Television History: Land of the fairly free

Matthew Hoffman digs for the truth under the Dust Bowl
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The Independent Culture
The American Dream


"The American dream". It sounds so sonorous, so pregnant with meaning; one feels that there must be something in it. First, there's that definite article, the one dream. Then there's the name of a country used adjectivally: not any old dream but the dream of a whole nation. Finally, the word dream itself, with its allusive echoes of idealism and impossibility, of aspiration and hope.

But, sorry to report, if there's one (unintended) lesson of the five- part documentary series, , which concluded last Sunday on BBC2, it is that there is no clear and well-defined concept that corresponds to the title, and a fortiori no reality to correspond to the oft-repeated phrase. The introductory passage, intoned by narrator Peter Fonda, announces: "This is the continuing story of 10 families and three generations who went in search of the American dream." Well, I managed to count only seven families, but their goals and experiences were disparate enough to account for more than that number of dreams - and nightmares.

The choice of families was inspired, and must have been the result of much research. Just think of the number of families who must have been eliminated because their lives were not "touched by some of the great events of this century" - whose lives instead were shaped by private griefs and family joys.

But in the event we were presented with figures whose life stories were imbued with some sort of public symbolism. For example, there was an Hispanic American whose mother had abandoned him as a child and whom the American army had sent to Vietnam at age 17. His dream was to survive. He was counterposed with a wealthy patrician, a "liberal" governor of Massachusetts, a contemporary of John Kennedy, whose whole-hearted advocacy of the Vietnam war reminded me of the nightmare that I was happy to escape, in 1970, through reversing my parents' immigration and returning to Europe.

Other "representative" Americans, whose lives were charted through three generations, included black civil rights workers who had emigrated north to Detroit; a Korean couple, whose shop in LA was burnt down following the acquittal of the policemen who had beaten up Rodney King; a family of New York Jews who went from poverty to wealth and, in the third generation, to elected hippie poverty; and a family of Arkies (like Oakies, only from Arkansas) who emigrated to California in the Dust Bowl Thirties and raised an engaging bigot who provided some grit for the programme through his right-wing dislike of war protesters, Hispanics and such liberal icons as Jimmy Carter.

Stringing much of the series together was a Berkeley Free Speech Movement veteran who was with Robert Kennedy the night he was assassinated, later worked as a campaign manager for McGovern's presidential bid, and ended up as a founding partner in one of Silicon Valley's most successful computer companies, Sun Microsystems.

Such a disparate lot was bound to pursue different goals. The Korean couple - who provided a delightful rendition of the song Washington Square in Korean - came to the US because "we could live well and raise our children freely". The dream of wealth, however, was far from the mind of the Jewish Harvard dropout who discovered in the Sixties that "the power structures which I'm just on verge of joining is being shown to be bloody, guilty, criminal". The blacks were simply trying to escape from prejudice and get that house "with a white picket fence", while the Silicon Valley Internet visionary ended up looking for a culture of "celebration and inclusion".

For Abraham Lincoln the great American experiment was about self-government and equality; for my forebears it was escape from religious and racial persecution; and for those who now live in an increasingly polarised and anarchic marketplace, the worry is how to create an effective government in which they can put their trust.

It is a protean vision, the American dream, but perhaps the chief lesson of this well-made if unanalytical series is that the dream is neither unique, nor particularly American. It is just the universal human yearning to get out of whatever mess one happens to find oneself in.