We all know why people come to this country: It's in pursuit of the famous "American dream," a catchphrase so ubiquitous it's become "enshrined as our national motto," writes Jim Cullen in his new book, titled -- what else? -- The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation (Oxford Univ., $25). But what is "the American dream," exactly? And where did that phrase come from? As best Cullen can fix it, it appears to have originated with the American historian James Truslow Adams, who invoked it repeatedly in his 1931 volume The Epic of America (so named after some myopic publisher denied him the use of his dream phrase as a title). The term caught on and burrowed its way into the national consciousness. But as to its meaning, Adams offered only the vaguest of definitions, describing it as "that dream of a land in which life should be better and fuller and richer for every man."

Yes, of course, but that's a definition subject to vast interpretation, as Cullen sets out to show, arguing that "there is no one American Dream" but instead "many American Dreams." Some of these are good, some less noble. Some we want to come true; the fulfillment of others makes us wish we'd been more careful about what we wished for. Cullen focuses on a handful: the dream of upward mobility, as personified by none other than Abraham Lincoln; the dream of equality, which he deems "one of the most noteworthy" but also one of the most unsuccessful dreams; and the mundane -- but in some ways pernicious -- dream of home ownership, which has given us, after all, suburbia.

Though the words themselves have acquired "a mythic power," Cullen makes the case that the American dream in most of its forms long predates the advent of the name, like the dream he taps as the one at the root of it all. That would be the Puritans' dream of religious freedom, a dream of "manifold ironies," given that those devout forefathers of ours would be aghast at some of the dreams they made it possible for present generations to come here and fulfill. Such as the one Cullen calls "the most alluring and insidious of American Dreams," as well as that most ardently pursued in our time -- the "Dream of the Coast," the dream of something for nothing, the Hollywood dream of instant fame and fortune acquired without effort or toil. Ah, yes. That's e quintessential American dream. The one that gave us reality TV.

-- Zofia Smardz