A Dearth Of Heroes

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As Wecter has wittily pointed out, the “collective ideal of the little man” was in other countries making possible the new order of hero, represented by Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, the hero who was photographed “blessing peasant children” or, stripped to the waist, helping to “get the crops in"—the “triumphant sublimation of a million inferiority complexes” redeemed in the form of world-shaking power. In America, however, we never got that far, and the image of the Common Man remained faceless and abstract. The image had here, too, a sort of counterpoise: the faceless image prospered alongside a most readily identifiable and most uncommon man and heroin-the-making, F.D.R. And here Wecter finishes his book with Pearl Harbor yet to come.

And with our own age yet to come.

Inevitably, we ask ourselves what Wecter, had he lived (he died in 1950, at the age of forty-four), would have made of the years since World War II—and what we may make of them. For whatever value literature may have as an index to life, our novels tell us that we live in the age of the Anti-Hero—or at least of the Slob-as-Hero. Certainly, in real life in America, we find God’s plenty of slobs in leading roles, but the Slobas-Hero may not be, after all, the type most characteristic of our time. With a poet’s prescience, Ezra Pound, some fifty years ago, in “Mauberley” demanded:

What god, man, or hero Shall I place a tin wreath upon?

Ours is the age of the Tin Wreath —no, of the Tin Hero, stamped out by the stamping mill of the media, to the order of the public relations man, with guaranteed built-in obsolescence. To put it another way, in an age of blab, of mass blankness, spurious literacy, prefabricated opinions, and predigested ideals that come out like a ribbon and lie flat on the brush, the celebrity, as Daniel J. Boorstin has put it in The Image , has long since taken the place of the hero. The hero is known for having done something; the celebrity is known for being known. The deed is the mark of the hero, mention in the gossip column that of the celebrity. In fact, the gossip column is both the womb and the Valhalla of the celebrity but a Valhalla as crowded as a subway station at the rush hour; the great revolving door toward which the throngs push is marked “Eternity,” but admits the celebrity, suddenly and irrevocably, and no doubt to his great surprise, into darkness.

“Time hath, my lord,” says the wily Ulysses to the sulky Achilles in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida , “a wallet at his back.” and in that wallet he puts “alms for oblivion.” Even true fame, that is, may fade, but prefabricated fame doesn’t even have a chance to fade. The essence of news is to be new, and the fame of the celebrity in its newest gloss lasts only until the next newscast: if it isn’t in its newest gloss it will not be on the newscast. Celebrity is, paradoxically and pathetically, the death warrant of the celebrity. And pathetically we have seen a candidate for President —and a candidate, in the minds of many, for the status of hero-- feel the need to attach himself to show-biz celebrities, presumably hoping that some ofthat glamour might rub off on him. And more recently, a P.R. expert who had a hand in the “selling” of another President to the country has divulged the arts whereby the vendible commodity was fabricated.

Have we, in America, had a hero in our time—that is, since World War n? I can think of only one man with a serious claim, Martin Luther King. The theme was high, the occasion noble, the stage open to the world’s eye, the courage clear and against odds. And martyrdom came to purge all dross away. King seems made for the folk consciousness, and the folk consciousness is the Valhalla of the true hero—not the gossip column. King may even, someday, enter into the folk consciousness of the white world, which may yet underlie, at what depth it is hard to guess, the Culture of Blab.