, at least rhetorically, is part of the discussion of what the USA is to itself, to the world and to history. It could in fact be argued that there are as many “American dreams” as there are those who conceive it. But the little-known fact is that the expression has an historical origin; one which is however much deeper than the world-wide popular image of the “American Dream”. And the differences are crucial.

The “American Dream”, pursued also throughout the nations of the world today has, at least the popular image of it, become a part of the search of humanity for how the human being should live in our time. And if it no longer competes with active political socialist-communist utopian ideals – being closer to what is called a liberal-democratic, humanitarian social conception; it must still be recognized as a vital, secular contrast to religious conceptions of human society in the world today. For it also, if in a perhaps less articulate way, presents a vision of how man should live on earth. (It might be called, in its popular version, an earthly or secular utopian vision of man and society.) And it is a powerful vision to mankind.

Nikolai Berdyaev (1874–1948)
Nikolai Berdyaev
(1874–1948)

Because this expression and its ideal – both central to the late 20th century’s idea of America, and very influential in the world as it is – is now known in Russian culture as well, it is selected as the appropriate introductory theme of American Reflections. In this author’s view, if the popular idea of the “American Dream” is simply unreflectively copied in Russia itself, as some final human and social goal and achievement of man on earth, this would tend to being a loss to both Russia and the world. However, in deeper fact, the original idea of the “American Dream” is certainly such that it can be enhanced by being complemented and completed by some of the best characteristics of Russian culture and character. The “American Dream” is mistakenly viewed if it as seen as some sort of superior replacement for the “Russian Idea”; perhaps, rather, as its practical, physical counterpart. As Nikolai Berdyaev wrote in 1948:

One cannot imagine the future of Russia as determined and fatal; it depends on human freedom. One can foresee an extraordinary development in the economic and political force of Russia, and the birth of an American type of new civilization, dominated by technology and the thirst for earthly goods which, in the past, the Russian people lacked. But the will should be directed towards the creation of another future, where the social problem will be equitably solved, where the religious calling of the Russian people will manifest itself, and where the Russian people will remain faithful to its spiritual nature. The future also depends on our will power and our spiritual efforts. One must say the same thing for the whole world.

By considering the original, historical idea of the “American Dream” in contrast to the popular one, it will be clear that–however deeply contrasting though the histories, cultures and characters of these two peoples are – some of the best of Russian culture should be viewed as a vital, necessary element in the search for the “American Dream” – at least in Russia itself. However little inclined Americans may in fact be to do so, they could do well to learn in this way from Russia. But any such complementation does not here refer primarily to any great impersonal political or social organizations and institutions, nor to uncritical followers of world mass consumer cultural trends (in mind and styles), but rather to “greatness in our own individual souls” – the significance of which to the original “American Dream” we shall soon see.

Part 2

The Popular “American Dream”: Mirage of Palatial Happiness

As widely as the expression is used throughout the intellectual and popular cultures of the world today (“culture” in the American “general” sense of culture, not Russian “elite” sense), in books, articles, conversations and arguments, one might readily expect the phrase’s origin to be rather well-known. However, this is not the case. Rather, it seems to float around like some polymorphous intellectual creation (without an author), receiving various shapes given it by different writers and speakers from a multitude of divergent social perspectives – especially, though not exclusively, in the USA. It has no “official definition”, nor obvious clear meaning in itself, aside from its obvious association with America. But it is there, in the world, in the hearts and minds of multimillions around the world, pursued like some long-sought, illusive, golden palace situated somewhere in the West...

A few years of lonely labors amidst the well-stocked, open book stacks in major libraries of Northern California, eventually led this author to the discovery of its little-known historical source. This author believes that it is important for people in Russia – especially in this time of great historical, cultural change, (including their new, deeper knowledge, experience and inter-penetration with the West, including America) – to clearly recognize and understand the “American Dream’s” original source and meaning, so that they may thereby better understand this influential social ideal in relationship to Russia’s own very different history, culture and Idea. But first...

What is the prevalent, popular image of the “American Dream”? (AD) Though there are millions of variations in the details, most imaginations of the achieved AD would share much of the following: living in a large, luxurious, private home, surrounded, perhaps, by land and trees, a swimming pool and gardens; a grand house of many rooms, with a very fashionable, custom-designed home interior, and all of the indoor and outdoor amenities – and servants – which make life easy, convenient, comfortable and enjoyable. Add to this, of course, the many various objects and playthings of leisure and entertainment such as electronic entertainment, cars, boats, tennis courts, saunas, etc.; plenty of gourmet food and designer clothes, etc, etc, etc. In sum, it is material prosperity and success, comfort or luxury, which is generally popularly seen as the achieved AD; this is the life which is the goal in the popular conception of the AD. The popular tendency is to see it as some end, some complete human achievement in itself.

But how, and whether, one needs to earn this, is, perhaps, less clear today. Honest, moral, hard work was for many decades believed by perhaps most in the USA to be the open path to success in America. But the ways to wealth and fame have not – especially in the past two or three decades – always followed such obvious, clean moral paths; and thus there is present in the USA today a certain competing belief in “easy money” – whether it is morally gotten or not. This is one of those social conditions in the USA which is widely acknowledged to be a part of America’s social and moral crisis – the so-called “crisis of values” in the USA.

For some people, the freedom to work in their own chosen field, creatively and actively, is the vital element in the AD. To others it is simply a comfortable home, with family, and a tolerable, good-paying, reliable job. For others, it is pure luxury, unencumbered by any work at all – at least this is how the AD is seen by some. But, in itself, the popular idea of the AD is of material comfort and prosperity – and perhaps the freedom to live as one would like within one’s success. At its maximum, this would be all of the physical and material comforts one could possibly imagine. It must be noted that this image does not in itself include much of a philosophy of life beyond that of comfort and enjoyment.

But these are more the popular images than the realities. It often requires a full life’s commitment and work, first to acquire, and then to maintain a prosperous AD in the USA today. Anyone who has a realistic knowledge of social and economic conditions in the USA, knows that now a great deal of effort and emotional strain is often necessary for people to get and keep their AD. What one might now call the Hollywood version of the AD is most often a sort of easy mirage ideal of palatial happiness... The reality is often a great deal of work and (di)stress.

In sum, the AD in the popular imagination – and this affects the lives and aspirations of multimillions in the world – is often seen as a physically, materially prosperous and comfortable life of pleasure, enjoyment and relaxation – a sort of heavenly earthly life. Perhaps at its “best” it is imagined as some sort of permanent luxury vacation.

It must be recognized that this idea of the ideal, successful human life presumes a rather earthly conception as to both man’s inner being, happiness and destiny, and the nature of life. Unreflective as the popular AD is in the minds of most of those who pursue it – often most of their lives; it does not in itself even attempt to answer rather deep and fundamental questions of humanity, life and world. The AD often tries to exist with either very mild such beliefs, or even a complete disinterest or agnosis in God and ultimate human meaning; an ahistoria of the human condition; and a simple avoidance of what Dostoyevsky called the “cursed questions” of life. (Indeed, one might even say that the successful attainment of the popular idea of the AD is an attainment of a life completely “uncursed” by the deeper questions of human existence.)

The popular AD, as an ideal, is especially strong today – whether named the “American Dream” or not – in the world’s mass, consumer culture, though it is often in fact associated with the unusual, apparently – happy lives of the world’s rich, powerful and famous. To the questions of life it supplies little more than the image of earthly comfort and pleasures. But this is not so for the original expression and conception of the American Dream. There the “American Dream” is seen more as a part of the greater, nobler life and history of mankind.

Part 3

The Nobler “American Dream”: “greatness in our own individual souls”

The idea of the “American Dream” – however one may conceive of it – has many precursors and kindred conceptions in America’s history (and not only in America, of course). From the colonial Puritan’s religious idea of a “citie (city) on a hill”, through the political idea of the United States of America as a New Order of the Ages (Novus Ordo Seclorum; see the US $1 bill) of 1776; the “land of the free”, “the land of infinite possibilities”; up and through the more recent social ideals of the hippies and “new agers”, or the technocrats and computer virtual realists, America has been a land of many ideals and experiments in social utopias. The American Dream is one such grand social vision in the USA; one which – as an idea shared by most Americans in its pluralistic culture – affects the ideas and lives of, perhaps, most Americans in some way or other.

James Truslow Adams (1878–1949)
James Truslow Adams (1878–1949)

Whether in America’s earlier literary, philosophical, historical or social writings, the particular phrase, “American dream”, is to be found, the expression “American Dream” received its current modern origin, conception and wide publicity from a widely-read work by an American historian: James Truslow Adams[1]. In his 1931 The Epic of America – an examination of American history published in what turned out to be only an early year of the Great Depression – the expression was taken out of whatever general or incidental use it may have had before that time, and placed solidly into the vocabulary of America’s intellectual and cultural life. In the “Epilogue” to his The Epic of America – and this is the modern source of the expression “American Dream” – James Truslow Adams wrote:

If, as I have said, the things already listed were all we had to contribute, America would have made no distinctive and unique gift to mankind. But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth and position...

No, the American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtless counted heavily. It has been much more that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which have slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which have developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class. And that dream has been realized more fully in actual life here than anywhere else, though very imperfectly even among ourselves...[2]

The “American dream”, stated Adams, is a dream of a social order in which each man and woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable... Here we find the necessarily-related social ideas of society and the individual. For Adams, the society should be so ordered that it allows the fullest, free development of the individual. (This emphasis on the individual, rather than the community, nation or state, has a long history in America and the West.) In contrast to the popular vision of the American Dream today: physical comfort, prosperity and pleasure, Adams considered the American Dream to be much more that “merely material plenty”. Indeed, rather it placed far higher demands on the “simple human being”.

“Things of the Spirit”

When Adams, in The Epic of America, articulated his ideal of the expression American Dream, and how it was to be realized and maintained; he examined and critiqued the conditions of American society and culture. The high, noble character of the “American Dream”, as he conceived it, must be considered in relation to that which he criticized of American society up to his time. His concerns of decades ago are still troubling and real in America today.

The Epic of America (1931)
The Epic of America (1931),
first edition

He lamented, for example, how “business and money-making and material improvement” had come to be viewed as ends in themselves; how the pursuit of such worldly accomplishments had come to be seen as “virtuous” in themselves. He castigated America for a tendency towards blind “unthinking optimism”; that is, for ignoring the darker and “sordid” realities of history and man in the USA. He denounced anti-intellectual tendencies amidst the American culture, and the predominance of a tendency towards quantity and material development, over quality and “spiritual values”. He rejected the Americans’ tendency to forget the past in their rush towards the future. Utilitarian tendencies in education, the dissolution of moral values: all of these receive his criticism. It is important to note that most of these criticisms applied not primarily to the social order in itself, but to the inner life of individuals that make up the society.

Adams repudiates, especially strongly, the economic-business view of man and society in which the human being is considered and treated primarily as a “consumer”. He criticized this misconception, in relation to the deeper questions of the nature of the human being. Adams wrote:

If we are to regard man merely as a producer and consumer, then the more ruthlessly efficient big business is, the better. Many of the goods consumed doubtless make man healthier, happier, and better even on the basis of a high scale of human values. But if we think of him as a human being primarily, and only incidentally as a consumer, then we have to consider what values are best or most satisfying for him as a human being. We can attempt to regulate business for him not as a consumer but as a man, with many needs and desires with which he has nothing to do as a consumer...

Adams lamented the growth of uniformity and timorousness in men – in contrast to the “strong individualism” he noted in America’s colonial, frontier and pre-industrial days; and called for an equivalent strength and independence in his time. Rejecting the degrading influence of economic motives and realities on independent, intellectual creativity and literature, he wrote: The theory of mass-production breaks down when applied to the things of the spirit. (A line worth remembering). For such, he held, leads also to the degrading of the needed standards for all of society.

Reversing what Adams criticized in the USA, one finds that he called America to: a viewing and evaluation of “business, money-making and material improvement” as means rather than ends in themselves; for a deeper recognition and understanding of the dark side of humanity and history; for an intellectually-vibrant culture; for the predominance of quality and “spiritual values” over the material; for a wise knowledge of history; for high human goals in education; moral vitality; a realistic sense of life and the world’s complexities; viewing the human being as a full human being, and not as just a physical consumer; individual courage; a recognition of excellence in literature and thought: the “things of the spirit”.

Adams is not looking to political-social ideals of state organization, nor to religious community and ideals in his articulation of the American Dream; he looks to the individual, the “simple human being”.

Part 4

A High Standard of Being

A materially “high standard of living” is only the basis upon which the “American Dream” is to be realized. It is certainly not the end, nor the goal. Not to James Truslow Adams, whose use of the expression placed it into the language of America’s twentieth-century national social conception – and thus into world vocabulary.

As Adams saw it, a materially “high standard of living” is the base upon which should be realized, what we may call, a “high standard of being” of a person, in his mind, soul, education, cultivation and, ultimately, spiritual striving.

Above and beyond the mere economic base, the need for a scale of values becomes yet greater. If we are entering on a period in which, not only in industry but in other departments of life, the mass is going to count for more and the individual less, and if each and all are to enjoy a richer and fuller life, the level of the mass has got to rise appreciably above what it is at present. It must either rise to a higher level of communal life or drag that life down to its own, in political leadership, and in the arts and letters... The point is that if we are to have a rich and full life in which all are to share and play their parts, if the American dream is to be a reality, our communal spiritual and intellectual life must be distinctly higher than elsewhere where classes and groups have their separate interests, habits, markets, arts and lives. If the dream is not to prove possible of fulfillment, we might as well become stark realists, become once more class-conscious, and struggle as individuals and classes against one another. If it is to come true, those on top, financially, intellectually, or otherwise, have got to devote themselves to the “Great Society”, and those who are below in the scale have got to strive to rise, not merely economically, but culturally. We cannot become a great democracy by giving ourselves up as individuals to selfishness, physical comfort, and cheap amusements.

There is a great deal here which could be commented upon: the relationship of the economic and intellectual life and values; mass and elite culture; responsibility to the shared society vs. class struggle; the moral requirements of democracy, et al.

It is essentially a question, as Adams saw it, as to what is a worthy, noble life for the individual (as a human being) and society in the United States of America. What are the higher values by which a society may live and thrive, and how are they to be determined. Adams wrote:

If we are to make the dream come true we must all work together, no longer to build bigger, but to build better. There is a time for quantity and a time for quality. There is a time when quantity may become a menace and the law of diminishing returns begins to operate, but not so with quality. By working together, I do not mean another organization, of which the land is as full as was Kansas of grasshoppers. I mean a genuine individual search and striving for the abiding values of life.

So that it is the individual human beings working together (which should be considered in relationship to Russia’s own community traditions and ideals) and their striving towards which Adams looked to determine the true and important values in life, and how the “American Dream” was to be realized.

Wisdom from Politicians? Businessmen? or...

Adams stated further – in words which should be considered by all in the world who use the expression American Dream with any serious intention of meaning, especially today:

I have little trust in the wise paternalism of politicians or the infinite wisdom of business leaders. We can look neither to the government nor to the heads of the great corporations to guide us into the paths of a satisfying and humane existence as a great nation unless we, as multitudinous individuals, develop some greatness in our own individual souls. Until countless men and women have decided in their own hearts, through experience and perhaps disillusion, what is a genuinely satisfying life, a “good life” in the old Greek sense, we need look to neither political nor business leaders... So long as we are ourselves content with a mere extension of the material basis of existence, with the multiplying of our material possessions, it is absurd to think that the men who can utilize that public attitude for the gaining of infinite wealth and power for themselves will abandon both to become spiritual leaders of a democracy that despises spiritual things. Just so long as wealth and power are our sole badges of success, so long will ambitious men strive to attain them...

This entire quote merits long and thoughtful consideration; not only in relation to American history, past and present. It is important to recognize that after Adams rejected leaders in politics and business as the source of wisdom and values in his social vision, he did not then look towards any traditional religious doctrines, institutions or figures, nor to any social-political utopian ideology of any sort, in order to help determine what is a “genuinely satisfying life, a “good life” in the old Greek sense...” Recognizing as he did the secular character of the age, and the pluralistic culture, he looked, rather, to the individual human being: “the simple human being”, who must search and strive to discern the better and richer life, and who must participate in raising “our communal spiritual and intellectual life”. The individual human being, who, in multitudes, must develop some greatness in our own individual souls. This is the actual core idea, the spiritual core of the idea of the “American Dream”.

James Truslow Adams’ ideal of the American Dream was not a description, but a call, an injunction, a summon decades ago to mankind in America. And one quite far from the current popular idea of the American Dream as an achievement of “merely material plenty”. Unfortunately, this nobler ideal of the American Dream is less known and understood than this material ideal; and the spiritual contrast is far from clear or solved in the spiritual and cultural life of the USA today. It would be impossible for Adams to say that America had wisely pursued and achieved his nobler ideal of the American Dream.

James Truslow Adams, on business in America (1929):

If people wish to tramp about the countryside remote from cars, or read a book, or go to an art museum, or simply engage in intelligent conversation at home, the manufacturer is loosing a possible profit. The constant endeavor of modern business is therefore to get people to fill up their leisure with things, things that can be made and sold.

Plenty of business men are much more than business men and outside of their office and business hours have other qualities and other interests. But there is this to be said. Society at large, including the business man, owes its opportunity for a fully rounded life mainly to those who have not been business men. What will be the effect on all of us of the growing dominance of the business type and the hold which the business man and business ideals have attained upon our civilization?[3]

Part 5

“Cursed Questions” and the “American Dream”

Much which James Truslow Adams criticized and called for in the USA of his time, can readily be seen – and recognized – to be problems and necessities in America today. Indeed, Adams would vehemently reject the popular idea of the American Dream as it is viewed today. He would readily say that a materially rich but spiritually impoverished individual is a bad example for society and the human being; that a life of “merely material plenty” and enjoyment is beneath the level of the human being. As Adams wrote in 1929 in an article entitled “A Business Man’s Civilization”:

Moreover, dealing with material things and with the satisfying of the world’s material wants, the business man tends to locate happiness in them rather than in the intellectual and spiritual unless he constantly refreshes his spirit away from business in his leisure. When the pressure of business on his time, or his concentration on it, becomes so great as to preclude his reasonable use of leisure for the development of his personality, he is apt to become a materialist... He may live in a palace, ride in the most luxurious cars and fill his rooms with old masters and the costliest manuscripts which his wealth can draw... but if he cares more for riches, luxury and power than for a humanly rounded life he is not civilized but what the Greeks properly called a “barbarian”.

The USA there should be not naiveté about this is, at the close of the 20th century, in a social and moral crisis. The President of the USA himself clearly and unambiguously acknowledged this with deep personal concern in November of 1993, in a unique, historical speech in Memphis, Tennessee (in the church in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had given his last, “Mountaintop Speech”). As the President stated: the problem of “values” – of morality – in the USA is a spiritual crisis. The government could only address the outer, external aspects of the social and moral crisis. But he acknowledged that all that the government could do externally – like putting an extra 100,000 policemen on America’s streets – would fail unless the inner aspect of the social crisis was met. In this speech the President of the USA stated many problems and themes which were in fundamental agreement with those six decades earlier by James Truslow Adams.

Things of the Dollar

The government of the Soviet Union used to present an image of life in the USA and the capitalist West which was exclusively and unrealistically terrible; often the people responded by an impossibly idealized image of life, culture and society in the USA. (This author experienced this, under late Soviet conditions, as some sort of spiritual compensatory need in the Russian people’s psychology.) It is now long past time for a broad realistic knowledge and understanding of America, good and bad.

In this first American Reflections we have compared the ideas of the popular and the original, nobler “American Dream”. In the first, the human being pursues and achieves a “high standard of (physical) living”, wealth and comfort: things of the dollar. Many people in America (and other countries of the world) today have achieved this American Dream. But life in America (and elsewhere) reveals that “the golden palace” is indeed illusive; that physical plenty, comfort or luxury, fame and power, are not enough. The human being requires a greater meaning to his life, and cannot – without some sort of adequate spiritual anesthesia, active distractions, or avoidance of its own inner life and questions – really forget the deeper, “cursed questions” of human life.

Certainly there is much more than enough quantity of external, physical secular entertainments and distractions in the USA (and elsewhere) to aid in this avoidance if it is wished. But we have seen that the original, nobler idea of the American Dream not only presumes individual inner striving and achievement, but also a certain individual spiritual maturity: greatness in our own individual souls. Here, history, literature, philosophy, religion, poetry, music, art, proverbial lore, et al, are an essential part of the development of any such inner greatness; they aid in the genuine search for the abiding values of life. In other words, material comfort is only the basis, the context, the means towards the real achievement of the American Dream in the inner life, culture and questioning of the “simple human being” – be that in America or Russia.

Dollars and Dostoyevsky?

Most people in economic, dollar Russia are merely trying to survive the difficult economic conditions, social climate and moral environment. Only a few are nearing material luxury. But the life of the majority of those in the world who have already achieved the material, popular American Dream, reveal that it, in itself, is not at all enough for the human being. It would be a great illusion were Russians to imagine that the prosperous or luxurious popular images of the American Dream are some magical and happy solution to the problems of the human being and society. If not all people wish to actively engage the “cursed questions”; it should not be imagined that the popular American Dream is their solution. This it most certainly is not; this can be easily learned from America’s own experience.

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by V. Perov (1872)
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by V. Perov (1872)

Perhaps it will be a consolatory inspiration to some post-Soviet Russians to realize that their own intellectual and spiritual history can in fact provide a vital, necessary contribution to the achievement of the nobler American Dream. The pursuit of US dollars and “merely material plenty” – the things of the dollar – which forgets Dostoyevsky and the “cursed questions” of life – the things of the spirit, is a false, illusory philosophy and direction – and in historical fact, as we have seen, not even the true pursuit of the nobler, original American Dream. Russia should learn from America, that a materially-achieved American Dream – in the its popular meaning – is not sufficient to the human being and society. Dostoyevsky and the “cursed questions” are not extraneous, irrelevant or ignorable to the actual American Dream; they are vital to it. The President of the USA himself called for a turn to the “things of the spirit”, and if Dostoyevsky – and this which he represents in this essay – cannot help guide us here, who can?

If Russians are now pursuing an American type of new civilization (Berdyaev), they would be misled to imagine the popular American Dream as a social or spiritual solution or as an end in itself. The culture of Dostoyevsky is a vital element to any true achievement of the nobler American Dream, and in this way individual Russians of good-will – in their own individual lives, families, communities, villages, towns and cities across Russia – have the possibility, task and burden to try to seek a Russian combination of a “high standard of living” and a “high standard of being” – the things of the dollar and the things of the spirit. Not dollars or Dostoyevsky, but somehow, dollars and Dostoyevsky. The “cursed questions” belong to man spiritually, just as much as the necessity to eat does physically; and the nobler “American Dream” cannot be truly achieved – in America, Russia or anywhere else in the world – without the developing “greatness in our own individual souls”, and facing the “cursed questions” too, in the search for the “American Dream”.


First published in the magazine English, #38-42, 1995.

Notes

1. Adams, James Truslow (1878–1949), American historian, who wrote scholarly, readable books on many subjects. His style, marked by brilliant synthesis of research materials, was widely praised, although some critics regarded him as an amiable popularizer.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, on October 18, 1878, Adams attended the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (B.A., 1898) and Yale University (M.A., 1900). He was associated with a New York Stock Exchange firm from 1900–1912 and then turned to writing. The Founding of New England (1921), his first book to attract wide attention, won the Pulitzer Prize for history. He then published Revolutionary New England, 1691–1776 (1923) and New England in the Republic, 1776– 1850 (1926). The trilogy was acclaimed as a masterpiece of scholarship. Next came Provincial Society, 1690-1763 (1927), Hamiltonian Principles (1928), Jeffersonian Principles (1928), and Our Business Civilization (1929). Although not a Massachusetts Adams, he wrote The Adams Family (1930) and Henry Adams (1933).

By mid-career, Adams concluded that the ripest fruit of knowledge is to interpret facts, to try to find out how they are related and how they influence one another. The Epic of America (1931) reflected that spirit; this broad-stroked historical survey was popular in the United States and won an audience elsewhere through translations. Subsequent books included America’s Tragedy (1933), Building the British Empire (1938), Empire of the Seven Seas (1940), The American (1943), and The Living Jefferson (1936) criticized the New Deal. An economic conservative, Adams often called for a return to what he regarded as the old-fashioned virtues.

In the last decade of his life, Adams edited three valuable reference works: Dictionary of American History (6 vol., 1940); Atlas of American History (1943); and Album of American History (4 vol., 1944–48). He died in Westport, Connecti-cut on May 18. 1949. Back to text

2. Adams, James Truslow, The Epic of America (Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, and Co., 1931). Back to text

3. Adams, James Truslow, “A business man’s civilization,” Harper’s Magazine, July 1929. Back to text