American Myth, American Reality (Magill's Literary Annual 1981)
James Oliver Robertson, a historian at the University of Connecticut, has set out to analyze and to debunk many of the common beliefs and assumptions about the American past. He takes in its entire scope, from the landing of Columbus to the recent past. Most Americans’ views of their history are shaped not by a factual, reasoned, logical understanding of what has happened and why, but by myths; that is their ideal or faith about the past. For Robertson, what is important is not whether these myths or assumptions have any basis in fact, but what their impact has been on Americans’ thoughts and actions over the years. Myths serve a useful purpose; they give people a sense of identity and security, and they also “pose the problems and underline the polarities in American society which generate tensions in individuals and give the society its energy.” They are both positive and negative. Essentially, they prevent a realistic appraisal of the society and how it operates.
Perhaps America’s most prized myth has centered on George Washington and his youthful rebellion in chopping down the cherry tree. The fact that this really did not happen is not important. Rather, the myth represents various aspects of the American character: its rebellious spirit, belief in technology and conquest of the environment, and inherent honesty. Robertson begins with the cherry tree tale because it typifies the importance of myths in reconciling possible contradictions in...
(The entire section is 1467 words.)
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