Even defining our subject neutrally, perhaps as the willingness to fight to the death to defend others, heroism in modern societies is inherently controversial. Liberal authors since Thomas Hobbes have ridiculed the conceptions of honor, war, and self-sacrifice associated with the heroic. In opposition to the celebration of heroism, liberalism has sought to base modern democracy on deliberately anti-heroic principles: the fear of violent death, individual self interest, and the material conquest of nature. For Hobbes and Immanuel Kant, the goal of Enlightenment is the abolition of warfare and the creation of universal peace. For this reason, aristocratic critics have long argued that liberalism produces cautious pleasure seekers, Friedrich Nietzsche's last men.1 While Nietzsche grieves over the death of heroism in modern democracies, Hobbes and Kant are its theoretical hangmen.
If heroism has disappeared from American life, you couldn't guess it by watching Hollywood movies. Heroism is the staple of what is by far the largest movie genre, "action/adventure" films: westerns, science fiction, detective and police dramas, martial arts, super heroes, natural disasters, and finally, military life and war movies. Looked at through the lens of these movies, modern America appears to possess the most heroic culture of any free nation in history. But while thousands of action movies and television programs are viewed by millions of Americans every month, they are little regarded as anything more than mindless, and generally harmful, entertainment. Several reasons account for this neglect and contempt. Conservatives are more interested in high culture, great books and great men, then in mythical appeals to the masses. Liberals, following in the footsteps of Hobbes and Kant, believe the celebration of the hero in popular culture encourages actual violence in the nation's homes and streets, while fostering our incessant foreign military adventures. Moreover, in the liberal view, action movies disguise the dirty roots of actual social and political conflict, while teaching fascist opinions: racism, sexism, blind obedience to authority, and the superiority of force to the rule of law.2
The continuous popularity of action films since the invention of motion pictures a century ago suggests Americans are little troubled by the criticisms offered by either the left or right. Rather than the intended insult, Americans believe calling the United States a "Cowboy Culture" pays them the highest compliment. To the average ticket buying Joe and Jane, the cowboy (in his many forms) is the idealization of democratic martial virtue and its relentless pursuit of justice. Indeed, the American identification with its frontier life is as longstanding in politics as it is in popular culture. Early Presidents, including Andrew Jackson, William Harrison, and Abraham Lincoln, invoked their poor but virtuous frontier origins to increase their popularity. Even after the closing of the Western frontier in the 1890's, Teddy Roosevelt cultivated his reputation as a Rough Rider in Cuba and South Dakota. A century later, Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush continue to embrace aspects of the Cowboy life. In the 20th century, this pioneer, democratic spirit was also repeatedly reaffirmed to gain support for public policy initiatives. Woodrow Wilson mobilized idealistic Americans to arms during World War I in order "to make the world safe for democracy" as the pioneers had made America. John F. Kennedy rallied the nation "to bear any burden, pay any price to defend the cause of liberty" by containing the global expansion of communism. President Kennedy also promised the United States would lead the world on the frontier of space by placing the a man on the moon before the end of the decade of the 1960's; he had already made the "New Frontier" the motto of his administration. Given the supposed timid temper and self-preserving principles of liberal democracies, one wonders how this American optimism, idealism, and martial temper is maintained after the actual pilgrims and pioneers so long ago went to their reward?
I argue that at an early period in our history democratic idealism and a martial spirit became the special province of American popular culture. While, this is by no means a new observation, to my knowledge, there has never been an integrated theoretical and historical analysis of the sources, and most characteristic manifestations, of heroism in American popular culture. This paper offers the beginnings of such a study.
Almost all students of American popular culture now still confined to the fields of sociology, history, and English have noted the remarkable influence of the Arthurian legends on American heroism. Although these feudal legends are antithetical to America's democratic and Protestant traditions, they remain widely read in Europe. So, while English and American writers study the chanson de geste, their readers usually do not. Because these Arthurian sources remain a terra incognito to most Americans, the first part of this paper will briefly analyze the Homeric and Arthurian conceptions of heroism. Our second task will be to show how Homeric and Arthurian ideals of heroism were democratized and Christianized by American interpreters. As we will discuss, Homer argues for the aristocratic rule of the strong. The feudal Arthurians also argued for he rule of the powerful, but demanded they should defend throne and altar. In America the new democratic hero became a staunch defender of democracy on its lawless frontiers. In American cultural usage, frontiers are lawless areas which should be, but are not yet, settled by Americans living under American law. Absent the rule of law, the lives of democratic people are at risk, with only hero "knights" like Natty Bumppo, Shane, Philip Marlowe, Luke Skywalker, and Mad Max to defend them. Thus in the American version, the omnipotent democratic Christian knight becomes the selfless servant of democracy by defending a peaceful democratic people as they begin to settle the state of nature on the frontier. Finally, we will look at the different manifestations of the American knight errant across time and social circumstance demonstrating his nearly universal appeal to Americans (and to many other democratic peoples as well).3
Antecedents: Homeric and Arthurian Heroes
In his justly famous Democratic Vistas, Walt Whitman, asserts the necessity of a heroic literature for a great society. Whitman argues that the Homeric epics provided a standard of nobility and justice among the Greeks and Romans for nearly a thousand years. While the Arthurian legends did the same for the European peoples for another millennia. If America is to become a great nation to rival the living European states, and the still vital memories of ancient glory, Whitman believes it must produce an equally noble and aspiring poetic ideal. "Few are aware how great literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will.... Greece immortal lives in a couple of poems."4
Homer portrays the Greek kings as great warriors, beloved of the gods, pursuing a noble social code. His heroes practice a natural and divine justice in governing their families, followers, and servants. But, the Homeric code is based upon the natural right of the stronger to rule. The powerful rule on Olympus and on earth. They own as much land, and as many slaves and concubines, as their power and wealth permitted. In a warrior aristocracy, heroism is ultimately self-interested. Without a common good or rule of law, the Homeric nobles, and the later Grecian cities, competed for power and spoils. As Aristotle noted, in the absence of politics and the rule of (universal) law, justice will always be defined by the powerful.5
Walt Whitman gives the same importance to the chivalric romances, indigenous to every major European people, as he had to the extraordinary influence of the Homeric epics:
It is not generally realized, but it is true, as the genius of Greece, and all the sociology, personality, politics, and religion of those wonderful states, resided in their literature or aesthetics, that what was afterwards the main support of European chivalry, the feudal, ecclesiastical, dynastic world over there forming its osseous structure, holding it together for hundreds, thousands of years, preserving its flesh and bloom, giving it form, decision, rounding it out, and so saturating it in the conscious and unconscious blood, breed, belief, and intuition of men, that it still prevails powerful to this day, in defiance of the mighty changes of time was its literature, permeating to the very marrow, especially that major part, its enchanting songs, ballads, and poems.6
While the Arthurian legends dated from earlier centuries and peoples, the outburst of literary production about King Arthur coincided directly with the Crusades. Like the frontier myth in America, Homeric and Arthurian poetry was self-consciously nostalgic. Its purpose was to create the memory of a golden era, where the clear display of a nation's justice and martial prowess heartened its people to war anew. While many works in many languages were devoted to these legends, in English literature Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur (1485), originally, The Book of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, "became the standard source for later versions of the Arthurian legends."7
Malory's knights differ little from the Homeric heroes. While formally Christian and allies of the just King Arthur, in practice they do pretty much as they please. Landholders themselves, they withdrew from service to their "king" whenever it suites them. Arthur, himself, causes the civil war within the loosely organized knightly company at the Round Table by attacking his greatest knight, Lancelot, for his too prolonged and open dalliance with Queen Guinevere. Here, the parallel with Homer is clear. The Trojan War began with Paris's abduction of Helen, the later warfare among the Achaeans resulted from "King" Agamemnon's jealousy of Achilles's fame and possession of the beautiful concubine Briseis. Because Agamemnon's power so far exceeded his own, Achilles could only appeal to the gods for succor. In Malory's account, Lancelot and his fellows were stronger than their King. Indeed, after several campaigns, they brought about Arthur's defeat and death at the hands of his incestuously conceived son, Sir Mordrake.
If the Celtic legends illustrate the moral and political defects of Arthur's loosely organized aristocracy, several of the later feudal poets introduced countervailing Christian themes. The French poet Chretien De Troyes added the Grail Quest in his Arthurian Romances, while Thomas Malory further contributed to the importance of the Grail knights. According to the Arthurian legends, Christ served the Last Supper from the Grail, and it subsequently received the blood flowing from His wound on Calvary. To experience a vision of the Holy Grail was tantamount to becoming one with Christ. The greatest of the Grail knights was Galahad, the son of the amorous Lancelot, and Percival, the hero of Wolfram Von Eschenbach's epic Parsifal, and Richard Wagner's opera. The sexually pure and pious Grail knights seek to join Christ, and achieve the heavenly kingdom. Galahad was rewarded for his service by death and direct translation to Heaven. Percival and Bors also achieved a vision of the Grail, Lancelot, the last of the four Grail Knights, failed in his quest; Lancelot had never abandoned his unchaste love for Queen Guinevere: "Had not Sir Launcelot been in his privy thoughts and in his mind so set inwardly to the queen as he was in seeming outward to God, there had no knight passed him in the quest of the Sangraal; but ever his thoughts were privily on the queen, and so they loved together more hotter than they did to forehand, and had many privy draughts together."8
After Arthur's death, Guinevere and Lancelot (partially) renounce the world and die as nun and monk in "perfection." While Arthur's body is taken by the Celtic divinities to Avalon, a few men still believe Arthur "is not dead, but had by the will of Our Lord Jesu gone into another place, and men say that he shall come again" to rule England, "the once and future king."9 Malory's deliberate confusion of the Celtic and Christian is further seen in his eulogy of the martial and erotic, but gentle and gracious Lancelot. For Malory, Lancelot is the greatest knight of the Round Table; his work concludes with the four knights closest in friendship and blood to Lancelot leaving England forever, and journeying to the Holy Land. "Sir Bors, Sir Ector, Sir Blamor, and Sir Bleoberis, went into the Holy Land thereas Jesu Christ was quick and dead, and anon as they had established their lands ... And these four knights did many battles upon the miscreants or Turks. And there they died upon a Good Friday for God's sake.10
Let us fast-forward almost five hundred years to the romantic revivals of the 19th century. Before Tennyson completed his modern retelling of the Arthurian legends in The Idylls of the King (1888), and T.S. Eliot employed its themes in The Wasteland (1922), Sir Walter Scott mined a similarly heroic chapter of English history. In Ivanhoe, Scott revived the Saxon, Norman conflict over the rule of England. In Scott's story the just King Richard has unified the kingdom, but his long absence in the Third Crusade enables his brother John to consolidate his power through an alliance with a few rapacious Norman Lords. Norman tyranny is symbolized by Brian de Bois-Guilbert, the greatest of the Templar Knights. Under the cover of the Holy Order of the Temple of Zion, Bois-Guilbert and his fellow knights do whatever evil they wish. Bois-Guilbert relentlessly pursues, to the point of her destruction, the Jewish beauty, Rebecca.
In contrast to Norman hypocrisy and corruption, the Saxon Ivanhoe just returned from the noble Crusades is a true gentleman. At no point does he associate, as had the Homeric Heroes, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Normans, Ares and Aphrodite, or the natural rule of the powerful over the fair. In Scott's more Protestant Christian world there is no natural right of the powerful to rule the women or property of the weak in contravention of divine and civil law. But unlike the selfless, chaste, propertyless, orphan, and solitary American hero, Ivanhoe fights to establish his high place among the nobility. He is betrothed to Lady Rowena, the daughter of a great Saxon noble, and is working to restore his lord, King Richard I, to the throne of England.11
Three years after the publication of Ivanhoe in 1820, James Fenimore Cooper, published the first of his five Leatherstocking novels and began the creation of the essential American hero: Natty Bumppo, Deerslayer, Hawkeye, or Leatherstocking. In the first Leatherstocking tale, The Pioneers (1823), a late middle aged Natty fights a quixotic battle against Judge Temple's establishment of a new village (Cooperstown) on Ostego Lake. Natty argues that God's beautiful creation should not be destroyed by man. As Donald A. Ringe suggests, the practical import of Natty's objection to human settlement is that man should not wantonly destroy God's creation.12 But the principle reason for his opposition is Natty's lifelong allegiance to the Loyalist aristocrat, Major Effingham. Effingham's Ostego lands had been confiscated during the Revolution, and sold to Judge Temple. Leatherstocking secretly keeps the aged Effingham under his protection, but when Judge Temple eventually learns of Effingham's existence, he reveals he has long searched for him with the intention of giving him half of his immense property; he has always recognized the legitimacy of Effingham's title.
Once free of his feudal obligation to Major Effingham, Natty is born anew, and journeys westward to spend the rest of his life worshiping in God's wilderness. Natty has now begun his life's true work: "He had gone far towards the setting sun, the foremost in that band of Pioneers, who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent." 13 The Pioneers is a transitional work reflecting Natty's final departure from the feudal world of pre-revolutionary America, the world of Sir Walter Scott, to his new duties as an American democratic knight, "opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent."
Natty's character is most fully developed in the last two Leatherstocking sagas, The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841). In addition to a superhuman physical fortitude, incomparable martial skills, and a perfect knowledge of the wilderness, Natty has now definitely become a truly Christian knight. He avers that "a man without conscience is but a poor creatur' ... I trouble myself but little with dollars ... if a man has a chest filled with [them], he may be said to lock up his heart in the same box."14 While Natty serves in the church of nature, he is also schooled in the formal tenants of the faith. "I eat in church, drink in church, sleep in church. The 'arth is the temple of the Lord, and I wait on him hourly, daily, without ceasing, I humbly hope. No-no-I'll not deny my blood and colour, but am Christian born, and shall die in the same faith."15
While The Pathfinder and Deerslayer continue to display Natty's great martial prowess, they stress further, if possible, his chivalric and Christian qualities. In The Pathfinder, the author as narrator, observes: "Then the noble rectitude of mind, for which the man was so distinguished, asserted its power. It was sustained by his rebuked manner of thinking of himself, and all that habitual deference for the rights and feelings of others, which appeared to be inbred in his very nature."16 Mabel Dunham tells the hero: "if courage, truth, nobleness of soul and conduct, unyielding principles and a hundred other excellent qualities can render any man respectable, esteemed, or beloved, your claims are inferior to those of no other human being."17
Natty is also a philosopher. His understanding stems from his theology. Natty teaches that there is a great difference between God's natural kingdom, and the Biblical or Revealed understanding of God (taught him by the Moravians as an orphan boy). The dual understanding of God's reality has an effect on social development. In the natural world justice is not fixed by true knowledge of God. Therefore like the tribes of the Old Testament, the Indian nations have different social mores because without the aid of Revelation, they worship false gods. Natty understands that these deities actually command the tribes to pursue perpetual warfare. For this reason, the beauty and apparent perfection of the natural world always disguises the evil of those living without the light of true faith.
Even frontier Americans understand little of Indian warfare. But Natty, raised by the Mohicans knows all there is to know. From the Mohicans he learned the ways of nature and of the almost unfathomably tribal warfare. In The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper makes it clear young Natty became a great warrior by learning the art of war from the Mohicans in a manner identical to the way young squires trained in knightly orders to become knights in their turn.
But the heroic Bumppo surpasses the Indians in martial prowess. His rifle, Killdeer, is the best on the frontier, and he is an almost superhuman marksman. Finally, Natty is a Chosen One. In The Pathfinder, his old friend, Sargent Dunham, argues that "the man [Natty] will never die by a bullet. I have seen him so often, handling his rifle with as much composure as if it were a shepherd's crook, in the midst of the heaviest showers of bullets, and under so many extraordinary circumstances, that I do not think Providence means he should ever fall in this manner."18
The Deerslayer also identifies a cardinal principle of the American Christian knight: the economy of violence. Natty believes that all life is sacred and should be preserved. Innocent women and children, and other non-combatants, should always be spared violence. Even against armed enemies with violent intent, the true knight only wounds rather than kills his enemy. In the Deerslayer, a young Natty has become a great marksman, and famous deer hunter, but has never killed his fellow man. When he returns the fire of a enemy hidden in the forest he can only guess the man's actual location. When the wound proves mortal, the grieving Natty holds the Indian in his arms until his death, reenacting the Pieta. While Natty later kills many in battle, he always condemns the taking of innocent life. This reluctance to kill became a characteristic of the American knights. In the early cowboy movies, where the gunfire was nearly continuous, the death count was reduced by having guns shot of hands. Such fantasies turned deadly "shoot-outs" into a kind of bloodless joust. All this changed of course in the 1960's when a nihilistic realism about violence replaced the Christian objection to killing the innocent.
Whether as a retainer of Major Effingham in The Pioneers, a scout in the British Army in The Last of the Mohicans and The Pathfinder, or a frontiersman in The Prairie and The Deerslayer, Natty is a righter of wrongs. While he sometimes defends fair maidens, his greatest desire is to protect his fellow Americans as they journey into the lawless frontier. In this quest, Natty enlists the good knights, the Christianized Algonquians, against the "bad knights," the unchristian Iroquois tribes.
Unlike Sir Walter Scott, Cooper understood that the only way Homeric and Arthurian heroism could be democratized was through the separation of the knightly ideal from human nature. By associating Natty with the Moravians so powerfully in The Deerslayer, Cooper points to the evangelicals' association of Christianity with democracy. The evangelicals believed that American democracy was the means by which God's word was being spread on earth. The conflation of evangelical Protestantism and American democracy created the moral ideal, which for the first time, made the hero not the natural aristocrat with a right to rule over who and what he conquers and helps, but a holy servant of Christian democracy. A true Christian knight must serve the democracy created by the people of God. Following Christ's command, the hero must act selflessly, even if he is clearly the superior, and most perfect human being. (How can his perfection rival God's?) Natty's true reward lies in the knowledge he has done his Master's bidding bypreserving and extending Christian democracy. While this selfless patriotism may be understandable to those still living in a Christian, egalitarian age, for the Homeric and Arthurian heroes it defies, to the point of absurdity, natural justice. To paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, "God on the Cross" (instead of a throne on Mt. Olympus) was the greatest sin against the Greek understanding of human nature and justice ever committed.
Further, Cooper understood, a mobile, immigrant society comprised of many religions, classes, and nations require a genuine everyman and nomad as its hero. By making Natty an orphan, a bachelor, and a wanderer he created a character without family, class or politics: a man completely outside the actual social order. In contrast, Sir Lancelot, is from the lands and castle he calls Joyous Gard, has a brother Sir Ector, and a beloved, Queen Guinevere. Similarly, Ivanhoe has both a lord, King Richard, and a highborn lady is his betrothed. These relationships define Ivanhoe's high social position. Among the Homeric heroes, Odysseus is from Ithaca (sort of), Agamemnon rules Mycenae, and so on. Natty Bumppo, the model of the democratic knight errand, really is from no place, with no social standing; he is more ideal than man. Like a holy hermit, Natty's home is the frontier, where he lives happily with God, the maker of all things. His perfect wisdom, virtue, and martial prowess makes Leatherstocking the American Adam. Free from the sins of men, he welcomes his fellow democrats and Christians into the imperfect Garden of God's creation. But Natty does embody the beliefs and skills which guarantees the nation's successful expansion.
Once the Western frontier moved beyond the mountains, lakes, and forests of the eastern states, and crossed the Mississippi, a new vision was required of the democratic knight errand. The mounted rider of plains arose to defend democracy on the new open country running to the Rockies. The first serious adaptation of knighthood to the cowboy, was Owen Wister, The Virginian (1902), written after the successful western migration to California had brought the physical, but not psychic, close of the frontier in the 1890's. Wister, a close friend of Teddy Roosevelt, captured in The Virginian the spiritedness and patriotism of Roosevelt's leadership, and helped inspire the energy and optimism of the middle class Progressives.
But making the cowboy knight universally popular was all Hollywood. Few films were easier and cheaper to make than the early Westerns. Shot within a brief car ride from Los Angeles, they required few actors who needed to act, while filling the screen with the action the new movie audiences craved. Moreover, like most Arthurian legends, the isolation of the characters on the broad plains created a totally melodramatic setting. No law or social mores limited the hero or villain in their acts of good and evil. The Western cowboy/gunfighter quickly became accepted by the public as the essential representation of the knight errand in American popular culture.
Because the Western is such a well-known genre, only two brief, illustrative examples of the genre will be offered here. Perhaps the clearest example in film of the tension between the democratic, Christian knight of the American ideal, and the natural or aristocratic warrior seen in Homer and the Arthurian legends, is found in Shane (1953). In this retelling of an old story, the heroic Shane comes to the defense of a farming family whose land is unjustly claimed by a neighboring cattle baron. Shane becomes their protector from a complex of motives. While believing in the justice of the family's claim to the land, he is more attracted to the beauty and evident interest, of the farmer's wife. This powerful fact, and the adoration of his prowess by their young son, suggests to the lonely Shane a powerful new possibility. A professional gunfighter, Shane recognizes he can either defend justice at the risk of his life, with no tangible reward in sight, or he can acquire the love and companionship of a beautiful woman and lucrative employment with the cattle baron, with no risk to himself. Shane's native nobility, reinforced by the child's innocent, effusive hero worship, tips the scale. He kills the cattle baron, his brother, and their hired gunfighter in a more than "fair fight;" an act of justice after these men were responsible for the murder of two homesteaders. Afterward, without a word of thanks, or kiss goodbye, the wounded Shane heroically returns to his long trail, forgoing the rewards to which, under an earlier and easier code of chivalry and right of possession, he was entitled. But he does hear the heartfelt cries of love and admiration of their young son who had witnessed his heroism and sacrifice. As one critic notes: "their sublimated romance reproduces the exact Western equivalent of chivalric love, with Shane as a stainless Lancelot and Marian a chaste Guinevere." This same critic is drawn to Shane's exceptional courage and self-sacrifice. "Shane's nobility, his perfection of style and manner and virtu are so much beyond the human scale of Starrett [the father] that we tend to value him equal to (if not above) the nominal objectives for whose sake he makes his ... sacrifice."19
In opposition to the selfless democratic knight, Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch (1969) presents a full-throated endorsement of the natural right of the strong to rule. The anti-capitalist, robber Bunch, live above and beyond the laws of man and God. The movie opens with a botched bank robbery, requiring the Bunch to cheerfully use the "innocent" townspeople, still singing the Christian hymn, "We'll All Gather at the River," as human shields to make good their escape. The ensuing carnage is heightened by Peckinpah's new use of graphic cinematic violence. With the frontier closing in America, the Bunch retreats to Mexico where they make a tentative alliance with the corrupt warlord, Mapache. In his pay, they successfully capture modern American arms for his army. The chaos in Mexican politics nevertheless draws the Bunch into secretly supporting revolutionaries seeking to overthrow Mapache. Unable to extricate themselves from this civil war, and with an American posse closing in, they are driven to the last honorable course open to them. They launch a suicide attack on Mapache and his army, going out in a blaze of glory. Unable to live as warriors, they still choose to die as warriors.
If nothing else, The Wild Bunch demythologizes the ideals of Christian democracy. America is in the hands of corrupt railroads and the U.S. Army supports their oligarchy. "Innocent citizens" are just mindless hypocrites and dupes of the prevailing money rule. The slaughter of such soldiers and citizens means nothing, innocence no longer exists in America (if it existed anywhere). The Wild Bunch is nostalgic, but for a time when the total freedom of the old West permitted an existentially superior warrior elite to live by their own ideal of personal honor and warrior brotherhood without the moral and civil restraints of their inferiors.
Long before Peckinpah's nihilistic naturalism helped close the mythic Western frontier, a new frontier had opened in America. The great cosmopolitan mega cities of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, appeared as hostile to most Americans as the shores of Massachusetts, the forests of upstate New York, and the Great Plains had once appeared to their ancestors. Immigrants from the rural areas, like Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, became alienated on the new urban frontier. In the popular mind, the new cities were corrupted by the mob, slums, drugs, gin mills, prostitution, and crime. Political machines and police were equally corrupt and indifferent to average citizens.
It took artists several decades to catch up with this "new social reality," but by the Depression and New Deal the urban frontier began to be populated by democratic Christian knights. Raymond Chandler, the creator of the heroic detective, was born in America, but educated in England. After returning to the United States, he failed in business during the Depression, but then established himself as a writer. In 1933 he started writing for pulp magazines and published his first novel, The Big Sleep, in 1939. His famous detective, Philip Marlowe, originally named Philip Malory after the author of Le Morte D'Arthur, offers yet another incarnation of the American knight errand. Chandler's work was influenced by T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland (1922), which had revived Arthurian themes. Chandler describes his conception of the heroic dick in this way:
He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.... If he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he would not go among common people. He is a man of character or he would not know his job. He will take no man's money dishonestly and no man's insolence without a due dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.20
All of Marlowe's "jobs" become quests. The quest begins when he is hired, and while he remains loyal to his clients, the object of his quest goes beyond solving the crime or the problem for which he is paid. Marlowe's quest does not end until he has pulled out from the dark corners of the urban jungle all the knowledge he needs to justly reward and punish all concerned. On the urban frontier, as in John Locke's state of nature, Marlowe, a knower and martial knight, is the judiciary and executive of the law of nature and God.
The Big Sleep begins with Marlowe entering the Sternwood mansion. He sees above the door "a stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree ... I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be trying."21 Many commentators have noted the similarity of General Sternwood to the Fisher King. Crippled, both men rule over a physical and spiritual wasteland. Marlowe's personal task is to prevent the corrupt Sternwood daughters from destroying their father, themselves, or himself. While he tries, fruitlessly as it turns out, to return the Sternwood lands to life and health. Both daughters try to seduce him. At one point he returns home to find the psychopathic Carmen Sternwood in his bed nude. Contemplating the chess set sitting next to his bed, Marlowe considers his possible moves: "The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights have no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights."22 Finally he reacts as a democratic hero. A noble, solitary man he defends his principles and sanity from mindless chaos:
This room was the room I live in. It was all I had in the way of a home. It was everything that was mine, that had any association for me, any past, anything that took the place of family. Not much; a few books, pictures, radio, chessmen, old letters, stuff like that. Nothing. Such as they were they had all my memories....
I couldn't stand her in that room any longer ... I said carefully: "I'll give you three minutes to get dressed and out of here. If you're not out of here by then I'll throw you out by force. Just the way you are, naked. And I'll throw your clothes after you into the hall. Now get started."23
If Marlowe appears a tough guy, he is essentially kind hearted. In Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe's second quest, he is sitting in a police detective's office on the eighteenth floor of city hall watching a bug:
The bug reached the end of Randall's desk and marched straight off into the air. It fell on its back on the floor, waved a few thin worn legs in the air feebly and then played dead. Nobody cared, so it began waving its legs again and finally struggled over on its face. It trundled off into a corner towards nothing, going nowhere.24
As Marlowe leaves, he puts the bug carefully in his handkerchief:
I rode the express elevator down to the Spring Street entrance and walked out on the front porch of City Hall and down some steps and over to the flower beds. I put the pink bug down carefully behind a bush.25
The bug represents all of those whom the police will not help. In Farewell, My Lovely, the police detectives ignore the murder of a Negro saloon-keeper, another "shine" job, and they studiously refuse to pursue any mob connected case. In this corrupt urban state of nature, Marlowe again is the only agent of justice. But, his compassionate nature, constant word play, and extraordinary ability to think through everyone's motivation to the correct conclusion, makes Marlowe the intellectual knight errant.
The year before Raymond Chandler published The Big Sleep in 1939, the first comic book featuring the patriarch of super heroes appeared. Superman, an orphan from an alien and destroyed planet, is the absolute outsider. But while his super alien immigrant roots are hidden, Superman goes on to defend truth, justice, and the American way for over half a century. In his Depression days, Superman had a large social conscience and was more a "super reformer" than a "super policeman." While most of his early crime fighting was aimed at corrupt capitalists, he successfully persuaded everyone that Americans could work together for justice. Bradford Wright observes that the credit for the success of the New Deal in fashioning a more inclusive definition of American patriotism "must go to the powerful sense of shared national purpose forged by the creators of popular culture."26 Wright also observes how the young creators of superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, "however unconsciously, had created a brilliant twentieth-century variation on a classic hero type. The most persuasive myth of American culture is that of the Western frontier hero, who resolves tensions between the wilderness and civilization while embodying the best virtues of both environments himself. Obviously, in the twentieth century, popular culture has adapted the Western and frontier metaphors to meet contemporary tastes and concerns.27
Without belaboring this point, it is easy to see the same renewal of the democratic knight in America's most recent forays into space: "the final frontier." We will briefly look at these themes in Star Trek, and Star Wars. In addition, the same heroic character appears in recent futuristic fantasies. In the post World War III world of Mad Max, barbarian motorcycle gangs from the destroyed cities invade the bucolic byways, tyrannizing the remaining outposts of democratic civilization.
Since space travel requires advanced and cooperative planning, and numerous crews, space ships are more like military units or warships than they are recreations of our solitary democratic heroes: Leatherstocking, Shane, Marlowe, Superman, (and Mad Max). Military units are bound by group dynamics, army orders, and civil and military laws, which limit the ability of heroes to judge and execute the natural and divine law. Nevertheless, the officers of the Starship Enterprise manage to defend democratic justice and freedom for all citizens, human and otherwise, in the United Confederation. Like the earlier heroes, they face the untamed wildness of space and new enemies of freedom and democracy. This new enemy are the Klingons, a powerful "evil Empire," which usually prefers a hot exchange with the USS (United Star Ship) Enterprise than a cold war stalemate. Nevertheless, Captain Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew, heroically risk life and limb to promote progress, liberty, and democracy. Recent science fiction epics, such as Independence Day and Armageddon continue to foster the conviction that the United States will be the heroic leader of mankind against dangers arising in space.
The Star Wars saga fits more closely the radical individualism and selfless heroism of the democratic knight errant. This is true even though the Jedi knights are modeled on the training and loyalty of established orders of knights (the Jedi) rather than the usually self-taught, do-it-yourself American warrior. The director and author of Star Wars, George Lucas describes his desire to reconstruct the cowboy hero for a modern audience. "I came to realize that since the demise of the Western, there hasn't been much in the mytho-logical fantasy genre available to the film audience ... I'm trying to reconstruct a genre that's been lost and bring it to a new dimension."28 Mary Henderson notes Lucas's intention to reconnect religious faith with the nobility of the American democratic "Grail knights": "The original Star Wars trilogy appeared at a time when 95 percent of Americans said that they believed in God, but only 43 percent attended religious services. It is no wonder that these movies with their stories of rebirth and redemption and conquest of good over evil took on the power of myth. Values that had seemed lost to society were given new life in Star Wars: chivalry, heroism, nobility, and valor."29
Finally, the ability of modern democracy to rise phoenix like against post-modern nihilism is manifest in the acclaimed Mad Max Trilogy. Made in Australia, staring the American Catholic Mel Gibson, and directed by the brilliant George Miller, these movies are a response to the apocalyptical postwar Australian novel, Neville's, On the Beach and, more importantly, the postmodern apocalypse promised by Friedrich Nietzsche's "Death of God." The latter apocalypse was captured in part by Anthony Burgess's novel, and Stanley Kubrick's movie, A Clockwork Orange. And as we have seen, Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch was only one of the many nihilistic movies made in the late 60's and 70's. Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry, and The Unforgiven, also have a nihilistic premise. Similar to the corrupt world inhabited by Philip Marlowe, the hero fights for the "good", only to learn there is precious little difference between the "good" democratic citizens and the "evil" criminals.
In the first movie, Mad Max, after the slaughter of his wife and child by a skin-head gang, Max becomes a revenge filled loner. Disgusted at the inability of the police, of whom he was a member, to defend the law, Max wrecks his own gruesome vengeance. In The Road Warrior, Max begins his redemption from his nihilistic suffering through his reluctant defense of a small democratic community attacked by Humungus's post-modern barbarians. His redemption truly begins through his contact with innocent women and children. In Beyond Thunderdome, Max helps overthrow Barter Town, a new city based on the exchange of the spoils of looting and piracy. In opposition to the nihilistic commercialism of Barter Town, Max becomes the father of a "tribe" of orphans who, as a result of a plane crash, have grown up in isolation from the new barbarism. After he more or less bloodlessly destroys Barter Town, Max settles his children in the heavily damaged and deserted city of Sydney. Here, the children begin the rebirth of democratic civilization. The older girls and boys teach the young ones about the legendary savior knight (Max) who still wanders the wastes saving the innocent and destroying the enemies of democracy.
Dennis Barber argues this movie was most influenced by T.S. Elliot, The Wasteland. "Beyond Thunderdome [is] the movie [in which] ... Miller breaks with postmodernism, positing a more hopeful future, much in the sense that T. S. Eliot, the most influential modernist poet, moved to a more optimistic attitude in his later works, based on his embracing of Catholicism."30
America presents a curious paradox. The nation derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, and its purpose or end, from the defense of liberty: beginning with the right to self-preservation. But in the real world, the United States continually encounters "frontiers" contested by enemies of democracy. On these "frontiers," or ever-new states of nature, the peaceful process of law proves unavailing, and democratic society appears unable to renew and preserve itself.
In mythically saving the frontier for democracy rarely does the hero do battle in real or contemporary wars the American knight errant offers reassurance of democracy's justice and power. In bringing public order and justice, even by force, the hero guarantees the inevitably return of the rule of law. Confidence and hope encourage political action and reform, avoiding the paralysis and despair of "the fear of fear itself." Of course, the effect of the democratic hero on the young is even greater. The constant repetition of heroic images of fidelity, courage, self-sacrifice, love of country, and victory leaves a lasting impression of the decency, prowess, and seemingly ordained status of American democracy.
Many of creators of our 20th century heros were motivated by T.S. Elliot's critique of modern "high culture." The wasteland, Eliot observed, resulted from the intellectual attempt to create a new, anti-aristocratic culture based on scientific truths about nature and man. This 20th century intellectual project was characterized by the greatest confidence that reason and a socially realistic art could work together to reeducate not just American, but all societies. The rapid improvement in scientific technology, along with the utopian social expectations produced by the "advances" in social sciences of economics, psychology, and politics made the 20th century the era of scientific ideology. Positivism, naturalism (a form of Social Darwinism), anarchism, communism, socialism, market capitalism, Freudianism, historicism, behavioralism, and existentialism all informed the intellectual's social and academic projects. But by the end of the century, intellectual opinion had abandoned scientific ideology for postmodern anti-rationalism. But from first to last, the revolution in "high culture" in the 20th, and 21st centuries proved hostile to the heroic qualities Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot thought necessary for a great nation, and for human nature.31
Beginning with James Fenimore Cooper, American artists adapted the feudal forms of knighthood to fit democratic justice. Americans have always believed their own political freedom and self-conscious activity is a reflection of what is most noble in human nature. This democratic pride encourages them to embrace noble interpretations of their democratic life. Therefore it seems likely that the American democratic knight errant will remain as influential in our popular culture in the future, as he has for the past two hundred years. For, in every reincarnation, his character renews a pride and confidence in American ideals and justice, while reminding a prudent nation of the need for heroic sacrifice to preserve its frontiers against the kingdoms of evil.
1 It is noteworthy that the two great "realist" political philosophers, Thucydides and Niccolo Machiavelli, argue that democracies are the most militarily powerful regimes. The freedom, dignity, and self-interest of the citizen soldier makes him a true patriot and war-like defender of democratic justice. Machiavelli, as Hippolyte Taine was to do three and a half centuries later, noted the great spiritedness of the English yeoman who were, by continental standards, free. href="#footnote1return">(Return)
2 The prominent historian Richard Slotnick develops a comprehensive liberal critique of American popular culture in three massive studies. The following quote is offered as an epitome of his perspective:
In addition to foreign adventures, "the 'savage war' paradigm [e.g., cowboys and Indians] has also been invoked to conceptualize and formulate policy for the social disruption and urban violence that have attended the 'drug war' and the "Reagan Revolution' in American cities. The title of a popular novel and film of the early 1980's Fort Apache, the Bronx vividly captures the public's sense of cities 'reverting to savagery' and ruled by semi-tribal youth gangs representing African-American and other Third World 'races' or ethnicities. The policy paradigms emphasize 'military' over social solutions: the use of police repression and imprisonment a variation on free-free zones and 'reconcentration camps' or 'reservations' as policies of first resort preferable to more laborious and taxing projects of civic action or social reform.
Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Atheneum, 1992), 652. See also, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier 1600-1860 (New York: Atheneum, 1973), and The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization (New York: Atheneum, 1985). href="#footnote2return">(Return)
3 Modern Americans are prudent and democratic. They believe both high and popular culture should support democratic institutions and policies. So popular culture, while occasionally critical, has always been fundamentally patriotic. If Americans are intensely practical in times of peace, they are even more so in times of war. The democratic knight is rarely permitted to fight against real enemies where his heroism would surpass that of actual soldiers.
At the beginning of the Second World War readers wondered why Superman did not fly to Berlin and kill the German army. The cartoonists immediately issued a press release saying that Superman had complete confidence in the power of the armed forces to settle the matter, and so he would confine his crime fighting to helping the average Joes and Janes back in the USA. Bradford W. Wright, Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 43-44. href="#footnote3return">(Return)
6 Ibid., 32. Whitman illustrates the works he finds central to the feudal romances: "See, for hereditaments, specimens, Walter Scott's Border Minstrelsy ... the European continental poems of Walter of Aquitania, and the Nibelungen, of pagan stock, but monkish-feudal redaction; the history of the Troubadours, by Fauriel; even the far-back cumbrous old Hindu epics, as indicating the Asian eggs out of which European chivalry was hatched; Ticknor's chapters on the Cid, and on the Spanish poems and poets of Calderon's time. Then always, and of course, as super best poetic culmination-expression of feudalism, the Shakespearian dramas, the attitudes, dialogue, characters, etc., of the princes, lords, and gentlemen, the pervading atmosphere, the implied and expressed standard of manners, the high port and proud stomach, the regal embroidery of style, etc." 321, f. n. 2. href="#footnote6return">(Return)
9 Ibid., 519. href="#footnote9return">(Return)
10 Ibid., 531. href="#footnote10return">(Return)
11 Ivanhoe acts disinterestedly to those in distress, and so aids Rebecca and her father. Providentially, Ivanhoe is always well rewarded for these unbidden acts of friendship. Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998 ), 63. href="#footnote11return">(Return)
13 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1980), 456. href="#footnote13return">(Return)
14 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pathfinder (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1981), 432. href="#footnote14return">(Return)
15 Ibid., 434. href="#footnote15return">(Return)
16 Ibid., 446. href="#footnote16return">(Return)
17 Ibid., 453. href="#footnote17return">(Return)
18 Ibid., 142. href="#footnote1return">(Return)
19 Slotkin, op. cit, 400. href="#footnote19return">(Return)
20 Raymond Chandler, The Simple Act of Murder (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1950), p. 533. href="#footnote20return">(Return)
21 Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (New York: Literary Classic of the United States, 1995), 589. href="#footnote21return">(Return)
22 Ibid., 707. href="#footnote22return">(Return)
23 Ibid., 708. href="#footnote23return">(Return)
24 Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1995), 923. href="#footnote24return">(Return)
25 Ibid., 928. href="#footnote25return">(Return)
26 Bradford W. Wright, op.cit., 11. href="#footnote26return">(Return)
27 Ibid., 10. href="#footnote27return">(Return)
29 Ibid., 197. href="#footnote29return">(Return)
30 Dennis H. Barbour, "Heroism and Redemption in the Mad Max Trilogy." Popular Films and Television, 27, No. 3 (Fall, 1999), 28-34. Peter Malone, "Mad Max: Making a Myth?" Quadrant, (August, 1982), 32 - 27. href="#footnote30return">(Return)
31 Willa Cather is the only major American novelist influenced by the romantic/heroic renewal at the beginning of the 20th century. Many critics compare her thought with her great contemporary, T.S. Eliot. Other major novelists pursued one or another of the ideological avenues opened by 20th century intellectual modernism. href="#footnote31return">(Return)