Robert B. Ray The Thematic Paradigm
The dominant tradition of American cinema consistently found ways to overcome dichotomies. Often, the movies’ reconciliatory pattern concentrated on a single character magically embodying diametrically opposite traits. A sensitive violinist was also a tough boxer (Golden Boy); a boxer was a gentle man who cared for pigeons (On the Waterfront). A gangster became a coward because he was brave (Angels with Dirty Faces); a soldier became brave because he was a coward (Lives of a Bengal Lancer). A war hero was a former pacifist (Sergeant York); a pacifist was a former war hero (Billy Jack). The ideal was a kind of inclusiveness that would permit all decisions to be undertaken with the knowledge that the alternative was equally available. The attractiveness of Destry’s refusal to use guns (Destry Rides Again) depended on the tacit understanding that he could shoot with the best of them, Katharine Hepburn’s and Claudette 10 Colbert’s revolts against conventionality (Holiday, It Happened One Night) on their status as aristocrats.
Such two-sided characters seemed particularly designed to appeal to a collective American imagination steeped in myths of inclusiveness. Indeed, in creating such characters, classic Hollywood had connected with what Erik Erikson has described as the fundamental American psychological pattern:
The functioning American, as the heir of a history of extreme contrasts and
abrupt changes, bases his final ego identity on some tentative combination of dynamic polarities such as migratory and sedentary, individualistic and 20 standardized, competitive and co-operative, pious and free-thinking, responsible and cynical, etc….
To leave his choices open, the American, on the whole, lives with two sets of “truths.”
The movies traded on one opposition in particular, American culture’s traditional
dichotomy of individual and community that had generated the most significant pair of competing myths: the outlaw hero and the official hero. Embodied in the adventurer, explorer, gunfighter, wanderer, and loner, the outlaw hero stood for that part of the American imagination valuing self-determination and freedom from entanglements. By contrast, the official hero, 30 normally portrayed as a teacher, lawyer, politician, farmer, or family man, represented the American belief in collective action, and the objective legal process that superseded private notions of right and wrong. While the outlaw hero found incarnations in the mythic figures of Davy Crockett, Jesse James, Huck Finn, and all of Leslie Fiedler’s “Good Bad Boys” and Daniel Boorstin’s “ringtailed roarers,” the official hero developed around legends associated with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Lee, and other “Good Good Boys.”
An extraordinary amount of the traditional American mythology adopted by Classic Hollywood derived from the variations worked by American ideology around this opposition of natural man versus civilized man. To the extent that these variations constituted the main tendency of American literature and legends, Hollywood, in relying on this mythology, 40 committed itself to becoming what Robert Bresson has called “the Cinema.” A brief description of the competing values associated with this outlaw hero-official hero opposition will begin to suggest its pervasiveness in traditional American culture.
1. Aging: The attractiveness of the outlaw hero’s childishness and propensity to whims, tantrums, and emotional decisions derived from America’s cult of childhood. Fiedler observed
Robert B. Ray
that American literature celebrated “the notion that a mere falling short of adulthood is a guar- antee of insight and even innocence.” From Huck to Holden Caulfield, children in American literature were privileged, existing beyond society’s confining rules. Often, they set the plot in motion (e.g., Intruder in the Dust, To Kill a Mockingbird), acting for the adults encumbered by daily affairs. As Fiedler also pointed out, this image of childhood “has impinged upon adult life 50 itself, has become a ‘career’ like everything else in America,” generating stories like On the Road or Easy Rider in which adults try desperately to postpone responsibilities by clinging to adolescent lifestyles.
While the outlaw heroes represented a flight from maturity, the official heroes embodied the best attributes of adulthood: sound reasoning and judgment, wisdom and sympathy based on experience. Franklin’s Autobiography and Poor Richard’s Almanack constituted this opposing tradition’s basic texts, persuasive enough to appeal even to outsiders (The Great Gatsby). Despite the legends surrounding Franklin and the other Founding Fathers, however, the scarcity of mature heroes in American literature and mythology indicated American ideology’s fundamental preference for youth, a quality that came to be associated with the country itself. Indeed, 60 American stories often distorted the stock figure of the Wise Old Man, portraying him as mad (Ahab), useless (Rip Van Winkle), or evil (the Godfather).
2. Society and Women: The outlaw hero’s distrust of civilization, typically represented by women and marriage, constituted a stock motif in American mythology. In his Studies in Classic American Literature, D. H. Lawrence detected the recurring pattern of flight, observing that the Founding Fathers had come to America “largely to get away…. Away from what? In the long run, away from themselves. Away from everything.” Sometimes, these heroes undertook this flight alone (Thoreau, Catcher in the Rye); more often, they joined ranks with other men: Huck with Jim, Ishmael with Queequeg, Jake Barnes with Bill Gorton. Women were avoided as representing the very entanglements this tradition sought to escape: society, the “settled life,” 70 confining responsibilities. The outlaw hero sought only uncompromising relationships, involving either a “bad” woman (whose morals deprived her of all rights to entangling domesticity) or other males (who themselves remained independent). Even the “bad” woman posed a threat, since marriage often uncovered the clinging “good” girl underneath. Typically, therefore, American stories avoided this problem by killing off the “bad” woman before the marriage could transpire (Destry Rides Again, The Big Heat, The Far Country). Subsequently, within the all-male group, women became taboo, except as the objects of lust.
The exceptional extent of American outlaw legends suggests an ideological anxiety about civilized life. Often, that anxiety took shape as a romanticizing of the dispossessed, as in the Beat Generation’s cult of the bum, or the characters of Huck and “Thoreau,” who worked to remain 80 idle, unemployed, and unattached. A passage from Jerzy Kosinski’s Steps demonstrated the extreme modern version of this romanticizing:
I envied those [the poor and the criminals] who lived here and seemed so free, having nothing to regret and nothing to look forward to. In the world of birth certificates, medical examinations, punch cards, and computers, in the world of telephone books, passports, bank accounts, insurance plans, wills, credit cards, pensions, mortgages and loans, they lived unattached.
The Thematic Paradigm
In contrast to the outlaw heroes, the official heroes were preeminently worldly, 90 comfortable in society, and willing to undertake even those public duties demanding personal sacrifice. Political figures, particularly Washington and Lincoln, provided the principal examples of this tradition, but images of family also persisted in popular literature from Little Women to Life with Father and Cheaper by the Dozen. The most crucial figure in this tradition, however, was Horatio Alger, whose heroes’ ambition provided the complement to Huck’s disinterest. Alger’s characters subscribed fully to the codes of civilization, devoting themselves to proper dress, manners, and behavior, and the attainment of the very things despised by the opposing tradition: the settled life and respectability.
3. Politics and the Law: Writing about “The Philosophical Approach of the Americans,” Tocqueville noted “a general distaste for accepting any man’s word as proof of anything.” That 100 distaste took shape as a traditional distrust of politics as collective activity, and of ideology as that activity’s rationale. Such a disavowal of ideology was, of course, itself ideological, a tactic for discouraging systematic political intervention in a nineteenth-century America whose political and economic power remained in the hands of a privileged few. Tocqueville himself noted the results of this mythology of individualism which “disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.”
This hostility toward political solutions manifested itself further in an ambivalence about the law. The outlaw mythology portrayed the law, the sum of society’s standards, as a collective, impersonal ideology imposed on the individual from without. Thus, the law represented the very 110 thing this mythology sought to avoid. In its place, this tradition offered a natural law discovered intuitively by each man. As Tocqueville observed, Americans wanted “To escape from imposed systems . . . to seek by themselves and in themselves for the only reason for things . . . in most mental operations each American relies on individual effort and judgment.” This sense of the law’s inadequacy to needs detectable only by the heart generated a rich tradition of legends celebrating legal defiance in the name of some “natural” standard: Thoreau went to jail rather than pay taxes, Huck helped Jim (legally a slave) to escape, Billy the Kid murdered the sheriff’s posse that had ambushed his boss, Hester Prynne resisted the community’s sexual mores. This mythology transformed all outlaws into Robin Hoods, who “correct” socially unjust laws (Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, John Wesley Harding). Furthermore, by customarily portraying the 120 law as the tool of villains (who used it to revoke mining claims, foreclose on mortgages, and disallow election results—all on legal technicalities), this mythology betrayed a profound pessimism about the individual’s access to the legal system.
If the outlaw hero’s motto was “I don’t know what the law says, but I do know what’s right and wrong,” the official hero’s was “We are a nation of laws, not of men,” or “No man can place himself above the law.” To the outlaw hero’s insistence on private standards of right and wrong, the official hero offered the admonition, “You cannot take the law into your own hands.” Often, these official heroes were lawyers or politicians, at times (as with Washington and Lincoln), even the executors of the legal system itself. The values accompanying such heroes modified the assurance of Crockett’s advice, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” 130
In sum, the values associated with these two different sets of heroes contrasted markedly. Clearly, too, each tradition had its good and bad points. If the extreme individualism of the outlaw hero always verged on selfishness, the respectability of the official hero always threatened to involve either blandness or repression. If the outlaw tradition promised adventure and
Robert B. Ray
freedom, it also offered danger and loneliness. If the official tradition promised safety and comfort, it also offered entanglements and boredom.
The evident contradiction between these heroes provoked Daniel Boorstin’s observation that “Never did a more incongruous pair than Davy Crockett and George Washington live together in a national Valhalla.” And yet, as Boorstin admits, “both Crockett and Washington were popular heroes, and both emerged into legendary fame during the first half of the 19th 140 century.”
The parallel existence of these two contradictory traditions evinced the general pattern of American mythology: the denial of the necessity for choice. In fact, this mythology often portrayed situations requiring decision as temporary aberrations from American life’s normal course. By discouraging commitment to any single set of values, this mythology fostered an ideology of improvisation, individualism, and ad hoc solutions for problems depicted as crises. American writers have repeatedly attempted to justify this mythology in terms of material sources. Hence, Irving Howe’s “explanation”:
It is when men no longer feel that they have adequate choices in their styles of 150 life, when they conclude that there are no longer possibilities of honorable maneuver and compromise, when they decide that the time has come for “ultimate” social loyalties and political decisions— it is then that ideology begins to flourish. Ideology reflects a hardening of commitment, the freezing of opinion into system…. The uniqueness of our history, the freshness of our land, the plenitude of our resources—all these have made possible, and rendered plausible, a style of political improvisation and intellectual free-wheeling.
Despite such an account’s pretext of objectivity, its language betrays an acceptance of the
mythology it purports to describe: “honorable maneuver and compromise,” “hardening,” 160 “freezing,” “uniqueness,” “freshness,” and “plenitude” are all assumptive words from an ideology that denies its own status. Furthermore, even granting the legitimacy of the historians’ authenticating causes, we are left with a persisting mythology increasingly discredited by historical developments. (In fact, such invalidation began in the early nineteenth century, and perhaps even before.) The American mythology’s refusal to choose between its two heroes went beyond the normal reconciliatory function attributed to myth by Lvi-Strauss. For the American tradition not only overcame binary oppositions; it systematically mythologized the certainty of being able to do so. Part of this process involved blurring the lines between the two sets of heroes. First, legends often brought the solemn official heroes back down to earth, providing the sober Washington with the cherry tree, the prudent Franklin with illegitimate children, and even 170 the upright Jefferson with a slave mistress. On the other side, stories modified the outlaw hero’s most potentially damaging quality, his tendency to selfish isolationism, by demonstrating that, however reluctantly, he would act for causes beyond himself. Thus, Huck grudgingly helped Jim escape, and Davy Crockett left the woods for three terms in Congress before dying in the Alamo for Texas independence. In this blurring process, Lincoln, a composite of opposing traits, emerged as the great American figure. His status as president made him an ex officio official hero. But his Western origins, melancholy solitude, and unaided decision-making all qualified him as a member of the other side. Finally, his ambivalent attitude toward the law played the most crucial role in his complex legend. As the chief executive, he inevitably stood for the
The Thematic Paradigm
principle that “we are a nation of laws and not men”; as the Great Emancipator, on the other 180 hand, he provided the prime example of taking the law into one’s own hands in the name of some higher standard. Classic Hollywood’s gallery of composite heroes (boxing musicians, rebellious aristocrats, pacifist soldiers) clearly derived from this mythology’s rejection of final choices, a tendency whose traces Erikson detected in American psychology:
The process of American identity formation seems to support an individual’s ego identity as long as he can preserve a certain element of deliberate tentativeness of autonomous choice. The individual must be able to convince himself that the next step is up to him and that no matter where he is staying or going he always had the choice of leaving or turning in the opposite direction if he chooses to do so. In this 190 country the migrant does not want to be told to move on, nor the sedentary man to stay where he is; for the life style (and the family history) of each contains the opposite element as a potential alternative which he wishes to consider his most private and individual decision.
The reconciliatory pattern found its most typical incarnation, however, in one particular
narrative: the story of the private man attempting to keep from being drawn into action on any but his own terms. In this story, the reluctant hero’s ultimate willingness to help the community satisfied the official values. But by portraying this aid as demanding only a temporary involvement, the story preserved the values of individualism as well. 200
Like the contrasting heroes’ epitomization of basic American dichotomies, the reluctant hero story provided a locus for displacement. Its most famous version, for example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, offered a typically individualistic solution to the nation’s unresolved racial and sectional anxieties, thereby helping to forestall more systematic gov- ernmental measures. In adopting this story, Classic Hollywood retained its censoring power, using it, for example, in Casablanca to conceal the realistic threats to American self- determination posed by World War II.
Because the reluctant hero story was clearly the basis of the Western, American literature’s repeated use of it prompted Leslie Fiedler to call the classic American novels “disguised westerns.” In the movies, too, this story appeared in every genre: in Westerns, of 210 course (with Shane its most schematic articulation), but also in gangster movies (Angels with Dirty Faces, Key Largo), musicals (Swing Time), detective stories (The Thin Man), war films (Air Force), screwball comedy (The Philadelphia Story), “problem pictures” (On the Waterfront), and even science fiction (the Han Solo character in Star Wars). Gone with the Wind, in fact, had two selfish heroes who came around at the last moment, Scarlett (taking care of Melanie) and Rhett (running the Union blockade), incompatible only because they were so much alike. The natural culmination of this pattern, perfected by Hollywood in the 1930s and early 1940s, was Casablanca. Its version of the outlaw hero—official hero struggle (Rick versus Laszlo) proved stunningly effective, its resolution (their collaboration on the war effort) the prototypical Hollywood ending. 220
The reluctant hero story’s tendency to minimize the official hero’s role (by making him dependent on the outsider’s intervention) suggested an imbalance basic to the American mythology: Despite the existence of both heroes, the national ideology clearly preferred the outlaw. This ideology strove to make that figure’s origins seem spontaneous, concealing the
Robert B. Ray
calculated, commercial efforts behind the mythologizing of typical examples like Billy the Kid and Davy Crockett. Its willingness, on the other hand, to allow the official hero’s traces to show enables Daniel Boorstin to observe of one such myth, “There were elements of spontaneity, of course, in the Washington legend, too, but it was, for the most part, a self-conscious product.”
The apparent spontaneity of the outlaw heroes assured their popularity. By contrast, the official values had to rely on a rational allegiance that often wavered. These heroes’ different 230 statuses accounted for a structure fundamental to American literature, and assumed by Classic Hollywood: a split between the moral center and the interest center of a story. Thus, while the typical Western contained warnings against violence as a solution, taking the law into one’s own hands, and moral isolationism, it simultaneously glamorized the outlaw hero’s intense self- possession and willingness to use force to settle what the law could not. In other circumstances, Ishmael’s evenhanded philosophy paled beside Ahab’s moral vehemence, consciously recognizable as destructive.
D. H. Lawrence called this split the profound “duplicity” at the heart of nineteenth- century American fiction, charging that the classic novels evinced “a tight mental allegiance to a morality which all [the author’s] passion goes to destroy.” Certainly, too, this “duplicity” involved 240 the mythology’s pattern of obscuring the necessity for choosing between contrasting values. Richard Chase has put the matter less pejoratively in an account that applies equally to the American cinema:
The American novel tends to rest in contradictions and among extreme ranges of experience. When it attempts to resolve contradictions, it does so in oblique, morally equivocal ways. As a general rule it does so either in melodramatic actions or in pastoral idylls, although intermixed with both one may find the stirring instabilities of “American humor.”
250 Or, in other words, when faced with a difficult choice, American stories resolved it either
simplistically (by refusing to acknowledge that a choice is necessary), sentimentally (by blurring the differences between the two sides), or by laughing the whole thing off.
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