Culture Heros

March 10, 2004

As a followup to the below I was thinking about nations defined by culture. Often that culture is embodied in particular people, real or mythic, who we refer to as culture heros. These are the people who define what it means to be part of a group or a nation.

So who are the American culture heros?

Off the top of my head I come up with:

  • The founders, especially the elites who wrote well and held national office
  • The Pilgrims - in principle though not in any of their details, and mostly because they gave us the notion of Providence and of being a chosen nation.
  • The frontiersman - Daniel Boone or Leatherstocking. These folks were rare, but the image of the heroic individual with axe, gun, and family heading west to carve a home from the "wilderness" is a powerful image.
  • Horatio Alger - or really his characters, who despite the rags to riches were really rags to middle class. Andrew Carnegie really was rags to riches, but Carnegie is no longer a culture hero.
  • Populists. I don't want to name William Jennings Bryan here, but there is a recurring motif of identifying or searching for the man who will speak truth to power and who will defend the interests of the little guy against those of wealth and privilege. How we define the little guy, or wealth and privilege, will vary, but the culture hero of the populist is regularly invoked.
  • EDIT Dagwood Bumstead - it is the only reason that explains why the guy is so popular. I suppose we could include Homer Simpson, a Dagwood for the 1990s, but I eat more sandwhiches than I eat donuts and pie, so I am still a Dagwood at heart.

There are more, but these came to mind. I am struck by the extent to which my list is dominated by fictional types or by fictionalized representations of real people. Is this a bit of "Myth and Symbol" American Studies? Should I have more real people on the list?

And so to finish prepping class.

Posted by Red Ted at March 10, 2004 11:44 AM | TrackBack

Your list reflects a natural tendency to look at history as recorded by the "victors", even in our culture -- white men. As I read it, I thought of the people and characters that shaped my view of America as I was growing up, and my list is somewhat different:

- The sisters in Little Women, particularly Jo. A strong, literate, completely American young woman who admired her soldier father, loved the boy next door, and was true to her spirit.

- Frontierswomen: Caddie Woodlawn, Annie Oakley, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and early brothel keepers. The men weren't always out there alone.

- People who were influential during key shifts in the country's path: MLK, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Abraham Lincoln, etc. People who showed that to be an American is to be able to protest and lead to changes.

- Comic book superheros. Superman, Captain America, and to some degree the others like Batman, Spiderman, the rest of the Justice League, etc. We demand more complexity from them in their modern incarnations, but there was a time when they epitomized truth, justice, and the American way, after all.

- To the Dagwood Bumstead category, I'd add my dad and the millions of people like him. Just a good guy trying to make an honest living, raise his family well, and countdown the days to a retirement of puttering in his workshop. He's politically apathetic and nominally religious, and in that, perhaps more representative of mainstream American culture than any of the others.

Posted by: Eden at March 10, 2004 07:37 AM

Good points, and good correctives.

The odd thing about my list was that, as I was making it, I realized that many of the people on the list - especially the frontiersman, the pilgrim, and Horatio Alger - promote what the Marxists would call false consciousness. These are myths that many people buy into, but the myths do a poor job of describing actual experience. Thus many people will reject communal values for individual values, for they desire to rise by their own merits, only to find that their social and economic status falls because of their lack of power.

And so, yes, they are the myths promoted by the winners.

Posted by: Red Ted at March 10, 2004 07:59 AM
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