Whether the hero is Perseus, Superman, or the poet who pities mankind, his importance lies in his potential for recreating the perfect human community. In Classical and Biblical tradition the picture of the perfect human community is clearly set before us at the beginning of each myth—the Golden Age and Paradise. The vision presented is of a world that is totally intelligible. Blake understood well this absolute clarity and presented in his
Songs of Innocence
crystal-clear visions of the unfallen world, a world that would inevitably be lost in experience. It is the memory of the lost Golden Age that motivates the hero to recover his rightful heritage.
The American hero-quester is the inheritor of this tradition, with some important differences. American literature contains no hero who has completed his quest and returned to restore the perfect human community. We have no Odysseus or Aeneas to give final form to the American myth.
Leaves of Grass
(1885) tried to capture the scope of the American experience, but Whitman was limited to his age, and, however remarkably he captures the quality of response to that age, his vision was incomplete. Even
(1930), Hart Crane’s epic poem about America, which was a deliberate attempt to complete the American myth, finally fails. His use of the Brooklyn Bridge as the mythic symbol of man’s quest for unity with the natural world around him lacked the authority and scope of a true epic like the
, which provided the inspiration for Crane’s poem. Instead, the bridge settled back into what it has always been for Americans, an iron passage from Manhattan to Brooklyn and back.
One major cause for the incompleteness of the American myth is history. Virgil had the advantage of writing at the end of a long period of meaningful history. His
is really a celebration of a goal achieved, the end of a long journey which began at Troy and ended with the apotheosis of Augustan Rome. Early American writers had no such historical advantage. Even after two hundred and fifty years we would still be hard put, I think, to find any American fiction where the journey is completed.
Henderson The Rain King
come close, but the return of the hero in each is an ambiguous triumph, finally ironic and contradictory.
One major strain of the American tradition sees life and history as just beginning. Americans have always taken the term “New World” with literal seriousness. America is the New Jerusalem, The Kingdom of Heaven brought from within each man to earth, and expressed in the forms of our American society. America was perceived not as paradise regained, but as the original paradise, a world starting up again, a second chance for the human race. American tradition arises out of the notion that we were truly the chosen people destined to fulfill the promise of Eden so clumsily fumbled in the old world of Europe.
This sense of beginning anew gave rise to a new type of hero. He had shaken off the baggage of the past, and could be seen standing at the threshold of experience, looking hopefully out at the Westward future which lay before him. Characteristic of the new hero is his innocence, identified most readily with, as R.W.B. Lewis observes in his
, Adam before the fall. He is self-reliant and self-motivated; the Emersonian figure, “the simple genuine self against the whole world.” This view of the innocent American hero is best represented in the works of Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman. Heroes in their own works, their quests took them into garden-like places where they sought to preserve the vision of America’s destiny. Soon, however, time and space brought an end to the vision of innocence and newness. America was moving west, and conflict inevitably arose at the point where the advancing frontier and the wilderness collided. It is from the opposition of city and country, of civilization and the wilderness, of the restraint of custom and the freedom of the Western expanses that the American hero-quester emerges. What the hero did when he could no longer retreat into the womb-like world of Thoreau’s Pond, but had to step into the breach between the new and the old set the pattern for the American literary experience to the present day.
The first hero to take the plunge is Cooper’s Deerslayer. His journey is a qualified one, however, because the forest into which he enters remains free of the moral complexities of the fallen world. Deerslayer is still the Emersonian figure. The only change is that he is free of the constraints of space; he has been liberated from the city and ventures like an innocent Robin Hood into the still-green world of the garden-forest outside of time. It is not until Hawthorne and Melville arrive on the literary scene that the American hero-quester moves into a darker universe. The “single genuine self against the world” becomes the solitary self pitted against an alien, hostile, or indifferent universe.
As the picture of the American hero changes so does the imagery associated with the forest. No longer a place of communion, the forest becomes a place where things are tested out, a place of exile where initiation is undergone and from which return must be made. Located firmly in a world burdened by time and experience the ambiguous setting of the forest becomes a place of moral choice. In the shaping of the American character the forest image is pivotal. The forest is the central image of the American Dream. The image is of the endless expanse of Western wilderness where one could always dream of starting over. America’s mythic destiny—a place of second chances—is confirmed in the dream. As a literary symbol, the forest became the metaphoric space where the American hero-quester undergoes his initiation.
At the point where both these images meet—probably at the frontier—the shape of the initiation experience of the American hero-quester begins to form. It is the picture of the solitary figure set against the backdrop of a small village at the edge of an inviting but dangerous wilderness. In story after story, the movement from village to forest, from city to country, burns a path across the literary landscape as one character after another attempts to come to terms with his destiny. In one of Hawthorne’s most powerful and poetic stories, “Young Goodman Brown,” Young Goodman is representative of this picture of the heroquester. He is impelled to journey away from home and community, away from his wife and the everyday comforts of social routine into the forest of the night. It is a journey into the heart of darkness where he is forced to realize man’s true nature.
What is remarkable about the stories of initiation is the feeling of inevitability that compels the hero to face his fate or destiny. Together with the sense of “out there” or a “place entered into” which characterizes the testing-ground place for the quester is the correlative sense of “something that must be done.” For the American hero the choice of whether to enter the wilderness or not becomes a decision of whether to comfront reality. Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee” presented a picture of the tragic consequence for two lovers who were unable to face the harshness of reality. Their attempt to preserve the childhood world of their idealized love brought death for Annabel Lee and a life of suffering for her lover. Henry James’ American innocent, Daisy Miller, is another who doesn’t survive the collision with the world. Her suffering and death expose the vulnerability of innocence. Daisy’s journey into the wilderness landscape of Europe, as hostile an environment as any Hawthorne forest of the night, demonstrates that initiation does not always lead to wisdom and maturity.
The inevitability of initiation has two modes of motivation. The first mode presents the initiate’s destiny as coming from outside. In William Faulkner’s
initiation takes the form of tradition which compels the hero, Issac McCaslin, to participate in the bear runt. Issac’s quest is into she forest, where his voluntarily participation in the bear hun; is taken on as a ritual proof of manhood. The frequency with which the hunt provides the ritual as the framework for initiation in both fiction and real life attests to how deeply the hunt is ingrained in the American imagination. Norman Mailer’s
Why Are We In Vietnam
and the movie
both make powerful statements about the central role the ritual of the hunt has in shaping the mind of the American character, and its destructive impact when raised to the level of experience. Another example of this first mode is Richard Wright’s “The Street,” the story of a young boy growing up in Memphis. He has his initiation thrust upon him by his mother, who refuses to let him return home until he has fulfilled his quest—to bring home the groceries. He can only return, however, after he has faced a gang of boys who prevent him from completing his journey. The pressures of family and society force Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, and the nameless hero of
to undertake their quests. The need for a wife forces Leo Finkle in Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” to seek out a matchmaker.
On the other hand, sometimes the inevitability comes from some inner compulsion to obey a law of one’s own nature—to follow what Abraham Maslow (
Toward a Psychology of Being
) calls our “intrinsic conscience. This compulsion to be true to one’s own nature, the sense of “calling,” is what forces Henderson, in Bellow’s novel, to follow the Siren-like call “I want, I want” of his inner voice to Africa. What is sacrificed in each of these quest stories is innocence: the comfort, protection, ease, and simple pleasures of childhood. Because the hero must separate himself from his every-day place, initiation is one of the loneliest experiences a human being can undergo.
The possibility of physical pain is also part of the initiation process. In the rite of passage undergone by young Australian Aborigines (the movie
t portrayed this experience), physical pain and even death awaited the young man who had to survive alone in the bush for six months before he could return and take his rightful place in his village. The boy in
has a very close brush with death, when, alone in the woods, he confronts the bear. Death awaits Billy Budd after his confrontation with the evil Claggart. Physical suffering takes place in Wright’s “The Street,” when Richard has to defend himself with a club from the gang of boys who harass him. In Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” a terrifying story involving ritualistic murder, a boy must make a choice between blood loyalty and following his own values. The boy’s initiation into the real world is only accomplished by the sacrifice of his father, a horrible price to pay but inevitable, if he is to pass from one stage of life to another. Initiation in this story can be viewed as a way of coping, not succeeding.
And finally, besides loss and sacrifice, there is also important gain associated with initiation. Once the ordeal has been undergone, the hero feels as though he has been reborn. Both Richard in “The Street” and Issac in
return from their ordeals. Richard returns triumphant not only over the “mob-monster” but also over his own fear.
Issac must face the world of the forest; for him, it is not slaying the “bear monster,” but confronting it, that matters; it is not the bear but his own fear he must overcome. Both boys become more mature as the result of their experiences. One becomes a man because he fights, and the other because he doesn’t.
All the heroes who return from their initiations share in the secret knowledge of what it means to be human. Each has undergone and survived a version of the larger journey through life.