THE TWO GREAT AMERICAN MYTHOLOGIES

pi_pk1sm Every myth has its own scope or scale. Myths of the smallest scale deal with very specific people, places, and events; for example, the Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock, or Rosa Parks refusing the bus driver’s command to vacate her seat. But every such small-scale myth is part of one or (more often) several larger-scale myths, which are in turn parts of ever larger myths, creating an interlocking web of hierarchies. For example, the Mayflower’s landing (and the Rock itself) are part of the Pilgrim myth, which is in turn part of the Puritan myth, which becomes part of a series of larger-scale myths: religious freedom, New England, the self-sufficient farmer, group heroism, conflict with the native peoples, democracy, the frontier, the Kingdom of God on earth, etc. Rosa Parks’ refusal is part of the Montgomery bus boycott myth, which is in turn part of the civil rights myth, which becomes part of another series of larger-scale myths: Martin Luther King, Jr., racism and resistance to it, nonviolent resistance, the South, individual and group heroism, democracy, human rights, etc.

Myths at the highest level — those that are broadest and most all-encompassing — are actually complex structures combining many elements of many myths. These can conveniently be called mythologies. The most all-encompassing mythology of American culture, past and present, is probably the mythology of freedom: America as the land of the free, the sweet land of liberty, where from every mountainside freedom rings.

Precisely because this mythology embraces virtually all others, it cannot be understood except by studying its component parts. But it contains so many small, medium, and large-scale myths, overlapping and interacting in so many ways, that — like an ecosystem — it would be impossible ever to trace, chart, and analyze them all. In studying them, we pick and choose among them the ones that are most important to us; each of us will have our own criteria.

In my own study I have focused on two mythologies that seem to have the most potent effect in shaping American public life, especially political life, in the present. To emphasize their contemporary relevance, I call them the mythology of “hope and change” and the mythology of “homeland insecurity.”  I call them “great” not to praise them — in fact, there is plenty of reason to criticize them — but to mark the immensity of their presence and influence on the cultural landscape.  They offer two fundamental ways of interpreting the meaning of freedom; they may be ranked just below the mythology of freedom itself in the hierarchy of American mythologies.

In the following essays I describe the most elementary features and skeletal structures of each of these two mythologies, and then sketch out some of their basic interactions in historical perspective. To fill in all the details would take a scholarly lifetime. (Graduate students, are you listening?).

THE MYTHOLOGY OF HOPE AND CHANGE

THE MYTHOLOGY OF HOMELAND INSECURITY

THE TWO MYTHOLOGIES INTERACTING

4 comments

  1. Professor Chernus,

    Yes, I am a graduate student and I’m definitely listening. Information from your site will be included in an essay about the American political consciousness. My ultimate project is to use Jungian psychology in a way that raises personal self-awareness and progressive political consciousness. I’d love your feedback.

  2. I am familiar with Jungian theory. I’ve chosen not to use it, or any psychological theory, in my work because I do not know the theories well enough. However I certainly encourage people who do know Jungian theory well to apply it to the kinds of things I write about here. It’s great to have people studying the myths underlying American political-cultural life from as many different perspectives as possible. The popularity of Joseph Campbell’s work shows that there are lots of Americans eager for that kind of interpretation. I don’t mean that one should stick strictly to Campbell’s approach. But his success shows that there would be an audience for a variety of interpretations based in Jungian theory. The more people get thinking about American mythology, from whatever perspective, the better!

  3. Professor Chernus,
    Thank you for making your ideas about modern mythology open for discussion. First, however, I wish that you would give us your complete definition of mythology, myth, mythos, mythic and the other related forms of the concept and/or genre of literature. If fact, I will read more of your blog only when I have an assurance about how you define myth in your contexts of Rosa Parks, Reverend King and the civil rights movement. Please give us some of the point you want to make–your actual thesis–rather than mere provocations about people and matters of great importance. On the face of your remarks, I find them offensive–in the Glen Beck vein of shock revisionism. I do, however, concede to your doubts about the European pilgrims, puritans and colonialists in general into the western hemisphere. But, there again, your lack of concise introductory thesis has me guessing.–David Faubion

    1. My definition of myth and related terms is set forth in the essay “The Meaning of ‘Myth’ in the American Context.” There I make it clear that I am not using the word myth in the colloquial sense of a lie or a deception. I’m using it in the way that scholars of religion use it, taking myth seriously as a way that people communicate their deepest sense of what is true and meaningful to them. As my essay on Dr. King shows, when I call him a great myth-maker I mean it as a mark of great respect for his abilities and his influence.
      The overall thesis — or perhaps I should say, more accurately, the motivation — of these essays is that we should pay a lot more attention to the power of myth and mythmaking in the American public arena, especially the political arena, because that will give us a lot more freedom to make informed choice about the direction that we follow together, as Americans, into the future. Beyond that, each essay stands alone and has its own particular thesis.

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