УДК 130.2

Дата публикации 31.10.2020

Американское мифотворчество: предания, мифы и легенды

Петрухина Майя Андреевна
канд.филол.наук, профессор, профессор кафедры английского языка факультета международных отношений и международного права, Дипломатическая академия МИД РФ, РФ, г.Москва, DAConfa@mail.ru

Аннотация: Мифотворчество характерно для каждого народа, поскольку мифы помогают, пусть иногда иррационально, объяснять мир и преодолевать экзистенциальные синдромы. Целеполагающие мифы определяют тенденции развития того или иного народа на многие и многие годы. У американцев сформировалось несколько таких мифов, о которых и идет речь в настоящей статье. В ней анализируются их истоки, пути развития и состояние этих мифов в настоящий момент.
Ключевые слова: мифотворчество; Град на Холме; миф о границе; Американская мечта; миф о равных возможностях

American Mythmaking: Tales, Myths and Legends

Petrukhina Maya Andreevna
Cand.Sci. (Philology), professor Professor of the English chair Department of International Relations and International Law Diplomatic Academy of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Russia, Moscow

Abstract: Every nation has its own myths as myths help, even though if sometimes in an irrational manner, to explain the world and overcome existential syndromes. Goal-myths set development trends of a nation for many years to come. The article dwells on several of such myths that Americans have. It analyses their origin, trajectory and the state of such myths at present.
Keywords: mythmaking; City on the Hill; frontier myth; American Dream myth; myth of equal opportunities

Every society as it develops produces a series of images and narratives that in some sense become the common property of its members. These myths and legends serve a variety of functions in the society: they can offer an explanation of its physical and cultural origins; justify its hierarchies and other public arrangements; explain its beliefs, its rituals, its standards of morality and value; express its hopes as well as its fears.

The origins of early tales, legends and images are a matter of considerable speculation, but they probably emerge from an interaction of historical events, individual creations and a certain set of values admitted in the society [2]. No wonder, the initial form of a story, being told and retold, can be gradually developed, embellished, altered over time and assume the qualities of a legend, before it gets some definitive shape. Divergent, even conflicting myths can coexist within a culture, at least for a while. Different groups within a society construct and pass on stories they prefer.

Ultimately the stories of the dominant group in a society themselves may come to dominate, though alternate myths often continue to live a kind of “underground” existence offering a form of resistance to culture majority groups.

The creation of myths is not a phenomenon of the past [1, p. 62-63]. They continue to be produced by accident and by design in any living society (“Rambo” is a contemporary example of a consciously created legendary character designed to express the unfulfilled desires of some American male stuff. The strong silent cowboy was a similar invention of the late 19th century writers). Myths, tales and legends are not expected to be “realistic”, to be true to life in any literal way. The legendary exploits of the lone cowboy betrayed the harsh, boring conditions of his actual existence. Certain experiences rooted in historic figures like David Crockett and Daniel Boone (“frontier” heroes of the West and Mexico war participants) take on a life of their own distant from whatever historic roots they had. The appeal of such tales is not what they did or could happen but that they express desires or values or fears of some number of people in a culture.

It’s important to remember that the variety of myths and tales were gathered in the early 19th century and enjoyed a great popularity with many colonists.


1. Popular Colonial Tales

Myths of American settlers reflected their collective judgements and collective fantasy (Indian mythology which existed was dismissed at the time). American colonists’ myths possessed and still possess a great deal of sustainability and tenacity and spread among the public at large. What gives them force is their capacity to make sense of common and shared experience. The tools of public myths include the bios of famous citizens and celebrities, pop fiction and music, movies, feature stories on the evening air and gossip columns. Mythology also makes itself seen in political speeches, presidential addresses and sermons. This is how collective judgements are shaped.

The role and meaning of myths is felt both in American character and image making as well as in political and social traditions. A well known American scholar and researcher Robert Reich in his book Tales of a New America(1987) collected a number of mythology tales, each having a meaningful name and titled “Four Moral Tales”. They look like parables, short, simple stories rendering some ideas of moral and religious character [3]. Each tale renders the dream of the first colonists about a fair and secure home life arrangement in the country since its inception.

The first mythic story “The Mob at the Gates” is about “tyranny and barbarism in a world of darkness with America remaining the only beacon of light as an island of freedom and democracy in a perilous sea” [11]. In other words, Americans are uniquely blessed in history and remain a model for other countries to follow and the hope for the poor and the oppressed. Hence American endless efforts to isolate themselves from the rest of the globe, contain evil forces from the outside and promote missionary zeal to ignorant outsiders.

The second tale “The Triumphant Individual” renders the story of a little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself and eventually earns wealth, fame and honor. Its message: you need to have enough drive and guts. The character is like a hero “the ragged Dick” from popular stories by an American writer Alger Horatio (1834-1899) about a man who rises “from rags to riches” through pluck and luck. The moral: anyone could do it in America.

The third tale “The Benevolent Community” is a story of neighbors and friends who can manage through self-sacrifice, community help, pride and patriotism to gain life success. This story is deeply rooted in America’s religious traditions most vividly felt in John Winthrop’s Puritan sermons delivered on board a ship in 1630 in Salem Harbor where Puritans landed. Their cherished idea of “building a city on the hill” was a parallel with Matthews biblical version of the Sermon on the Mount. Lots of biblical allusions permeate speeches of American Presidents, their political followers and opponents.

The last tale “Rot at the Top” is about abuses of powerful elites-past and present. It’s a story of greed, irresponsibility and corruption among business leaders, shameless rich aristocrats and corrupted civil servants. American Founding Fathers at the time of accepting the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution (1776-1777) voiced their concern about the possibilities of power abuse in the country and spoke in favor of power constraints through checks and balances, electoral reforms, politicians’ accountability to the public. These four parables have endured through American history in each period combining and conveying a distinct message. Over the time they have grown into mythology narratives sustaining the nation’s desire to be true to their old beliefs and perceptions.

On the heels of it there appeared the notion of American national creed or credo – the Great American Dream - which reflected basic ideas and conceptions of the American population concerning its value orientations and principles of life. The name was launched by a historian James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America” (1931). It was coined during the period of the Great Depression in America from its public use as a basic concept of intellectual and cultural life of the nation some time before.

2. Origin, Basics and Evolution of the American Dream

The concept of the Great American Dream is constantly involved in political, social and cultural spheres. The Dream remains part of the American character and spirit, social consciousness and psychology. It was massively shared and deeply cherished. It used to demonstrate popular loyalty to American society and was rooted in trust and faith. (Puritan principles were reflected there: the pursuit of happiness, faith and dignity). The Dream stems from specific favorable conditions of American history: the immense size of the country with varied climate zones, relative isolation from the rest of the world, natural abundance: cultivable soil, water, diverse minerals and raw resources. The unique “economic abundance” of America has also affected its social and political conditions and contributed in diverse ways to the shaping of its traditions and values reflected in the Dream. It can be also defined as a great human faith, a social phenomenon, a product of social consciousness which at the time of its inception reflected a great massive drive towards social betterment. It was the dream of the people living in happiness and plenty which was traced in the Declaration of Independence [4].

Any dream is a myth, at least in part. The American dream comprised a number of myths. Most known of them are the following: myth of equal opportunity, of open frontiers, of the freedom of choice.

Myth of Equal Opportunity. From the very inception it was identified with the idea of equal starts and equal returns. It was true in the beginning since the givens of people didn’t differ much then. But later on with the tendency of capital acquisition and social polarization, moving head on, there appeared discrepancies in terms of the amount of money earned. Moreover in terms of Protestantism since the 17th century private property, private accumulation was god-approved thing. God’s will manifested itself in wealth accumulation as the basis for the good and working hard for all because only hard work can secure wealth. By working hard (“each should humbly do his part”) you can contribute to the common good. Thus people with money were God’s chosen people and that’s why they had money. And this idea had credit with the people and was morally accepted.

Through the Calvinist doctrine the concept of the American nation’s exclusiveness, its messianic role in the world (on the national scale) entailed the idea of the elect (on the personal scale): some people eventually succeeded more than others. And if you fail you have only yourself to blame and nobody else. Moreover, for Americans the idea of personal success has always meant the idea of material success only. The idea that all men are created equal and have the same fundamental rights to be considered as ends in themselves and not as means has never occurred to most Americans.

Myth of Open Frontiers. This myth is a manifold idea covering territorial, economic, social and human areas. Historically, it was only territorial stemming from the Enlightenment spirit of frontier men-former European immigrants, “second chancers”, who were moving westward as free farmers. Their frontier spirit was based on democratic beliefs that every man was entitled to dignity, faith, individual freedom and pursuit of happiness. Later on exploration of other frontier fields – economic and social- followed for some time.

But today these fields are mostly closed. Their closure started since the 60s 20th century with the economic crisis on. Socially and humanly speaking such highly positive values and ideals of the Enlightenment as the role of knowledge and progress, individual worth of man desiring to unfold and enhance his powers have been cheated on by the Establishment. It has been often registered among those people who are quite well off but feel frustrated and unhappy. For example, Robert Slocum, the hero in Joseph Heller’s celebrated novel “Something Happened” (1974), feels restless and unhappy in spite of his material prosperity. He sees everywhere meaningless existence, emptiness and distress. His drama is that of an individualist whose life is devoid of any spiritual sense and value orientation.

The fate of Gatsby, the hero in Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel “The Great Gatsby” (1925), demonstrated that getting more money in the hero’s single-minded pursuit of material success did not make him feel any happier. The question naturally arises: does money bring happiness? In human terms, the value of money as a basic means to one’s happiness appears no longer relevant or valid. No money can buy truth, humanity and happiness.

Myth of the Freedom of Choice. This myth was also historically conditioned. For Americans the idea of freedom has always been identified with the idea of freedom of individual choice and free enterprise. The field of free enterprise is still open but at the same time the USA remains mostly a state of corporate capitalism with a mixed welfare system. Over time the freedom of choice was turned into a license to be individualistically oriented. People are forced by the Establishment to choose “having” orientation. But living by “having” and not by “being” one fails to develop its own potential and “live a lie” and “not a life”. This attests to the fact of so much conformism, moral adjustment and accommodation in the US. James Adams’ idea was that dream and profit can’t be totally competitive: ”By devoting all their energies to the elaboration and piling up of things, to the making of possession of things the necessity of their lives, a symbol of success, Americans have brought about a situation in which the obtaining of money has become the preoccupation of their minds.” [4] The national creed remains attractive for American immigrants who continue to believe that if you “try hard and persevere happiness is round the corner”.

The need to sustain the Dream’s relevance is constantly seen in political argumentation and public addresses. One can hardly find an ex-president who did not appeal to the Dream in his inaugural address.

George Bush (Snr) in his inaugural address, said: “My friends, we are not the sum of our possessions. They are not the measure of our lives… America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral purpose”. [7]

George Bush (Jr) followed him up: “The grandest of these ideals is an unfolding American promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance”. [8]

Bill Clinton in his address turned to the legacy of American Founders: “We, the American people, we are the solution. Our founders understood that well, and gave us the democracy strong enough to endure for centuries, flexible enough to face our common challenges and advance our common dreams.” [9]

Barack Obama joined up: “At stake now is whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on the map, but the light to the world….We believe that we share common hopes and a common creed.” [10]

Donald Trump, notwithstanding his incremental attempts to curb “dreamers” immigration to the US, in one of his public addresses remarked: “We must also recognize that we are a nation of opportunity because we a nation of laws” [12].

Be that as it may, in an era of stagnating wages, family breakdown and social dislocation a feeling of “dispossession” appears: a sense of promises broken, a feeling that what you were supposed to have has been denied to you. One of the leading American anthropologists David Brooks, the author of a recently published book “The Second Mountain” (2019), asserts that these days “things are not in good shape,.. our problems are societal. The whole country is going through some sort of spiritual and emotional crisis…We’ve created a culture based on lies.” [5] He lists several lies the Establishment foists on the young related to self-sufficiency, career success and classless society. Issues of race and prejudice and privilege continue to roil America today.

Thomas L.Friedman, an op. columnist with the New York Times, refers to some challenges facing the fulfillment of the American Dream in the millennium years: “Only we can ensure that the American Dream – the core promise we’ve made to ourselves that each generation will do better than his parents-is not fulfilled, because we fail to adapt in this age of rapidly accelerating changes in technology, markets, climates, the workplace and education.” [6]

In fact, the concept of the American Dream is complex and open to further studies. On the one hand, it is based on popular beliefs and delusions rooted in social ignorance about the goals of the society. On the other hand, it is the embodiment of the drive of the large democratic America for a just and humane social living.

Правильная ссылка на статью
Петрухина М.А. American Mythmaking: Tales, Myths and Legends // Филологический аспект: международный научно-практический журнал. Сер.: История, культура и искусство. 2020. № 01 (01). Режим доступа: https://scipress.ru/fai/articles/amerikanskoe-mifotvorchestvo-predaniya-mify-i-legendy.html (Дата обращения: 31.10.2020).

Список литературы

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7. The Inaugural Address of President George Bush. The Dept. of State Bulletin, Jan.1989.
8. The Inaugural Address of President Bush, Jr. All Politics transcript. 24.01.2001.
9. The Inaugural Address of President Clinton. The AP. Jan.1993.
10. Obama, Barack. State of the Union Address. The New York Times. Jan. 25. 2011.
11. Reich, R. “Tales of a New America.” Times Books. N. Y.1987. p.8
12. Sevastopulo, Demetri and Lynch, David “Trump scraps ‘Dreamers’ Immigration measures”. The Financial Times. Sept. 6. 2017.

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