Lanier's Reviews > American Dreams: Lost and Found

American Dreams by Studs Terkel
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's review
Nov 07, 2008

it was amazing
Recommended for: Historians, Business folk and young people
Read in January, 2010 — I own a copy


notes from Studs Terkel’s American Dreams: Lost and Found

Many of the “winners” and “losers” or Rags-to-Riches-to-Rags stories within these first 35 pages are fascinating. One in particular, “The Stream”, by Leonel I. Castillo, I left for my scholars to mule over earlier today. The Stream concerns the flow of illegal immigrants coming in, particularly from Mexico and how, contrary to national unrest, they do NOT detract from the security or financial kitties, but rather they promote both as hard-working, dedicated tax-paying residents. In referring to picking the one for the border crossing he states: “He’s the bight kid in the family. The slow one might not make it, might get killed. The one who’s sickly can’t make the trip. He couldn’t walk through the desert. He’s not gonna be too old, too young, too destitute, or too slow. He’s the brightest and the best,” [page 6:].

This especially struck a cord as I remembered acting out my “Maliki’s Heat” for those in P6 and P7 as a means of illustrating good storytelling techniques, morals of shoddy parenting and lost dreams and values in spite of great professional success.

The coyotes were also particularly poignant as I had recently seen a great original movie “Coyotes,” by Brian Petersen and Brett Spackman that I’m trying to arrange for the kids to see before this rapidly ending year.

We shall seeeee.

Another “winner”, Wallace Rasmussen from Beatrice Foods in Chicago, was equalling engaging with his hints at suffering and struggle as a means to remaining forever vigilant against complacency and staying hungry:

“I’m just a country boy. Born in Nebraska and came up right through the Great Depression. I’m convinced it will repeat itself when it’s time, and probably it’ll be good for the country. It will be hard on people who never experienced doing without, but it’s amazing what you can get along without. You don’t have it, so you begin to spend more time with your family. There’s a way in history, a way in nature, of always bringing people back down to earth,” [page13:].

D’oh! IS we living this right this very minute? OK, so this Great Depression thang. I can remember near the end of Bush’s terminal reign when everyone was avoiding words such as “recession” and “depression” for months as if not naming it meant those 100s of thousands were NOT actually losing their jobs, homes, families. So, we are brought back to earth. Those who have always gone without, didn’t seem to be complaining as much as those living far beyond their means, which was nearly everyone else. Because, face, if you do not have nine months savings in case of the Pink Slip or unexpected Downsizing, you are living beyond your means. If missing one month’s pay will put you in jeopardy of being delinquent on payments or set you back a ways, then you are living BEYOND YOUR MEANS. Hell, Virgin mogul, Richard Branson, sold off most of his assets last year and he’s still worth 3.9 Billion! Oh, did I mention he OWNS his own island? He’s one who could’ve saved those people their jobs and taken the hit of a few million. But perhaps he thought he was living “beyond his means”?

I digress..Ramussen was so right in Terkel’s 1980 accounts. Not sure where or what Rassy’s doing now, but this philosophy of understanding the past, pulling yourself out of the hole every so often echoes another memoir I recently finished, which I highly recommend: “The Other Side of Paradise”, by Staceyann Chin. Abused, neglected and slighted, she never stop screaming her innate yawp of self.

Rassy continues: “I think hardship is necessary for life to be good, for you to enjoy it. If you don’t know hardship, you don’t know when you have it good. Today, the father and mother don’t want their children to go through the same hardships. I don’t look at it that way....People are now so used to being given something for nothing. They think it’s for nothing, but there’s a price. Loss of their pride, loss of their ability to take care of themselves. It’s like caging animals. I don’t care how wild the animal was, if you cage him long enough, he forgets how to take care of himself. The same is true about human beings. Like the lion that’s forgotten how how to take care of himself, they will kill others, the slow ones because they can’t catch the fast ones. That’s why you have crime today in the element not employed. They don’t know how to take care of themselves other than to take away from those that have. A recession or revolution will bring it back into balance. It’s happened throughout history. That’s one thing I know out of reading history,” [Dreams pages 14-15:].

Kyle was in last Friday preaching the most important subject to many of the classes he visited. Now while he fully understood that most of the hands raised to “who finds History boring or unnecessary?”, he stressed how like Bob Marley sings, “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.” Surprisingly, this reference was lost on the kids, as they have never heard that particular cut. Shame!

Still, history continues to repeat itself, and as Rasmussen states, it’s perhaps necessary to wake the Brotha and Sista up! Still one of my favorite lessons learned from Terkel’s 470-page survey of Dreamers and those living Nightmares, is from the S.B. Fuller, pages 21-27. He compliments Rasmussen’s mantra of rising from the ashes, as well as living the Rag-Riches-Rags-Riches story a few times in his life (he passed away in 1988, seemingly a pauper, but he was actually relatively well off). Self-made millionaire, creator of Fuller Products Company as well as media mogul and entrepreneur galore, he was ostracized by racist Southern Whites and leading Civil Rights leaders alike.


You read correctly. After reading a bit more from http://blackentrepreneurshalloffame.b...

I got a bit more insight as to the WHYs of his fellow brethren stabbing him in the back. "When asked what he believed motivated S. B. Fuller to such spectacular success, Vincent Baker [former FPC worker, journalist:] responds, 'Well, he once told me that at a point in his life, as a young man, after he had married and had several children, he awoke to the realization that he had a number of mouths to feed, and was not doing an especially good job at it. Not that he underplayed the reality of discrimination against blacks, but he decided, discrimination or no discrimination, he had to make a better living than he was doing. And he came to believe that ultimately a major weapon in the fight against discrimination was self-help--a refusal to remain dependent forever on other people for your own sustenance. He regarded dependence on others as little better than updated slavery.'"

At a time when the Civil Right Moment was seeking all the power they could get from racist regimes here in the backyards and business worlds of the great US of A, some of Fuller doctrines didn’t sit as well with them. A bit like Blacks getting all offended when a seemingly doddering Bill Cosby Jr., points accusingly at the Black father and mother as the root to this generation’s increasingly lackluster, ill-tempered and stagnant attitudes.

Yet, Fuller, like Cosby, has never apologized or stepped down from Booker T. Wasshingtonesque mantras.

"The outrage against Fuller's words that blacks should exert their efforts to become economically independent is evidence of the wedding of this dependency concept with the civil rights concept. We tend to confuse dependency with civil rights. Fuller used to talk about blacks standing before the white man with 'a handful of gimmes and a mouthful of much obliged.' He wanted to see blacks free themselves from this endless begging." [website:]

Again, from page 23 of Terkel’s book, Fuller was all about initiative and the “staying hungry” ideal that Rasmussen was on about: “I always believed that I wasn’t exceptional. I was an ordinary person. All people are ordinary. I learned that all men are created equal. The rich boy has money but no initiative. The poor boy has no money but initiative. Initiative will get the money. This is the thing every kid should be told when he comes to America. Only in America, you’re free to eat if you can find something to eat and you’re free to starve if you don’t. In America, they won’t let you starve, but you’d be better off starving than go on relief, You may not be physically dead on relief, but you are spiritually.”

He goes on to say how Blacks must jump into the market, creating things worth selling. Sales are where he came from. Door-to-door, out selling those around him, recognizing a niche or a hole and jumping from more lucrative ventures to the next before he saw his opportunity to run his own businesses.

“Welfare kills a man’s spirit. It may give his body the vitamins that make him big and fat, and he may be happy. But he doesn’t have the spirit of initiative. A dog you feed will not hunt. If you want a dog that hunts, you have to let him get hungry. If you want a man to search, man needs to face the recesses of life. You’re free to eat if you can pay for your food, and you’re free to starve if you don’t get the equivalent to pay for it,” [pages 25-6:].

This sentiment, and that from Rasmussen were two that we as a nation needed two years ago when this mammoth Bail-out was created. Sure the country and perhaps the world would’ve stumbled had we left those “two big to fail” fall. However, those who have ALWAYS had, those spoiled A-holes gave themselves $30 Billion bonuses for nearly killing the market. Once again, those who have not fallen, got rewarded for failing. Obama never should’ve given them a dime without conditions. You see why the man was elected? If he refused, he’s the scapegoat, the bad guy responsible for NOT giving them a handout, carte-blanche with no strings, and the cause of years of further hardships. However, he was damned either way, because, though we are gradually crawling out of it, those on high on Wall Street, have learned nothing except, they can screw up royally and still make greater bonuses than when they were successful!

“Although the persistent hectoring of his businesses did compel Fuller to declare bankruptcy, this by no means undermined his vast enterprise. In a revamping, numbers of Fuller Product Company branches were transformed into proprietorships owned outright by the managers. These new owners continued to purchase their products from Fuller's main plant in Chicago. The great entrepreneur's finances remained solvent and he died a prosperous man.” [website:]

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Reading Progress

06/02/2010 page 100
19.42% "Amazing stories from the road, as Studs Terkel has put his finger on the pulse of movers and shakers from all sects of American living, getting their take on their unique versions of "The American Dream". Fascinating!"
06/14/2010 page 200
38.83% "As I skip around, learning how many peoples' dreams have altered, while others have attempted to live up to their parents' ideas of "the dream", others have completely lost faith in America, let alone with this notion of "a collective dream". Fascinating!!!"
08/29/2010 page 400
78.0% "I love the way Terkel juxtaposes a black man's anti-Civil Rights rant; bashing the KKK as an example of Civil Rights' failure with a reformed KKK member who went from the highest position within that organization to working side-by-side with his swore black enemy protesting The Powers That Be and their efforts to pit races against one another."

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