Whatever Happened to American Heroes

Roundup: Talking About History

Americans used to embrace heroes, such as George Washington, on the basis of achievement and gentility, but they now choose celebrities, like the American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, on account of personality, writes Amy Henderson, a historian at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery. The growth of the media, immigration, and urbanization at the beginning of the 20th century fueled the change, she writes.

In the republic's early days, Americans mythologized national heroes as men of virtue, self-reliance, and achievement to compensate for the country's short history. Washington was one of those "Great Men on a Pedestal," Ms. Henderson writes. By the 1850s, authors and essayists such as James Fenimore Cooper and Ralph Waldo Emerson furthered that view by inventing the "American Adam," a hero admired for his innocence, individuality, and idealism, Ms. Henderson writes.

But the communications revolution, combined with the growth of immigration and cities, replaced that character-driven definition of heroes with the personality-driven one of today. "The 'genteel tradition' that had been the core of America's mainstream culture dissolved in this new urban stew, replaced by a vernacular culture that rose from the streets," Ms. Henderson writes.

Vaudeville, movies, magazines, newspapers, radio, and, now, cable television all helped form today's celebrity culture, where entertainers dominate. Today's stars appeal to niche audiences, not the public at large. There is also less of a barrier between "heroes" and everyday people, in part because of the rise of reality television. Instead of casting "reverential and upward-looking" gazes upon celebrities, Americans now view them from an "eye-to-eye" level -- a shift Ms. Henderson calls "an immense psychological sea change."

The article,"From Barnum to 'Bling Bling': The Changing Face of Celebrity Culture," is available online.

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