For a nation to truly be a nation and not just an economic zone of atomized individualists hustling for gold, it needs a shared culture; culture, of course, being any pattern of shared behavior in a population that cannot be attributed to genetics; the stronger and more homogeneous the population, the more robust and alive the culture will be.
One of the most distinctive forms of culture there is is that of mythology: a story or an entire hero saga of tales that creates and/or showcases the collective philosophy of a nation. Mythology should show both what a particular nation values and what it rejects – it should also reflect the collective Jungian fears and desires of all peoples (if you happen to believe in Joseph Campbell’s theories).
Mythology is typically not something that a guy sits down and writes, declaring that “I’ve written my nation’s mythology!” Instead, myths typically develop over generations before being written down, either as purely fantastical “just so” stories, or romanticized recollections of historical fact that have become dimmed and distorted by the sands of time.
But, seeing as I’m capable of talking about ancient mythologies in 2017, that means many of them have been written down at some point; undoubtedly you knew that already. Over time, these folk tales get compiled and become a nation’s “epic” or “great novel” that becomes widely disseminated to young and old within a nation, and eventually to other nations as well.
There are many national epics that I can name off the top of my head: Beowulf, The Odyssey, Der Nibelungenlied, The Song of Roland, The Eddas, Tain Bo Cuilange, The Shahnameh, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, the Mahabharata, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and so forth. There are even purely created (ie: fictional epics) such as the Silmarillion or the Cthulhu Mythos.
And now we come to the title of this article. It is a cliché at this point to ask “Where is the Great American Novel?” This is typically a question posited by the smug denizens of the Old World, clucking their tongues and wagging their fingers at Americans for being a pack of uncultured swine who are too busy being morbidly obese embodiments of everything wrong with humanity to come up with any sort of mythology.
As an American bibliophile, I have asked myself this question many times. And it is my opinion that not only does the United States of America not have a “Great Novel”, there can never be, and will never be, a Great American Novel. Not because Americans are incapable of writing a decent yarn (the numerous Nobel Prizes in literature the USA has achieved would say otherwise), but because of two factors:
1) The smaller of the two factors is simply a mathematical one: The USA is a relatively young nation. Time and decaying historical record are the easiest way for historical fact to become mythology. However, recent historical fact can become folklore in some circumstances: Wong Fei Hung and Huo Yuanjia only died about 100 years ago (give or take a few), their life and times are extensively documented and they’ve become Chinese folk heroes.
No, the real issue holding America back in the mythology department is the second issue I alluded to above:
2) America was waylaid with guilt before it could even begin to create hero cults. In short, Americans don’t have an epic because we’re not allowed to have an epic.
Yeah, I’m going to say it: I’ve NEVER understood the old stereotype of Americans being fanatically patriotic and proud of their country. But that might just be because none of the people that I have known well in my life have acted that way in the slightest.
I know exactly what a lot of the readers are thinking, particularly those readers who are not from the USA: “But Larsen! All the patriotic music playing in the malls, the big Fourth of July celebrations, the fat bodies wearing American flag jackets.” Of course. How could you NOT see them? But I want you to take a closer look at them:
What are they celebrating, really? America, obviously. But what is it ABOUT America that they’re celebrating? As far as I can tell, America itself is being celebrated, rather than anything substantively about the USA. For example, America has collectively won more Nobel Prizes than any other nation. Regardless of your opinions of the USA, there’s no way to argue that this isn’t something to be proud of. But the lardasses in Murkan flag jackets aren’t celebrating that—hell, nobody celebrates that. I didn’t even know about the Nobel Prizes until I got to college! It’s not like they ever taught that in public school!
How about the fact that America donates more to charitable organizations than any other nation on Earth? That’s not being celebrated either. History and culture? You must be joking—when was the last time you saw Mark Twain, HL Mencken, Ezra Pound, or Winslow Homer being celebrated by one of these patriotards, to say nothing of politicians and historical figures?
No, the only concrete thing they’ll celebrate are “the troops”, ie: the troops that are serving right now. You’ll never see anyone celebrating the Battle of the Bastogne with the same moral unambiguity the way that the Greeks celebrate Thermopylae. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that American “patriotism” has already tacitly accepted the idea that American history is largely shameful, and thus overcompensates with celebrating the now and the future. But I only say that because mainstream American conservatism pre-Trump has heavily implied it believes that.
So they give us this empty flag-lapel-pin-wearing patriotism as a flimsy substitute for having a real nation. And obviously anybody with an above-room-temperature IQ won’t fall for it, which is probably why the American arts and letters have been almost entirely anti-American. Yes, even back in the “bad old days” before the 1960s. I defy you to name a single American artist of international renown that was the stereotypical “patriotard”. I’ll wait…
Probably the closest you’ll come to it is the work of JF Cooper, but even he glorifies and eulogizes the “noble savage”. Just to repeat that: the first American literature to make it big internationally portrays the conquest of the United States as something that is (partially) tragic. Guilt was part of American culture from the very beginning.
Of course, some would argue that “well, that’s just because America SHOULD be guilty!” I am certainly not going to deny that America has committed wrongdoing, but I don’t think America’s sins are any greater than any other country’s sins. You can certainly have a national epic that is about conquest and subjugation of another people: The Shahnameh? The Aeneid? The Trojan War? The Eddas? All of those great epics have segments where the protagonist’s people invade another country and conquer those people, if not being about that subject entirely.
So, the question is: why HASN’T The Leatherstocking Tales officially become the Great American Novel? Or to put it another way, why has America always had a complex of “the poor noble red man”, while the aggressive epics I mentioned above don’t have that element in them? I would argue it’s an issue of timing more than anything else.
Normally, an epic forms with the right mixture of time passing, just the right amount of historical murkiness, and, most importantly, proper “setting”. What I mean by that is, the sectarian hatreds and resource competition that cause tribal violence have to be dead and buried for a while before they can become “epics”. Greece and Iran aren’t itching to fight each other, nor are the daimyo clans of Japan. And if America had been founded in 776 instead of 1776, every war America has fought would probably have “set” properly, going back to the first reason the GAN won’t happen. But because within 100 years before and after America’s founding we had the conception of the noble savage, the industrial revolution, improved communications, and photography, the ugly realities of history were never allowed to become half-forgotten myths.
And there are things relatively recently in American history that could be the basis of an epic, but again, we’re not allowed to venerate them. To cite one example: Steve Sailer has discussed how the Pacific theater of World War II SHOULD be America’s epic (or, at the very least, California’s epic). Indeed, the battles were certainly epic, the locales exotic, the enemy sufficiently an “other”. But you’ll read a thousand articles or books on the internment camps before you read anything about Peleliu or Okinawa.
Instead, the guilt continued to grow to the point where we have a multi-billion dollar industry of historical grievance, thus we CAN’T let things cool off and dissipate into the mists of history. There’s always going to be somebody in America making somebody else utterly ashamed of their history (hell, that’s basically how you signal your social standing in America, by talking about how much you hate America), making it incredibly gauche to mythologize combat between the brave Men of the West and the savage “other”.
So I ask: How many countries so fetishize their own guilt and shame? Not too many. And with the juxtaposition of cultural guilt and bad timing, I don’t see America ever having an undisputed cultural epic without some massive cultural upheaval.
Indeed, if anything, America has an “anti-epic” to quote another “bad thinker”, one John Derbyshire. Perhaps that will be for another time.