Skip to main content

A Dearth of Heroes

July 2024
24min read

In America the status of hero—durable, full-fledged hero—has been awarded to few men. The subtle, complex factors that have led us to be so selective were brilliantly described three decades ago in a book, The Hero in America, by historian Dixon Wecter. For a reissue of this book, which will be published later this month by Charles Scribner’s Sons, novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren has written an introduction examining Mr. Wecter’s categories for glorification and speculating about who today—in this present age. of the “Anti-Hero” or the “Slob-as-Hero”—might be candidates for future canonisation. AMERICAN HERITAGE is proud to publish Mr. Warren’s thoughtful and witty introduction to this classic work of history.


Dixon Wecter’s Hero in America appeared in 1941, on the eve of our entry into World War n, but now, three decades later, no book could be more relevant—more disturbingly relevant—to our national condition. In 1941 the “heroes” Mussolini and Hitler (along with their brother-hero Stalin, who happened to wind up on our side) dominated Europe and, as though with the morning sun of a new world-day at the back, cast their enormous shadows across the Atlantic. Could we produce a brand of heroism to stand against the apparently invincible, and inevitable, European product?

So this “Chronicle of Hero-Worship,” as it is called in the subtitle, assessed the heroes of the American past in a context that gave the subject more than academic interest. It was, we may say without much exaggeration, a subject involving life and death. And now, in a time that among other things is an age of antiheroism, as America faces a crisis which is deeper, more inward and more dire because more inward, and for which no happy issue is guaranteed, we may again say, with even less exaggeration, that this book treats a subject still involving the life and death of our society.

It is very strange that nobody before Dixon Wecter had ever undertaken such a book as The Hero in America . This, however, is what we always say about even about especially—the most original and important books after they have appeared. Once written they always seem so obvious and inevitable. As Emerson put it, we recognize in them our own rejected ideas. Wecter’s book, though it appeared at a crucial time in our history, would have seemed obvious and inevitable, and important, at any time. Its importance depends, primarily, on its basic conception. It is one of those studies —like “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” by Frederick Jackson Turner, Virgin Land by Henry Nash Smith, or Patriotic Gore by Edmund Wilson —that by viewing our history from the angle of vision provided by a particular topic shifts everything into new perspectives and relations, opens new vistas, and casts new shadows: new shadows because by investigating our history in relation to the new topic, we not only discover new truths but find that old truths arc no longer true and that we must confront new mysteries. We thought we knew all about Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Brown, Robert E. Lee, Buffalo Bill, and Thomas A. Edison, but once we set them side by side on the table and inspect them, we must ask what common denominator of the heroic we find—or do not find.

In this inspection, which leads not only into by-paths and covered ways of history but into strange recesses of ethical analysis and psychological speculation, we find not only fresh acquaintance with the heroes, the hero-makers, and the hero-worshippers, but unexpected confrontations with ourselves. For if the hero is the embodiment of our ideals, the fulfillment of our secret needs, and the image of the daydream self, then to analyze him is likely to mean an analysis of ourselves. By a man’s hero ye shall know him. So we may come to know ourselves even better than we had ever wanted to.

To create a hero is, indeed, to create a self, and that is why, as VVecter points out, colonial societies Canada, for instance, in spite of its vast spaces, long history, and bustling life —have no heroes in the full sense of the word. A colonial society may, of course, have its quota of heroic figgurcs; but their function is strictly limited, often more limited than that of the hero of a subculture within a national culture. The hero developed in a subculture may well embody aspects of what we may call the heroic potential in a national culture. For instance, the subculture of the Western Plains could provide, in Buffalo Bill, a national hero. And that mythical “steel-drivin’ man,” John Henry, who died in a contest with a machine, though invented in a black culture, found at least some resonance in the soul of white America. White Americans knew something, too, about the man versus the machine.


To return to the matter of colonial society, the colonial society cannot, quite literally, call its soul its own. Furthermore, insofar as it has heroes at all, it has them on borrowed time -—that is, on time borrowed from the future when it may cease to be colonial and achieve its own identity, its own soul. The point is that without the context of the communal soul, there can be no true hero only heroic individuals.

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.

That same abstractness was early to be remarked even in American patriotism, as by the traveller Francis Grund, who, in 1838, observed that an “American’s country is in his understanding; he carries it with him wherever he goes.” In New England and parts of the South, though both sections provided their quotas of westward wayfarers and Eden-seekers, patriotism of the traditional sort did persist; but the fiatna was usually quite local. Even at the time of the Civil War, when the Union was being saved, Hawthorne, for instance, could say that his affections did not easily reach beyond the boundaries of New England; and Lee famously gave Virginia first rank in his loyalties. The baptism of blood, the shared effort of the struggle to save the Union, and the mobility dictated by the war, reaffirmed for Northerners the national patriotism—just as for Southerners it created the “South” as a City of the Soul, an entity now safely beyond characteristic internal dissension and historical accident; but the new American patriotism, with the transcontinental railroads, the explosion of population westward, the movement toward urban centralization, and the rise of finance capitalism and big industry, became, not less, but more abstract than the older variety. Whitman grasped this fact when, in “Song of the Banner at Daybreak,” he hymned the flag as “an idea only”—the pure idea into which all might be absorbed, the abstraction in which all distinctions are wiped away:

Valueless, object of eyes, over all and demanding all— (absolute owner of all)— O banner and pennant!

I too leave the rest—great as it is, it is nothing—houses, machines are nothing, I see them not,

I see but you, O warlike pen- nant! O banner so broad, with stripes, I sing you only, Flapping up there in the wind.

The flag gave at least some sort of concrete focus for the abstract emotion, but, as again Whitman instinctively recognized, Lincoln, struck down at the moment of victory and thus redeemed from the sneer and snarl of political action, constituted an even more potent symbol. And this returns us to Wecter’s point. In our world of mobility and abstraction, heroes along with our other “collective symbols,” such as the flag, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, are more precious to us than the corresponding elements in the life of other countries in that they “nourish our sense of national continuity.” Our brand of hero worship, then, resembles or did resemble—the worship in a religion, with shrines, high places, relics, fetishes, holy books, and saints—saints especially, for we have to disinfect our heroes from all mortal frailty.

As for the Founding Fathers, Wecter sees in the trio who became our first national heroes a fascinating projection of the various, even paradoxical, aspects of the American soul. What Franklin represents is the most obvious and simple of all, and we should not be misled by President Coolidge’s tribute read at the unveiling of the hero’s statue in the Hall of Fame in 1927: “Franklin is claimed by more groups than any other person in our history.” The groups that claim Franklin are indeed numerous, including the Rotary Club (Franklin’s club in Philadelphia, the Junto, being regarded as the first “service” organization); investment bankers (because Franklin preached thrift, even if he did habitually overdraw his account) ; prohibitionists (only by very careful culling of evidence); printers (Franklin made his fortune in printing but retired from business at the age of forty to devote himself to study and public service); and organized labor (being hailed by William Green of the A.F. of L. as the “Patron Saint of Labor"); and he might well be claimed, too, by public utility companies on the strength of his experiments with electricity. The groups that claim Franklin are numerous, surely, but they are not at bottom various; they are all part and parcel of bourgeois democracy- even organi/ed labor, which aspires to the same consumer goods and mass amusements as the most wellheeled Rotarian.

Franklin is, in fact, the perfect hero of a bourgeois democracy, the very model of the Industrious Apprentice who, by pluck (not luck), thrift, self-denial, temperance, prudence, and a streak of hard, realistic calculation (not often mentioned), rises, without social, financial, or intellectual advantages, to high solvency and world fame. But Franklin embodied not only the universal bourgeois virtues, but also some special American ones. Hc had, for instance, a truly democratic spirit of tolerance (far ahead of his time, and ours), and he represented in lull flower the American passion for gadgctry, being the inventor of, among other things, bifocal glasses, the lightning rod, and the stove known by his name; and more American still, if he was learned in science, he did not get bemused byairy speculations but sternly put science to work. And through everything he remained the plain man - but the plain man who, without fuss or feathers, wearing his old fur cap, put kings in their places and was adored by duchesses, and then went on to tell everybody else how to get ahead, too. He was the Alger hero in the flesh, long before poor Horatio, that failure in life, held up his private daydream of success as a mirror to the great public daydream of America.

I have dwelt here on Franklin because of a peculiar and ironic fact; if he does seem to be the perfect hero for our bourgeois democracy, sprung in full bloom in the heroic age of the founding, he was never quite a hero of the very first rank. Perhaps he is, after all, too perfectly the projection of our personal daydreams of worldly success. Perhaps he is too close to us. Perhaps what he stands for is, after all, too likely to prove attainable, at least in some measure. Perhaps we dimly realize, in some deeply significant way, that, as Bertrand Russell says, the essence of the ideal is to be not real. Perhaps there is in us a forgotten, secret, starved yearning for a poetry of grandeur, for the freedom of selflessness, for the exaltation of vision. And so we have Washington and Jefferson.

Indeed, in a world where Franklin as hero seems what you yourself, with just a little luck, might be, Washington is clearly what you know you could never be. He is, after all, something beyond the range of daydreams. He beckons, but from a great distance, like a snow-covered peak in sunlight.

Washington was, as Wecter says, “glacial.” In peaceful times he could lay off from his farming to go deer hunting, was a devoted rider to hounds, acted in amateur theatricals, loved to dance for hours at a stretch, and was not above taking his ease and eating watermelon on the front porch of his farmhouse, known as Mount V’ernon. But nobody ever regarded him as folksy or ever dared to slap him on the back or dared, more than once, to lav hand to his sleeve. He stood, also, at the distance of great wealth, holding, as John Adams put it in praising him for leaving luxury for a hazardous struggle, one of the “first fortunes upon the continent.” It was a fortune which, in addition to that acquired by marriage, he had accumulated in ways very different from Franklin’s and dispensed in a way even more different — that of the great squire and not the burgher. As a commander he never courted favor but was a stern disciplinarian, fair but tough; once he erected a gallows forty feet high and used it. Even his self-command was, somehow, unhuman in its reach. And he lacked all arts of the orator. Unlike Franklin, who was a master of the art of persuasion, supposedly so fundamental to power in a democracy, Washington never lifted a finger or opened a lip to persuade anybody.

Yet this man became the prime hero of a raw democracy. Somehow, from early manhood, an air of destiny hung about him, and after the first bullets had whizzed harmlessly past him (“I heard the bullets whistle,” he said, “and believe me, there is something charming in the sound”), he seems to have believed in his destiny. Destiny aside, what he did have to show the world was a massive self-certainty, studiously modelled on that of the Roman stoics, a cold serenity in the face of defeat, the impression of power in reserve, fixity of purpose, and devotion to principle (which meant, in the end, devotion to “liberty”), with selfish concern and ambition absorbed into the concept of duty. When the time came to lay aside command, he could do it as casually as though taking off an old coat.

If Franklin was a hero who sometimes seemed to be created in the image of a gifted Folonius, with a dash of Sam Slick added, Washington was a hero created in something close to the image of God. Franklin might tell you how to live and get rich. Washington might, if need arose, teach you how to die. As for Jefferson, he—who had never heard even one bullet whistle past his ears —could teach you neither how to live nor how to die; but he could teach you how to envision a world worth living in or dying for.

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.”

There are, indeed, all sorts of paradoxicalities in our requirements for the heroic role. The hero, as we have said, must be strong, though never a “strong man.” He must be willing to lead, but a claim to infallibility, even to those who cry out for the father figure, is offensive. Ina time of great crisis, there is always the demand for immediate and decisive action and for total solution, but history shows that our greatest heroes have given the impression not so much of putting into effect a preconceived and infallible program of total solution, but of working something out, painfully and with not infrequent setbacks. The military careers of both Washington and Grant, for instance, had something of the air of self-education conducted in public. The notion that Lincoln was a repository of divine wisdom would have appalled the critics of his war policies or the abolitionists. It was a notion that took root in the popular mind only after he was safely tucked away -victorious and dead. Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew the art of combining long-range confidence (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”) with a willingness to accept the method of trial and error. And he could politically afford error because of two things: he could convince the electorate of the steadfastness of his principles and the worth of his objectives and could, while trying to realize those objectives, give the electorate, by the potent device of the Fireside Chat, the impression that the process of trial and error was one in which they, somehow, were significantly participating.

Our hero must, as we have said, give the impression of power without any claim to infallibility and must wear power with humility. But the humility, too, must be of a special order: it must be associated with power, but the power must appear as an instrument of the common good. There is something of a contradiction implicit here. The power must, on the one hand, be really the hero’s —otherwise he would not be a hero; but, on the other, he must not admit to being more than an instrument. Logically, this would land us in the notion that the hero is a force making history, creating events, and at the same time a mere by-product of history; but the folk mind—or, in the end, any individual mind-- can entertain simultaneously both propositions, each one representing a profound and compelling need. That is enough, and logic be damned. The contradiction, indeed, is absorbed into experience and restated: the hero must be powerful enough to protect his people, but the power thus exercised is depersonalized and becomes a creation, as it were, of the need and the will of the people. This is the mystery of democracy.

The mystery is even more potent when the hero dies for his people —his death being the ritual by which the man is totally absorbed into the role. As a matter of fact, though our hero is often hailed in the flesh, we may paraphrase for him what was once said of the Indian: the only really good hero is a dead one. The hero dead is safe, more or less, from envy and detraction, and if while living he had the heroic virtues, the distance of death, removing small blemishes and complicating factors, works to stylize the virtues, to give them a hieratic simplicity. These somewhat negative values of death are transmuted into overwhelmingly positive ones when the death has the aura of sacrifice. Lincoln is, of course, the perfect example, but the cases of Garfield and McKinley are more instructive; for, as is generally agreed, neither had much claim to the heroic role beyond a talent for getting in the way of a bullet. As for John F. Kennedy, time has not yet fixed his place on the scale of our martyred Presidents; we do not know what slot he will occupy in the considerable space between Lincoln at the top and Garfield and McKinley competing for the bottom. In the end he may well be closer to those heroesby-accident than to the Olympian Father Abraham. At least in the case of Kennedy (and that of his brother), the martyrdom saved him from the need to face up, with money on the card, to the major crises in which he was involved, and the aura of heroism he carried depended more on expectations for the future than on the hard facts of the past.

But in reference to our general question, the assassin’s bullet is not specifically required for martyrdom. Undoubtedly, the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in office, ironically at the moment when victory loomed near, gave something of an impression of martyrdom; and it may help to consolidate his claims to heroic stature. He died in the line of duty, with his boots on, for his country. For his country—and that, it would seem, is the prime requirement, whether the hero is statesman, warrior, explorer, inventor, or whatnot. The hero must “serve” his people.

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.

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.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.