American Studies

Postcards about the American Dream

Sun, December 9, 2012


The idea of the “American dream” means many different things to different people; it could hardly be otherwise in a nation as diverse as the United States. For some, the dream is about intangible ideas like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, optimism, family ties, social justice, and equality. While for others, it has long been associated with attaining a higher standard of living, especially one that surpasses that of previous generations. What’s more, different people may express and experience the “American dream,” however defined, in very different ways. Finally, it’s also the case that, at different times and in different ways, the “American dream” was not available to everyone in the country; for some it might be technically available, but in practice as distant as the moon. 

Undergraduate students in Prof. Steven Hoelscher’s Introduction to American Studies class at the University of Texas at Austin took on the task of interrogating this nebulous, but important concept in a two-step project. Beginning with the inspirational model of Magnum Photos ongoing Postcards from America series, students were asked to explore one segment of the U.S. visually, through photography. First, each student asked him/herself what the “American dream” might mean and if it’s something attainable or hopelessly inaccessible. Then, each recorded her/his thoughts in the form of a photographic image in Texas. In these original photographs—and in the detailed, unedited captions that accompany them—the extraordinary range of how the “American dream” is envisioned comes into full view. 

What follows are visual documents of the hope and confidence that often come naturally to college students, but also, in many cases, an equal recognition of life’s injustices and uncertainties. A composite, multifaceted picture of modern America emerges from these photographs: of idealism and pragmatism, the political left and political right, acquisitiveness and a rejection of materialism, arguments for traditional family values and LGBT rights, conformity and insurgency.  Together, these postcards from Texas—of cotton fields and strip malls, millionaires and homeless men, junkyards and mansions— complicate glib calls for an unproblematically unified America. They also demonstrate the creative energy and thoughtfulness that has always been central to “the American dream”—whatever it means.

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