American Myths


Culture shapes the way we think (or does our thinking shape culture?); it tells us what makes sense.  It holds people together by providing us with a shared set of customs, values, ideas, and beliefs, as well as a common language.  We live enmeshed in this cultural web: it influences the way we relate to others, the way we look, our tastes, our habits; it enters our dreams and desires.  But as culture binds us together it also selectively blinds us.  As we grow up, we accept ways of looking at the world, ways of thinking and being that might be best characterized as cultural frames of reference or cultural myths.  These myths help us understand our place in the relationships to friends and lovers, to the past and future, to nature, to power, and to nation.  Becoming a critical thinker means learning how to look beyond these cultural myths and the assumptions embedded in them.


·        The Myth of Individual Opportunity

·        The Myth of the Frontier

·        Myth of democracy

·        The Myth of Progress

·        Myths of Gender

·        Myth of the Melting Pot

·        Myth of the Family

·        Myth of Education and Empowerment


You may associate the word “myth” primarily with the myths of the ancient Greeks.  The legends of gods and heroes like Athena, Zeus, and Oedipus embodied the central ideals and values of Greek civilization—notions like civic responsibility, the primacy of male authority, and humility before the gods.  The stories were not “true” in a literal sense but as reflections of important cultural beliefs.  These myths assured the Greeks of

·        the nobility of their origins;

·        they provided models for the roles that Greeks would play in their public and private lives;

·        they justified inequities in Greek society;

·        they helped the Greeks understand human life and destiny in terms that made sense within the framework of that culture.


Our responsibility as sophisticated readers of American literature is to sort out the “mysterious” elements (some very deep chord in human nature) that inform certain literary works and that elicit, with almost uncanny force, dramatic and universal human reactions.  We will discover how certain works of literature image a kind of reality to which readers give perennial response.


Myth is to be defined as a complex of stories—some no doubt fact, and some fantasy—which, for various reasons, human beings regard as demonstrations of the inner meaning of the universe and of human life.”  (Alan Watts in Myth and Ritual in Christianity)


Myths are by nature collective and communal; they bind a tribe or a nation together in common psychological and spiritual activities.  “Myth is the expression of a profound sense of togetherness of feeling and of action and of wholeness of living” (Allen Tate, The Language of Poetry).  Like Melville’s famous white whale, myth is ubiquitous in time as well as place.  It is a dynamic factor everywhere in human society; it transcends time, uniting the past (traditional modes of belief) with the present (current values) and reaching toward the future (spiritual and cultural aspirations).


Myth, like history, interprets and attempts to find meaning in past events.  But when transformed into myth, history is reduced to its ideological essence.



Paradox of American Culture


Two dreams tug at our feelings:  one of a life in nature, the other with machines (Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden); one of a life in the past, the other in the future.  Nature makes us what we are, we still like to think, makes us good and decent; but it is technology that makes us better. 


I.  We believe in the fundamental equality of all (community)


·        We are a society steeped in a Puritan theology that vigorously preached the individual’s responsibility is not to the self but to God and the community.  We still have evidence of this in President Bush’s call for federal funds to church charities.

·        Zion Society – City on the Hill (no separation of Church and State)  Many examples of “communal societies” in America.  Signers of the Mayflower Compact abandoned their original economic system, in which property was held in common and all persons worked for the community.  He explained that by spring 1623, fewer than three years after the colony’s founding, communal labor and property holding had been found to “breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to the colonists’ benefit and comfort.” 

·        John Winthrop:  “A Modell of Christian Charitie” – Likening his people to a new Israel, he called upon them to build a “citty upon a hill” that would show the Lord’s way to the “eies of all People.”  And people in Europe were interested in the experiment.  Winthrop’s call was for a hierarchical social order.  That was God’s desire.  But all within that order should be “knit more nearly together in the Bond of brotherly affeccion.”  (Oneida Community, Shakers, Mormons, “Hippies” of the 1960s and 70s)

·        Jonathon Edwards

·        We are wealthy because someone else is poor!  It is a myth that anyone can grow up to become President of the United States.

·        Issue of slavery

·        Issue of property rights

·        Natural World (wilderness) versus the world of human endeavor.  Nature, according to the myth, is “other” and inferior to humans; land, rivers, minerals, plants, and animals are simply material made available for our use.  And because our transformation of nature leads to “civilization” that use is ultimately justified.

·        Nature is a spiritual resource and refuge from civilization (Emerson and Thoreau)

·        “In the woods, we return to reason and faith.  Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space…I am part or particle of God.” – Emerson in “Nature” (1836)

·        Walden by Thoreau – “Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it.  We need the tonic of wildness.”

·        John Muir who was instrumental in establishing the national park system

·        Sand County Almanac – A Land Ethic by Aldo Leopold “A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.  It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.  In human history, we have learned (I hope) that the conqueror role is eventually self-defeating.  Why?  Because it is implicit in such a role that the conqueror knows, ex cathedra, just what makes the community clock tick, and just what is worthless, in community life.  It always turns out that he knows neither, and this is why his conquests eventually defeat themselves.

·        Do we preserve wilderness areas such as Alaska (even if it means we pay an extra dollar for gas?)






We strive as hard as we can to separate ourselves from our fellow citizens (individualism) Unlimited personal freedom


Signing of the Mayflower Compact in November 1620:  “It was thought good there should be an association and agreement,” said one participant, “that we should combine together in one body, and to submit to such government and governours, as we should by common consent agree to make and choose.”  Therefore, the male passengers on the Mayflower created “a civil body politick, for our better ordering and preservation,” authorizing the framing of “such just and equal laws…as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony.”  The signers promised “all due submission and obedience” to the government they had thus established.


·        American optimism:  Thoreau said in 1862 in an essay entitled “Walking” – “If the moon looks larger here than in Europe, probably the sun looks larger also.  If the heavens of America appear infinitely higher, and the stars brighter, I trust that these facts are symbolical of the height to which the philosophy and poetry and religion of her inhabitants may one day soar…I trust that we shall be more imaginative, that our thoughts will be clearer, fresher, and more ethereal, as our sky—our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains—our intellect generally on a grander scale, like our thunder and lightning, our rivers and mountains and forests—and our hearts shall even correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas.  Perchance there will appear to the traveler something, he knows not what, of laeta and glabra, of joyous and serene, in our very faces.  Else to what end does the world go on, and why was America discovered?”  Do we still have this optimism?  What happened to confidence, what happened to initiative and strenuousness and sobriety and responsibility, what happened to high purpose, what happened to hope?  Are they gone, along with the Puritans’ fear of pleasure? 

·        Unlimited opportunity – vastness and richness of the land – myth of success is linked to the frontier – Continuous improvement!  What kind of Europe had the immigrants come from?  For 150 years it had been living close to the limit of its resources.  It was always short of money, which meant gold and silver, flat molney still being in the future.  Its land was frozen in the structures of feudalism, owned by the crown, the church, and an aristocracy whose domains are shielded by laws of primogeniture and entail from sale or subdivision—from everything except the royal whim which gave, and can take away.  Its food supply comes from sources that cannot be expanded, and its population, periodically reduced by the Black Death, is static or in decline.  Peasants are bound to the soil, and both they and their masters are tied by feudal loyalties and obligations.  Except among the powerful, individual freedom is not even a dream.  Merchants, the guilds, and the middle class generally, struggle against the arrogance of the crown and an aristocracy dedicated to the anachronistic code of chivalry, which is often indistinguishable from brigandage.  Faith is invested in a politicized, corrupt, but universal church just breaking up in the Reformation that will drown Europe in blood.  Politics are a nest of snakes: ambitious nobles against ambitious kings, kings against pretenders and against each other, all of them trying to fill, by means of wars and strategic marriages, the periodic power vacuums created by the cracking of the Holy Roman Empire.


The western  is essentially a tale of progress, a justification of violent conquest and untrammeled development.  Boone’s story—as the frontier pathfinder for American civilization—was a prominent piece of that triumphal tale.  Yet the stories Boon told in his last years raise troubling questions.  If the western country had been wrested from the Indians by men like him, why had the rewards been swept up by the merchants and lawyers?  Why were poor backwoodsmen dispossessed of their lands, just as the Indians had been?  Was that the real meaning of civilization?  Eg. A Lost Lady, The Ox-Bow Incident.


·        Manifest Destiny – Western expansion is a part of a divine plan whose central aim was to “civilize” the land by making it fruitful and productive—supplying food for growing cities, coal and oil for burgeoning factories, iron ore for railroads and bridges.

·        de Crevecoeur:  He asked the question, “What is an American?”  He described a classless society where anyone could attain success through honesty and hard work.  Letters from an American Farmer (1782): “We are all animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself.  We have no princes, for whom we toil, starve, and bleed: we are the most perfect society now existing in the world.”  The promise of a land where “the rewards of a man’s industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labor” drew poor immigrants from Europe and fueled national expansion into the western territories.  Escape from what Hawthorne called “the Dead Hand of the Past.”

·        Benjamin Franklin – model of the self-educated man, who rose from modest origins to become a renowned scientist, philosopher, and statesman.  Franklin wrote “The Way to Wealth” and he said that individual gain can be achieved by practicing the virtues of honesty, hard work, and thrift.  “Without industry and frugality nothing will do, and with them everything.  He that gets all he can honestly, and saves all he gets…will certainly become RICH.”  (“Advice to a Young Tradesman,” 1748)

·        Horatio Alger – Ragged Dick – “If you try to be somebody, and grow up into a respectable member of society, you will.  You may not become rich, -- it isn’t everybody that becomes rich, you know, -- but you can obtain a good position and be respected.”  The Horatio Alger myth conveys three basic messages:  (1) each of us is judged solely on her or his own merits; (2) we each have a fair opportunity to develop those merits; and (3) ultimately, merit will out.  Is this true?

·        Andrew Carnegie

·        Bill Clinton

·        Colin Powell

·        “Life Style of the Rich and Famous”

·        Our drive to be “successful” (or myth of success) includes material success as well as familial success

·        Do we drill for oil in Alaska?


The Frontier Archetype



Examples of the use of the Frontier Archetype today


1988 – an article in Discover magazine had a headline: “Velcro, the Final Frontier”

Star Trek – Space, the Final Frontier – pioneers boldy going where no one like them had gone before

Civil Rights pioneers – Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson

Disney World:  Frontierland and Tomorrowland

Example from Newsweek


On July 15, 1960, in Los Angeles, California, John F. Kennedy faced “west on what was once the last frontier” and accepted the Democratic presidential nomination.  In mid-speech he retold the familiar Turnerian story of westward expansion:


“From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort, and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West.  They were determined to make that new world strong and free, to overcome its hazards and its hardships, and to conquer the enemies that threatened from within and without.”  What would be your response to Kennedy’s rhetoric today?


The success of Kennedy’s rhetoric rested not only on oratorical skill but also on historical timing: he gave this speech before the rise of environmentalism, the resurgence of Indian activism, and the onset of widespread queasiness over American overseas imperialism shifted the terrain of national opinion regarding those “enemies that threatened from within and without.”  Kennedy was free to offer an image of the New Frontier, premised on the assumption that the campaigns of the Old Frontier had been successful and morally justified.


Like Turner, most Americans in Kennedy’s audience assumed that the frontier had closed in the 19th century.  “Today,” said Kennedy, “some would say that those struggles area all over—that all the horizons have been explored, that all the battles have been won, that there is no longer an American frontier.”  That notion, however, could no longer stand:  “For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won—and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960s—a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils—a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.  I tell you the New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not.


“Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.  It would be easier to shrink back from that frontier…But I believe the times demand invention, innovation, imagination, decision.  I am asking you to be new pioneers on that New Frontier.


“For the harsh facts of the matter are that we stand on this frontier at a turning point in history.  We must prove all over again whether this nation—or any nation so conceived—can long endure; whether our society…can compete with the single-minded advance of the Communist system.”




Taken from “The Frontier Archetype and the Myth of America: Patterns That Shape the American Dream” by David Mogen


Assumption:  In American literature we have expressions (patterns and symbols) that give our literature a peculiar “Americanness.”  What are those patterns and symbols?  What makes American literature “American?”


·        Because of our frontier heritage there is a central mythology in American culture.

·        Land was the base, freedom the consequence.

·        Our cultural mythology based on the frontier experience is national in scope as well as regional.  (The expression of frontier mythology does not necessarily exclude any other expression as a central part of American mythology.)

·        This national frontier mythology fundamentally structures a major tradition of American writing that ironically examines and defines the American Dream.

·        The frontier exists in space and in time.  The newest frontiers may be technology and space – “The final frontier.”  The Martian Chronicles

·        The cowboy is not merely a Western hero but an American hero.   Indeed, the terms “Western” and “American” are oddly synonymous.  The cowboy’s story represents the values of our last frontier, and his fate is ultimately an emblem of the last pure experience of the American Dream.  The virtues of the “frontiersman” are Indian virtues:  warrior qualities of bravery, endurance, stoical indifference to pain and hardship, recklessness, contempt for law, a hawk-like need of freedom.  “Noble savage” – a degree of natural goodness. 



·        Why is a cowboy’s life more romantic than a dairy farmer’s?

·        Why is a sailor’s life more romantic than a housewife’s?  

·        Why do all you know Daniel Boone, but no one knows his wife’s name?  What happened to Daniel Boone?  He lost his land and his business and he “retired” to Missouri to live among the Indians.  He did not hate the Indians.  Indeed he said, “I am very sorry to say that I ever killed any for they have always been kinder to me than the whites.”  In fact, during his final years in Missouri he frequently hunted with old Indian friends, much to the embarrassment of those who are represented him as an Indian hunter.


·        Is a dairy farmer less of an American than a cowboy?

·        Examples of mythological cowboy:  John Smith, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Natty Bummpo (Hawkeye), Deadwood Dick (from Dime Novels), Custer, The Virginian (Owen Wister), Buffalo Bill Cody, Teddy Roosevelt,Tom Mix, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan (vacationed on a ranch in California with horse and cowboy hat in conspicuous display.  The Secret Service named the riding trails after streets in Washington, D.C., but they code-named the President “Rawhide.”


 In Reagan’s second inaugural address he said: “The men of the Alamo call out encouragement to each other; a settler pushes west and sings his song, and the song echoes out forever and fills the unknowing aiar.  It is the American sound: It is hopeful, bighearted, idealistic—daring, decent and fair.  That’s our heritage, that’s our song.  We sing it still.  For all our problems, we are together as of old.”…


What is an American?


·        “Self-made Man  He is not bound by a tradition.

·        A peacemaker!  American righteously battle the evil empire.  This is why Star Wars is considered a great “Western” film.

·        America represents an ideal.  We are unique in our aspirations and in our accomplishments.  Is this true?

·        Ironically, in America, the Western hero, rather than bringing their knowledge home, more typically rides into the sunset, after blazing a trail for others to follow.  (Gary Cooper in High Noon and Shane)


From “The Lost Frontier: American Myth in the Literature of the Vietnam War”
by John Clark Pratt


The American Monomyth – “the account of a pure, brave dedicated American hero who defeats evildoers by virtue of his superior skills and high moral purpose.  E.g.  Davy Crockett and the Lone Ranger and Paladin, Wyatt Earp.  The new frontier heroes (soldiers) share the cowboy’s ability to develop an innate toughness in conjunction with the culture’s technology to defeat the enemy.  There is never a question as to who will win—the hero will win.



“John Wayne Syndrome” – The common feature of the syndrome was the soldier’s inernalization of an ideal of superhuman military bravery, skill, and invulnerability to guilt, and grief, which is identified at some point with ‘John Wayne.’  The identification is not necessarily with a specific Wayne film or group of films, but with Wayne as a figure of speech, signifying the supposed perfection of soldierly masculinity.” (Slotkin in Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America) 


Soldier went to Vietnam (originally) with the myths and illusions of the American culture.  Projective fantasies, wild anticipations, extravagant expectations


The source of this American “innocence” is, of course, the traditional attitude that Americans can accomplish anything—and the pop culture hero of Western pulp novel and film was nowhere better embodied than in the characters played by John Wayne (who was appropriately selected to play the lead in the first major movie made about Vietnam, The Green Berets).  See p. 19 of The Vietnam Reader:  “…like a fort out of the old West.”  The Green Berets sold 100,000 copies in hard cover in 1965, and when it was released in paperback later that year, there were 1,200,000 copies printed in two months.  It reportedly induced so many enlistments of young men hoping to become Green Berets that the Selective Service was able to suspend draft calls during the first four months of 1966.  Movie starring John Wayne appeared in 1968 – established the image of the Vietnamese as “Indians” and thus as “savages,” and allows for the depiction of Americans as “cowboys” – in other words, the good guys, in white hats.  From a Time review – “Built on the primitive lines of a standard western, Berets even has the South Vietnamese talking like movie Sioux.”


Basically, the literature of the Vietnam War is filled with American characters who enter Vietnam as traditional frontier huntsmen, then become men trying merely to survive in a wilderness they do not understand.  There are constant references to Cowboys and Indians, often with some startling reversals of roles.  The most predominant cowboy mentioned in the literature is of course, John Wayne, who is seen in the early fiction as a role model, then later as a figure of derision, his fall from grace mirroring the average American’s change from optimism through doubt to despair about an eventual American victory.  From Born on the Fourth of July:  I am your yankee doodle dandy/ your john wayne come home/ your fourth of july firecracker/ exploding in your grave


The destruction, not of American, but of the myth that gave it life and in which Americans once believed is the loss of innocence of the soldiers in Vietnam.  Using the Star Wars trilogy as the ultimate statement on Vietnam, Luke Skywalker comes to an understanding that “the American Adam has learned that his parentage ties him to a fallen past, that he is not an exception to history and the fallen world of time, but is rather a limited, fallible person whose destiny is in profound doubt.”  Many of the Vietnam novels show the innocent, well-meaning American soldier not only losing his belief that he can prevail but more significantly embracing a more pragmatic goal, that of mere survival.



Star Wars is also the ultimate statement on the Western



To many of the GIs who had entered the war with the conventional American frontier ideals of individualism, courage, and ingenuity, the increasingly mechanized and impersonal nature of the American presence seemed to cause an ironic reversal of motives.  The American military became a threat to civilization (instead of saving civilization which is what we see in “High Noon”).  Agent Orange, My Lai


The American people learned that their blue-eyed heroes were capable of great massacres, even babykillers.  But we have always been capable of great massacres: Baker Massacre, Marias River Massacre (massacre of Blackfeet tribe January 23, 1870 by U.S. Cavalry), Chief Joseph Pass, where the soldiers shot low into the tents to pick up as many sleeping bodies as possible, a typical Army strategy, 50 women and children were killed including babies.


American cult of violence has not diminished in the course of hundreds of years between the Bear River Massacre and My Lai.


One of the great ironies is the disproportionate number of Native Americans who fought for the U.S. in world conflicts


American identity:  obsessed souls




Americans are too young even to understand themselves—and the reason seems to be an act of omission, not of ignorance or innocence.  In short, Americans know themselves no more than they know their allies or their enemies, and they do not seem to understand the basic sources of their motivation.  They don’t mind to drop napalm, but can’t stand seeing torturing.  They’re hypocrites, sentimental hypocrites.  Americans are soft-hearted but devoted to war.


Jesse James and Billy the Kid were no more admirable than are people like Theodore Bundy or any other serial murderer, yet these figures remain a part of our unexamined, hence misunderstood myths.


De Crevecoeur’s great circle started in the Far East, and for Americans to have seen Southeast Asia as just another Montana of the 1860s, people with ignorant savages that could be subdued by modern technology and the American way, makes us ironically Adamic in quite an unusual way.  Considered innocent by many, Adam was actually an extremely knowledgeable man; he knew everything except good and evil, a biblical fact that many who do not read closely have misunderstood.  His fall was not caused by his innocence, but by an ignorance of the most massive kind.


Most of the Vietnam War writings show that Americans have also misunderstood their own myths and have applied them misguidedly.


We should ponder the roots of our so-called American mythos, especially in order to penetrate the disguise, to see the difference between history and archetype, and to determine whether it is our destiny, or just ignorant Ramboesque obstinacy, that is truly manifest at all.


From “Vietnam War Narratives and the Myth of the Hero” by R.J. Fertel


Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” – myth of regeneration through violence


·        The potential hero leaves of place of safety which, however, is desolate and in need of renewal. 

·        The hero then travels to a place of danger and darkness, down into hellish regions, or outward to landscapes peopled by demons and characterized by ashes and desiccation. 

·        Often aided by a guide of questionable nature, the hero in this dark place receives a wound. 

·        This wounding, the thing most feared, becomes a sources of power, a boon, which he can now bring back to the civilization he forsook. 

·        The hero uses this gift to renew society.


John Wayne merely tapped deep urges already at work in America’s youth, as in all youth, the urge to heroism, to be born again to a larger self, to do grand things and to be part of grand actions.   Psychologically, the hollow version of this heroic ideal is based on the wish fulfillment structures of archaic narcissism: fearing the world and unable to meet his or her fears, the archaic narcissist builds an outward if hollow shell of self-sufficiency, the belief that one’s “heroic” self can meet any and all challenges.


Adolescent dreams of self-sufficiency must yield in true maturity to a more realistic sense of one’s abilities and of the world’s threats:  life holds challenges that simply are beyond our humble means to face down.


Among the many traumas Vietnam will present the young man, it’s the traumatic death of this idealized vision of the hero that must first be undergone if he is to enter into a true hero’s quest.  They must abandon what lies at the heart of the John Wayne myth, the myth of competence, that we can achieve our goals through our efforts alone.


The guide’s nature is questionable, oftentimes demonic, suggesting that the hero puts behind him not only his own adequacy but also the adequacy of the normal world’s notions of good and evil.


On the one side are those who insist ever and anon that we could have won the war if only the military’s hands had not been shackled by the politicians or if they had not been stabbed in the back by the media and the Left.




The best and the brightest sent the best trained and armed soldiers in history into a war to soothe the wounded ego of Kennedy after Vienna and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and of Johnson and Nixon who were both determined not to be the first American president to lose a war.


The narrative record of the Vietnam War confirms the structure and the importance of Campbell’s monomyth:  that we achieve true heroism only when we question and abandon our longing for competence.  (e.g. Willy Loman and his son, Biff)