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. Words like progress, exceptionalism, abundance, and millennialism, for example, each conjure up an entire complex mythology.
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?).