- Myths America Lives By
Richard T. Hughes, a Distinguished Professor in the Religion Division at Pepperdine University, has written a critical study of foundational American myths. Much of what Hughes has to say will already be familiar to those who have read previous studies of American myths, such as James Oliver Robertson's American Myth, American Reality, or scholarship examining such ideas as the American mission, American innocence, and manifest destiny. Yet Hughes does give a particular and often provocative twist to his version of an often-told tale, emphasizing the religious background to American mythology and employing minority voices as a critical chorus puncturing the self-congratulatory understanding of the white majority.
Myths America Lives By provides a brief historical account of five foundational American myths: the Myth of the Chosen Nation, the Myth of Nature's Nation, The Myth of the Christian Nation, The Myth of the Millennial Nation, and the Myth of the Innocent Nation. In addition, Hughes pays substantial attention to manifest destiny and devotes a separate chapter to "The Mythic Dimensions of American Capitalism." Each chapter covers the English or early American background to a myth, the formative period for the myth (for example, the Second Great Awakening for the Myth of the Christian Nation), the later manifestations of the myth, and the critique of the myth by African American or Native American commentators.
Hughes appreciates the positive function of national myths: they are "the stories that explain why we love our country and why we have faith in the nation's purposes" (2). He is a devotee of the American creed, especially the universal, egalitarian message of the Declaration of Independence. Apart from the Myth of the Innocent Nation, which deludes Americans into thinking they can transcend the complexities and burdens of history, he finds value in the [End Page 512] other four foundational myths. However, the chief thrust of Hughes's work is to point out the dangerous blindness that results when Americans absolutize their values in the form of national myths. He brings in minority voices to debunk American myths in full awareness of the fact that this debunking will often make for "unpleasant reading" (9). Americans need, Hughes feels, to see their nation as people in other nations see it. African American critics of American myths perform this role for him, "speaking on behalf of marginalized people around the globe" (15).
Readers should not pick up Hughes's book in the expectation of finding original scholarship on American myths. The sources for his analyses are familiar, as are many of the characters and quotations that anchor his narrative history. Parts of his story are so familiar, in fact, that the reader might wish that Hughes had skipped over them to concentrate on something fresh. One of Hughes's irritating habits is to quote more than once the same long passages from texts that are already well known, such as the Declaration of Independence and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream."
Although much of the content of Myths America Lives By is standard for treatments of the topic, the book is worth reading for its departures from previous works. Hughes writes self-consciously as a Christian, and his religious focus and concerns lead to some fresh analyses and insights. For example, rather than starting with the Puritan errand into the American wilderness, in his chapter on the Myth of the Chosen Nation, he begins with the English Reformation and provides an instructive account of William Tyndale as the original British source for the idea of a national covenant. Hughes's concentration on the religious dimensions of American mythology is also brought productively to bear on contemporary American versions of the foundational national myths. One of the most creative sections of the book is a look at the American attempt to escape history by postulating a golden age of the past and a millennial future, as manifested in the Mormons and the Disciples of Christ. Hughes's knowledge of American religious history adds new wrinkles to a...