A Dearth Of Heroes

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In America the status of hero—durable, full-fledged hero—has been awarded to few men. The subtle, complex factors that have led us to be so selective were brilliantly described three decades ago m a book, The Hero in America , by historian Dixon Weder. For a reissue of this book, which will be published later this month by Charles Scribner’s Sons, novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren has written an introduction examining Mr. Wecter’s categories for glorification and speculating about who today—in this present age. of the “Anti-Hero” or the “Slob-as-Hero”—might be candidates for future canonisation. AMERICAN HERITAGE is proud to publish Mr. Warren’s thoughtful and witty introduction to this classic work of history.

Dixon Wecter’s Hero in America appeared in 1941, on the eve of our entry into World War n, but now, three decades later, no book could be more relevant—more disturbingly relevant—to our national condition. In 1941 the “heroes” Mussolini and Hitler (along with their brother-hero Stalin, who happened to wind up on our side) dominated Europe and, as though with the morning sun of a new world-day at the back, cast their enormous shadows across the Atlantic. Could we produce a brand of heroism to stand against the apparently invincible, and inevitable, European product?

So this “Chronicle of Hero-Worship,” as it is called in the subtitle, assessed the heroes of the American past in a context that gave the subject more than academic interest. It was, we may say without much exaggeration, a subject involving life and death. And now, in a time that among other things is an age of antiheroism, as America faces a crisis which is deeper, more inward and more dire because more inward, and for which no happy issue is guaranteed, we may again say, with even less exaggeration, that this book treats a subject still involving the life and death of our society.

It is very strange that nobody before Dixon Wecter had ever undertaken such a book as The Hero in America . This, however, is what we always say about even about especially—the most original and important books after they have appeared. Once written they always seem so obvious and inevitable. As Emerson put it, we recognize in them our own rejected ideas. Wccter’s book, though it appeared at a crucial time in our history, would have seemed obvious and inevitable, and important, at any time. Its importance depends, primarily, on its basic conception. It is one of those studies —like “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” by Frederick Jackson Turner, Virgin Land by Henry Nash Smith, or Patriotic Gore by Edmund Wilson —that by viewing our history from the angle of vision provided by a particular topic shifts everything into new perspectives and relations, opens new vistas, and casts new shadows: new shadows because by investigating our history in relation to the new topic, we not only discover new truths but find that old truths arc no longer true and that we must confront new mysteries. We thought we knew all about Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Brown, Robert E. Lee, Buffalo Bill, and Thomas A. Edison, but once we set them side by side on the table and inspect them, we must ask what common denominator of the heroic we find—or do not find.

In this inspection, which leads not only into by-paths and covered ways of history but into strange recesses of ethical analysis and psychological speculation, we find not only fresh acquaintance with the heroes, the hero-makers, and the hero-worshippers, but unexpected confrontations with ourselves. For if the hero is the embodiment of our ideals, the fulfillment of our secret needs, and the image of the daydream self, then to analyze him is likely to mean an analysis of ourselves. By a man’s hero ye shall know him. So we may come to know ourselves even better than we had ever wanted to.

To create a hero is, indeed, to create a self, and that is why, as VVecter points out, colonial societies Canada, for instance, in spite of its vast spaces, long history, and bustling life —have no heroes in the full sense of the word. A colonial society may, of course, have its quota of heroic figgurcs; but their function is strictly limited, often more limited than that of the hero of a subculture within a national culture. The hero developed in a subculture may well embody aspects of what we may call the heroic potential in a national culture. For instance, the subculture of the Western Plains could provide, in Buffalo Bill, a national hero. And that mythical “steel-drivin’ man,” John Henry, who died in a contest with a machine, though invented in a black culture, found at least some resonance in the soul of white America. White Americans knew something, too, about the man versus the machine.

 

To return to the matter of colonial society, the colonial society cannot, quite literally, call its soul its own. Furthermore, insofar as it has heroes at all, it has them on borrowed time -—that is, on time borrowed from the future when it may cease to be colonial and achieve its own identity, its own soul. The point is that without the context of the communal soul, there can be no true hero only heroic individuals.