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New American Heroes

ISSUE:  Autumn 1937

In the early days of the depression, before anyone suspected how it would alter American mores, the writer contributed to this magazine an essay which commented on the national character by attempting to evaluate the kind of hero it created. If, so the argument ran, we were really a people devoted merely to business and the making of money, we ought to have a mythology that would make a hero out of John D. Rockefeller, whose Napoleonic strategy in building Standard Oil and his own fortune, and whose magnificent patronage in the use of his riches, would be fit material for a saga. But Mr. Rockefeller was at best a subject of amused toleration. Our imaginations responded more readily to the career of Henry Ford, who in spite of his enormous wealth did not seem to be concerned about money, but single-mindedly devoted himself to engineering skill, mechanical ingenuity, and the production of material abundance for the masses. Signs of disintegration were seen even in the Ford myth, because of growing doubts that such a purely material and individualistic contribution was really adding much to the fullness of life either of his customers or of his workers.

The crisis through which we have passed since then has done much more than upset balance sheets and start gyrations in economic statistics. It has also caused emotional and social turmoil. So many institutions which seemed part of the unquestioned substructure of confidence fell into ruins that a long series of revaluations has taken place. Old popular myths and heroes were discarded, a variety of new ones sprang into prominence overnight, competing for the confused allegiance of the public. What can we learn about ourselves from this shuffling of leaders and followers?

Before the new gods could come, the old ones had to go, And it is clearer now than it was in 1930 what sort of thing our mythology really had been. In spite of the contrast between Rockefeller and Ford, and in spite of the suspicion that underlay the attitude toward Wall Street and great private wealth, the prevailing belief was that reality lay in the realm of those who managed “practical” affairs through their private and individual endeavors. This realm included not only the engineers, but also the great corporations, the bankers, the lawyers, the business men and traders both large and small. It excluded the politicians, the philosophers, the clergy, the artists and poets, the labor leaders, the followers of academic disciplines, the “theorists” of all kinds—except the theorists about tangible objects, like physicists and chemists. These outsiders were, at the worst —as in the case of the politicians and labor leaders—contemptible interlopers who did nothing but harm, and at the best, as in the case of the artists and thinkers, ridiculous parasites without any useful function, who either starved or lived off the bounty of sentimental ladies with nothing better to do than throw away their money.

In the early discussions of the depression, the dominant valuation of this point of view was revealed by the belief that whatever business men did was a part of nature and hence inevitably salutary, but what politicians or theorists did or proposed was “artificial.” The mood had been expressed earlier by the wide acceptance of Coolidge as President, because as a politician his role was to keep the politician as inactive as possible so that practical men could have scope. His very inhibitions constituted his virtue, as did also his supposedly shrewd Yankee common sense which would have no traffic with the imagination. Hoover inherited much of this approval. In so far as he did arouse expectations of governmental action, he was endorsed because he was supposed to be not a politician at all but rather an engineer.

Between 1929 and 1932 this world of reality was proved by events to be unreal indeed. It deprived the majority of persons of the very tangible things with which it was supposed to be particularly concerned. And it deprived them of still more highly valued intangibles like the chance to get rich, to acquire prestige, to work, to keep the respect of one’s family and associates, to educate children. Speculative gains shrank first, taking investments with them, then incomes, then employment, then small savings, and finally money itself. The myth did not work: it was dramatically unsuccessful in the terms of its own values. The heroes of the myth, whether personally guilty or innocent, were blamed for its failure. The revulsion of feeling swept against corporation directors and managers, Wall Street operators, and especially against those who typified the collapse most intimately—the bankers and Mr. Hoover.

In vain it was explained that these gentlemen were in most cases not personally responsible for what had happened, that they had been acting in good faith to live up to the commonly accepted standards, and were caught in a net of circumstance that nobody fully understood. The myth was discredited, and its gods and heroes had to go with it. Of course it was irrational to blame them as individuals, but how could rational response be expected from those whose acceptance of the myth had been irrational in the first place? The more hero-worship we indulge in, and the more we accept as a faith a body of doctrine requiring emotional allegiance, the more unreasonable will be the revolt against hero and myth if they fail.

Modern psychology gives us a clue which helps understanding of what followed and why. The hero takes the place in the mind which, as children, we filled with the father. Children not only love their fathers, but also at the same time fear and hate them. But they do not like to admit the hate, and so the antagonism becomes displaced and attaches itself to some villain or criminal. The same psychological process, working in religion, makes the protective god a father and creates devils or evil deities as objects of fear. And in contemporary mythology it not only leads us to accept the popular hero whom we credit for our good fortune, but also his alter ego whom we blame for our bad. If the father, the god, or the hero becomes dethroned, however, the hate returns toward him and the villain or the devil is likely to take his place. We look for a new protector who is as far from the old as possible, and what could be farther than his opposite? At least so it seems, though the demon is really only the reverse side of the father image. The coin, flipped in the air, comes down tails.

So it was that when people were betrayed by the practical men they sought comfort in the impractical. Who would have supposed, in the decade ending in 1929, that an oratorical Catholic priest, merely by denouncing the money power over the radio, would amass wealth enough to build a great church, and would become a political figure, or that his advice about economics and monetary standards would be placed above that of the bankers? Father Coughlin, in the New Era of Coolidge, belonged to the realm of the ridiculed and the outcasts, as far as the American myth was concerned. Let nobody suppose that his power was merely a reflection of the prestige of the priest over his flock, which had been latent all the time and now merely needed to be extended to affairs of state. During his heyday, he probably had more influence over Protestants than he did over Catholics. Nor was his influence due to any logical merit in his program. That varied from week to week, almost from day to day. It was impossible for a serious student of the subjects with which he dealt to understand what he really advocated. The attachment to him was personal; he was a new Savior; his sole virtue as such was, in addition to his authoritative delivery, that it was difficult to imagine anyone more different from Mr. Hoover.

Likewise the late Huey Long, who was not only a politician but combined all the worst traits of what had been understood to be politician-like, built up an immense following merely by expressing himself as blatantly as possible. Instead of being dignified and dull, he was a clown and sought publicity for his clownishness. He was flagrantly corrupt, and never bothered to try to disprove the allegations against him. What did it matter that as a political boss he practiced all those dictations and chicaneries that offended sensitive consciences? He promised to make every man a king, and, instead of two chickens in every pot, every family was to have a Ford and a house. “Distribute the wealth” was his slogan; it was significant that he had nothing to say about producing it. Millions reposed their confidence in him, because here was someone who not only took their part but seemed as different as possible from the old crowd that had betrayed them. The more ruthless the power he exercised, the better they liked it, because his enemies were theirs. Like Father Coughlin, Huey Long could never offer a coherent explanation of how he was to achieve his economic miracles. That would have been beside the point. People knew there was something radically wrong; here was someone who had the courage to proclaim that he could set it right, and since he was the opposite number to industrialists, bankers, engineers, and frock-coated worthies, they believed in him. Salvation by heroes demands an act of faith, not rational understanding.

“End Poverty in California” is a worthy mandate, but if before 1930 it had been uttered by a novelist, who had all his life been a Socialist to boot, it would scarcely have attracted a street-corner crowd. There was less poverty then, to be sure, and most people were not worrying about it. If they had done so, however, they would have listened to the advice of somebody who could sell real estate or at the very least be Secretary of a Chamber of Commerce. To say that Upton Sinclair achieved his political prominence because he was a literary man and did not belong to the “practical” world, rather than because of the intrinsic merit of his program, is no reflection upon his economic intelligence, which is of course far above that of Father Coughlin or Huey Long. A well-considered platform is not an insuperable handicap, and Epic had one which, if it would not have ended poverty in California, certainly was definite enough to be comprehensible as a whole. But Mr. Sinclair deceives himself if he believes that rational understanding of its principles was what built Epic into such a strong movement. Another and less coherent set would have done as well, as long as its proponent was vigorous enough to attract attention and did not bear the stamp of the discarded father-image and the discredited myth.

The good Dr. Townsend’s appeal was more simple and direct; the promise he made of security in old age was something that rational persons could be expected to understand and approve, regardless of the personality of the promiser. Nevertheless the propaganda which supported it was stoutly irrational; it resisted all erosion from logical analysis. The money was to come from turnover taxes; the payment of these taxes, which would have impoverished non-recipients of the pension, was supposed to enrich the nation as it was spent by the recipients. When asked how taking money from everybody who bought necessities and giving it to the aged would increase net production and employment, the Townsendites flew into a rage. Their noble leader was being persecuted by impious doubters. The fact that he was a medical man (and not too high in his profession) seemed to increase the validity of his economic analysis. The mystery of his theories could not be explained if one dug below their specious surface; it had to be taken, and was taken, on faith. Here was another Savior sprung from the shadows of the obscure and hitherto rejected.

The priest, the politician, the radical novelist, the medico —these were the most prominent samples of the many leaders who rose from the popular ferment of hopes, loyalties, and doctrines stirred up by the depression. None of them gained enough followers to be given a chance to try his formula; all were but briefly in the ascendant. It is clear that they appealed most powerfully to the more neurotic fringes of the people; the majority which did not follow them was disillusioned indeed with its old myths and leaders, but still not tied so closely to any father-image that it had to react quite so far in the opposite direction. It was capable of a little more objective skepticism and rationality. The people wanted something new; dire necessity brought them to insist upon it. They needed courageous action which was not inhibited by old taboos. They were in a mood of which the panacea-providers were extreme symptoms. But they were not ready to accept on faith any leader or any doctrine, simply because it was different enough from the old. It was this mood which elected Mr. Roosevelt in 1932. He was not at the time exactly a popular hero. He did not have a set of emotional slogans. He had made mutually conflicting promises. Few even thought they understood what he was going to do, or what its concrete advantage to them would be. There was no body of zealots behind him. But there emanated from him an air of confidence, freshness, and courage, a wholesome disregard for the old ways of thinking. Pre-eminent in the impression he created was a belief that government could and should rescue the nation from the mess in which money-making business and banking had left it. At the same time he was enough a practical man to have been governor of the most populous state, to be Presidential nominee of one of the great parties, and to have a chance of being elected. Voting in the New Deal, the citizens enthusiastically rejected Mr. Hoover, the bankers, and the myth that private enterprise is all-sufficient. With something short of enthusiasm they accepted the only immediately practical alternative.

The President’s great popularity came after he had assumed office, and it was the product of works as much as of faith. It seemed like a miracle when somebody actually did something. What a relief it was when all the banks were finally closed by order of the government! We felt much better when we could not get any money out of them than when we feared we could not get what we were entitled to receive. After that, the personal assurance of the President that no banks which could not remain open would be allowed to do business was enough to restore confidence in the whole banking system. He did what no J. P. Morgan was any longer capable of doing; he did it because people now believed in the validity and authority of the State as they no longer believed in private enterprise.

His power thereafter was augumented by the scope he allowed for new social forces and new sources of ideas. Washington was thronged with college professors, farm leaders, labor leaders, industrialists looking for and willing to accept governmental assistance. The most diverse interests, advocates of the most mutually incompatible programs, fell into the ranks of the army just because it was on the march, and accepted the authority of the President just because he had evinced a capacity to do something. Long treatises have been written in the attempt to explain and evaluate what he did. In spite of all the confusion, there came out of the activity tangible benefits to millions of people. Farmers and unemployed workers received cash from Washington. Crop prices rose. Wages were raised, hours were shortened. Employment slowly increased. Profits were restored, and then rapidly grew.

The Republican party, in alliance with conservative Democrats, attempted to destroy popular confidence in Mr. Roosevelt by arguing that he was the enemy of the old American myth, that he was depriving business of its freedom and power; that he was, in fact, a dangerous Red. Thus they helped to re-elect him by an overwhelming popular majority. For the time being, at any rate, there was a crystallization of confidence in a type of belief and a sort of leader that this country had not taken seriously for many years. People could use government collectively for their advantage, and intended to do so. They were no longer willing to leave everything in the hands of those who had happened to be individually successful in the economic struggle. Beside this major phenomenon, the minor squabbles, the decline of individual brain-trusters, the complaints and disappointments, were insignificant.

All the time, however, a split was developing beneath the surface. The business community and its camp-followers, having recovered a degree of economic security, reacted violently against what Mr. Roosevelt had stood for and vehemently reaffirmed its ancient creeds. The size of the electoral majority in his favor was matched by the emotional fury of the minority who opposed him. On the other hand, industrial workers were not satisfied merely to leave their welfare in Mr. Roosevelt’s own hands. They wanted protection nearer to their jobs, and flocked into their own organizations, under their own leaders, as soon as the way was opened by the vigor of John L. Lewis and his associates in the C. I. O. It is still an open question whether we shall not henceforth have two vigorous, embittered, and antagonistic American myths rather than, as for long before, a single dominant one.

That the reaction is not without powerful emotional resources is shown by the Supreme Court struggle. Many who had withdrawn their trust from practical business men were induced to return to the faith of their childhood by the symbols of the Constitution and the Court. The learned justices, regardless of their concrete performances and personalities, were proved to be a potent father-image. To many who had recovered from their fright and revulsion they collectively represented an ancient security.

In the labor movement, too, there is a lunatic fringe. A minority elevates leaders and follows them, not because they can promise an increase of self-reliance and the achievement of tangible ends, but merely because the fight against employers satisfies an emotional need for rebellion, a violent rejection of old authority. This temper is a danger to the movement, and is recognized as such by its more levelheaded and efficient leaders. Unless the unions are disciplined and democratic, as well as aggressive and shrewd in seeking their interests, they cannot survive as functioning institutions in a complex society. Fortunately, these facts are understood by those in positions of responsibility.

On the whole, a new note of maturity has seemed to enter the American personality. Perhaps it is over-optimistic to believe it, but at least there is ground for hope that we are entering a period of more critical appraisal of reality, of less trust in being taken care of by traditions and Saviors, whether from the Left or from the Right. Little by little more people are being awakened to the necessity of rational reconstruction of the common life. The Supreme Court itself is becoming reasonable. Large numbers of employers have decided to work with the unions. There are more people in places of political power than there have been for many years who are convinced that America is not being carried along by an automatic destiny, but must, if she is to be healthy, take care of her land, her resources, her people, her problems. We shall have more conflicts, plenty of them and bitter ones. Nevertheless, the idea that intelligent control of events has a place in moulding our destiny has bitten into the national consciousness. Out of the destruction of the old authority and the competition among new ones we have begun to grow up.


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