Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Great American Myth? Part 1

Most major nations or people groups have a core myth, fairy story or epic narrative that defines who they are as a people, or at least contributes significantly to that identity. The English have the Arthurian legend, Beowulf, and in more recent years, the works of Tolkien. The Jews have the Old Testament and an assortment of folk tales derived from these characters and events. The Norse have the Edda, the Finns have the Kelavala. The Babylonians had Utnapishtim. The Tlingits have the Raven stories. Yet, in pondering these facts I've been inclined to wonder if America has such a narrative, and if so what is it?

America is a modern culture; a pastiche of other cultures melded into something different. We don't have stories that go back millennia; we don't even span five centuries. And yet it cannot be denied that there is a distinct American identity. Americans have contributed quite a volume of written, aural and filmed work that may not all pass into the halls of greatness but surely contains something uniquely "American". One of the old jokes in this country is that of the man setting out to write "the great American novel"; Phillip Roth even went so far as to use the phrase as the title of one of his books. The notion is that there is something there that expresses what it means to be American, yet maybe it exists only in the ether.

Well, I would argue that there is in fact SOME pop cultural work that we all are familiar with that represents America in the same way that The Iliad becomes synonymous with Greece. But what exactly is this one American work? I've thought about it for some time, and come up with a number of different candidates. Over the course of several future essays I endeavor to explore each; the merits and pitfalls of looking at this book or film or story through such a lens, and what each says about this people and our ideals.

to be continued in "The Great American Myth?" part 2: Superman

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