A Dearth Of Heroes


Even if, as Wecter has argued, there is a characteristic profile for the American hero, there are still fashions in heroism. In one of W. D. Howells’ least-read books, A Traveler from Altruna , a satirical fiction in which the visitor from a decent and rational society (safely mythical, of course) tries to make sense of America, one of our citizens (as of the year 1900) explains to him the shifts in fashion, after the Civil War, of the “ideal of greatness” : …I should say that within a generation our ideal had changed twice. Before the war [the Civil War], and during all the time from the revolution onward, it was undoubtedly the great politician, the publicist, the statesman. As we grew older and began to have an intellectual life of our own, I think the literary fellows had a pretty good share of the honors that were going; that is, such a man as Longfellow was popularly considered a type of greatness. When the war came, it brought the soldier to the front, and there was a period of ten or fifteen years when he dominated the national imagination. That period passed, and the great era of material prosperity set in. The big fortunes began to tower up, and heroes of another sort began to appeal to our admiration. I don’t think there is any doubt but the millionaire is now the American ideal. …

In a similar way Wecter analyzes the shifts of “taste and spirit in hero worship.” By his version of events, there was, first, the “Silver Age” of our patriotism, the age of oratory and grandiosity, in which one “could hardly see the hero for the incense.” Then from 1840 to the Civil War to be resumed afterward and continued to about 1914—came the Age of Sentiment, in which the tender side of the lives of the great —love of mother, devotion to wives, children, and dumb beasts, and pity and other humane impulses -became the stock in trade; this was the period when one “could not see the hero for the tears.” The Civil War demanded sterner stuff for the role of the hero, producing as its most awesome specimens the gigantic Lincoln, the noble Lee, and the grimly competent Grant; but the subsequent period - the period of the Great Barbecue - though it did, as Howells says, affirm a national ideal of the businessman, produced no hero who, by common consent, embodied that ideal. There was, in fact, a teeming host of pedestal-claimants, from Jay Gould through Jim Fisk and Commodore Vanderbilt on to Andrew Carnegie, but they seem to have killed off each other in the popular imagination. What emerged was a pair of heroes who, indeed, got rich, but whose success was not based on mere financial manipulation and organization; Ford and Edison had another kind of know-how, they could “make” something, electric light bulbs or tin lizzies — and this difference must reflect some credit on America, after all. In a backhand way, the canonization of Teddy Roosevelt bears some relation, too, to the popular attitude toward the world of business: if the heroic statue that might be erected to Teddy would properly have the right foot on San Juan Hill and the right hand lifting a sword in a gesture of command, it would have the left foot on the neck of a dragon labeled “the Trusts” and the left hand clutching a copy of the Supreme Court decision in the Northern Securities case.

World War I gave us Woodrow Wilson and certain military aspirants for the American pantheon, but, as Wecter observes, this was the only war that put no general in the White House and that has for its characteristic hero a nameless man. But in a deep ambiguity, the heroic role of the Unknown Soldier pointed not only, we may hazard, to the idea of the heroic in the common, but also to a contempt for heroism that was to characterize the age of the Great Boom. For that was also the Age of the Great Debunking, in which all heroes would be unmasked, usually by parlor Freudians, and the United States would be regarded as Just Another Sucker for having been conned into a crusade to Make the World Safe for Democracy.

Upon this cynicism and sophistication burst Lindbergh, with all the simplicities and ardors of the old American legend—the All-American Boy from the Heartland of America, a small-town boy, not bookish but very smart about gadgets, awkwardly good-looking, with rumpled blond hair, but without vanity, wearing a rumpled old blue suit. And he loved his mother; the first thing he did on arriving in Paris was to get a wire off to her. But Lindbergh did not usher in a new fashion. He was, in a sense, merely the last flickering gleam of an old one. The Big Media, then just getting the hang of things, took the hint and inflated the old fashion into a new that was a monstrous parody of the old.

The waning of Lindbergh’s popularity merged with the atmosphere of the Depression. New and very unAmerican heroes were now being adopted; in some quarters Lenin, in others Trotsky; but in quarters more parochial there was the Common Man a type figure with even deeper ambiguities than the Unknown Soldier. Sometimes—ideally considered —the image of the Common Man was taken as a celebration of the yearning for the excellent, for the heroic, in which all men may participate—and of the quality sung by Whitman in “the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known.” But more frequently that image was taken as a celebration of (and as an alibi for) the merely average, with “commonness” taken to justify any lack of striving or aspiration, that is, with the Common Man as the image of the Anti-Hero writ large.