Most American heroes have historic prototypes. Cinderellas in all ages move from obscurity to fame, or, as we say, from rags to riches. Our self-made men include Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford, and Al Smith. Cincinnatus emerged in a time of crisis to save the state. So did Washington, Lincoln, and Wilson. Europeans found no better example of the Enlightment's "natural man" than Daniel Boone. Kit Carson, Andy Jackson, and Buffalo Bill continued the tradition. Yet in each case there is a flavor, a twist, which is distinctively American. The species is the same; but there are American mutations.
Another major influence working upon American heroes has been regionalism. "The Federal sphere will accommodate the statesmen, but not the hero, in the epical and tremendous sense," Donald Davidson has observed. Regions, and within them localities, are the well-springs of our heroes. Our problem is to venerate our regional heroes without disturbing the national equilibrium. Thus we have Paul Revere, Old Stormalong, and Daniel Webster in the Northeast; Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Andy Jackson on the Appalachian frontier; John Calhoun, R. E. Lee, and the Southern Colonel in the South; Billy the Kid, Bigfoot Wallace, and the Cowboy in the West. Sometimes a dispute over a hero can open up old sectional wounds, as we shall see in the next chapter when we discuss Captain John Smith.
Different ages and ethnic groups select their own favorites: a third major limitation placed on American heroes. The adolescent's choice, used as a model to foster virtues of one sort or another, is directed toward the matinee idol, the movie and television star, and the sports champion. Motivation for these choices varies from sublimated sexual satisfaction, to transfer of personality, to vicarious achievement. The exploitation of personalities, continuous in our history, has been accelerated by modern technology and spectator sports.
Consider George "Babe" Ruth, and the Yankee Stadium often called "the House that Ruth Built." When big league baseball suffered from the disgrace of the Black Sox scandal, publicists diverted attention to a big rollicking kid with a contagious grin and a definite tendency to knock baseballs over fences. Though not especially intelligent, he was colorful; his rise from a Baltimore charity school was a modern Cinderella story. Over the years the home runs, and the Ruth legends, increased. Finally Ruth felt he was the raw material for a new Paul Bunyan. Team mates like "Lefty" Gomez were not so sure. Referring to Ruth's weakness for alcohol Gomez said, "He's the only man in the United States that if you took a pint of blood, it would need a revenue stamp." But his was a champion's blood, and no one ever thought of draining off a pint.
Such charges damaged neither his fame nor his income. Ruth made $80,000 a season, even during hard times. Always a showman, he bought a $5,000 car, gave a more modest one to a priest, and ate eleven hotdogs in one afternoon. In six months he autographed 1100 bats. Feature writers pictured him in a vacant lot with small boys, showing them how to hit. The sick received his special attention, and a paralyzed boy "raised himself" in the excitement over seeing the Bambino hit a home run.
Psychologists subjected Ruth to a "psycho-technical test" which proved his eyes functioned twelve times as quickly as the average man's. They also demonstrated that he outdid 499 out of 500 men in "the responsiveness of his nerves." He was the Sultan of Swat; Beowulf at bat; a miracle worker who hit three World Series homers in one wild afternoon.
After his retirement, people continued to idolize Ruth and eat a candy bar named after him. They spoke of the "first Homeric swat" of May 6, 1915, and recalled that four years later he hit the longest home run then recorded, 508 feet. With two strikes on him in the 1926 World Series, he pointed to a distant spot and yelled at the hooting fans, "I'll knock it out there for you!" He did. It was the longest home run ever made at Wrigley Park.
Mrs. Babe Ruth helped the legend by telling what he said that evening whensomeone praised him for the uncanny stunt: "God was with me, or I couldn't have done it." Gods always help heroes.
One of Ruth's last appearances was with the "All-Time Great" team invited to Baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Historian Louis Jones wrote of it: "When the Bambino himself stood with the others the crowd, which had loved him and would continue to love him, let out a roar you could hear in the next town. When he spoke it was to the kids who are the backbone of the game. As always, the Babe had stolen the show."
Babe's story is typically American in its enormous gusto and good humor. Our legends are less apt to exalt wisdom or subtlety than brawn and buffoonery. They are full of bears and cyclones and hard liquor. Believing they can do any damn thing once they set their minds to it, our idols don't like fences. One of their inalienable rights is raising hell in their own particular fashion. Blackbeard the pirate illustrated this. Rejected in marriage, he got his revenge by cutting off his rival's hand, throwing him in the sea, and sending the hand to his fiancee in a silver casket; an unorthodox, but effective gesture.
Many assume without much evidence that our legendary heroes have folk origins. Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and Joe Magarac were fostered by writers who are still alive. So far, these heroes stand on a burlesque, rather than an epic, level. Some have distinguished creators. Annie Christmas sprang from the brains of Roark Bradford and Lyle Saxon. Daddy Joe was aided by Stewart Holbrook, Pecos Bill by Edward O'Reilly, Daddy Mention by B. A. Botkin, Big Mose by Herbert Asbury, and Strap Buckner by Florence Barns. Owen Francis championed Joe Magarac; Paul Beath, Febold Feboldson; Charles E. Brown, Whiskey Jack; Jeremiah Diggs, Bowleg Bill; J. Harris Cable, Antoine Barada; Louis Jones, Bill Greenfield; and Mary Montague, Tony Beaver. Many are created, but few survive.
Historical heroes have their backers too. A few, like Parson Weems and Jim Farley, are well known. More often they are anonymous. Admirers of Captain John Smith can seldom identify W. W. Henry or Charles Poindexter, who revived Smith's fame in the twentieth century. Hundreds who praise Buffalo Bill don't know that his stories may be traced to the work of Prentiss Ingraham and John Burke.
Almanac writers who had never seen Davy Crockett made him our greatest ring-tailed roarer. Charles Francis Adams, a Yankee whose family represented the quintessence of New Englandism, convinced America that the Confederate General Lee was a great man. A tenderfoot lawyer from the East ( Emerson Hough) and a veteran Texas cowpoke ( Charles Siringo) made Billy the Kid our favorite desperado. It is time the story of such hero-makers be told. They give a new dimension to our history.
Occasionally a reticent subject appears. While most men are delighted to be the subject of tales and rumors, the godly Peter Cartwright was perplexed by them. "Almost all those various incidents that have gained currency throughout the country concerning Methodist preachers," he complained in 1856, "have been located in me. When they came to hear me in Boston, the people expected little else than a bundle of eccentricities and singularities. When they did not realize according to their anticipations, they were disappointed." Most potential heroes do not disappoint the people; instead, they act out the part others have created for them.
As conditions change, so does the heroic guise. In times of crisis we seek the solidarity of a Lincoln or Wilson. When we are complacent and bored we turn to a Buffalo Bill or Al Capone. We even idolize mediocre men, like U. S. Grant or Warren G. Harding, when they suit their ages. Our special form of settlement, institutions, and development gave us our particular American heroes--men with a local habitation and a name.
Fashions change methodically in heroes. The standard formulas in the days of Buffalo Bill and the penny dreadfuls would never work in this day of science fiction and supersonic sound. David Riesman has observed that children now graduate from animal stories like Bugs Bunny to invincible heroes like Superman and eventually to heroes like Batman who, human in form, are vulnerable, though of course never conquered. Children themselves are aware of the progression, and scorn playmates who don't advance on schedule.
So great is the competition among comic strip artists that they must engage in what Mr. Riesman calls "marginal differentiation" to get their trade mark. Bodies by Al Capp must be as easily recognized as bodies by Fisher. Situations that formerly took many pages must be compressed into a few cartoons. The medium and the paragon must be adjusted to the age.
Film heroes change too. The frantic activism of "Doug" Fairbanks in the 1920's gave way to the homespun wit of Will Rogers in the 1930's, and the casual friendliness of Bing Crosby in the 1940's. All Americans, but especially children, are affected by this evolution in comics and shadowland. In 1950 Lawrence Averill conducted a poll of a thousand teen-agers to find out whom they most admired. Only a third chose historical figures. (In a similar survey made in 1898 by Estell Darrah, 90 per cent came from history.) At the top were baseball's Ted Williams, Hollywood's Gene Autry, and comic-land's Joe Palooka. Four times more boys chose Gene Autry than Jesus Christ. As many named Jack Benny as all priests, scholars, and missionaries combined. In telling whom we like best, we tell what we ourselves are like.
Many are alarmed by our new idols who emerge from ball parks, movies, and comic books. They say the "good old days" of truly impressive American heroes and myths are gone forever. "Good old days" are always gone--this is one of history's truisms. But not the heroic process, which is communal faith channeled to specific cultural purposes, and which grabs up Babe Ruth or Superman as avidly as Samson or Hercules.
Nature has, of course, lost much of its significance for the modern urbanite. Once feared and worshipped, it is now controlled by a flick of the thermostat. Hence it is not from realms of nature and religion, but politics and economics, that many of our heroes arise. Not thunderstorms and snowdrifts, but strikes and inflation, drive us to our knees. New problems demand new kinds of solutions--and new solvers.
What is the thread that holds together the sequence of American heroes? Only a magician who could conjure up the hidden unity of American character would dare give a simple answer. Those of us who fear to try can only search for clues, themes, and leads. Since in this sprawling, diverse land of not very united states it is easier to focus on a figure than an abstract idea or principle, we shall study certain representative heroes and hope they will point to a larger pattern. To master the whole mosaic we shall attempt to remove some of the pieces. If we choose wisely, we may find those on which the lesser pieces depend, and from which they get their shape and values. By dividing the problem of American heroes, perhaps we can make a start towards conquering it.