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Book Review: Dreaming Up America 

Dreaming Up America
Russell Banks
Seven Stories Press, 2008; $21.95

In his provocative book of essays, Dreaming Up America, Russell Banks explains the importance of modern American mythology—that is, the noble lies we propound about our nation’s glories. We thrive on such heroic storytelling, Banks explains, because our own true history is a cyclical record of invasions and exterminations. Whether the victims were Native American, Vietnamese, or Iraqi, we insist that the subjugation was to promote religion and democracy, rather than mere land grabs. Banks refers to this hoary rationale as the three Cs: Christianity, capitalism, and civilization.

George Bush knew the importance of mythology; he stuck to a thumbs-up script no matter the crisis, and won himself two terms. But presidential hopefuls Kerry and Gore chose to wag a scolding finger at the populace. Trouble is, people are least likely to tolerate a dressing-down when they most deserve it. President elect Obama has struck a balance in dispensing American mythology. While not embarrassing us about the past we prefer to ignore, he suggests that a better future is within reach. Our fragile egos are spared, our optimism renewed.

Russell Banks is no such diplomat; in eight separate sorties, he turns the American dream inside out, spilling its entrails and prevailing hypocrisies. A keen student of American history, Banks cites seminal moments in our republic’s past to make his point. (He has proven his mastery of America’s past by weaving true-life events into novels such as Cloudsplitter, a fanciful account of Civil War abolitionist John Brown.) In Dreaming Up America, Banks mercilessly traces our collective mindset, from the arrival of the first settlers in 17th-century Jamestown through the Reagan-Bush years, and highlights the entitlement and illogic that calcified into the political zeitgeist. The American Dream, Banks reminds any of us who missed the message, is a well-orchestrated hoax.

One manifestation of our blind faith has been Hollywood films. A pleasing form of propaganda, the movies catalog our well-polished myths of noble wars, political equality, and everyday justice—in short: a litany of fantasies. Witness the celebrated pro-Klan classic, 1915’s Birth of a Nation. Less often, mainstream films project an honest, if unflattering truth, as in 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath.

The power of film is a recurring theme in this octet of essays, with good reason. Banks’s original text came from a 2005 French documentary on the mythmaking of American movies. Along with fellow novelist Jim Harrison, Banks held forth on films like Captain Blood, Sergeant York, The Great Dictator, and Black Hawk Down, as well as the aforementioned screen favorites. Director Jean-Michel Meurice ultimately boiled down eleven hours of Banks’s meditations for the film’s narration and a companion book. Banks subsequently chose to amplify his oral musings for Dreaming Up America.

Jingoistic readers beware: Banks aims a bold finger at the diseases of the body politic. Whether calling our Founding Fathers “elitist,” comparing American nationalism with brownshirt rantings, or citing the role of racism in all of our foreign invasions, the Saratoga author is no vacant-eyed flag-waver. His observations are crisp and clear-minded. (One must wonder whether the author’s dour assessments might be leavened by Obama’s triumph.) When our troops finally leave Iraq and Afghanistan, Banks predicts, America will likely enter a period of isolation. He adds, “In many ways it will be harmful to us, culturally and economically. But at least we’ll kill fewer people.”

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