- Historic Sites
A Dearth Of Heroes
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
To state the matter more precisely, the hero does not merely express a pre-existing soul, is not merely a projection of that soul; the hero belongs primarily to the process whereby the soul emerges, or to the time of testing, reaffirmation, or redefinition of the soul. The myth of the hero, in its higher reaches, is, then, that of the light-bringer, the leader out of the wilderness, the founder of cities, the breaker of horses, the slayer of dragons, the redeemer, the Hanged God, the restorer of fertility. Such a myth and such a hero may appear prematurely-—that is, before the full meaning is discernible. In that case, the meaning of the myth is later recognized and the hero later hailed as a dynamic force in creating the social context in which the myth has finally been able to flower in its fullness- and with a new and more appropriate hero.
Let us, for example, take the case of Nathaniel Bacon, who in 1676 led, against the royal governor of Virginia, the rebellion known by his name. By this abortive rebellion Bacon set a pattern that was to find significant repetition precisely a century later, but it was not until 1804, by no less a person than Thomas Jefferson, then President, that his name was salvaged from “infamy” as a “rebel” and proclaimed that of a “hero” and a “patriot.” Heroic Bacon no doubt was, but of what palria did Jefferson regard him as a “patriot”? Fresh from England, Bacon had, in fact, scarcely set foot on Virginia soil when he was embroiled in the troubles of the colony, and he was dead, by poison or fever, inside of a year. The only answer to our question is that Jefferson, anachronistically, regarded Bacon as the patriot of a patria that did not come into existence until 1776 and in Bacon’s time had not even been imaginable.
“The land was ours before we were the land’s,” as Robert Frost puts it, and the process by which we became the land’s was long, complex, and arduous. No doubt, as John Adams said, the Revolution took place in the hearts of the American people years before a shot was fired, but a number of shots had to be fired on both sides and some had to dew the land with American blood before we belonged to it. Once that had occurred, the patna for patriots existed, and as with Bacon, so with Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, Miles Standish, and all the other early figures now safely ensconced in our national pantheon; their naturalization papers and certificates of heroism were issued quite late—often quite late indeed, Miles Standish not getting his until 1858, from Longfellow. The candidates couldn’t get their papers until there was a patria whose values the heroes might, retroactively, be discovered to embody.
On the time when the land was finally being baptized with the redefining blood and the full flowering of the hero could occur, Wecter is especially good. Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson are the Founding Fathers who early became national heroes, and in that capacity did as much as by any services in the field or in the council to make the new nation possible at all. It is this fact that, apparently, leads Wecter to argue that the hero has had a veryspecial role in America, a role not known elsewhere, at least not to the same degree. If, as Wecter says, patriotism traditionally springs from love of place, then America is in a peculiar situation. To begin with, the nation was founded in terms of an idea, and as late as the 1850'$ the Polish political writer Adam Gurowski, in an astute book on America, distinguished the United States from all other nations on this basis. The abstract idea might be noble and our distinction might be applauded, but it was abstract; it did not immediately and firmly grip the guts.
Furthermore, from early days distance beckoned the man on this continent, and often he had scarcely learned his way around in one Eden, much less taken root there, before word came of another one, newer, brighter, and more felicitous, farther upriver or over the mountains. Even in early times, distance was a potent factor in making Americans out of displaced Europeans; and once Americans were made, especially after Jefferson had set the flag on the Pacific—against all his political principles as well as his agrarian sense of locality—the dream of distance, like the dream of the future, fed the national ego. These twin dreams were fundamentally dynamic for our veryexistence, but they drained off the vital blood from more specific attachments to a particular place and to a particular past. The dreams did give a sense of grandeur and an air of confidence to Americans, but they also meant that American life often exhibited that thin, abstract quality later noted by George Santayana.