As an instructor of Language Arts at New Haven’s High School in the Community, established in the early 1970s as an “alternative high school” designed to meet the challenges and opportunities of both New Haven’s at-risk and eccentrically advanced learners, I have decided upon an appropriate revision to the current half-credit Mythology course for upperclassmen, operating throughout the entire gamut of basic, intermediate, and advanced levels of academic performance. This revision will be to implement a curriculum change to the course that may serve as a greater impetus to learner interest and involvement, while enhancing learner intrinsic motivation for a course of study that can cater to cultural fascinations which lie beyond the sphere of the classroom.
In order to imbue or infuse this mythology course with a heightened degree of interest for learners, beyond the typical academic obligations of any school endeavor, the introduction of the notion of “the American anti-hero” can serve as a noteworthy adaptation and antithesis to the traditional tragic hero pedagogies featured in much of ancient and even modern classroom versions of the mythology of the Western canon.
Learners in this course, which alternates every marking period with a similar survey course on poetry, and which lasts for a ninety minute block period each day, will arrive to the class with a variety of interests, abilities and expectations. This unit’s focus on a thoroughly “Americanized” version of the tragic hero paradigm should foment greater enticement and productivity for learners, based on perceived relevance to learners’ extracurricular proclivities and a contemporary fascination with protagonists who rebel against established societal norms and authorities. A discussion of American gangster mythologies should serve to augment student appreciation for earlier classical renditions of such stories, while highlighting, through contrast, the conventional aspects of the tradition just as such mythologies also deviate from earlier conventions.
Within the context of my course, which surveys aspects of ancient Greek, Roman, Nordic, and even Eastern samplings of ancient and modern storytelling, it is often compelling to illustrate to students the primarily American affinity with the mythologizing of the gangster in both filmic and literary texts, as a counterpoint to the conventional heroic quests featured in more traditional writings derived from the Western canon, such as Homer’s
the story of
Perseus and Medusa,
the Old English
Morte D ‘Arthur
Most often in the evolution of the American heroic journey/quest, the archaic, anti-heroic, jaded figure of the “lone rider” who tames the wild West without a name and wields his own brand of vigilante justice (in the cinematic style of Alan Ladd, Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood, circa 1940 to mid-1960s), gives way to the alluring figure of the anti-heroic, romanticized gangster (a la Michael Corleone, Henry Hill, Tony Montana, Tony Soprano and Frank Lucas) who represents both an idealistic vision of romantic bandits and equalizes the scales of justice through his perversely vile codes of honor. Simultaneously, he explodes and reinforces ethnic stereotypes in presenting the often-complex facets of his personality to readers and audiences as a palatable, enticing, even attractive version of the “common” everyman.
Ultimately, the curriculum unit I propose for my mythology course on the topic of the American anti-hero/gangster will serve the needs and interests of my learners well, most of whom are products and inhabitants of an urban culture which finds value and relevance in the topics associated with this proposal (violence both peripheral and integral to the narrative drive, a psychologically tormented, complex hero immersed in the mire of his own flawed nature). In the hope that ancient and modern storytelling will have even further impact and value to my learners, I plan to pursue this subtopic of the American anti-hero within the context of my mythology class as a counterpoint to more traditional models; moreover, this curriculum unit will allow a thorough exploration of the guiding questions related to precisely how fictional narratives compel and broaden our perspectives while simultaneously limiting and confining our vision. This latter notion will serve as a central discussion point which I can then readily share and exploit at High School in the Community to enhance the scope, vision and perspective of my own learners as we examine the value and liability of the “truthfulness” of filmic and written mythological texts.
This “American Gangster” curriculum unit will consist of approximately four class sections of block period ninety-minute seminars in which students will enjoy exposure to and discussion of various samplings of versions of the lone anti-hero, a figure who exemplifies the deepest “American” yearnings for a free, yet ordered existence within the parameters of the hierarchies of his own criminal design. This figure also serves as a dramatic counterpoint to the traditional heroic code exemplar of the Arthurian “knight in shining armor” or to the ancient Homeric model of a moderately flawed, though highly idealistic vision of the “wanderer” who remains ever faithful (though not necessarily sexually so) to familial, spousal, and communal/ethnic commitments and codes of appropriate conduct while off on twenty year adventures (i.e., Odysseus).
In the early stages of the unit, the instructor and learners will explore the overarching, guiding questions posed by a study of the heroic journey, namely which universal stages or milestones of life are represented by the established heroic pattern, and which deviations from the pattern are posited in certain predominantly American texts. Additionally, an investigation as to the significance of such digressions from this typical pattern of the heroic code should expose or guide learners to the critical issue of whether or not a notably “Americanized” version of the ancient pattern has now evolved in our Postmodern era, not only as a mere deviation of the timeless hero journey so deftly exemplified by Joseph Campbell and his disciples, but more significantly as a novel, relevant variation of the code. Such a variant of the code is accessible to American audiences of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, readers who inhabit a culture replete with the visual imagery and triumphant commercial marketeering of the anti-heroic/ ethnic representation of the “rebellious hero” who defies the authoritarianism and the Euro-centric/ Anglo-centric locus of societal norms and expectations.
Through gradual, deliberate, Socratic discourse, as well as by individual and collaborative assignments which will heighten the investigation of critical elements of and deviations inherent in the established heroic formula (denoting a code of the “antihero” or villain as protagonist), learners will discover a variety of emblematic motifs, stages, talismans, and symbolic representations that are often evocative of the cultural/ethnic values from which specific narratives emerge. Anti-heroic texts are essentially variations on the themes of much more ancient texts. The culminating activity or assessment for learners of this unit will be to synthesize, create, and present to other classmates an original, unique version of the heroic or anti-heroic pattern represented in mythology, based on our analysis and application of such patterns studied in model texts. That is to say that students will compose an original mythology from class discourse, reflection, and interpretation of sample texts featuring the heroic quest (code).
From such an investigation of the anti-heroic spin on classical hero mythologies, learners will come to appreciate the role which the ethnic culture of both reader and storyteller plays in driving or informing particular heroic texts, while learners also
examine the curious distinctions, the similarities and differences which are exhibited by the texts, based on ethnic choices or stereotypes. Students will discover through close readings (both literary and filmic) that the ancient heroic patterns featured in Greek, Nordic, and Old English texts (i.e.,
) possess a resonance to current Postmodern audiences, suggesting an elasticity, a universal malleability of the heroic code which allows for a constriction or expansion of the code based on ethnic demands or expectations.