The changing face of the American adventurer
The Great American Adventure, by Martin Green. Boston: Beacon Press. 260 pp. $19.95. Changing Images of the Warrior Hero in America, by Edward T. Linenthal. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press. 292 pp. $29.95. In her landmark book, ``The Human Condition,'' Hannah Arendt remarks that we are but the stories we tell of ourselves. Our identifiable values are contained in our novels, poems, films, songs, anecdotes, and even news pieces.
Both Martin Green and Edward Linenthal have written challenging books that look at memorable American stories -- adventures, war tales -- and suggest how these stories characterize us as a diverse people nevertheless imbued with a national sense of self.
Green, born in Britain but now teaching at Tufts University in Massachusetts, observes in ``The Great American Adventure'' that ``action stories'' have been ``the energizing myths'' of American empire, much as were stories by Defoe (``Robinson Crusoe''), Sir Walter Scott (``Ivanhoe''), and Kipling for imperial England. Green asserts that the idea of adventure has been crucial in the spread of American domain as well as the development of American culture.
Green points out that canonized American authors -- ranging from James Fenimore Cooper to his querulous critic Mark Twain, or to the seagoing Herman Melville wrestling in the Pacific with the values of democracy -- each mapped out a mythologically noble frontier. But it was one made noble not by national adventure per se, but the subsequent act of writing: that is, writing well about one's own adventures. Hemingway serves as a case in point.
Green states that such blue bloods as Francis Parkman (``The Oregon Trail'') and Teddy Roosevelt made their adventures litmus tests for ideas of American manliness, robust health, and articulation. ``Real men'' -- true aristocrats in the Jeffersonian sense -- could both fight and then write as proof of their distinction.
In ``Changing Images of the Warrior Hero in America,'' Linenthal traces a mythic line from George Washington, the archetypal ``gentleman warrior,'' to the humble rifleman -- Johnny Reb and Billy Yank in the Civil War, the doughboys in World War I, and the GIs in World War II -- until that revered line breaks off with the unvaliant figure of the ``executioner'' haunting the Vietnam war, symbolized in the person of Lt. William Calley and the slaughter at My Lai.
Obviously, such general, mythic schemes break down at particular historic points, but both Green and Linenthal provoke hard thinking about the relationship of culture and national identity. Unlike many such books, ``The Great American Adventure'' and ``Changing Images of the Warrior Hero in America'' impressed me not as academic exercises, but as justifications for the claim that criticism promotes ``the life of the mind.''
Kenneth Harper teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin, Parkside campus.