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 American society. The story of the First Thanksgiving fulfills the same purpose. It reinforces a belief in the virtues of Christianity and the early settlers’ ingenuity for survival. Thus, “the stories of the cherry tree and the First Thanksgiving, accompanied by their repeated ritual celebrations (and in these cases, ritual foods), are among the myths Americans use to maintain common ideals, common images and referents, common behaviors.” In fact, all American myths serve the same purpose, although not always as blatantly.
Americans’ belief in their nation’s unique mission to spread liberty and equality is also based on a mythical understanding of the past. Starting with Columbus, who seemingly “discovered” an “empty” continent, subsequent waves of Christian explorers and colonists created a new, pure society. This was partially accomplished through conquering the natives and the wilderness, and partially through staging a successful Revolution. From the latter emerged a pantheon of American heroes, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, and others, who came to symbolize various American virtues and ideals. The same is true for those sacred texts produced at the time, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The Revolutionary Era has been presented as a morality play, good versus evil. Subsequent events reinforced this belief. Westward expansion, led by the Daniel Boones and Ethan Allens, combined with a belief in isolationism to forge a national identity, despite feelings that the South under slavery was different. The Civil War, however, solved this problem, and from it emerged a unified nation ready to spread democracy elsewhere.
The country might be united by geography and nationalism, but it was still split by ethnic and racial distinctions. To explain and understand continuing racism and segregation, theoretical violations of a national commitment to democracy and equality, whites have had to depict blacks “as people beyond the frontier (and thus savage, uncivilized natives).” Meanwhile, blacks...
(The entire section is 1467 words.)
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