- Unlikely Heroes
Over the centuries, heroes in literature have metamorphosed from godlike leaders to all-too-fallible humans. Prince Hamlet—brilliant, bedeviled, articulate, self-destructive—is an unforgettable early archetype. By the past century, literary protagonists had become complex human beings, even antiheroes, whose lives still represented something greater than their own failings. F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby is a modern antihero who in the pursuit of the love of his life creates an ill-fated—even if well-intended and grandly American—palace of illusion.
Richard Poirier in A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature noticed a tendency in American literature, especially in comparison with British literature, to displace the real with the imagined and the realistic with the romantic. America's emblematic literary characters aspire to freedom, fulfillment, and even heroism as opposed to achievement or thoughtful morality. Instead of learning social and moral lessons, like many of Jane Austen's or Charles Dickens's protagonists—better judgment, kindness, honesty—the American often wants something grander. Melville's Captain Ahab lives to obliterate a self-created representative of evil and nihilism—the white whale. Hawthorne's characters struggle for self-realization against social constraint. In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen grows up experiencing white poverty in West Virginia and moves to Mississippi, where he tries to turn himself into a grand Southern patriarch. In the process, he succumbs to the self-annihilating racist mythology of the Old South, and his seemingly invulnerable, satanically large life is ended by the [End Page 5] slash of a scythe at the hand of a hillbilly backwater man not unlike Sutpen's kinfolk.
The unreality of history since the great wars of the last hundred years may have contributed to this tendency toward large, menacingly dark, romantic stories in American literature. Eliot's defining poem, "The Waste Land," rose from the ruins of World War I. World War II was the setting of some of the most important early postmodern novels. Yossarian of Catch-22, Tyrone Slothrop of Gravity's Rainbow, and Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse-Five all embark on unrealistic and increasingly absurd and desperate quests. In worlds this extreme—where Dresden is melted to the ground by firebombs and V-2 rockets fall on London—characters wander into fantasyland, forcing fiction back toward myth. And in later work by visionary African American writers, the absurdly evil institution of American slavery is addressed in novels such as Toni Morrison's Beloved or Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad: ambitious historical fictions in which women (Morrison's Sethe, White-head's Cora) act heroically and violently for the goal of freedom.
Poirier believes that despite threads of dark romanticism in American literature, there are obvious optimistic elements in our urge for freedom, self-definition, and heroic reimagining. "Build therefore your own world," said Emerson. Many of my favorite American novels are from the age of High Modernism, with its mix of realism and romance. In Henry James's The Ambassadors, Lambert Strether takes up the charge to free his wealthy fiancée's son Chad from the clutches of a presumably exploitive European woman. Strether goes to Europe and slips into his own series of attractions, relishing the freedom of experience that he finds there. As Strether eventually tries to bring Chad home, the reader questions whether the American is naively deceived by manipulative Europeans. Ultimately, though, if Strether's loving appreciation of Europe is misguided, he has also experienced the richness of the old world and is expanded and refined by it.
In this issue of TMR, there are several wonderful examples of hidden strength and valor. In Sara Read's "Kimmo in the Pisgah," her first published story, C. J. is an Appalachian teenager who appears destined for a future of juvenile offenses that will escalate into more serious ones and a wasted life. His grandmother, who is raising him and his sister, decides to send him to a distant relative, "Uncle" Kimmo, an eccentric Finn who lives alone in a mountain cabin and makes knives for a living. The young man is angry and annoyed but gradually falls under [End Page 6...