The NEA Big Read: Reconsidering the American Dream

Big Read Dorates Writing Workshop in Little Village cr Rebecca Amato IMG 6107 1

By Aanika Pfister

Read Time 3 minutes
May 20, 2024

Last month, Illinois Humanities concluded its statewide reading group and event series, The Big Read: Reconsidering the American Dream. Our largest reading group series to date, the program engaged a record nineteen book groups from Chicago to Havana, Illinois and included poetry workshops, storytelling events, and public discussions. 

As part of the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read, Illinois Humanities engaged participants in narratives centering on two distinct American experiences: Patricia Engel’s Infinite Country and Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. The books, while rooted in different perspectives, thematically converge to reveal truths about American life and disrupt deep-rooted ideas of American exceptionalism and The American Dream. In response to these books, a larger question emerged from The Big Read: How do these American stories ask us to reconsider The American Dream?

To answer this question, Illinois Humanities gathered partners from across the state to host Big Read book groups. Together they read, held discussions, and joined free workshops and programming revolving around the concept: Reconsidering the American Dream.

The programming and workshops associated with the Illinois Humanities Big Read were held to further inform the multi-faceted nature of the American Dream, to richen conversation and deepen inclusion.

In Little Village, Chicago, Raúl Dorantes hosted the Illinois Humanities Big Read program “Building a Home: A Writing Workshop”, attended by some book group members and some newcomers. 

As a group of majority Spanish speakers, they had a unique perspective on America, the American Dream, and the idea of home. 

Together, participants expressed some of their sentiments through new genres of writing. specifically, haikus. 

Here is one of them:

Big Read Dorates Writing Workshop in Little Village cr Rebecca Amato IMG 6105 1

“Hija Perdida                              “Lost daughter
A prendiendo Español          Learning Spanish
Ten pacienvia”                            Have patience”

It took the poet a few moments to gather the courage to read this poem. In its brevity, her poem spoke to the anxieties that come with learning another language—one that feels as though it should come naturally. After sharing, a rush of ideas, suggestions, and above all, encouragement followed. Understanding and support all blossomed from two hours and seventeen syllables.

Little Village wasn’t the only program involved in Illinois Humanities Big Read. In LaSalle, Illinois, readers watched a public screening of Poor Kids, a documentary that sheds light on the daily lives of youth in America experiencing poverty. In Princeton, poet and storyteller Nestor Gomez shared stories of his personal American Dream. And in Springfield, a panel of Illinois farmers and advocates gathered to discuss the green future of farming in Illinois and the Midwest.

Big Read 23 24 in Princeton Nestor Gomez by Sign
Big Read 23 24 in Princeton Nestor Gomez on Stage

This year, the work of Patricia Engel and Sarah Smarsh spotlighted a disappointingly familiar American reality: the American Dream has become increasingly elusive and exclusionary. Economic instability, inequity, climate change, and disenfranchisement are just a few of the many factors discussed in Illinois book groups that work to complicate and inhibit The American Dream. Despite all the obstacles, however, The American Dream is not an impossibility. When we join in community to reckon with the issues that affect us and the fears that plague us, we are working to make The American Dream more possible.

Illinois Humanities extends its gratitude to the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read program and the participants who joined an Illinois Humanities Big Read program or group this year. If you’re interested in Illinois Humanities programming like the one above, visit