Posted: May 28, 2003
or a quarter century, observers from Robert Bellah to Robert Bork have warned of America's imperiled mores. Popular culture, usually described as increasingly hedonistic and nihilistic, is often blamed for the decline of our national character. While there is a lot to dislike about popular culture, it also produces a torrent of heroic fare whose significance hasn't been sufficiently appreciated. In Iraq, for example, embedded reporters traveling with the rapidly advancing American columns marveled at our forces' bravery and decency; somehow these young men and women, certified members of the slacker generation, were battling down Freedom's Road, not slouching toward Gomorrah. Where do we get such heroes? One answer is: American popular culture.
Although high culture is a different story, in mainstream America, heroism is alive and well. It thrives in "action/adventure" films, by far the largest movie genre, encompassing westerns, detective and police dramas, martial arts pix, science fiction, superheroes, natural disasters, and war stories. Thousands of heroic movies (and television programs) are viewed by millions of Americans every month, though intellectuals of all stripes typically disdain them. Conservatives are more interested in high culture, great books, and great men, than in mythical appeals to the masses. And modern liberals argue that heroism encourages violence at home and militarism abroad, not to mention "fascistic" prejudices like racism, sexism, and love of force.
The huge popularity of heroic movies shows that Americans are little troubled by such intellectual criticism. They believe that calling the United States a "cowboy culture" pays it a compliment. To the average ticket-buying Joe and Jane, the cowboy (in his many forms) is the idealization of democratic virtue, especially of its relentless pursuit of justice.
The identification of America with frontier life is longstanding in politics as well as popular culture. Presidents like Andrew Jackson, William Harrison, and Abraham Lincoln invoked their vigorous frontier origins in order to increase their democratic stature. Even after the closing of the Western frontier in the 1890's, Teddy Roosevelt cultivated his reputation as a Rough Rider in South Dakota and Cuba. A century later, Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush continue to embrace the cowboy way. The pioneer spirit has also been conjured in order to gain support for policy initiatives. Woodrow Wilson exhorted America to join World War I in order "to make the world safe for democracy"—as the pioneers had once made safe the American West. John F. Kennedy made the "New Frontier" the motto of his administration, promising to land a man on the moon within the decade. Given the supposed timidity and self-interestedness of modern democracy, what sustains this manly devotion to justice and noble achievement so long after the actual pilgrims and pioneers went to their reward?
In "Democratic Vistas," Walt Whitman argued that a heroic literature is necessary for a heroic people. According to Whitman, the Homeric epics provided that noble standard for Greeks and Romans, as the Arthurian legends did for later Europeans. To become a great nation, America had to create an equally noble, albeit democratic, literature. For "[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." The democratic hero of American popular culture has a pre-history, then, out of which he emerged and from which he must be distinguished.
The chivalric romances were as important to Whitman as the Homeric epics. Like the frontier myth in America, Arthurian poetry was self-consciously nostalgic. It renewed (or created) the memory of a golden age, the better to hearten its people to war anew. In Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (1485), the standard source for later versions of the Arthurian legends, Malory's knights differ little from Homer's heroes. If formally Christian, and allies of King Arthur, they too do pretty much as they please. Independent landholders, the knights freely withdraw from Arthur's service whenever it suits them. Moreover, Arthur causes the civil war within his loosely organized company by attacking his greatest knight, Sir Lancelot, for his too open dalliance with Queen Guinevere. Here the parallel with Homer is clear. The Trojan War began with Paris's abduction of Helen, even as the later conflict among the Achaeans results from "King" Agamemnon's jealousy at Achilles' possession of the beautiful concubine Briseis. But Malory combined these pagan themes with the great, countervailing Christian theme of the Grail quest, first described by the French poet Chretien De Troyes. According to this new legend, Christ served the Last Supper from the Holy Grail, and it received the blood from His wound on Calvary; a vision of the Grail was tantamount to becoming one with the Savior. The Grail knights selflessly pursued justice in order to obtain spiritual purity, not women, wealth, and lands.
Almost four centuries later, Sir Walter Scott mined a similarly heroic chapter in English history. In Ivanhoe, Scott revives the Saxon-Norman conflict over the rule of England. In contrast to Norman tyranny and moral corruption, the Saxon Ivanhoe is a gentleman. Against the previous heroic tradition, Ivanhoe rejects the right of the powerful to possess the fair. In Scott's more Protestant and democratic England, there is no natural right of the strong to rule over women and the property of the weak. But unlike the American hero, Ivanhoe fights to establish himself within the nobility. He is betrothed to the daughter of a great Saxon lord, and fights to restore his own lord, King Richard, to the throne of England.
Beginning three years after the publication of Ivanhoe in 1820, James Fenimore Cooper created the first American, democratic version of the knight-hero in his five Leather-Stocking novels—a hero called variously Natty Bumppo, Deerslayer, Hawkeye, or Leather-Stocking. Natty's character is most fully developed in the last of these sagas, The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841). In addition to his superhuman fortitude, incomparable martial skills, and perfect knowledge of the wilderness, Natty is a true Christian. 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." While Natty serves in the church of nature, he is also schooled in the formal tenets of his 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" (emphasis added). Written near the peak of the Second Great Awakening, these novels stress Natty's chivalric and Christian qualities.
In The Last of the Mohicans, Natty learns the art of war from the Indians in the same way young squires once trained to be knights. The heroic Bumppo even surpasses his teachers in martial prowess. Killdeer is the best rifle on the frontier, and Natty is a superhuman marksman. Above all, Leather-Stocking is the Chosen One. A friend observes: "the man 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" (emphasis added).
Cooper identifies a cardinal principle of the American knight-hero: the economy of violence. Natty believes all life is divinely created and must be preserved, especially that of innocent women and children: "life is sweet and not to be taken marcilessly [sic] by them that have white gifts." So even against armed enemies with violent intent, the true knight wounds rather than kills. In the Deerslayer, the young squire has yet to kill a man. Returning the fire of a hidden enemy, Natty mortally wounds him. Grieving, he holds the dying Indian, effectively reenacting the Pieta. The economy of violence became a staple of the American knights. In the early cowboy movies and television shows, the death count was reduced by the conceit of having guns shot from villains' hands. This trope turned "shoot-outs" into a kind of bloodless joust. But this moral restraint disappeared in the 1960s when a nihilistic realism replaced the Christian prohibition against taking innocent life.
In every novel, Natty is a righter of wrongs. While he sometimes rescues fair maidens, his great quest is to protect Americans as they journey into the lawless frontier. Cooper understood that a mobile, immigrant society of myriad sects and social conditions requires an everyman and outsider for its hero. Natty, an itinerant, orphan bachelor, fits the bill. The model of the democratic knight-errant, he is from no place, with no close relations other than his Mohican comrades in arms. More ideal than human, Natty lives as a holy hermit on the frontier, worshiping the Maker of all things. His perfect virtue makes Leather-Stocking the complete American Adam. Free from earthly sin, he serves his fellow democrats by protecting them from their fallen fellows in the Lord's Garden, i.e. the state of nature.
Once the western frontier moved beyond the mountains, lakes, and forests, and crossed the Mississippi, a new vision of the democratic knight-hero was needed. Thus, the mounted rider arose to defend democracy on the open plains running to the Rockies. The first serious adaptation of knighthood to the cowboy/gunfighter, undertaken by Owen Wister in The Virginian (1902), was written after the frontier had closed.
Hollywood made the cowboy hero universally popular. The new film industry was greatly aided by the dozens of novels, primarily by Zane Grey, available for movie development. Few films were easier to make than the early Westerns. Shot within a brief car ride from Los Angeles, they required few actors who could act, while filling the screen with the kind of action that movie audiences craved. Moreover, like most Arthurian tales, the characters' isolation on the broad plains created a totally melodramatic setting. No law limited the hero, or villain, in his acts of good and evil.
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 Homeric and Arthurian legend, is found in "Shane" (1953). The heroic Shane defends homesteaders against a local cattle baron. While believing in the justice of the family's claim, he is even more attracted by the beauty and interest of the farmer's wife. Her love suggests to the lonely Shane a powerful new possibility. He can either risk his life in order to defend justice—or safely gain the love of a beautiful woman, not to mention lucrative employment with the "baron" of cattle and thus, like Ivanhoe, secure his place in the social order.
Shane's native nobility, reinforced by a child's (the farmer's son) hero worship, tips the scale. In a fair fight, he kills the baron, his brother, and their hired gunfighter—a just result after their murder of two homesteaders. After restoring justice, the wounded Shane, without a word of thanks or a kiss goodbye, heroically returns to his long trail, forgoing the rewards of the earlier code of chivalry. But he does hear the heartfelt cries of love and admiration of the young boy who had witnessed his bravery and sacrifice. The critic Richard Slotkin notes that Shane and Marian's "sublimated romance reproduces the exact Western equivalent of chivalric love, with Shane as a stainless Lancelot and Marian a chaste Guinevere." Slotkin admires too 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."
Long before Hollywood captured the Western hero on film, a new "frontier" had opened in America. New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles appeared as strange and hostile to many Americans as had the shores of Massachusetts, the forests of upstate New York, and the Great Plains to their ancestors. Rural immigrants, like Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie(1900) were alienated from the "noir world" of the new urban frontier, filled with gin, drugs, prostitution, gambling, and crooked politicians and cops.
Several decades elapsed before writers caught up to this new social reality. But by the time of the Depression and New Deal, this urban frontier began to be populated by democratic Christian knights. Raymond Chandler, the creator of the first truly heroic detective, Philip Marlowe, was born in America but educated in England. After returning to the United States, he failed in business only to recreate himself as a writer, publishing his first novel, The Big Sleep, in 1939. Philip Marlowe, originally named Philip Malory after Thomas Malory, incarnates yet another version of the American knight-errant. Chandler was influenced by T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), which had revived Arthurian themes. Chandler describes Marlowe 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.
All of Marlowe's "jobs" become quests extending far beyond his appointed task. These quests end only when he has healed his client, and pulled from the fetid urban jungle the knowledge necessary to reward and punish. On the urban frontier, as in John Locke's state of nature, Marlowe is judge and executor of the laws of nature.
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." While he earns his pay protecting the corrupt Sternwood daughters, Marlowe fails in his quest to heal General Sternwood by finding his friend, Rusty Regan.
Both daughters try to seduce him. Marlowe finds the psychopathic Carmen Sternwood in his bed, nude. Contemplating the chess set sitting next to him, Marlowe considers the possibilities: "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." He reacts as a democratic hero. A noble, solitary man, Marlowe defends his principles and sanity from the moral chaos of the urban frontier.
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."
If Marlowe is a tough guy, he is essentially kind-hearted. In Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe is sitting in a police detective's office on the 18th 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.
As Marlowe leaves, he takes the bug along, restoring him to his health and lands, behind a bush in a flower bed outside City Hall. The bug represents all those ignored by the police. In Farewell, My Lovely, the detectives overlook the murder of a Negro saloon-keeper, another "shine" job, and refuse to investigate any mob-connected case. In the urban democratic jungle, Marlowe is the only agent of justice. But his compassionate nature, constant wordplay, and extraordinary ability to think through everyone's motivation to the correct conclusion make Marlowe the intellectual's knight-errant. Even hard-boiled critics of bourgeois society, like Raymond Chandler, cannot resist the heroic/saintly American style.
The democratic knight is also found in America's mythic forays into space—the "final frontier"—in "Star Trek" and "Star Wars." Since space travel requires cooperative planning and regimented crews, space ships are more like naval vessels than they are the anomic settings of our solitary democratic heroes. Nevertheless, the officers of the USS (United Star Ship) Enterprise defend democratic justice and liberty for all citizens, human or not, in the United Federation. Like earlier heroes, they face an untamed wilderness (in this case, outer space) where prowl new enemies of democracy, the Klingons and Romulans.
"Star Wars" more closely fits the individualism and heroism of the democratic knight-errant, even though the Jedi are modeled on an established order of knights rather than the usually self-taught, self-sufficient American warriors.
Finally, the ability of modern democracy to rise phoenix-like against postmodern nihilism is manifest in the "Mad Max" saga. Made in Australia, starring the American Catholic Mel Gibson and directed by the brilliant George Miller, these movies are a response to the postmodern apocalypse captured by Anthony Burgess's novel, and Stanley Kubrick's movie, "A Clockwork Orange." In the first film, Max, after the slaughter of his wife and child by a skinhead gang, becomes a revenge-filled loner. Disgusted with the police's inability to enforce the law, he wreaks his own vengeance. In the sequel, "The Road Warrior," Max begins his recovery from alienation and nihilism through his reluctant defense of a small democratic community attacked by postmodern barbarians. His redemption truly begins through his contact with innocent women and children. In "Beyond Thunderdome," Max helps overthrow Barter Town, a barbarian city based on looting, piracy, and sexual exploitation. In opposition to the corrupt commercialism of Barter Town, Max becomes the father of a "tribe" of orphans who, because of a plane crash, have grown up in isolation from the city. After more or less bloodlessly destroying Barter Town, he settles his children in the deserted ruins of Sydney, where the children begin civilization's rebirth. The teens teach the young ones the principles of civilization, including the great legend of the savior knight (Max) who still wanders the wastes, destroying those who prey on the innocent.
America presents a curious paradox. Dedicated to "bourgeois" liberties, in the real world it continually encounters frontiers contested by the enemies of democracy. In these ever new states of nature, law proves unavailing, and democracy appears unable to establish, defend, or renew itself. By saving democracy's frontier, the American knight-hero restores public confidence, ensuring the return of democratic law and order. The renewal of public confidence, in turn, mobilizes the electorate for effective political action and reform. The influence of heroism on the young is even more striking. The constant repetition of images of fidelity, courage, self-sacrifice, patriotism, and righteous victory creates a lasting impression of democracy's justice, prowess, and divine protection.
The United States is unique among modern nations in its heroic popular culture. The effects of this culture are not confined to Americans alone. Teaching in Rome during the build-up to the first Gulf War, I was amused to see a major leftist daily headline its story about President Bush's war ultimatum as "Bush to Saddam: High Noon." The editors employed the ultimate American idiom for the life-and-death struggle between democracy and tyranny because they knew that nothing speaks about justice with the same intensity and clarity as our heroic popular culture.