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American Idols

Excerpts from historian Dixon Wecter’s 1941 study, The Hero in America.

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Illustration by Tony Millionaire  

Hero-worship answers an urgent American need. The fan and the autograph hunter, now imitated elsewhere, are as native to the United States as the catbird and the Catawba grape. To fix our relation with greatness by means of a signature in an album, a lock of hair, a photograph, or a baseball that has scored a human run; to haunt stage doors and entries to locker-rooms; to pursue our favorites with candid cameras and sound recorders, invading their meditations and their honeymoons—this passion has made us the premier nation of hero-worshippers. Others, of course, have like impulses. The phlegmatic Cockney collects Famous Cricketers from the coupons in cigarette packets; the Spaniard helps to carry off a great matador on his shoulder. But only in the United States has the greeter become a profession and the ovation a fine art.

Homage to heroes is a vital part of our patriotism. Patriotism springs traditionally from love of place; it is a filial relation toward mother country or fatherland. The earth upon which our feet are planted, from which we draw our livelihood, becomes an over-soul, the greatest hero of our national loyalties. The ‘patria’ of the ancient Romans, ‘this precious stone set in a silver sea’ of Shakespeare’s England, and ‘la belle France’ of many generations, sprang from this piety of place … But we are a restless people, moving from New York to San Francisco as our job demands, and in old age deserting the windswept homestead for a sunny bungalow in Florida. We have lost something of that warm devotion to the soil which stirred the embattled farmers of 1776, or even the agrarian days of Andrew Jackson and young Lincoln.

… Because of these things, our collective symbols—the Flag, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the touchstone of our heroes—are more precious than such institutions are in the Old World. They nourish our sense of national continuity … But after reviewing these symbols of government, one must not forget an equally vital force in building our concept of what is ‘American.’ It comes from the voices of our heroes, who, we like to think, are our counsellors from beyond the grave—Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln—directing us with a wisdom hallowed by time. Europeans do not invoke the spirit of Charlemagne, of Pitt, of Danton, of Garibaldi, as we appeal to our national heroes. In a sense they have ceased to be persons, and have become institutions. Like Alma Mater, or the True Church, or America the Beautiful, they have grown into talismans with a strong emotional tone. There words are like holy writ.

… To some people, sainthood or godhead may seem terms too strong for a description of American hero-worship. We like to think we are a hard-headed nation of realists. But our folk attitude toward our greatest heroes approaches the religious. We insist upon stainless perfection for our greatest idols—like Washington, Lincoln, Lee—and many of our biographers, seeking to make them into Christlike characters, have succeeded only in converting them into Sunday school prigs.


From The Hero in America: A Chronicle of Hero-Worship, by Dixon Wecter (Scribner, 1941). Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.


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