Thursday, 14 May 2015

“Hollywood and the American Dream”


On Wednesday 13th May, the Andrew Hook Centre was delighted to welcome prolific journalist David Willis for the 15th Annual Gordon Lecture in American Studies. The lecture title was, “Hollywood and the American Dream”, which broadly discussed the changing concept of the ‘American Dream’ from America’s colonial beginning to the celebrity culture of the present day. Mr Willis has been the BBC correspondent in Los Angeles for fifteen years and, in a journalistic career spanning more than three decades, has covered events as wide-ranging as the Iraq War, the election campaign of 2000, American reactions to 9/11 and the Academy Awards. As a British journalist living and working in the United States, Mr Willis offered a unique perspective on American Studies, informed by his vast experience in translating American current events and issues to a British audience.

Mr Willis began his lively and engaging discussion with an anecdote concerning a recent conversation with an African American taxi driver named Jamal. The recent riots in Baltimore, Maryland was the topic of discussion, and, in Jamal’s opinion, these riots were less to do with racism and more deeply concerned with underlying issues of poverty and desperation in America’s inner cities. More specifically, Jamal considered these ‘race riots’ to be a direct response to the perceived disappointments of the Obama administration to make visible inroads into racial poverty in the United States. To be sure, the protests in Baltimore are only the most recent in a series of race protests arguably beginning (on a national level) with the shooting of unarmed black teenager of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, exacerbated by the judicial clearing of a white police officer in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, and culminating with the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015 following injuries sustained during his arrest. Willis proffered that these recent events could be seen as exemplifying the failure of the American Dream, at least among the clearly discontented participants of protests and riots across America.

In order to understand the failures of the ‘American dream’, Willis turned to its origin point. Far from being an abstract term used to define the national values of American citizens, Willis referenced the first Puritan settlers in the colonies, whose guiding purpose in the New World was made clear in John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon aboard the Arabella, during which he stated that the Puritans would create a ‘city upon a hill’, free from the religious persecution of the Old World, serving as a beacon to the rest of the world. In his sermon, Winthrop also declared that ‘we must be knit together in this work as one man,’ and that the settlers must ‘delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own […] always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work,’ thus illustrating the founding principles of communality and the importance of hard-work that was to be the cornerstone of life in the new colonies.[1] Although the term the ‘American Dream’ was not used for a further three centuries, Willis’ illustrated, here, that the value system covered by the term could be traced back to the colonial era in these important historical documents.

The term itself gained popular currency following the publication of James Truslow Adams 1931 book, The Epic of America, which, taking its cue from The Declaration of Independence, sought to define the national characteristics that set America apart from the rest of the world. In his text, Adams stated that in America people could expect a ‘better, richer, happier life,’ where ‘opportunity [was available to] all in accordance with their ability or achievement.’[2] Willis went on to discuss the marketing of this concept, which was the work of the founder of publishing powerhouse TIME magazine, Henry Luce. These ‘American’ values were thus ‘packaged’ and became immersed, both visually and textually in American culture. Artist Norman Rockwell immortalised the ‘American Dream’ to the World War II generation of Americans who were exposed to his ‘Four Freedoms’ quartet of paintings, published in The Saturday Evening Post and acting as the visual counterparts to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous ‘Four Freedoms’ speech (1943).

  Norman Rockwell, Freedom From Want or The Thanksgiving Picture (1943) as seen in The Saturday Evening Post

At this point in the lecture, Willis summarised the post-war boom in affordable housing, spearheaded by William J. Levitt and depicted in popular 1950s television programmes such as Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver. Interestingly, Willis noted that the characters in these television shows lived in bigger houses and drove flashier cars than the average American, fuelling an aspirational drive which led to the burgeoning culture of consumer credit that we are familiar with today. In this landscape, the American Dream came to represent prosperity and well-being, which culminated in 2000 with most monumental credit crisis since the Great Depression. Willis ended this segment of the lecture by noting that in contemporary American society, the gap between the wealthy and poor is both vast and ever-increasing. To illustrate this point, Willis showed the audience a cartoon commentary of this societal fault by Stuart Neiman (below).

Thus, Willis argued that the communality of work and egalitarian principles of the first settlers and The Declaration of Independence have steadily eroded as the United States has come to depend on consumer spending and a capitalist market. Thus, the ‘American Dream’ has changed shape and, in the eyes of many, has proven unattainable as poverty and unemployment rates climb. Willis, at this stage, opened the floor to questions in what became a lively discussion forum. The audience raised a variety of questions ranging from Willis’ opinion on the current political climate as the United States prepares for the 2016 presidential election, to Willis’ personal experience as a journalist. In what proved one of the most interesting aspects of the lecture, Willis, responding to a question regarding the role of the media in Hollywood, answered that, in his career as a journalist, he has borne witness to rapidly changing journalistic practices. People, Willis stated, now access news stories in a different way, as the ‘6 o’clock’ news and print newspapers are superseded by instantly-available news online and via smart-phone apps. The 24-hour news cycle and the public demand for instant news has thus changed the playing field and has come to reflect the technological age in which we live. Hollywood’s role in particular, as the epicenter of the American Dream, concluded the lecture, in Willis’ reflection of the continued geographical hegemony of Los Angeles as the city of dreams – a place where thousands of people continue to flock each year from across the globe to chance their luck at stardom.

David Willis’ lecture had the effect of engaging the large audience with his journalistic perspective on the changing public understanding of the ‘American Dream’. In his evocation and discussion of several key moments in American history, Willis demonstrated the continuously evolving nature of this elusive concept, as countless generations have sought to attain the perfect, charmed life – a life which has often been the product of advertising agencies and other mediums of popular culture. With this in mind, it was fitting that the 15th Annual Gordon Lecture was delivered by a journalist, as it is often on the pages of the national press that the changing concerns of a populace is articulated and analysed. In a nation wrought with external and internal frissures, it will be left to future journalists and historians to determine the attainability of the American Dream as the twenty-first century progresses.

By Rebecca Dunbar
PGR at The University of Glasgow

[1] John Winthrop, ‘A Model of Christian Charity’ in Richard S. Dunn & Laetitia Yeandle [Eds.], The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649 (Harvard University Press: London, 1996) p. 10
[2] James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (Routledge: London, 1932) p. 214

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