- Historic Sites
A Dearth Of Heroes
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
We may say that these three are the prime American heroes, each summing up in relatively pure form one of the ideals that, in varying combinations and with varying modifications, have persisted in American life. The ideals appear, sometimes, in very peculiar combinations and modifications. For instance, to twist the Bible story, if Emerson spoke with the voice of Jacob his visionary prophecy of America, his hands were the hands of Esau—that is, not of Jefferson, but of Franklin, that archetypal exponent of “selfreliance,” who might well have said what Emerson did say, that “money . . . smells as sweet as roses.” And if Grant, from 1861 to 1865, showed something of the massive self-certainty and fixity of purpose of a Washington, he showed later, in a painfully debased form, some of the less endearing traits of Poor Richard.
In tracing the mutations of the species heros Amencanus , Wecter is inevitably concerned with defining the essential qualities. But what the hero cannot be looms as significantly as what he must be.
First, there are by American standards certain professions and occupations that are unheroic—or at least have never furnished us a hero. No artist, writer, scholar, philosopher, physician, or saint need apply for a pedestal. He may be a very worthy fellow, but in our society no man from the groups we have named is the stuff from which heroes are made. And here, with surprise, we must note that a scientist need not apply, either. Even if our advertisements celebrate the man in white holding up the test tube, it is science, not the scientist, that we revere, and what we revere about science is, in the end, its practical benefits. Certainly, our only “scientific” heroes, Franklin and Edison, do nothing to contradict this view.
The life of the mind and spirit are not for us—or, at least on the record, are not for our hero-makers. In Europe even minor writers and artists get streets named for them, in provincial towns as well as great cities, and get statues in parks and commemorative plaques on buildings associated with their careers. Even foreigners may get such notice; in Sicily, for instance, at Taormina, a farmhouse bears a marble plaque proclaiming that D. K. [ sic ] Lawrence once lived there. In America, nothing. Perhaps a rare high school or library, and that is it. Literature, philosophy, science, the arts (including the art of healing) —these things, perhaps all right in their places, are adjuncts to our civilization as most of our citizens conceive it: frills lor women and eggheads.
Among those things that an American hero cannot be, at the other end of the spectrum from the life of the mind or spirit, is the “strong man par excellence,” neither as political leader nor military victor. We have no Stalins or Napoleons among our heroes. VVe admire strength, even ferocious strength, as in Jackson, and we have made a number of generals into Presidents, but the generals that really carry the aura of the heroic had some overplus beyond generalship. One cannot imagine the pure military man, General Patton, for instance, in the White House, no matter what his professional genius. If Grant became President, we must remember that he was, in one sense, a most unsoldierly soldier, unlike Sherman, with no military tone and with a humanizing personal story of failure.
In fact, somewhat surprisingly and hearteningly, failure does not disqualify a man from being an American hero. But he must be a deadgame failure; he must be able to convert practical defeat into a victory of spirit. The Western badman, dead with a gun hot in each hand and all his wounds in front, touches us in the old primitive way; or Davy Grockett on the walls of the Alamo, or Jim Bowie of the famous knife, in the Alamo, too, having the cot on which he lay sick carried across the line scratched by a sword point in the packed earth of the courtyard to join those who would die rather than surrender. Lee, of course, is our best example of the failure as hero. In failure he became even more of a hero in the South than he had been in the days when he carried the fortunes of the Confederacy across his saddlebows; but his transcendent triumph was to become, in spite of the curse pronounced on him by that Northern almost-hero, the almostmartyr Senator Charles Sumner (“I hand him over to the avenging pen of history”), a hero in the North, too, with none less than Charles Francis Adams, the younger, who had once commanded black troops in blue uniforms, to officiate at the ceremonies of canonization. But long since, Lee had won a final and inexpungible victory over Grant by setting his dignity in defeat as a contrast to the corruption and vulgarity in which the victor Grant was basking in the White House.
In success or failure, in elective office or not, first of all the hero must be, as Wecter says, the “people’s choice.” To be a hero at all he must command, in one way or another, their imagination and acceptance. To do this he must, in one way or another, be a figure of power, even a father figure; but in spite of power he must keep his personal modesty. Somehow, even the glacial dignity of Washington was made acceptable by his unselfish care for his men and his calm willingness to return, like Cincinnatus, to the plow. He was, after all, a farmer and a good one, and the proud possessor of a silver cup awarded by an agricultural society as “a premium for raising the largest jackass.”