Behold, America: The Entangled History of “America First” and “The American Dream”

Sarah Churchwell. Basic, $32 (368p) ISBN 978-1-5416-7340-3
Churchwell, a historian of modern American culture at the University of London, argues that the simple phrases “American dream” and “America first” have long and complicated histories and that their current meanings are quite different from those they held originally. At the turn of the 20th century, Churchwell explains, the popular conception of the “American dream” emphasized the communal pursuit of equality and justice rather than the individual drive for personal success. For progressive reformers, unfettered capitalism was a danger to these ideals. And when Woodrow Wilson spoke in 1916 of putting America first, it was to urge his countrymen to remain neutral in WWI so that the nation could help both sides at the conflict’s end. But the phrase was soon taken up by opponents of immigration and advocates of isolationism, who feared that the nation would be contaminated by contact with foreign elements; similarly, anxieties generated by communism and the Depression encouraged the reframing of the “American dream” as one of individual material progress. In clear and graceful prose, Churchwell shows that the triumph of these later ideas was far from inevitable; her book is a reminder that “we do not have to accept others’ narrow understanding of our meanings.” Agent: Peter Robinson Rogers, Coleridge & White. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 08/27/2018
Release date: 09/04/2018
Genre: Nonfiction
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