Wednesday, April 17, 2013

American Mythology

Unfortunately, genuine analysis is becoming a lost art. Indeed, in the modern world, most analysis takes the form of uninformed opinion followed by the cherry picking of facts to fit the conclusion. This is probably because it’s easier to be right when you pick your own facts. In any event, I ran into just such an article the other day and I think it’s worth discussing.

This article was on Yahoo, a wretched hive of scum and idiocy. And what drew my attention was the assertion in the headline that Americans can’t do fantasy stories: “Where are all the American fantasy characters?” Well, this struck me as rather stupid because America wasn’t around in the time of knights and dragons, so naturally there won’t be any American fantasy characters. But it turns out this wasn’t what the writer meant. What he eventually got around to saying was that “our mythology” is based on fantasy books and Americans simply don’t write fantasy books. See, the big three fantasy books (Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter) are all British and “talk about British values.” Thus, spoke the moron,
“Yet if Fantasy books make up much of our mythology, and I think strongly that that is true, then I also think that we, in America, have a problem. The problem is that most of our Fantasy isn't written by Americans about American culture and values.

* * *

English values are similar to ours, but they're still not American. And if mythology is supposed to teach a culture how to act and behave, what type of person you should strive to be, then we have a serious problem, because all our mythology is teaching us how to be good Brits, not good Americans.”
Oh boy.

Let’s take this idiot down, shall we?

First, in the article itself, he notes that it was the start of the third season of Game of Thrones which made him ask this question. Game of Thrones was written by an American. So his own article contradicts the point he was pondering. He also seems to have ignored other American fantasy writers like Terry Brooks to reach this point.

Secondly, I don’t for a minute buy his conclusion that “fantasy” is our mythology. American mythology is much more real-life, focusing on the Founders, on the Civil War, on the American West and gangsters and astronauts. American kids don’t say, “I want to be Frodo Baggins or Harry Potter when I grow up,” they say, “I want to be a cowboy... an astronaut... a gangster.”

Actually, if you really want to know what forms our mythology, it’s not wizards and dragons at all. Sure, we like dragons, but out mythology is a combination of many things: some dragons/wizards, some Ancient Greece, some Rome, some Samurai and Ninjas, lots of cowboys, lots of science fiction and some horror. And what does all of this add up to? Superman. Batman. James T. Kirk. American kids don’t get their understanding of our culture from Harry Potter, they get it from superheroes who lay out truth, justice, and the American way.

Finally, even if you look at Narnia and Harry Potter as something which resonates with kids, it’s rather selective to just pick those but ignore Twilight and The Hunger Games, both of which are American. Walt Disney’s effect on our culture is a million times that of Harry Potter. So is Luke Skywalker’s effect. So is Stephen King’s.

This is one of those theories that has some appeal for the brief moment the idea enters your head until you realize that you just picked some random stuff and invented a pattern rather than finding a genuine pattern. Sadly, in the modern age, there is no longer a filter that requires people to think before they voice their opinions authoritatively. Welcome to the net.

Anyway, what do you think makes up our mythology?

87 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

As an aside, I have to say that Yahoo is really driving me nuts lately with the horrifically low quality of their articles. It's like they're all written by 13 year olds... and not the bright ones.

shawn said...

What really bothers me is the dearth of British westerns. I mean, come on they lived through the 1800s too, and yet no westerns.

As a young male in the 70s and 80s, I think comic books make up a fair amount of ongoing American mythology. Batman, Superman, Spider-man and the X-Men among many, were who I grew up with.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, Clearly, the British have something to hide if they won't do westerns. Strange that you don't see any "Native Americans" in Britain, isn't it? :P


I grew up with those too (except X-Men). Plus, the Incredible Hulk and a lot of 1950s/1960 sitcoms. Plus, American folk lore. Plus, all the stuff from around the world that we've adopted -- like Greek Mythology and the Brothers Grimm as seen through Disney. In fact, we seem to take the best from everywhere and Americanize it.

But honestly, nobody I know looks to Potter and LOTR for guidance on culture. Potter we know is British and we view it as "quaint." And LOTR is pure fantasy. It's got the same cultural effect (probably less actually) than Dungeons and Dragons (which is American).

tryanmax said...

Certainly superheros make up an enormous part of the post-industrial American mythos. When the word "pantheon" gets tossed about casually to describe the lineup of a particular publisher's characters, you know it must be true.

Our culture is also very assimilative, so there is no dissonance when our myths draw upon the myths of other cultures. We take the old world's vampires and werewolves and fairies and whatnot and throw them all together down in Baton Rouge just because we can. 'Cuz that's what we do.

And one cannot discount the role of cinema in crafting our American mythology. Film has given birth to particular archetypes, such as the "Action Hero," the "Psycho Killer," and the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl."

But I suppose if one relegates mythology to the fantasy world of wizards and dragons, then we do have a dearth of that stuff over here. So f***in' what?

shawn said...

And let's not forget that Conan, Tarzan and John Carter of Mars are all written by an American.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, Good point and those are also very much part of our culture -- and probably British culture too.

In fact, I'll bet you that we are much more influential on them than they are on us. I know we certainly are on the Germans.

Backthrow said...

I guess the idiot at Yahoo also forgot about L. Frank Baum... gee, I wonder what big fantasy-adventure movie playing in theaters worldwide right now is based on his writings, as well as one of the most beloved, iconic films (released in 1939) and book series, ever?

I guess Flash Gordon doesn't count, either. Or A WRINKLE IN TIME (and sequels). Or DUNE. Or THE DRAGONRIDERS OF PERN. Or DOC SAVAGE. Or the GOR novels...

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, LOL!

Ok, first, I totally agree with everything you said. That is exactly what we do. We take the best things each of these cultures has to offer and we make them distinctly American... and then we ship it back and take over their markets with it. :)

Italian food is a great example of that, where we took something foreign, Americanized it, and then exported it and took over the world with it. The example of vampires is a good one too. We took this Romanian legend with a British twist and we warped the hell out of it by injecting all kinds of American ideas. Then we exported it and our version has since killed the original... for better or worse.

In fact, let me also point out that the British publishing industry turned down Harry Potter. It was finally published in the US. So in effect, Harry Potter is us foisting our vision of Britain onto Britain.

Totally agree about films. Film is the new culture-maker, and we dominate the film industry of the world.

So honestly, I think this guy really missed the point completely. First, our culture is not made from what he thinks. And even if it was and all of the things we watch are somehow foreign, we still Americanize them to insert our own values.

Finally, on wizards, I honestly have to say that I don't think wizard and dragons play much of a role in our culture. It's just not something that comes up here unless you're specifically into it, i.e. it's a subculture at best... like steam punk.

AndrewPrice said...

Now Backthrow, to be fair, few people have seen The Wizard of Oz... outside of Kansas at least.

As for those others you mention, I've never heard of them. ;P

In all seriousness, this was why I wrote this article. I just found the whole thing stunningly wrong. And it struck me as an interesting question where our culture comes from. And I think the things you mention are much, much more influential than something like LOTR. Seriously, have you ever noticed how often Oz gets alluded to or quoted in other films or stories? I swear it gets alluded to more than the Bible.

K said...

Andrew: But honestly, nobody I know looks to Potter and LOTR for guidance on culture.

Maybe because you don't live in California. LOTR has had a semi-religious following here since the hippies in the 60s. Tolkien, who leaned libertarian and was a devout Catholic, took early German and other European myths and imposed his own politics and religion on them. A very recent example of the cultural influence of LOTR can be seen Here beginning at around 5:21.

Shawn's Edgar Rice Burroughs example is certainly the best I can think of for an original American myth creator as his books are well known throughout the West.

Backthrow said...

Andrew,

Yup, that's true. Still, the author is probably correct, that we pathetic Americans are woefully lacking in indigenous fantasy folklore. That's why I've just decided, at this very moment, to create some new, homegrown characters that will have amazing adventures right here in America. I'll call them 'Paul Bunyan', 'Pecos Bill' and 'Tom Swift'. I hope they catch on.

AndrewPrice said...

K, I know what you're talking about with the hippies, but honestly, I see that as just a subculture group like steam punk. Basically, it's there, there are some people it affects, but it hasn't made any real inroads into mainstream American culture. Prior to the films coming out in the 2000s, you almost never saw a reference too it in any film, television show, book, songs or television commercials. Compare that with something like Superman, which can be found in all corners of American culture.

In fact, I would say that in my generation, it was pretty much relegated to geek culture. So if you played D&D, then you knew about it. If you didn't, then you didn't.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, LOL! Good luck with those! Don't forget Bugs Bunny too... that name seems like a winner to me! ;P

You know, it's funny because when you think about American mythology, we really do lump it all together. From what I've seen about the rest of the world, they generally put their mythical era into a particular time period and that becomes "the foundation" of their culture. We don't seem to do that. Our mythology seems to grow with each passing era.

And when you look at the things we think of that define our mythology, there is a lot about the Founders, a lot about cowboys, a lot about Robber Barons, a lot about FDR, and then technology (space, computers). And while these were typically real people, not made up Gods or legends like King Arthur, they are just as mythologized and they form the values that we pass on.

So I would say that is where our values come from and that is where our mythology lies. Then we add some entertainment figures like Superman and Bugs Bunny "Gone With The Wind" to pass those ideas on to kids.

Ty in TX said...

Andrew, actually as far as wizards go, there is Harry Dresden. An American wizard/PI who works in Chicago and is constantly butting heads with the older wizards with old world values and mindsets.

American wizard, American Author, bestselling book series made into a short lived TV Series and a series of graphic novels.

I think the American Mythos, has been suggested, is our ability to take in any idea or concept and give it a new spin on life.

Retro Hound said...

Three words: Hol. Ly. Wood.

Star Wars isn't a major mythology that's American? The mythological West? The Bible isn't American, but it isn't British either. Unless, like Professor Higgins, you think English is the language of Milton, Keats, and the Bible.

ScottDS said...

I'm wondering if one possible way to determine a culture's mythology is to chart the pop culture references.

For example, if I watch a British sitcom and they need to reference a sci-fi show, it's always Doctor Who.

In this country, it's Star Trek and Star Wars, both of which I'll put against any other country's mythology. (But, of course, I'm biased.) :-)

I'll have more to say later. School awaits...

rlaWTX said...

yeah, that Yahoo "writer" is an idiot.
St. George and the Dragon vs. Paul Bunyon & Babe
King Arthur vs The Wild West
etc
etc
etc
Then there's the actual "published" fantasy...
nitwit.

Anonymous said...

I've always seen Superheroes as the American mythology. They may be enjoyed outside of America too, but Superman, Batman, Captain America, they represent American culture (what was American culture.) However, I think over the decades liberals have tried to suppress support for Superheroes because, let's face it, superheroes don't fit into the Socialist brand. They stand out from all others either because they have the skills or the means to do so. And the Left doesn't want us to celebrate that. To paraphrase a great line from the Incredibles (a great superhero film) "Everybody's special, which is another way of saying no one is." I love that film because it shows that when great humans come along they SHOULD be celebrated for their accomplishments and not forced to be "special like everyone else". On a side note, it looks like the new "Man of Steel" is returning to this message, and it looks awesome. However it seems to have the added twist using your gifts and skills to inspire others to greatness. That's an American message.

BIG MO said...

Wow. Just Wow. You’re right, Andrew. No disagreements.

A couple of thoughts: American mythos certainly has its roots in western civilization (with the United States being the ultimate culmination of western civ), but there are certainly many things unique to American mythology. Some have passed by the wayside, replaced by many things mentioned already (Star Wars, Star Trek, Bugs Bunny, Batman, Superman, etc.). In the early republic, American mythology was created via the novels of James Fennimore Cooper and the writings of Washington Irving. The latter’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is still famous and ranks with (IMO) Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Stoker’s “Dracula” as one of the best scares in all western literature. Cooper wrote the “Leatherstocking Tales” about the early frontier, the most famous of which remains “The Last of the Mohicans.” Mark Twain — himself a creator of perhaps the greatest fictional American mythology with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn — awesomely eviscerated Cooper’s novels. Still, his and Irving’s influence on forming uniquely American mythology was profound.

But like Andrew said, our mythology is based more on actual people and events, or actual situations. For example, we have a tremendous mythology surrounding the Civil War, both factual and fanciful. The best writings of that war by Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote and Douglas Southall Freeman and a few others are America’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.”

Regardless of where your sympathies lie, in the words of Shelby Foote, “Any understanding of this nation has to be based—and I mean really based—on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us … as what we are, and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. It is very necessary if you’re going to understand the American character in the 20th century to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-19th century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.”

Even WWII mythology hasn’t quite surpassed Civil War mythology, probably because the consequences and veterans (albeit shrinking rapidly) of that mid-20th century catastrophe are still very much with us.

AndrewPrice said...

Ty, Welcome! :)

I haven't read the Dresden stuff, but my father loves those books. I watched the series briefly when it was on, but I don't think it lasted very long.

There are definitely American fantasy/wizard books. I think the author of this piece just isn't well informed. My guess is that those are the three pieces of fantasy that he liked and so he concluded that those are the only ones everyone likes.

I agree that our Mythos is basically whatever we've taken from everywhere and made our own. We aren't taking other people's values, we are taking their ideas and inserting our own values.

In fact, I have a friend from India who laughs about all the people here who follow things like Buddhism and Harri Krishnah because he says that they basically have little in common with the version overseas. Basically, Americans have "reinterpreted" those religions to fit our culture.

AndrewPrice said...

Retro Hound, If the Bible wasn't written in English, they why is it in English in stores? Just kidding.

I really think this author doesn't understand that mythology is much broader than he estimates and that American cultures functions differently than he thinks. Our mythology is based on the mythological versions of real people -- the West, the Founders, etc. Plus, the things we've taken from other cultures.

And to know what those are, look at the things we teach in schools. In schools, kids to learn a little about the Greek Gods, for example, but no one is taught about "the legend of Harry Potter."

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think you can check out a country's mythology by looking at: (1) the myths they teach in school, (2) the stories that everyone knows even if they haven't read them or seen the movie, and (3) the things that are constantly alluded to in modern pop culture.

In school, we learn a mythologized version of the Founders, the Civil War, the West (plus the Alamo for our Texas guests), FDR and the space race. We also learn a little about Ancient Greece and Ancient China. There is also a minor focus on Norse Mythology and some Egyptian Mythology.

Things everyone knows even if they haven't read them are the Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind, the Bible, Tarzan, Star Wars, 2001, Deliverance, Mark Twain and Hemmingway, etc.

There are a couple British things I would add to the list -- Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Harry Potter come to mind. BUT again, each of those is also seen as British... not American. And Sherlock Holmes is in the process of being de-Britished right now.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I see article like this all the time at Yahoo and it strikes me like they've hired a bunch of not-very-thoughtful 16 year olds to write down whatever comes to mind every time they thing they realize something.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, Agreed. I think that Superheroes are the mythological figures that have been created to embody all of American culture and our values. And you are right that the left has been at war with superheroes for a long time for precisely the reason you mention -- they represent American values that are inconsistent with socialist/liberal thought.

I think that's why we're seeing them try to inject liberalism into the comic books and why they are producing such bland films.

I haven't seen much about the new Superman film, but hopefully it will be a lot better than the last one.

AndrewPrice said...

Big MO, I agree completely. I think our mythology is largely based on real people/events which have been made larger than life, and the Civil War is huge in that.

Think about how we talk of Lincoln. Here is a man who was the world's greatest debator, a simple man born in a log cabin who would never tell a lie. We know that's not true, but we accept it because he's our myth. He's like an Ancient Greek god and we accept archetypal behavior. He had a trademark hat that was common at the time but which is now suggested to have been somewhat unique -- most people probably think he wore it all the time, even in bed, even though he rarely wears it in photographs. He freed the slaves single-handedly and with noble purpose and pure deed, and people get upset when this idea is besmirched in any way. He died an ironic, tragic death, like all great heroes.

This is exactly how Greek myths and Roman myths were made -- traits and deeds are cleaned up and exaggerated. Things that we know can't be true are made true and are repeated dogmatically. Everything about this myth then enters our culture. You see references to it everywhere. Simply showing a black stovepipe hat tells everyone who you are talking about. And along with the telling of the Lincoln myth comes a strong dose of the values we want our country to embody -- brains, honesty, nobility, freedom... avoiding theater (j/k).

These are the types of things upon which our culture is based. And I can tell you that other cultures aren't like that. I know a lot of Germans for example and their culture does not look back upon real people, it looks at a couple literary figures and then a sort of "what we are like today as a society is what it is to be German."

Critch said...

American mythology is Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, Natty Bumpo, the westerns in pulp magazines, movies and TV...and later the comics...but Andrew mentioned something interesting,,,we take our real life heroes and make them even bigger; George Washington, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Teddy Roosevelt to name a few..Americans do fantasy and mythology very well. Star Wars was just a Western,,,

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, Thanks! Glad to hear I said something interesting! :)

I think that's right. I think those are our mythology. We take our heroes and we make them larger than life and they enter the culture as examples of our values and our virtues. Each of them represents something about our culture that we cherish -- just as each Greek god represented some aspect of their culture.

Critch said...

I used to work with a Brit who was fascinated with the Battle of the Alamo..something about that battle just hit him as uniquely American. Those people made history.

AndrewPrice said...

Most of the Germans I know are actually fascinated by the American West. I'm not sure why, but they all seem to love the idea and that's how they see the US. I think it's the idea of there being no rigid rules and so much open space.

Interestingly, one of their most famous authors (Karl May (pronounced like "my")) wrote books about the American West. In particular, he wrote about an Indian named "Winnetou" (pronounced: vinn-eh-too). (LINK. And I understand he sold more than 200 million books. I also understand that he never actually visited the West. LOL!

Kit said...

But why we don't have many "fantasy" characters. To a certain extent, I agree.
To an extent. Ours are based, I think, more in "science" than in "fantasy". (I am using quotation marks because the "science" is not always really that scientifically possible). I think its a result of being born as a country in the "Age of Reason".
Look at our superheroes. Their powers are based more in science than in fantasy. Granted, the science can be sketchy but its "scientific" nonetheless.
Superman didn't come from Mount Olympus or Asgard or anywhere like that, he came from another planet with more advanced technology.
Spiderman, the quintessential (when he's written properly) everyman of the superheroes, didn't get his powers from a god but from being bitten by a radioactive spider.
Even Marvel's Thor is not an actual god but is from another planet. Really just a very powerful alien.

That is not saying there are not exceptions (Wizard of Oz) but the general rule is that, in my opinion, America leans toward the science-fiction.

Patriot said...

Andrew....So that's where the reference to Winnetou came from in the Inglorious Basterds tavern scene. (Diana Kreuger...rowwrr)

Anyhow, back to reality and myth.....I think the Yahoo writer is a perfect example of modern English Lit majors output. Doesn't matter what you write about, just make sure you follow the thematic and grammatical rules in constructing your paper. Result of trying to meet the professor's liberal biases in your paper and having to hew the line for structure. Doesn't matter what you write about, as long as the structure is approved.

Backthrow said...

They made a slew of Winnetou & Old Shatterhand movies in West Germany in the 1960s, a few of which were dubbed and released to theaters in the U.S., and play like a cross between classic Hollywood westerns of the 1950s and the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s. Here are english-language trailers to the first few:

THE TREASURE OF SILVER LAKE

LAST OF THE RENEGADES

FLAMING FRONTIER

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, That's a good point. And I wonder if that doesn't play a healthy role in forming the difference between us and the rest of the world? Our mythology is based in real world do-it-yourself deeds and in science. Europe follows a mythology based on deus ex machina, where the world is controlled by supreme beings over which mortal humans have no power. What I know of Asian mythology is that it seems to be premised on the strong-man.

Each seems to fit each society. So is that a cause of their cultures or just a reflection? Interesting question.

AndrewPrice said...

Patriot, Kruger is rather attractive, yep. :)

I'm not quite sure what to make of the Yahoo writer, except this seems to be becoming par for the course over there. I don't know if they just hired a bunch of kids with no adult supervision or maybe this is what an English Lit degree gets you these days? I'm not sure what the source of the idiocy is... I just know it's idiocy.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, I had no idea! Also, that's Inspector Dreyfus as the villain! LOL! (Herbert Lom)

Well, as German films go, those actually look palatable.... unlike many others I've seen. :(

Kit said...

Ok, I'm deleting my post so I can get the links working.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, You need to use "straight quotes" because HTML doesn't like the curvy quotes.

Kit said...

I should note that to the Greeks, their mythology was religious scripture. Kind of like how we view the Bible.

Now, moving on.

"I think that's right. I think those are our mythology. We take our heroes and we make them larger than life and they enter the culture as examples of our values and our virtues. Each of them represents something about our culture that we cherish -- just as each Greek god represented some aspect of their culture."

I've been thinking on that recently. Let's look at 3 Marvel Superheroes: Iron Man, Captain America, and Spiderman.

Both Iron Man and Captain America, at least as portrayed in the movies (comics would take to long to go into) represent two flip sides of America. Iron Man represents both America’s ingenuity and technological engineering ability. He also represents our commercial excesses. (a.k.a., MacDonalds America) Just look at this scene from the beginning of Iron Man 2.
LINK

Ego much? ;)

Captain America, however, is a different aspect of America. If Iron Man represents our technological strength Captain America represents our moral strength. He is good, fair, and humble and a bit shy at times. He doesn’t hate other people, he dislikes bullies. He always stands up for what is right and against injustice. Why do you think the movie had him serving in a multi-racial unit. Some complained about it but I didn't mind. It says a lot about the Cap. When asked if he wants to join the Army to kill Germans he says “I don't want to kill anyone. I don't like bullies; I don't care where they're from.”
Scene (audio is low): LINK

If Tony Stark is AC/DC America then Steve Rogers is Norman Rockwell America.

Spiderman is (supposed to be) the everyman. He is the common guy. One of us. No matter how many monsters he defeats the electric bill still needs to be paid, he’s been dodging rent, etc. I think this is why in several of the movies you saw him inspiring average people. He can inspire us because he is us. Here is a scene from the most recent movie (some spoilers).
LINK

He is us. He is who we'd be if we had superpowers. He makes mistakes, he makes errors, and there are times when everything piles up so heavily on him that he just wants to quit. He is the Everyman as Hero.

J.R.R. Tolkien made the Hobbits his hero so he could illustrate the power of the common man. Stan Lee created Spiderman.

Kit said...

YES!

Tennessee Jed said...

I am a bit groggy after two extractions of teeth today, so consider my comments in the light of Percocet and general anestesia. I understand times change, but one of the very best things about American mythology was from Walt Disney. Davey Crockett, Francis Marion, Johnny Tremaine, John Henry, Icabod Crane, ...this was great stuff.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, The "everyman hero" is very American in my opinion. He/she dominates our culture and our film. Look at how many of our heroes stress being born into poverty, and those were born into privilege (like Washington) all downplay it. Even with mil/billionaires, it's the self-made ones who fascinate us.

You really don't see the everyman as the center of stories in other cultures. The Greeks made a point that their protagonists were kings or demigods or some other form of super-human -- typically of noble birth. As far as I can tell, everyone in German stories was a prince/princess. Even in Britain, their heroes are usually connected to power rather than being average people. I think that reflects the classism of those societies, i.e. you are only worth talking about if you are at the top.

We're the reverse, we don't really like talking about those at the top, and when we do it's negative, e.g. the Great Gatsby. We were founded as a middle class country with aspiration of getting rich. We have always believed in upward mobility. But we want people to remember their roots. The everyman hero really fits that.

In terms of the examples you cite, I think that almost all of our heroes are middle class. James Kirk comes from Iowa, not Kennebunkport. Superman works as a lowly reporter and grew up on a farm. Peter Parker is just some kid. Etc. There are exceptions -- Batman and Ironman, for example, but the point to them is to show that wealth alone does not make you a good person, it's what you do with it that counts.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, If I had to name a single source as the preserver of American folklore and the spreader of American culture, it would be Walt Disney. That's changing now, but Disney create the heroes that still resonate today and upon whom modern American culture is premised.

Kit said...

Andrew, Walt Disney is our Grimm.

Also, I think the reason most rich superheroes are born into wealth is because in order to be a superhero one has to be, in my opinion, that superheroing is a job for the young. Most self-made men don't usually have "made it" until they are middle-aged or past. A bit to old for crime-fighting (with exceptions).
(2) Self-Made Men are usually making themselves. Its hard to make yourself when your fighting crime. Heck, its hard to keep a job when you're fighting crime. (Just ask Peter Parker!)

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, As a practical matter, that's true... BUT keep in mind that those heroes don't need to be rich. Bruce Wayne could be an inventor/tinkerer who came up with all these things like the Batmobile "from spare parts" and who draws a small income from selling inventions. Ironman would be a guy with a wealthy benefactor or again an inventor.

I really think that if you look across the spectrum of our heroes and villains, you will see that idle/inherited-wealth is evil, earned-wealth is great, and if you have wealth, then you need to be doing something positive with it or you fall into the category of villain or "to be disdained." That's really how our films and books handle the topic of wealth.

Anonymous said...

Since most of my examples (Irving, Twain, etc.) were already mentioned, I'd like to build a little on Andrew and Kit's 'everyman' example.

I think the spirit of the self-made man is still very popular after watching last night's premiere of 'Deadliest Catch.' I can't say what keeps bringing me back to this show. Cynics will say, 'it's a silly reality show where all they do is drop pots and pull up crabs over and over again.' I say that's garbage.

These guys are the epitome of self-made men and, to be honest, they kind of remind me of cowboys in American mythology. Call it the last line of the great American Frontier, if you can. They work for a living doing it their way. They fight all the odds: costs of boat repair, frightening injuries, horrible weather, sometimes each other as the strain of the season drags (Captain Keith once called crab boats 'a kind of prison'), government regulators constantly making it harder for them to deliver the catch that so many elites love eating, and the hard slog of just finding crab. ("They call it 'fishing,' not 'catching,' for a reason." -Captain Sig)

Can't quite put my finger on it, but this show just keeps reeling me in. (Please forgive the pun.) You know, maybe the reason this asinine writer for Yahoo! can't find American mythology is because he really has no idea where to look.

-Rustbelt


Kit said...

"As a practical matter, that's true... BUT keep in mind that those heroes don't need to be rich. Bruce Wayne could be an inventor/tinkerer who came up with all these things like the Batmobile "from spare parts" and who draws a small income from selling inventions. Ironman would be a guy with a wealthy benefactor or again an inventor."

Iron Man is the wealth benefactor. He is Tony Stark.
;)

But, yeah, you are right. They get where they are because of their determination and smarts. In DC Comics Batman is called "The World's Greatest Detective".

Anonymous said...

Also, how is it that nobody's mentioned Harry Callahan or Frank Bullitt in this discussion yet? Both are good guys with a dark side, who seek justice, track the bad guy, and tell the Man to take a hike.

That being said, I therefore post this question:

If you had to trust your life to either car, which would you choose- the Mustang or the Charger?
(Now, THERE'S American mythology!)

-Rustbelt

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I thought about that too. Dirty Harry has become a symbol for many things in America -- our unwillingness to pamper criminality, our vigilante spirit (which again fits with the "do-it-yourself" mentality) and our disdain for elitism.

The Charger.

Kit said...

Rustbelt,

Similar case w/ Ethan Edwards.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Thinking back over our culture, there really are three messages on wealth which work together:

1. Self-made wealth is good.
2. Inheriting wealth is bad.
3. If you have wealth, you must use it for a good purpose.

Those three rules guide pretty much every display of wealth on film or in books. If you are in No. 1, then you are a hero, unless you don't do 3 once you have the money. If you are No. 2, then you are a villain, unless you do No. 3.

That's an interesting split. It means we value the pursuit of wealth, but not wealth itself.

Kit said...

"Jed, If I had to name a single source as the preserver of American folklore and the spreader of American culture, it would be Walt Disney. That's changing now, but Disney create the heroes that still resonate today and upon whom modern American culture is premised."

No doubt about that.
Think about the Diana/Charles "Fairy Tale Wedding". They weren't thinking of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, no, they were thinking of the fairy tales of Walt Disney.

He is probably the greatest contributor to American mythology. Look at Disneyland/Magic Kingdom. When he opened Disneyland he said "To all that come to this happy place: welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America... with hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world." (I think its safe to say Walt Disney believed in American Exceptionalism)

(1) Main Street, USA: I think the title is self-explanatory. Walt Disney drew back to his childhood memories of Marcelene, MO to create the quintessential Main Street of a Middle America.
(2) Tomorrowland: This place is filled with the "hope and promise of the future" with spaceships and astronauts moving into a brighter future.
(3) Fantasyland: The fairy tales that you grew up with and that we brought from our forefathers Europe. A place where everyone can be anyone in their dreams.
(4) Frontierland: Where rough men and women tamed a great wilderness for Americans to fulfill a manifest destiny.
(5) Adventureland: This is very much the world of the pulp with the dark jungles where man is pitted against nature.

Each land is basically a different land in a child's imagination.
You have the wild west of Frontierland cowboys carve out America's Manifest Destiny, the jungles of Adventureland where man is pitted against beast, the castles of Fantasyland where daring princes and knights rescue princess and damsels from wicked queens, and the future of Tomorrowland where man goes ever and ever beyond the stars.

Walt Disney was a genius. He understood what Americans wanted.

Kit said...

I think I should mention I did a major college paper on the life of Walt Disney. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I think what pulls you in to that show is that the show is about the American Dream. It's about people who know what they want and have a plan to get there. So they have taken up these very risky jobs with the idea being that it will lead to the next step in their plan to one day achieve the American dream they are after.

Compare that with French unionists, who see jobs as something you attend until you can retire and then you die. These guys aren't like that. These guys are taking risks to step up to the next level. That's a very American way of being.

Anonymous said...

Kit, that is one of the best 'summing up' pieces on Walt Disney that I have ever read. I really don't know if I can add anything to it.

Very, very poetic.

Well, maybe I'll just add one thing- a rhyme I learned about Walt and his brother/mentor, Roy, when I was working as a cast member at WDW in college:

"Walt is the dreamer, and his smiling face is up in the air.
"Roy's job is to find the money to make Walt's dreams come true- and that's why he has no hair!"

-Rustbelt

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I agree about Disney. Even more to the point, I think he did two things really well.

1. He took the best that Europe had to offer in the way of mythology and fairy tales and he reshaped it with American ideas and values and then sold that to everyone as part of America.

2. He took American folklore and re-packaged it in a better way to sell to everyone and then he distributed it broadly to all Americans and even around the world. Regional figures or minor historical footnotes became larger than life when he choose them and now they are cultural icons.

In effect, he took all the little things that made up our culture (things that belonged to one region or one ethnic group or another) and he "Americanized" them and then he declared them to be "American culture". Essentially, you could argue that he unified our culture by giving us all the same culture regardless of ethnic background because these things stopped being ethnic and instead became "American."

Kit said...

2 More Things

"Disneyfy": There is a common misconception about "Disneyfy". Some of his movies could be pretty dark. Look at the Donkey Scene in Pinocchio.
LINK
Jesus!

Americanize: I think he did do that. The forest in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is not the Dark Forest of Germany but the great forests of America.

-----------

"Kit, that is one of the best 'summing up' pieces on Walt Disney that I have ever read. I really don't know if I can add anything to it.

Very, very poetic."

Thank you.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, You're thinking too literally. I don't mean that he made forests look more American, I mean that he pulled in American values and ideas.

Take the Grimm Brother's stories. In their original German, they are basically horror stories of what happens when you don't follow orders... do what you are told or you will have your thumbs cut off and will be eaten by a witch! Disney changed the themes. He took the basic ideas, but he made them about individuals overcoming bad people. He made them about ingenuity and self-reliance. And in the end, he tossed in the love of family no matter what happens -- rather than the scorn of shaming the family.

He took things that fit the German mindset of "do as you are told" and turned then into the American mindset of "prevail against wrong."

Anonymous said...

Kit, you're welcome, my friend.

-Rustbelt

Kit said...

I've noticed how some people (snobs) say "America does not have a culture. They are hicks and rubes. They have no great artists or composers."

But we do. Its just our culture is for the masses* so the elitists turn their noses.

Proof:
We have Norman Rockwell as a great artist (his stuff is not only art, snobs, its GREAT art) for the paintings. For film we have John Ford, Frank Capra, and Walt Disney. As well as Steven Spielberg as well as the folks at Pixar.

For music we have Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue), and John Williams (his Star Wars music is on par w/ Beethoven's symphonies).

*"our culture is for the masses"So were the great concertos, plays, and operas of old but facts like those are irrelevant when one has to be snobby. ;)

Kit said...

Andrew,

"You're thinking too literally. I don't mean that he made forests look more American, I mean that he pulled in American values and ideas."

Yeah, probably. But I am right about the forests, nonetheless. :)

"He took things that fit the German mindset of "do as you are told" and turned then into the American mindset of "prevail against wrong.""

I think you are right.

A thing to think about:
In most countries people are told stories that tell them to do as their leader says or terrible things will happen to them. Children who fail to be obedient lose toes, as you said.
In America, we have a literary child hero who says "Alright then, I'll go to hell!"

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Two things.

1. Elitism is usually undeserved -- it tends to be inherited through birth or "won" through connections. And thus, to maintain a sense of being better, elitist scorn everyone else. That's how they make themselves feel special despite the total lack of evidence supporting the idea of being special. That's why elitist Americans disdain all American culture and why they embrace nonsense with the claim that if you don't get it, then you aren't good enough to understand it. That's also why European countries who are still living on the kudos from deeds that happened centuries ago look down upon other countries like the US (and China and Brazil and Japan and everyone not in the club) even though we are better than them in every conceivable measure.

2. The reason Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny have become such icons is not because they are really all that funny. It's the attitude. They are the American attitude personified. Both want to be left alone, but will get involved when they see bullies picking on other people and they won't take any crap from anyone. They do not recognize authority unless it's earned by winning the respect of Bugs/Mickey. That's the American attitude, and you won't find it anywhere else in the world (except maybe Australia).

T-Rav said...

This has nothing to do with anything, but I saw a picture on the Internet the other day, entitled "How to upset four different groups of nerds at once." It had a picture of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, and the caption read:

"Use the Force,
Harry."
-Gandalf

I thought it was really funny.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, LOL! That would do it. :)

Kit said...

Also, Bugs Bunny will often outsmart his opponent. His oppenent may be bigger or tougher (see, baseball cartoon) or he may have a gun (Elmer Fudd) but Bugs has his wits.

Mickey Mouse was more of the Tramp. He was very much inspired by Chaplin's mischievous character.

Also, you have Donald Duck and Daffy Duck. Interestingly, both of whom are essentially tragic heroes.
Think about it, both have a fatal flaw. With Donald Duck its his temper and with Daffy its his greed and pride.

-------------------

I agree about elitism. One of my biggest pet peeves, by the way, are professional "art critics" saying that Norman Rockwell is not art. I'm going to shut up before I go into a very long rant. Instead, I'm just going to post a link to his 1943 Illustration, War Stories.
LINK

tryanmax said...

And here's another thing: right now I'm watching Bewitched on TV, to be followed by I Dream of Jeannie.

tryanmax said...

Kit, the most amazing part of that painting to me is the age difference between the guy and his newspaper picture on the wall. Says a lot.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, There should be no such job as an "art critic." Art is subjective and it depends on the individual for what they see in it. Either they like it or they don't. Either they see meaning or they don't. An "art critic" is a oxymoron because it's basically a "taste criticizer," and taste is personal.

So they created this idea that there is something that you peons don't see in art, something "objective," which justifies them having a job because they can see it.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Sitcoms are all part of the picture too.

ScottDS said...

Andrew, et al -

This is the image to which T-Rav refers. :-)

As for Norman Rockwell, I own a relatively recent book of his artwork: Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg... apparently, the two filmmakers are big fans, and it actually shows in some of their work.

My parents had a small print of this hanging in the kitchen years ago.

A friend of mine has this one in his bedroom.

As for me, if I ever became a filmmaker (doubtful), I always thought it'd be cool to have at least one shot in every movie that resembled one of his works.

Kit said...

tyranmax,

Explain.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I love the first comment -- Harry Potter really doesn't belong in that genre. Showing that even when nerds are told the joke... they can't help themselves.

As for Spielberg, despite my issues with some of his work, the man clearly loves Americana and he's very much a Rockwell type filmmaker. I think that's probably why he struggles at times to get recognition from the Hollywood in-crowd (as odd as that may be to assert).

Kit said...

What made Rockwell great was that he had a deep love for humanity and for America.

Even his civil rights paintings are screaming "This is not what America should be about!"
The Problem We All Live With
Southern Justice

Tennessee Jed said...

Kit - Walt Disney is a personal hero to me. I am proud to share a birthday with him. And, I agree with your assessment of him. One thing I remember about Disney youth culture. Often, it was done in a way where when kids reached their teens, they tended to turn away from the Disney culture. What that told me is Disney represented what I loved the most, a culture where kids could still remain innocence. Look at how Miley Cyrus and Brittany Spears and Lindsey Lohan all had to go overboard on the "slut" thing just to prove they were no longer little kids.

Don't get me wrong, I fully understand how this happens and why it has happened. But as a senior, I can't help but shed a symbolic and nostalgic tear for when times were a little simpler and less explicit, and kids had time to grow up.

Kit said...

"Walt Disney is a personal hero to me."

Same here. :-)

tryanmax said...

Kit, the picture on the wall looks to be a few very important years younger than the guy in the uniform. From a technical perspective, it's highly talented to be able show the passage of only a few years in a pair of portraits. But from an artistic perspective, it's amazing storytelling that conveys years in a single moment.

AndrewPrice said...

You know what I wonder about? With Hollywood making everything more bland to appeal to foreign audiences, I wonder if they will be sacrificing their ability to shape our culture? I wonder what will replace it? The net?

Kit said...

I don't know about that. It was drawn in 1943 but it may be depicting a future event (when the war finally ends).

Its amazing what different people see.

I like the looks on the faces of the people around him (and his). I can say, as someone who had a step-cousin serve in Iraq, when he was talking about being in Iraq, that painting nails it.
You can see on the faces of the men listening that each of them just wants to put a reassuring pat on the shoulder.

I also like his expression. Not proud but reluctant. You can tell by his face that this is not an easy thing to talk about.
This makes their expressions all the more touching.

And this painting is propaganda, make no mistake (not a bad thing*). But its a different kind. The subtle kind. Its so subtle that you don't realize it. Norman Rockwell was good at that. Most people would just splash red, white, and blue but Rockwell gives us a subtle and touching image. He doesn't deny the horrors of the war, he implies it's horrors on the young man's face, but he gives us an image that many Americans would soon be experiencing as their sons came home (the ones that came home alive) would return home and talk about what they saw over in places like Sicily, Normandy, Bastogne, Tarawa, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, and so on.

And some say "Rockwell isn't art".
Bullshit.

*I don't think propaganda is necessarily bad. In fact, here, I like it.

Kit said...

Here is the one that showed his first shift towards darker subjects. Context: At this time America was fighting in Italy and moving up the boot. The girl is an Italian girl.
LINK

tryanmax said...

I wonder if part of the reason why Rockwell is looked down upon is because he was prolific? Obviously, the man had a great imagination and a talent to match if he could imagine all these scenes and produce them on canvas. It sorta goes against the notion of a painstaking arteest slaving for years on his masterpiece. That, and in more recent years, singularly unabashed talent is disdained.

AndrewPrice said...

I think the reason Rockwell is looked down upon because:

1. His images are popular. Being like by the public means the critics must dismiss him to maintain their air of knowing more than the public.

2. His topics are pro-Americana and Americana was no longer popular with the elite at that point, who wanted to become Euro-socialism or even communist.

3. He was commercial... and that made the arteest community jealous.

Kit said...

Andrew, I agree.

Kit said...

Andrew,

Even when he criticized certain aspects of America (racism) he still maintained that love for America. He was

Also, my Mom said he captured children perfectly.

And they all tell stories.
"Breaking Home Ties"
Prom Dress
Russian Classroom


I love that first one. In that painting he tells a story of an old father's years of hard work just so his son could have a bright future.
In the second one you have a girl in dirty, working class clothes looking at her beautiful prom dress in the mirror. He loved people. He loved their struggles and their dreams and its so easy to see that in the first two paintings.
And in the third, you have a Russian Schoolroom full of obedient children - except for one, who is looking out the window...

Anonymous said...

"Walt Disney is a personal hero to me."

Jed, Kit, my thoughts exactly.

-Rustbelt

Individualist said...

Take a look at every article this guy has written Andrew I guarantee you that you will find at least one article lamenting that the rest of the world suffers because America exports their cheesy Hollywood John Wayne tough guy mythology and hwo bad that is for the rest of the world and how bad it makes us look to be stepping on their culture.

$5 bucks says I'm right and I don't even know this guys name that is how confident I am. Legal note to the world wide web I will only bet $5 once with one person and if you have to ask who that is then this is not you.

rlaWTX said...

Kit, thanks for those links to Rockwell's stuff. Those were very cool.

I had forgotten about the 50-60's "Disneyfication" of real people (Daniel Boone, etc). But when you mentioned it, even though I haven't seen most of those, I knew what you were talking about and recognized the "mythifying" of the characters... just interesting.

I also agree about superheros being part of American Mythology.

As a side note, the "rugged individualist" has become such a strong American myth that sociology - psychology accepts them as real, literal beliefs/actions of people in the past (Winning the West)as well as modern "hard-hearted" conservatives (in opposition to the praise for collectivism). When I tried to say that that was an ideal not a reality, I got told I was wrong. I tried explaining that the settlers of the West needed and used one another's support, I was ignored - because everyone "knows" better about those "individualists".

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, Could be. It could also be that this writer is just in love with whatever is popular in the last five minutes and has no ability to remember things that happened more than ten years ago.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I think it's interesting too. I haven't see all of those either and yet I know them. So it really has gotten into the culture.

I've run into the same issue with the "rugged individualist." I see this all the time where the truth is rather different than the myth, but people absolutely will not accept that. They know the myth, they love the myth, and they don't want to hear anything that contradicts in. In fact, they get offended when you try to tell them otherwise.

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