09 November 2015

American History as a Hero's Journey

As I've worked on my book about the US territories (still in progress, thanks for asking), I've been thinking about the role of the territories in two separate versions of American history: the collective-memory mythology and the actual, factual master narrative.

In the process, I've also been pondering what, exactly, the mythology version looks like. Here's where my mind is right now: I think that the USA largely sees itself as living out its own rags-to-riches tale. Or, to put it another way, a Hero's Journey, in Joseph Campbell's classic formulation:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
The key detail for the American Hero's Journey is that in the popular imagination, it's now effectively complete, aside from a bit of ongoing housekeeping.*

Basically, it's like this:

Click for larger image
All jokes aside, I think this accurately shows the general contours of how Americans, collectively, see history. I'm very curious to hear if anyone has any alternate takes, so please add your two cents in the comments. 

(And so we're clear: Yes, I know that even the slightest bit of scrutiny and understanding of Actual History reveals this mythology to be mostly false. That's a recurring theme in my book. But for now, I'm just interested in identifying what those Hero's Journey beats are, how the mythology is constructed.)


  1. How does the election of Barack Obama change this? Probably depends on your political stripes...

    1. Good question. Yeah, I think you're right that it depends on your politics.

      Most liberals (like me) would reject much of this Hero's Journey mythology outright, given (a) the systemic and not-very-heroic racism/sexism/inequality/etc built into every historic moment in the nation's history, and (b) the fact that, despite the significant progress, there are still many ongoing problems that show no sign of abating. That is: the journey hasn't been all that heroic, and it sure as hell isn't complete (and it's sorta pompous to think any given nation is on some sort of divinely-scripted journey at all). But Obama's a step in the right direction, particularly after GWB.

      On the other hand, the GOP and anyone who accepts this mythology would probably view Obama as a villain/monster threatening the Hero. See: "Make America Great Again."

  2. I think this is right on, and that there's perfect evidence in the lack of inspiring visions of where we're going. There's a lot of "let's go back to when we were great" talk, but otherwise not much of a consensus on where we should go (as a country). And I think this is because we reached the end of our selected narrative. What happens to the hero after the hero's journey?

    Stories are important heuristic tools for understanding complex things. While I agree with Doug we may not all consciously subscribe to this one, I think many of us unconsciously do. So now that we wrote ourselves to the end of our quick and dirty understanding of ourselves, we don't know where to go.


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