This book offers an introduction to American studies by examining ‘the myths that made America,’ i.e., popular and powerful narratives of US-American national beginnings which have turned out to be anchors and key references in discourses of ‘Americanness,’ past and present. Even if America obviously is “a continent, not a country” (Gomez-Pena, “New World Border” 750), in this study I will follow the convention of using the signifier ‘America/n’ to refer to the United States, and treat US-American myths only. The following chapters analyze the core foundational myths upon which constructions of the American nation have been based and which still determine contemporary discussions of US-American identities. These myths include the myth of Columbus and the ‘discovery’ of America, the Pocahontas myth, the myth of the Promised Land, the myth of the Founding Fathers, the myth of the melting pot, the myth of the American West, and the myth of the self-made man. Each of these foundational myths allows us to access American culture(s) from a specific angle; each of them provides and contains a particular narrative of meaningful and foundational ‘new world’ beginnings and developments in the history of the United States of America as well as iconic visual images and ritualistic cultural practices that accompany and enhance their impact and effect. Yet, these myths are not fixtures in the American national cultural imaginary: The explanation for their longevity and endurance lies in their adaptability, flexibility, and considerable narrative variation over time and across a broad social and cultural spectrum.
My discussion of these myths will trace their complex histories and multivoiced appropriations as well as various semiotic/semantic changes and discursive shifts that are part of these histories. The material of each chapter consists of the manifold representations and usages of the myths in different functional areas of American society over time. In the first part of each chapter, I will outline the relevance of the particular myth, reconstruct its formation in its specific historical moment and context, and show how its ‘making’ is intricately connected to the project of US-American nation-building and to the (discursive) production and affirmation of a coherent and unified US-American national identity: The United States as an “imagined community” (cf. Anderson) is constructed and affirmed by way of this repertoire of a foundational mythology that entails the creation of a “usable past” (cf. Commager, Search; Brooks, “On Creating”) and the “invention” of a “tradition” (cf. Hobsbawm and Ranger) for the new American nation complete with a national genealogy of past and present heroes. This “imagined communal mythology” (Campbell and Kean, American Cultural Studies 22) provides national narratives of individual and collective heroism and excellence (when referring to historical individuals and groups, such as Columbus, Pocahontas, the Pilgrims and Puritans, and the Founding Fathers) as well as narratives of collective belonging and progress (when referring to abstract concepts such as the melting pot, the West, and the self-made man). Taken together, they make up a powerful set of self-representations that an American collectivity has claimed and at times appropriated from an early, prenational utopian imaginary of the Americas and that it has converted into powerful ways of talking about itself as a “consciously constructed new world utopia” (Ostendorf, “Why Is” 340). Rather than as the product of a series of more or less contingent historical events and developments, the USA appears in these myths as a predestined entity and (still) unfinished utopian project, i.e., it is endowed with a specific teleology. At the same time, these myths do not simply ‘add up’ to a coherent and consistent national mythology free of contradictions neither in a diachronic nor in a synchronic perspective, since the foundational national discourse has always been marked by struggles for hegemony (e.g. between the North and the South or the West and the East), as established regimes of representation are always being contested.
In the second part of each chapter, I will work through the many reconfigurations and reinterpretations that the respective myths have undergone from subnational perspectives. Often, various immigrant and/or minority groups as well as individual writers and artists have contested the authority of (pre)domi- nant versions and interpretations of these myths to prescribe a “unified national monoculture” (Pease, “Exceptionalism” 111), and thereby questioned the seeming homogeneity and coherence of US national identity. Subnational perspectives on these myths have challenged and intervened in the national regime of representation by pointing to the voices that have been silenced, rejected, and excluded from the American foundational mythology through acts of epistemic violence. Yet, subnational revisionists’ call for more inclusive and democratic articulations of these myths has often left their iconic status intact; in this sense, marginalized groups (Native Americans, women, African Americans, immigrant groups, and the working class, to name only a few) have pursued a strategy of appropriation and empowerment rather than of radical dismissal in order to articulate their experiences and claim their Americanness.
In the third and final part of each chapter, I will point to more recent (often contemporary) critiques of and commentaries on the myths under scrutiny, which at times are more radically revisionist and debunk a myth entirely. In many instances, the earlier national and subnational versions of a myth assume a transnational or postnational dimension in light of new postcolonial interpretations and critiques of empire that transcend the US national context and US exceptionalism as interpretive frameworks. Yet, a myth does not necessarily become obsolete by becoming more controversial and contested, as popular beliefs and forms of commemoration that privilege the national perspective on the one hand, and an academic, perhaps somewhat elitist revisionism articulated from subnational and transnational perspectives on the other often coexist side by side (cf. Schuman, Schwartz, and D’Arcy, “Elite Revisionists”). The resulting tension, which can be described as a kind of cognitive dissonance, produces an “internally divided cultural symbology” (Rowe, At Emerson’s Tomb 41) or a “Balkanization of the symbolic field” (Veyne, Did the Greeks 56) that allows for balancing different and at times overtly contradictory ways of world-making within the same discourse.
When assessing the role and relevance of the foundational US-American myths in the age of globalization, we can also discern new forms of mass- commodification and large-scale cultural export of American mythic narratives across the globe; whether this will lead to a reinvigoration of the mythic material and its often utopian appeal or to an emptying out of cultural specificity in the process of circulation, translation, and indigenization (or to both) remains to be seen, but the processing of the ‘myths that made America’ in any case is ongoing and unfinished.
Although I am pursuing a rough, somewhat schematic chronology in each of the chapters, a purely linear narrative often falls short of the complex adaptations and interpretations of each myth, as different versions and narratives compete with each other for dominance and hegemony. In order to reveal the biases of the myths’ dominant versions and the political and economic interests of those who promote them, the discussion of the national, subnational, and transnational dimension of each myth is informed by a framework of ideology critique, within which opposition to the American consensus appears as challenging the validity of the US foundational ideology. The dominant ideological paradigm that is established, critiqued, reaffirmed or debunked is that of American exceptionalism:
All of the myths appear under the arc of this single most dominant paradigm in the history and practice of American studies, because the discipline has for a long time been organized around it either by way of affirmation or critique.