The hero as defined in the terms of a narrative is for the most part the catalyst that moves a story forward into a three act structure. Equilibrium, Conflict, Resolution. What is particular interesting in the context of American literature is the relationship that the Hero has to events outside the sphere of the piece of fiction it belongs to. In America, times change very quickly and this is reflected in the Literature, movies and theatre of the decade.
By examining the quality’s that the hero excerpts on the world around him or in the way the world around him excerpts itself on our hero, we can see the state of the current homogony and social norms. So by looking at how the hero plays his/her part in novels from each decade we see what characteristics and prevailing attitudes are there in the current social train of thought. This is useful to see the evolution of North America not only internally but how it relates to crisis externally i. e. the threat of communism, the great depression and the growing anti authoritan feelings that grew in the 1960’s.
The hero in times of international crisis will be in line with the government. In the cold war during the threat that Russia presented to the united states we see a resurgence of the “superhero” a force to be reckoned with, fighting on the behalf of the American ideals. While in the 1930’s we see the hero as a man fighting against “the man”. This I feel is because America is more internally focused. The great depression had left many people without money and without a source to gain money and so the hero was someone who turned their backs on societies norms and went (usually west) to find a better life.
This is most evident in the cowboy novels and movies that were abundant at the time. During the Vietnam war we see a strong anti war movement , the 1960’s became a time for sexual empowerment , experimentation, there was a bigger focus on individual freedoms( escape from the draft) and the hero in some books during this time reflects this idea of questioning authority, the idea that the government didn’t always know best i. e. Yossarian in Catch 22. So one could argue that the role of the hero is reinforce or question social norms depending on the current social climate within North America.
During the 1960’s in America there was a huge boom in anti government feeling. The Vietnam war was in full swing and the Hippies were becoming a movement in their own right. The phrase “make love not war” comes from this decade and best describes the feeling of the young people at the time. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller although written in the late 50’s was first published in the early 60’s. It was an experimental novel in regards to narrative swapping the time line around in places. The story revolves around Yossarian and his involvement during World War 2 as a bombardier in a B-52 flying missions over Italy.
Most Americans believed that World war 2 was a just war. Americans fought for good. Germans for the bad. Black and white. Case closed. Shut the book. With this was the idea that every American service man and women served with bravery and honour and never questioned why they were there and faced the possibility of death with dignity. Yossarian questioned his motives for being there every time he got a chance. He also actively tried to get out of doing his job consistently and with great vigour and faced with the idea of death with fear, bordering on terror.
“”History did not demand Yossarian’s premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war. “men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war. “ Yossarian as a character is deeply flawed one, but he is the main protagonist that carries the story forward.
We see most situations through his interpretation of them. His interpretation is one that would have relevance to the youth’s of America who were trying to escape the draft. ( the draft was a form of lottery, where young men were assigned numbers and the army pulled these numbers up randomly, if yours was called you had to go to war. )The fact that these young men had not chosen to go to war but had instead had had war forced upon them, they would have related to the character of Yossarian very easily, who did not see it as his duty to die for the sake of a government that he felt cared nothing for him or his own ambitions.
So Yossarian is a hero, a hero for the young uneducated men of America who could not escape the draft, and is that not the role of a hero in any form of narrative, to be relatable, to be inspirational. This is why I think the book was a love or hate book in America. On one side you have the critics who are the tradtionlists and on the other you have critic who are “new thinkers” both share a nationality but have differing opinions and ideas. So in this particular example In relation to the role of the American hero in American literature it shows us a changing mind set in America to war.
Remember some of the largest anti war rallies were held during this time. Yossarian’s Character throughout the book is anti war but anti war for his own selfish reasons, he doesn’t want to die. It reflects a hard truth that many young Americans were facing during that time and also reflects the growing anti authoritarian movement that was growing in America too. At the end of the “booming twenties” the economic climate changed. The great depression struck and large parts of the mid-west became a dustbowl. America turned in on itself as it tried to come to terms with a crisis on a scale that it had not seen before.
Gone were the days of care free consumerism to be replaced by a far more stringent mindset of thrift and “penny pinching”. The book Grapes of Wrath deals with this time in Oklahoma following a family as they leave everything they know in to go in search of work and a better life. The main protagonist is Tom Joan. A convicted felon he leaves prison to find his family. He arrives home to find their farm shut up and his entire family living with neighbours. Tom as a character is very anti government, he sees the trouble that has befallen him and his family as the fault if big business and cooperate greed along with federal corruption.
(Roosevelt’s new deal had seen legislation effectively cutting agricultural output to increase demand. )Despite the fact that Tom has been in prison and beats a policeman he is still seen as the hero of the novel. The 20’s had been a time of individual greed, on the east coast the people had become more isolated and the Family unit had taken a backseat in the strive for money and power. In Steinbeck’s book we see a strong family connection. Tom acts like the anchor for his family after his father dies of a stroke.
This in the hero reflects the want in America to turn from the ideals of the 20’s back to the family unit and better co-operation. Tom as a hero is always a little apart from society and even his own family to a certain extent. This is I think is America at the time feeling as though it needed an outside intervention. There was no trust for the people of authority and I think Tom represents “somebody else” who comes in to save the day. Not unlike a cowboy riding in from the hills to save the town only to feel like he doesn’t belong at the end and leaves. There a mirrors in this tale and that of the Grapes of Wrath.
Tom although bringing his family through to better waters and seeing them safely across country, he has a knack of attracting trouble and ultimately for the sake of the family decides it’s best if they part ways and goes to live in a cave. This I think reflects an introvert society, one that had looked for answers to a situation and found none. “They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat. “ Tom Joans reflects a harsh need for somebody to show the way. America during the thirties is a little rudderless.
Roosevelt’s new deal wasn’t not the game changer everybody thought it was. Tom is a force that takes things out of rut and paces them on a new line. This I think is what America was looking for in the 1930’s an event or person to change the fortunes of the many. Tom Joan is that outside force in the Grapes of Wrath, he comes in changes the bleak outlook of the family and leaves again. In the 1950’s at the beging of the cold war, paranoia starts to set in amoung the American populas. THe treat of communism is a very real danger to americans and we see institututions set up like The house of Unamerican Activity.
This instruction was basically there to root out communism in America. What it actually did was point fingers at anybody who remotely didn’t agree with the government or was in some way questioning their way of doing things. This became known as McCarthyism. The play the Crucible by Arthur Miller deals with the Salem witch trials. The play is a euphemism for McCarthyism from start to finish. The girls are caught practising “witchcraft” (which involved dancing around a fire a cooking frogs) the penalty for such is death, but admit to being a witch and you are spared and used to find other witches.
This is a time in America that was rife with paranoia because of the threat of Nuclear war and of a Russian invasion. Common sense has gone out the window and people who would normally be calm, concise people are forced( for the sake of saving their careers) to point fingers at people and call them communist. The main character John Procter seems to be a sensible man. He lives outside town and runs a farm with his wife. He is the hero of the novel but he is a reluctant hero. It’s only when his wife gets accused of witch craft do we see him become actively involved.
His role is to be the common sense in all the upset that was the trials. The hero appeals to the viewer because he has a sense of fairplay. He can see that the girls are playacting to save their own skin. America never got this during the time of the crucible. Arthur Miller through the medium of John Procter as the hero was trying to show how illogical all of the Communist allegations were. In the context of the hero in North American literature John Procter was there to give common perspective on an issue that had got far to one dimensional.
The role of the Hero in American literature changes depending on internal and external pressure on America at any given time. During the 1930’s the hero was a lone man who came in fixed things and left. In the 1950’s he was the superhero coming in to help the cause of America. In the 1960’s the hero was the man who stood up to the government. These are some examples but there are shades of grey and for every book that has a hero who is for the government there’ll be a hero who is against the government. It sometimes depends on what side of the fence you sit on.
The above examples were ones who would follow the main homogony of the decade with maybe an exception with the crucible. The hero in American literature is dependent on what America needs at the time. It is interesting to note that the Naughties, which has been a time of huge external pressure on America thorough the ever present threat of terriosm, the superhero movies have made a big resurgence. This I feel is because the needs of America are almost cyclical, and so we can hypostasis that because of the recession which has hit the global economy that maybe will have another hero like Tom Joan. Time will tell.