So, on the repeated¯and repeated, and repeated¯recommendation of literary friends whose judgment I usually trust, I’ve spent the past few weeks reading comic books. Or, rather, graphic novels , though, I confess, even after I finish them, they still seem to be just comic books: Alan Moore’s Watchmen , League of Extraordinary Gentlemen , and V for Vendetta , Frank Miller’s Batman and Daredevil , Neil Gaiman’s multivolume Sandman series, Art Spiegelman’s Maus , Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan , and on and on¯to say nothing of Michael Chabon’s beautiful novel of homage to the early generation of Marvel and DC comics creators, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay .

I still don’t quite get it. Without the pictures, the text is nearly unbearably pretentious, and without the text, the pictures are merely high-level magazine graphics. If it isn’t great art on either end, how will the combination make it so?

Still, the books got me thinking about heroes and what heroes are for¯which is, interestingly, the primary focus of most of these books. Heroes happen in history, of course, but does that make them historical? Merely the gaudiest creatures of an era, the loud epiphenomena of a moment?

I don’t know. About certain heroes, this slightly Hegelian view for history seems right: Napoleon, Cortez, Alexander, Caesar, Charles of Sweden. Grant and Lee, perhaps. Florence Nightingale and T.E. Lawrence, probably.

But about other heroes, this whole way of looking at heroism seems mistaken. How is St. George the Dragon-Slayer an incarnation of his era? Achilles, Odysseus, and Ajax? Horatius and Brutus? Roland and Jeanne d’Arc? Pan Michael and Thomas More? Bayard, sans peur et sans reproche ? Chinese Gordon and George Custer? Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maximilian Kolbe, for that matter?

One could easily construct a parallel list of villains. Good or bad, they seem more atemporal than temporal, manifestations in particular times of things that stand outside of time. Heroes¯in a certain classical conception¯are the exemplars of character and behavior, where the characteristics and behaviors thereby made manifest are conceived to be perpetual possibilities of human life.

Now, there are consequences to this ahistorical, essentialist view of heroism. Storybook heroes are, for instance, more typical of teleological systems of ethics than of deontological systems: The Aristotelian child gets to hear more stories than the boys and girls brought up by followers of Immanuel Kant. By the time we reach, say, G.E. Moore, the very idea of the heroic exists primarily as a model for un ethical behavior. Situations, not people, are the heroes of utilitarianism; utilitarians teach ethics to their children case-study by case-study.

Of course, that may not be a problem. For political theorists, the fundamental question about heroism has to be: How much does a culture actually need heroes for educating its children? for maintaining its identity? for establishing the moral canons to which political judgment can appeal? for providing shorthand metaphorical figures for national virtues that political rhetoric can use?

This seems of particular application to America, for we are a nation surprisingly poor in the heroic. Something there is in this country that doesn’t love a hero.

The easiest way to can catch the problem of the American Hero is by reading our stories. If we trace along each thread of American literature, we find certain common elements. For all that the gnostic line comprises a great deal of Americans’ social experience of the Divine, it remains in all its literary forms highly personal, anti-social, mystical, and amoral¯with almost nothing in it to suggest or maintain the heroic. Apart from dubious attempts to make a heroic manifesto out of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography , it’s hard to know quite what the hero of American pragmatism would look like. A pragmatical hero seems a contradiction in terms.

The puritanical line is initially more promising. The Puritans knew not only Pilgrim’s Progress but George Foxe’s Book of Martyrs , which is a set of highly formed exemplary tales. This line fades for some time, but you can trace its influence on, for instance, leftist thought through the 1960s. The Communists knew how to gin up the mechanisms of heroism, and most of their heroic stories take the classic shape of martyrdom: the Scottsboro Boys, the Rosenbergs, Sacco and Vanzetti.

Still, literary heroism in America is created primarily in the age of nation-defining, which means that the bulk appears from the Civil War to World War II, with most of it backward looking, plucking heroes primarily from two eras: the Founders’ generation and the Civil War.

There’s a certain arbitrariness in singling out this period. The reception of Lafayette upon his return to the United States shows that the apotheosis of the Founders was well formed long before the Civil War, and Parson Weem’s hagiographical Life of Washington dates from 1809. Nonetheless, something remarkable was happening in America in those inter-bellum years. There was a real hunger for exemplary characters to illustrate the national virtues, from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s "Ride of Paul Revere" to Edward Everett Hale’s "Man Without a Country" to Stephen Vincent Benet’s "John Brown’s Body" (all three written by members or heirs of New England’s post-Civil War abolitionist aristocracy, mocked by Henry James in the opening pages of The Bostonians ).

But, at the same time, another¯and contradictory¯impulse was building in American literature. In his well-known 1837 talk on "The American Scholar," Emerson complained that Americans have "listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe." For an example of Emerson’s influence, it’s worth contrasting Whitman’s two famous poems on Lincoln: "Captain, O My Captain" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d." The first is a heroizing treatment in recognizable English metrics, the second is much more typically Whitmanesque. It’s in wildly irregular feet, and¯most of all¯it is far more about Whitman than it is about Lincoln. For Whitman, learning Emerson’s lesson in poems like "Song of Myself," every American is a hero¯particularly Walt Whitman.

The poem begins as classic threnody:

       When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
      And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
      I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring . . . .

But this is the same poem that spreads Whitman like margarine across the nation:

       Lo, body and soul¯ this land,
      My own Manhattan with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying tides, and the ships,
      The varied and ample land, the South and the North in the light, Ohio’s shores and flashing Missouri,
      And ever the far-spreading prairies cover’d with grass and corn.

Now, if every American is a hero, then no American is a hero. And, indeed, when we reject "the courtly muses of Europe," one of the things we reject is the aristocracy of heroism¯the throne as the fount of honor and the hierarchy of peers whose esteem rewards the hero’s virtues.

But you can see both the Emersonian demand in Whitman and the beginning of its answer¯which is: the development of place, of locale, as the primary system of rhetorical figures for American character and behavior. From Mark Twain to Stephen Vincent Benet, from Bret Harte to the Greenwich Village Bohemians¯whether they were romantics or realists, they were all engaged in the same project: the substitution of geography for heroes in our moral vocabulary. We don’t have many heroic types in American literature. What we have instead is heroic geography. The Virginian, the Down Easterner, the Texas Ranger, the cowboy, the Hoosier, the hillbilly, the Okie. These are tropes that serve the moral function filled in other cultures and other literatures primarily by heroes.

The place to watch this happen is, of course, the Local Colorists, the literary school that dominated popular American fiction between Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Dean Howells. The Local Colorists have names like Sarah Orne Jewett, George Washington Cable, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Thomas Nelson Page, Joel Chandler Harris, James Lane Allen, Edward Eggleston, Hamlin Garland, and James Whitcomb Riley.

Innumerable critics have argued that this literature of local color served the counter-intuitive function of drawing the nation together after the Civil War by informing the whole country of its component parts. The argument is, I think, irrefutable¯and the best evidence is the fact that these geographical tropes survive well into our own era of indistinguishable shopping malls from Maine to California.

That makes comic-book heroes a problem, doesn’t it? For they always live in universalized places¯Metropolis, Gotham¯and local color is what must be surpressed in them. No wonder that all the modern comics, the graphic novels somehow recommended as literature these days, are primarily about the impossibility of classical heroes.


In addition to which :

The philosophical influence of Alasdair MacIntyre is almost beyond estimation. Now he surprises with a biography of Edith Stein, the Jewish philosopher-convert who became a Carmelite nun and perished in the Holocaust. Philosopher Thomas Hibbs says that MacIntyre’s new book may be his most important work, even more important than his much admired After Virtue . It’s all in the May issue of First Things . Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to First Things ?

Articles by Joseph Bottum

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