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Americans cherish their national myths, some of which predate the country’s founding. But the time for illusions, nostalgia, and grand ambition abroad has gone by, Patrick Smith observes in this original book. Americans are now faced with a choice between a mythical idea of themselves, their nation, and their global “mission,” on the one hand, and on the other an idea of America that is rooted in historical consciousness. To cling to old myths will ensure America’s decline, Smith warns. He demonstrates with ...
Americans cherish their national myths, some of which predate the country’s founding. But the time for illusions, nostalgia, and grand ambition abroad has gone by, Patrick Smith observes in this original book. Americans are now faced with a choice between a mythical idea of themselves, their nation, and their global “mission,” on the one hand, and on the other an idea of America that is rooted in historical consciousness. To cling to old myths will ensure America’s decline, Smith warns. He demonstrates with deep historical insight why a fundamentally new perspective and self-image are essential if the United States is to find its place in the twenty-first century.
In four illuminating essays, Smith discusses America’s unusual (and dysfunctional) relation with history; the Spanish-American War and the roots of American imperial ambition; the Cold War years and the effects of fear and power on the American psyche; and the uneasy years from 9/11 to the present. Providing a new perspective on our nation’s current dilemmas, Smith also offers hope for change through an embrace of authentic history.
HISTORY WITHOUT MEMORY
What nation knows so little of its own beginnings? —Waldo Frank, The Re-Discovery of America, 1929
Myths are more or less universal to humankind. Although we often assume that societies leave myths behind as they advance, this is not necessarily so. The postulation is that an empirical or scientific consciousness pushes the mythical consciousness into the past. But there is no such equation. In some nations we may find this—the premodern giving way cleanly to the modern. But others, counterintuitively, do the reverse: Japan became an extravagant maker of myths as it modernized in the nineteenth century. Still others simply cling to their myths, and neither science nor empirical thought has anything to do with it. America is the last kind of nation. It has held fast to its myths. This is among the remarkable things about the American story: So much that was premodern in it has been carried into the modern age.
By the simplest and best definitions, myths are stories that are told and take place outside of time. They contend, then, with historical time and with history itself. Some myths are rooted in repetition. The Greeks, for instance: In their myths we find the archaic notion of circular time. What happened once will happen again, and this return to illud tempus, sacred time, is the object of a society's expectations. The availability of a better time that came before is a source of certainty. Other myths are suspended in linear time, and here we can turn to the Jews and their tradition. The prophets proposed to write of events that occurred in the past or the present. But they were understood as divine signifiers and prefigurations of events that were to occur again, in a sacred time to come. This time to come was understood to be the expansion and accomplishment of what had come before and what had been prophesied. So the question of time—its repetition, its beginning again, humankind's escape from it, its eschatological end—is an essential feature shared by myths everywhere.
Myths are also acts of the imagination, or of reason applied imaginatively. Henry Nash Smith, who wrote of the American West, called myth "an intellectual construction that fuses concept and emotion into an image." Myths are also "collective representations," Smith noted in his famous Virgin Land, "rather than the work of a single mind." Both of these thoughts help advance our understanding. Almost always myths involve ritual, they derive in some measure from the unconscious, and they are one way we humans can invest the things we do with meaning beyond the meaning that lies within the doing of something by itself.
There are other features of myths to be noted. Myths are intended to convey simple truths, so they have little of history's complexity. At the same time they must be counted as historical phenomena, for they can influence events and what people decide to do within those events. Myths change and can be put to new purposes, and a new myth, embodying the old within it, is taken to be no less true than the myth it replaces.
Myths are generally conservative: They are deployed to justify a given state of affairs or to prompt a given course of action, the outcome of which is advanced as certain. They tend to discourage change by the mere claim that they are true and continue to be true. Myths require belief, so there is a "we-and-they" aspect to them: Either one accepts the truth of a myth or one stands outside of those who do. This means that myths create and sustain group and community identities, or even ideologies; they are often invoked when such identities and ideologies may be in doubt. And it is with these things in mind that we should consider American myths and how they became such.
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"Wee shall find that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when hee shall make us a prayse of glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the Lord make it like that of New England: for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us."
John Winthrop's most famous sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity," is commonly taken to be among the great early visions of the American experiment. Cotton Mather made of him a mythical figure when he published his life of Winthrop in ????, seventy-two years after the English dissenter delivered himself of his thoughts. He was Nehemias, leader of the Jews in their exit from Babylon, in Mather's title: Nehemias Americanus, the brief biography is called. In the text he was "the envy of the many but the hope of those who had any hopeful design in hand," and this made him someone else:
Accordingly, when the noble design of carrying a colony of chosen people into the American wilderness was by some eminent persons undertaken, this eminent person was, by the consent of all, chosen for the Moses who must be the leader of so great an undertaking. And indeed nothing but a Mosaic spirit could have carried him through the temptations to which either his farewell to his own land or his travel in a strange land must needs expose a gentleman of his education.
Winthrop had never been to America when he talked about his City. We do not know precisely where he was when he preached "A Model of Christian Charity," and we are not sure who, exactly, heard him. It is likely that he was aboard the Arbella, the ship that carried him to the Massachusetts coast, or in a church in Southampton, his port of embarkation. We are certain, though, that Winthrop had never seen America but in his mind's eye at the moment of his rhetorical flourish.
To understand him, then, we have to recognize that he was speaking as much in reaction to the past as he was in anticipation of the future. He was striking the pose of a prophet. He was suggesting that the fulfillment of the old prophecies was at hand. But he was thinking of Babylon or Egypt, depending upon which of Mather's mythmaking metaphors we settle with, as much as any promised land. He was English, and so would have been his listeners. We are obliged, then, to recognize that the American story in this early iteration was part of a larger story—a history, indeed—and cannot be told by itself. America was new, but it was not only or wholly new. And before it was anything it was a myth: This was to prove a fateful beginning.
Winthrop professed to having enemies. Who were these enemies? Mather tells us the world Winthrop was leaving behind faced him with temptations. What temptations were these?
The cultural foundations of medieval Europe were in a state of advanced decay by Winthrop's day. The center of the universe was shifting—down from the infinite heavens and into the temporal world of men and women and their deeds and works. Christian symbols and beliefs were coming gradually to be less compelling as guides to a fleeting life that had been presumed to be but a prelude to the eternal. Time came to be measured and soon enough commodified, and tolling church bells gave way to market-square clocks. Place, for the emerging townsmen and merchants, was not as fixed as it had been. What could be seen would be what counted: There came the empirical mind and what would later be called materialism. Francis Bacon had just announced how knowledge could be abstracted and the physical world might truly be known: the scientific method. Money (abstracted value) came ever more to replace barter in tangible goods of like worth. The individual (at bottom another abstract notion) came into being. All this is simply to describe in brief the earliest stirrings of the arriving modern.
But the advent of much that would make the modern era modern by no means represented a clean break with the past. The Renaissance was not the decisive rupture we customarily think of it as being. It was an interim brought about by a concatenation of circumstances (much as the American century was), and it had a beginning, a middle, and an end (again, not unlike the American century). Much of what was crumbling survived and survived, if only in pieces, for medieval culture had given European humanity a symmetry and completeness and a certainty that the modern would never have on offer. Uncertainty and change—those terrors of time and history Mircea Eliade so often wrote about—disinherited many. Most of society, in any case, was in no part touched by science or commerce or, altogether, the advent of humanism. By the Puritans' day, millenarianism had a tradition in Europe dating back centuries.
This was the world that produced the Protestant movements and John Winthrop, soon enough Cotton Mather, and later on Jonathan Edwards. It was the context out of which came "the new world." We might pause with this phrase to consider how it is customarily articulated, for it was a world more than it was new. It was new for the simple reason that it was not old, it was "virgin," a beginning again for humanity, meaning nothing of the old world was to contaminate it. But it was more palpably a world because it was distant and unknown, it was seen to be empty, and, again, it was virgin. It offered a certain immunity to those who settled it. The act of crossing, to the earliest settlers, was in its meaning of biblical magnitude. The Atlantic was the longed-for sea of the captive Jews. But the new world's break with the old was not so clean and—in history, if not in myth—never could have been.
In Greek, we should remind ourselves, "world" translates as kosmos, which also denotes "order." And to this new cosmos, this new order, flowed all the great currents coursing through late medieval Europe. It was material in its preoccupations such that this would later prove a fault. Its political severance from Europe was made sacred a century and a half after Winthrop sailed the Atlantic. But as the Puritans themselves made plain, the new world was in a certain way old. It was settled, in part, by the unprivileged and dispossessed of Europe, devoted readers of the Old Testament. And it was settled, in another part, by those in rebellion against the arrival of time and history and the descent from heaven of humankind's eyes to the mutable world of decay and disruption and of earthbound human events. Lewis Mumford put the point with unsurpassed clarity and grace in Sticks and Stones, the first half of his contemplation of American civilization. "In the villages of the New World there flickered up the last dying embers of the medieval order."
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In the end we can only imagine how the sight of "virgin land"—the Atlantic littoral being the first of numerous American Wests—must have inspired the early European arrivals to millennial visions of a new world. But we have the help of explorers, shipmates, settlers, and others who kept records of their journeys. They suggest a way into the hearts and souls of those in sight of the new world for the first time, and they are all stamped with the same two attributes: There was anticipation and there was anxiety. These are simply two sides of the same consciousness, a consciousness of a future as yet uncertain.
"It doth all resemble a stately park," James Rosier, a diarist on a 1605 exploration, noted of the New England coast and the mouths of its rivers:
Many who had been travelers in sundry countries, and in the most famous rivers, yet affirmed them not comparable to this they now beheld ... yet it is no detraction from them to be accounted inferior to this, which not only yields all the aforesaid pleasant profits, but also appears infallibly to us free from all imagined inconveniences.
There were the dangers anyone can imagine, of course: treacherous shoals and inhospitable tides, infinite darkness, Native Americans of uncertain intent, in the case of one French priest a portentous meteor. But "God kept us from great and noteworthy perils," as Father Pierre Biard, the French cleric, sanguinely concluded after his journey in 1611 to the coast of Maine.
There is much of this kind of salutary writing in collections of the old accounts. But there is fear and uncertainty, too, and it is essential to note this. An existential angst that God might not be there after all, or that the new world experiment will have displeased him, or that the myths and prophecies may not prove out: This kind of doubt has been as much a part of American thinking as the mythologies and prophecies themselves. America, in short, has never been so certain a nation as it has pretended from the first to be. "A waste of howling wilderness," a settler wrote (in verse) as he looked inward to the impenetrable forests from the coast in 1662:
Where none inhabited But hellish fiends, and brutish men That devils worshipped.
It was amid this mixed consciousness, an eager looking forward and an anxious reticence as to what lay ahead, that the foundational myths took root in the new world. And it is remarkable how in keeping they turn out to be with archetypal myths, age-old myths found here and there throughout many civilizations and eras. There are extensive studies of these myths, some of them assigning myth to primitive humanity. The better thought might be the primitive in humanity, for we find some of the same characteristics in the myths by which Americans would understand what America was. It had come to be as a consequence of ritual hostilities—in the American case beginning with the Puritans and their old world enemies. It was a purification, and one occurring at a high place above the corrupt world of the unchosen: Winthrop's hill with a city atop it. There was a journey required, a deliverance, and it offered an exit from evil to those who made it. In the new world, nature was to be read as divine revelation, the laws of nature being the will of the creator made manifest. Figures and events, altogether, had no meaning in themselves but were understood according to prefiguring narratives—typologies, as a prominent historian has termed them. Winthrop was Moses or Nehemias, and America was not a continent already inhabited by non-Europeans: It was the promised land, empty and awaiting the settlement and civilization of the elect.
Providential nation, chosen people, city upon a hill, a new world that was a beacon to the rest, humanity's unique exception: These are America's myths as they solidified. But the most important feature of them had to do with time. America was to be nothing if not a declaration of belief in the new idea of progress. This derived from the late eighteenth century—from Condorcet and the Scottish moralists. Progress rested upon the concept of linear time. But we must look closely at how the American experiment was understood by those who inscribed it with mythological meaning before we draw conclusions from this. Progress can be interpreted as a secularized version of history as the millenarians had it. As became clear in the nineteenth century, it was a faith one believed in. Crossing the Atlantic was a great going forward—the act of modern men. But for those among them of archaic mind, the crossing was also a great going back—back to a land long promised by the prophets. It was an escape from the evils of Europe but also an escape from history's temporal frights. In this respect America represented a regeneration, a renewal by way of a return, and these were understood to occur periodically in the history of humanity.
The profuse biblical imagery of early America makes this plain: Profane time, in which all is subject to decay and the toll taken by history, was left behind for a reentry into sacred time—the illud tempus of Eliade's books. The new world offered, more than anything else, an escape from history by way of a millennial return to a world without change. Yes, time was linear, but history was made merely of the details of the larger conception of fallen man on his way to redemption. It was narrative and metanarrative. "Historical facts thus become 'situations' of man in respect to God," Eliade wrote in The Myth of the Eternal Return, "and as such they acquire a religious value that nothing had previously been able to confer upon them."
The point is essential, for this turned out to be among America's most distinguishing features: Europe was where history took place; America was immune from history's ravages. It was changeless. It would measure by way of space the progress it represented—space as an exit from profane time. This was what made the new world truly another world, the distinguishing mark of America's consciousness of itself as an exception: Its land exempted it, most of all and then as now, from the laws of history. To move ever westward was therefore to escape from historical time into providential time. And in America the available space westward seemed limitless, such that the escape from history could be presumed to be eternal. God would indeed keep Americans from great and noteworthy perils, and hellish fiends encountered along the way would be one of two kinds: From behind would come intruders from the historical time Americans had fled; ahead lay those in need of civilizing by way of the providential word.
The questions of time and change are of fundamental importance to Americans now if they are to understand themselves in the twenty-first century. So is the pervasive self-doubt noted earlier: With a worldly mission as large as America's, true certainty could never be possible. The structure of thinking I have tried briefly to describe has always been tarnished by this apprehension, this fear-inducing doubt. But the metanarrative remains an animating element in the way many Americans comprehend their relationships: to the past, to the future, and to others. The mythical notions of a land beyond history's borders and a land forever young and never to be in need of change—such things may seem exotic, plucked from another age, but these are the nation's inheritance, the things bequeathed by the early Protestant millenarians. In some Americans, including some American presidents, these things have come down to the present remarkably intact, impervious to all question or challenge. But as I have already suggested, we have come now to a new moment, a reentry into time from whence history and change can no longer be held at bay.
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Americans, like many others, understand their past as if it lies behind them in discrete layers, like a geological formation. The past of the Puritans and their theocratic states is a deep past for Americans living now, lost to many of us but in the faintest outline. We think little of how this past survives within and among us. And if anything, this process of losing the past is accelerating at a startling rate. At this point, the American past begins, most Americans consider, with the late eighteenth century and the revolution and the founding of the republic. It is there, at least, that the focus sharpens. We have popular biographies galore, numerous each season, of Washington or Jefferson or Adams—political men. Less candescently lit are the eras and religious sentiments of a Winthrop or a Mather or a Jonathan Edwards.
Excerpted from TIME NO LONGER by PATRICK SMITH. Copyright © 2013 by Patrick Smith. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Introduction: Between Myth and History.................... 1
History Without Memory.................... 17
A Culture of Representation.................... 47
Cold War Man.................... 91
Time and Time Again.................... 145
An Acknowledgment.................... 231