Imaginary Heroes

Imaginary Heroes

In the 1930s in America, an ongoing debate raged over the proper means of representing a complex problem. A sweeping depression had brought the country to its knees. New combinations of photographs and text emerged. The images and texts have so deeply influenced our consciousness of this time that it can truly be said that our memory of the thirties exists in black and white. Beyond the specific poles of reference that exist in texts like The Grapes of Wrath and Tobacco Road, or images like Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, we live immersed in a culture that carries proudly the heroic models established at this time. It was during this time that we truly became a nation, and the individuality of heroes became displaced by a new collective idea of the American people as the heroic representatives of liberty standing against the tests of misfortune.

An originary myth such as this is fragile. It can easily be argued that nationalism was born long before the twentieth century, and that this perception of collective heroism is merely another permutation of the modern triumph of propaganda, and of socially engineered identity. However, in the texts and images of the 1930s there exists evidence of the struggles of representation and authority, of heroic valuation and critical despair. To understand the emergence of not only new heroic models but new genres of authority, a deep genealogy reaching back hundreds of years before this time is necessary. Modes and standards of heroism do not spring forth from this time uncontested and fully formed, but rather by careful choices of form and function, of value and deprecation. In the turbulent years between two world wars, mythic models of heroic behavior that would carry a nation through the subsequent decades of peace emerged. But they are not without precedent. The roots are deep, predating the discovery of the continent and its colonization. They reach into the roots of storytelling itself, and any account of these roots is indeed, a story in itself. Rather than beginning at the beginning, perhaps it is better to define an end point.

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Survivor, 18th Century Style

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was an instant success upon its publication in April of 1719. Four editions sold out before the sequel, Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was issued in August. Its fame was not fleeting, and the myth of the runaway who finds himself in solitude due to tragic circumstances and is later rewarded has persisted across time. Crusoe is the prodigal son of Milton’s new Christian hero. The story is not new, and owes much to John Bunyan’s allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress of 1678. Told in first person narrative, Defoe’s achievement is marked by a departure from indirect language into an experiential norm, where the locus of description is not mythic precedent, but immediate experience. Experience is related with matter-of-fact precision, and inventories of provisions and delineation of seasons. Progress emerges from commonplace facts, a bible, and the providence of nature. Like Behn, Defoe removes himself from the narrative:

The Story is told with Modesty, with Seriousness, and with a religious Application of Events to the Uses to which wise Men always apply them (viz.) to the Instruction of others by this Example, and to justify and honour the Wisdom and Providence in all the Variety of our Circumstances, let them happen how they will.

The Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it: And however thinks, because all such things are dispatch’d, that the Improvement of it, as well to the Diversion, as to the Instruction of the Reader, will be the same; and as such, he thinks, without further Compliment to the World, he does them a great Service in the Publication. (Preface, Robinson Crusoe)

Rather than the top-down structure of the romantic hero, which lends itself so neatly to a tragic view of degeneration, the new Protestant hero of Defoe rises from low circumstances to triumph. The pursuit is clearly a heroic model meant to both entertain and instruct. The claim to history is of a different form— it is a experiential rather than genealogical. Through mastery and alliance with nature, Crusoe survives to tell his story, while Defoe recedes into the shadows. Edgar Allan Poe claims:

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Birth of the Critic

The Birth of the Critic

Aristocratic poetic culture of the sort celebrated by Sydney collided with a rising popular culture on the restoration stage. In 1668, not long after the foundation of the Royal Society, another position authorized by the crown was formalized— the poet laureate. John Dryden, poet and dramatist, offered an entirely new model for the hero. Dryden was caught between the ancient and the modern, and responded with a new role for the hero. Rather than a militaristic hero, or a martyred saint/hero, or an impartial poetic hero, the hero becomes the critic.

The critic was seen as intermediary between producers and consumers of literary products. On the restoration stage, audiences would sit directly on the stage and were notoriously free with their criticisms of the product. Pamphlets and broadsides multiplied with deep criticisms of literary, political, and social concerns of the day. Who had the highest authority to judge the truth of these claims? The aristocratic model offered by Sydney contains the seed of one solution— the producer of the products. Any poet must first judge his own products, and thus if the poet was great then he was in the best position to judge. After the reopening of the theaters, the crucial question was a deeply historical one— which model should English drama follow, the classical tradition or the example set by Shakespeare, Jonson, and Fletcher?

Flouting the classical divisions between comedy and tragedy, and the unities of time and place was a constant source of debate. Dryden’s An Essay on Dramatic Poesy explores these issues in a distinctly modern form. It is neither a Platonic dialogue nor a formal treatise like Sydney’s. Instead, it is a drama without being a play. Four speakers debate the issues, which revolve around integrity. The problem is ultimately the definition of the play. Does a play follow rules, or is it “a just and lively image of human nature?” The shift occurring in the seventeenth century was not only to a greater “realism,” but to redefine of what realism is. If there are rules, who makes them? Royal and poetic authorities were tenuous and fleeting, and Dryden lost his laureateship with the accession of William and Mary. The redefinition of time, space, and realism was a battle fought among the critics of the popular press. Though he was opposed to critics, Jonathan Swift certainly was a critic.

The Battel of the Books addresses the same crisis dealt with by Dryden in An Essay on Dramatic Poesy but to a different conclusion. In the mock library battle, the ancient works triumph over the upstart moderns. In his introductory apology to these works, Swift proposes that “Wit is the noblest and most useful Gift of humane Nature.” The duty of the witty critic is to deflate. And yet, in his dedication “to His Royal Highness Prince Posterity” Swift undercuts the role of critic as mediator, damning it in no uncertain terms:

WE confess Immortality to be a great and powerful Goddess, but in vain we offer up to her our Devotions and our Sacrifices, if Your Highness’s Governour, who has usurped the Priesthood, must by an unparallel’d Ambition and Avarice, wholly intercept and devour them.

In Tale of a Tub the heroic role of the critic is elevated and deflated simultaneously. It is elevated in the sense that the scathing attack on the emergent authority of critics is itself criticism. While Swift celebrates the ancient, he satirizes the modern penchant for endless apologies, panegyrics, and inflations to the front of books. In the third piece of front matter, the preface, Swift marks out the heroic nature of the satirical critic:

Nature her self has taken order, that Fame and Honour should be purchased at a better Pennyworth by Satyr, than by any other Productions of the Brain; the World being soonest provoked to Praise by lashes, as men are to Love.

In A Digression concerning Criticks Swift proposes three critical types: the critic as judge who praises or acquits, who only reads to censure or reproof. Second, there is a critic who reads to restore “Antient Learning from the Worms, and Graves, and Dust of Manuscripts.” Given the nature his own work in the volume, though he ridicules it, Swift seems to fit his own satiric categories. In his third division, he uses the heroic tools of a critic to lampoon the authorizing modes of romance— the heroic genealogy.

THE Third and Noblest sort, is that of the TRUE CRITICK whose Original is the most Antient of all. Every True Critick is a Hero born, descending in a direct Line from a Celestial Stem, by Momus and Hybris, who begat Zoilus, who begat Tigellius, who begat Etcetera the Elder who begat B— — tl— y and Rym— r, and W— tton, and Perrault, and Dennis, who begat Etcetera the Younger.

The critic is descended from the Greek god of blame and mockery Momus, and the goddess of insolence, excessive pride, and violence— Hybris. Their offspring is traced to a carping grammarian, Zoilus, used as a foil by Plato and Isocrates, and then to Tigellius, a friend of Julius Caesar, who was a musician and a talented singer. The modern critic is thus positioned as both a practitioner, and as a rule maker. Swift moves quickly to connect this heroic stature with heroic virtue, and points directly to the self-involved priesthood of criticism emergent at the turn of the eighteenth century.

Swift’s view of humanity’s progress is clearly tragic, unlike the affirmative Puritan vision of Defoe. Romantic genealogy, the dominant trope for centuries, was out— though it continued to reassert itself in the poetic genealogy represented through imitation. New authorizing tropes emerged, and in Defoe the new tropes were used both as an assertion of a new realism, and a new dependence on testimony as evidence.

Shaping Time

Shaping Time

The conception of time in allegory, romance, and epic was nearly amorphous. A causal chain authorized through genealogy was a common organizing locus. However, the dramatic components of comedy and tragedy imply particular shapes for time. In comedy, time is progressive and improving. A series of events that includes setbacks, results in a positive result— often marked in Shakespeare’s plays by a wedding, a form of birth. A downward spiral, usually resulting in death or exile, marks tragedy. The criticism of chronicle as a genre, which reoccurs constantly, is found in its flatness— the chronicle recites facts without imposition of purpose. In this sense, the disappearance of the chronicle in the seventeenth century and its replacement with history is an attempt to provide a shape for time. Genres are seldom pure, and bleed together promiscuously.

There is perhaps no greater demonstration of this promiscuity than Daniel Defoe. Best known for one of the world’s most successful books, Robinson Crusoe, Defoe was the author of over two hundred books and pamphlets. His first successful long composition, An Essay on Projects published in 1698, argues for the establishment of an academy where no one would be admitted but the learned, and “yet none, or but very few, whose business or trade was learning.” There would be room in Defoe’s academy for “neither clergymen, physician, or lawyer”— and its purpose would be to provide sufficient authority for the use of words. In essence, Defoe calls for a new authority, outside the established realm of King, court, and clergy for education. He divides it equally between nobility, “private gentlemen,” and a remaining third to be determined by merit alone. Defoe’s goal was to bring “our English tongue to a due perfection.” He also argues for the construction of an “Academy for Women” where men are excluded— where virtue might rule over custom. While clearly working within custom, Defoe moves to redefine it.

Defoe’s view of history was clearly progressive, though his fame was not established until he published a poem in defense of King William III, True-Born Englishman in 1701. Defoe was not an educated man, and his early failures in business were later repeated through mistakes in publishing. His 1702 satirical pamphlet The Shortest Way with the Dissenters landed him in jail, and in the pillory for sedition. However, gaining the support of Robert Harley in 1704, Defoe became a secret political agent as well as creating a venue for his essays, The Review. The Review changed its politics with each ministry until 1713. After that, his primary task as a secret agent was that of editor, posing as a dissident while editing the opposition pamphlets to keep them ineffectual. Eventually, Defoe’s duplicity became obvious and at the age of sixty he was forced to turn to other means of income through faked confessions and autobiographies. Robinson Crusoe, published anonymously in 1719 to cement its stature as a “True History,” is a fiction passed as moral truth, and the fruition of Milton’s call for a new Christian hero.

Jonathan Swift worked for Defoe’s political patron, Robert Harley, as an unpaid propagandist. The loyalties are difficult to sort out. Harley was a Tory, with Whig sympathies— Defoe was a Whig, and Swift a Tory. The political climate was nothing if not promiscuous as well. While Defoe dabbled in satire, Swift was its master. The progressive, comedic plots of Defoe find their tragic counterpoint in Swift who represents the emergent customs, and battles for authority in an entirely different perspective. Though they were both outsiders working to subvert an existing order, they had nothing in common besides Harley. Their heroic models, their view of history, and their sense of authority were miles apart. Swift’s Tale of a Tub, The Battel of the Books and A Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit, published together in 1704, systematically undercut the complex heroic rhetoric and structures of authority in the early eighteenth century through an established restoration form— the satire.



The defining characteristic of the novel offered by Ian Watt is its realism. In a broad sense, the novel represents a shift in representation away from allusive generality into particularity. Watt suggests that this particularity is of a unique spatio-temporal type, tied deeply to a new sense of time. Citing John Locke’s contention that identity can only be defined in relation with memories of past thought and action, Watt draws a dividing line between the historical consciousness of Shakespeare and the early eighteenth century. His contention is that the world of ancient Greece and Rome, and that of the Plantagenets and Tudors, were so close that Shakespeare’s worldview was “a-historical.” This seems essentially incorrect. While the labeling of his plays, as “histories, comedies, and tragedies” is a textual phenomenon outside their first performances, historical consciousness was indeed a part of the English Renaissance.

Sir Philip Sydney, a prototypical aristocratic hero— soldier, statesmen, and poet— aligns himself with Aristotle’s Poetics by claiming that history is an “inferior form.” In his 1598 Apology for Poetry he denigrates the role of history as a moral teacher:

The historian scarcely giveth leisure to the moralist to say much, but that he, laden with old mouse-eaten records, authorizing himself (for the most part) upon other histories, whose greatest authorities are built upon the notable foundation of hearsay ; having much ado to accord differing writers and to pick truth out of partiality; better acquainted with a thousand years ago than with the present age, and yet better knowing how this world goeth than his own wit runneth; curious for antiquities and novelties; a wonder to young folks and a tyrant in table talk, denieth, in a great chafe, that any man for the teaching of virtue, and virtuous actions is comparable to him.

Histories composed across the seventeenth century are a peculiar blend of direct documentation and the sort of hearsay and reliance on previous histories that Sydney indicts. Poetic heroism is proposed as the antidote for unreliable history— “for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.” Placing poetry above the obscure teachings of philosophy, Sydney rests heroism at the center of moral instruction:

But if anything be already said in in the defense of sweet Poetry, all concurreth to the maintaining of the heroical, which is not only a kind, but the best and most accomplished kind of poetry. For as the image of each action stirreth and instructeth the mind, so do the lofty image of such worthies most inflameth the mind with the desire to be worthy, and informs with counsel how to be worthy.

The “true history” which surfaces mid-century, based on supposed first-hand accounts recombines the heroic consciousness of poetry with documented authority. The spatio-temporal shift noted by Watt does occur, not as a move from an “a-historical” perspective to a historical one, but through a redefinition of what constitutes authority and heroism. The shift begins close to the middle of the seventeenth century, as Descartes places experiential knowledge, and thus human testimony, closer to the center of authority, and Milton redefines the Christian hero in Paradise Lost.

Romantic epic — the staple of Sydney, Spenser, and most medieval quest-romance— was focused on combat. Milton’s muse, in the opening lines of Book IX, denigrates the traditional celebration of “fabl’d knights / In Battels feingn’d” instead privileging the Puritan values of patience and “Heroic Martyrdom.” The exhaustion of the romantic model of heroism, anticipated comically by Cervantes in Don Quixote (1615), is complete. Epic heroism had long been constituted historically through genealogy, first originating from gods, i.e., Heracles, and Gilgamesh— two thirds divine, one third human— and later becoming genealogies of evil, such as the monster Grendel in Beowulf, descended from Cain. Romance and epic were authorized with the historic authority of genealogy, but not with direct temporal experience or realism. Allegory was marked by an oblique sort of linguistic genealogy, signaled by a typological similarity of naming. These conventions eroded, creating new temporal and linguistic modes of authorizing texts, new particularities in naming, and redefinitions of heroic status in the complex atmosphere after the restoration.

Romance and chivalry were dead, but they would not die without a fight.

Proving it

Proving it

The struggles surrounding the restoration of the monarchy in England were not a static backdrop for the emergence of new genres. In a deep sense, the struggle was for a redefinition of history. On the surface return to the historically recognized lineage of kings represented a return to continuity, where Cromwell’s commonwealth was seen as merely an interregnum— a gap in history. However, while Charles II had historical “truth” on his side, the public perceptions of his desires were not altruistic. As Hume observed, the reign of Charles II was a lapse in puritanical progress toward social perfection. Rochester’s A Satyr on Charles II from 1674 puts it bluntly:

Nor are his high desires above his strength:
His scepter and his prick are of a length;
And she may sway the one who plays with th’ other.
And make him little wiser than his brother.
Poor prince! thy prick, like thy buffoons at Court,
Will govern thee because it makes thee sport. (10-15)

The conflict between historically constituted truth and virtue was tense. After the theaters reopened, restoration dramatists like Behn pushed the boundaries of polite expression. Gradual deregulation of the press beginning with the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1681 bolstered the burgeoning publishing industry. Though it did not eradicate the monopoly of the Stationer’s Company, established by Queen Mary in 1557, it did contribute to a looser atmosphere for publishing works critical of the government or the church. The licentiousness and religious tolerance of Charles II was in some ways just what England needed. The restored monarchy was more limited in its power, and both Parliament and Charles II regulated liberty. In 1742, Hume reflected:

The spirit of the people must frequently be rouzed, in order to curb the ambition of the court; and the dread of rouzing this spirit must be employed to prevent that ambition. Nothing so effectual to this purpose as the liberty of the press, by which all the learning, wit, and genius of the nation may be employed on the side of freedom, and every one be animated to its defence. As long, therefore, as the republican part of our government can maintain itself against the monarchical, it will naturally be careful to keep the press open, as of importance to its own preservation.

The historical rights of succession were challenged as never before. Charles II dissolved Parliament in 1679 when the ascension of James II was threatened. James exacerbated the dissention between royalists and the dissenters, by promoting Catholics to prominent positions of power. The entire structure of religious, historical, and political power was in flux. Residue of the patronage system makes it difficult to discern the true position of the writers like Behn. After the rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth, Behn praised the loyalty of Judge Jeffries who presided over the trial of the “Bloody Assizes,” and tortured, killed, or exiled the protestant rebels. Her dependence on some patronage, however slight, may have colored her writing more than any Catholic sympathies.

It was not until the Glorious Revolution deposing James II that placed William III and Mary II on the throne that the balance of power tipped in the direction of Parliament and the Protestants once again. The Bill of Rights enacted during their reign placed even more limits on the exercise of Royal power. During the reign of the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, the two-party system firmly became established and the first English copyright law was enacted, moving more power into the public sphere. The Statute of Anne in 1709, protected writers for the first time in English history, establishing their rights to texts for a period of fourteen years. Authorship for the first time carried legal authority. The Stuart reign across the seventeenth century was filled with revolutions in domestic policy. The succession of German Georges that followed in the House of Hanover took a largely hands-off approach to the press and to domestic affairs.

Historical consciousness was on the rise throughout the eighteenth century. The loss and subsequent rediscovery of classical texts at the onset of the early modern period made observations like Behn’s demarcation of “Ancient and Modern Writers” commonplace. The appeal to history becomes much more than the assertion of a royal line. The authorized translation of the Bible into English by the first Stuart monarch, James I, destabilized religious authority because the public was able to offer its own interpretations of scriptural authority. The restored Stuart monarchy of Charles II chartered Royal Society Of London For The Promotion Of Natural Knowledge in 1662. The pursuit of natural knowledge was later subsumed into the label of natural history. While the Royal Society is generally thought of as the landmark birth of modern science, science was inescapably linked with theology— the aim was to find the hand of God in nature, to stabilize theology through new, technological means. Quickly, it moved to promote its findings through one of the earliest examples of a magazine— Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society founded in 1665. Religion and science in the seventeenth century are inseparable, and new authority was to be found in nature— natural history.

The burden of proof rests firmly in history. But it is a redefined history, where “truth” depends on evidence, and the rules of evidence become deeply defined by the rise of a popular, capitalist press much more than any chartered royal society. The “true history” is transformed into the novel, where emotional appeal fosters new dialogues during the emergence of empiricism. The line between fact and fiction is blurry, and the devices of fiction accentuate assertions of new kinds of truth.

Sexing it

Sexing it

Language is one of the oldest tools of representation. The elder sophist Protagoras is credited with gendering language in an effort to make it more precise. Like Prodicus, Gorgias, and other sophists, Protagoras is mostly remembered as a foil for Socrates. His thoughts on gendered language are lost. But with the recovery of many classical texts in the seventeenth century, the impact of the classical heritage and the power relations of gender are heard deeply in Aphra Behn’s introduction to The Lucky Chance (ca.1686):

All I ask is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part the Poet in me, (if any such you will allow me) to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv’d in, to take those Measures that both the Ancient and Modern Writers have set me, and by which they have pleas’d the World so well: If I must not, because of my Sex, have this Freedom, but that you will usurp all to your selves; I lay down my Quill, and you shall hear no more of me, no not so much as to make Comparisons, because I will be kinder to my Brothers of the Pen, that they have been to a defenceless Woman; for I am not content to write for a third day only. I value Fame as much as if I had been a Hero; and if you rob me of that, I can retire from the ungrateful World, and scorn its fickle Favours.

Behn had many strikes against her in the pursuit of heroic status. First, she was a tremendously successful restoration playwright. This was a difficult feat, given that the compensation for writers consisted only of the third day’s receipts for the play, and often plays did not even manage a three-day run. Even outside the sexual politics she inscribes, because she was one of the first women writers to earn a living solely through writing— rather than a husband, or patron’s support— Behn was excluded from heroic consideration. The patronage system had long supported a separation of artist from the tawdry business of earning a living. In his monumental History of England in six volumes of 1778, David Hume takes Charles II to task for his failure to support “men of superior genius,” saying that “most of the celebrated writers of this age remain monuments of genius, perverted by indecency and bad taste.” Behn is not mentioned, however one of her heroes, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, is:

The very name of Rochester is offensive to modest ears; yet does his poetry discover much energy of style and such poignancy of satire, as give ground to imagine what so fine a genius, had he fallen in a more happy age, and had followed better models, was capable of producing. The ancient satyrists often used great liberties in their expressions; but their freedom no more resembles the licentiousness of Rochester, than the nakedness of an Indian does that of a common prostitute.

The dame Virtue, modest and clothed in white, continues to define the aristocratic notion of the hero. Hume’s comparison of the licentiousness of Rochester that of “a common prostitute” illustrates the tension between an emergent market economy and a decaying system of patronage. Writers no longer lived in gilded cages, but were thrust into markets to compete for fame and love among a common populace. In an oblique way, it was the failure of the government of Charles II— who failed to compensate Aphra Behn for her short career as a spy in 1666— forced her into debtor’s prison, and then into the marketplace to become a popular playwright. However, it is not the political intrigue after the restoration that is of abiding concern to the development of documentary practice, but the form of Aphra Behn’s prose work Oroonoko which best illustrates the shift in modes of representation.

Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave. A True History (1688) sits on an uncomfortable border between the genres of travel writing, history, and the novel. “True Histories” were meant to be both entertaining and informative, assuming implicitly that testimony was the truest way to represent a claim to truth. The position of the narrator is a curious one. The narrator is a character in the story, an eyewitness to truth— but unlike later novelistic approaches, the narrator is neither omniscient nor central to the action. The narrator is a disinterested bystander, an outsider whom we can trust to tell the truth of the situation. Or at least, this is the claim:

I do not pretend, in giving you the History of this Royal Slave, to entertain my Reader with the Adventures of a feign’d Hero, whose Life and Fortunes Fancy may manage at the Poet’s Pleasure; nor in relating the Truth, design to adorn it with any Accidents, but such as arriv’d in earnest to him: And it shall come simply into the World, recommended by its own proper Merits, and natural Intrigues; there being enough of Reality to support it, and to render it diverting, without the Addition of Invention.

I was my self an Eye-Witness to a great part, of what you will find here set down: and what I cou’d not be a Witness of, I receiv’d from the Mouth of the chief Actor in this History, the Hero himself, who gave us the whole Transactions of his Youth; and though I shall omit, for Brevity’s sake, a thousand little Accidents of his Life, which, however pleasant to us, where History was scarce, and Adventures very rare; yet might prove tedious and heavy to my Reader, in a World where he finds diversions for Every Minute, new and strange.

The documentary writer poses as a direct witness to the events, and as an editor of the tedium. In a world filled with the “strange and new” something must always be left out, for the sake of brevity. The fundamental problem is one of trust, of authority. Why should a representation be believed, amid the competition for a reader’s attention? Perhaps the answer rests firmly in the construction of the hero as an object of love. Along with a new print culture came a new moral purposes, new models, and new technologies of image making all competing for attention. The “true history” was only one strategy of proving one’s authority, competing with many others that advance and recede.

New market economies put pressure on the definition of heroic behavior, particularly for authors. To adopt the stance of the documentary observer, as Behn so clearly has, displaces her subjectivity into the shadows of the text. However, the question of motive is never far from the reader’s mind. In the emergent documentary trope, the author’s moral character is removed from direct reference. An author surrenders their personal heroic nature in service of the truth— truth is erected as a new sort of hero. Is this possible? In context, it seems that any such construction must always be paradoxical and imaginary. The author cannot truly be absent from the text. Can a female author of bawdy plays be taken seriously as the presenter of a “true history”? For Hume, the answer would certainly be a resounding no.

Hume’s plea for a return to the patronage system, still healthy in France by his estimation, would not be realized. Behn’s dissatisfaction with the system of writing for the third day was replaced with new worries regarding intellectual property and the sheer survival of art in a capitalist marketplace. Behn’s observation regarding the difficulty of being taken seriously because of her sex anticipates controversy across the eighteenth century, when new techniques of representation confronted new types of authority.

Naming it

Naming it

Socrates farcically laments his lack of education in the opening to Plato’s dialogue Cratylus. If he had only taken the fifty-drachma course in language and grammar from Prodicus rather than the one-drachma course he might be able to settle the dispute on the naming of things. Plato was always quick to slight Prodicus; in Symposium Xenophon observes that the Prodicus was always in need of cash. Money as an opposite to wisdom flows through most histories. Fame creates its own currency, a currency somehow more palatable and permanent than the stain of money.

No texts from Prodicus survive. There is only a fragment, retold by Xenophon in his Memorabilia, the story of “Heracles on the Crossroad.” The archetypal hero must choose between two beautiful women— a noble one dressed modestly in white named Virtue, and another in more revealing costume, dressed up in cosmetics and luxury, who proclaims her name to be Happiness, though others call her Vice. According to Prodicus, the hero chooses Virtue, because by doing so he will be befriended by the gods, beloved by friends, and celebrated by his community. When the time comes for him to die, he will not lie forgotten and his glory will live forever “in the memory of the race and its poetry.”

The ascetic nature of the hero who chooses modesty and nobility over the shorter route to happiness, artifice and disguise, is a deeply classical tradition. Through the milky-white lens of history we view the players on the stage, and the scenery recedes through carefully selective histories. Naming heroes reduces them to the symbolic. Cratylus debates the importance of names, questioning if there can be proper, “natural” names to represent things. In a profound sense, Cratylus marks the first crisis in representation.

How Prodicus would have responded to the question is uncertain. Contemporary accounts suggest that Prodicus was deeply concerned with the nature of definitions, of synonyms, and of the way we represent thoughts through words. As a sophist, it seems likely that he would have opposed Socrates’ assertion that there was a static ideal behind any name. In the comical exploration of Cratylus, Plato’s parallel definition of the hero emerges through creative etymology. For Socrates, the hero is born of love or rhetoric:

All of them sprang either from the love of a God for a mortal woman, or of a mortal man for a Goddess; think of the word in the old Attic, and you will see better that the name heros is only a slight alteration of Eros, from whom the heroes sprang: either this is the meaning, or, if not this, then they must have been skilful as rhetoricians and dialecticians, and able to put the question (erotan), for eirein is equivalent to legein (speak). And therefore, as I was saying, in the Attic dialect the heroes turn out to be rhetoricians and questioners. All this is easy enough; the noble breed of heroes are a tribe of sophists and rhetors. (398d)

The rhetoric of naming becomes more complex with the development of accurate imaging technologies. The interaction of images and words raises new questions on how we represent reality. At the most fundamental level, the name is the smallest particle of a representation or proposition— the smallest particle of truth. Though Cratylus is comical, the debate between an essential “objective” nature to be named precisely and a shifting community standard, a “subjective” practice of naming marks the deepest essence of what it means to represent humanity through text and image. Documentary practice sits at this nexus, and its heroes are indeed a tribe of sophists and rhetors.

Plato eclipsed Prodicus in history. A similar shadow has obscured people involved in the development of documentary photography in America in the 1930s. The myth of objectivity that has pushed them out of historical accounts must be examined in detail to provide an etymology of the modern American hero. Such an account cannot be free of the taint of commerce, nor can it be free of the whims of love. It also cannot discount the impact of sex and race, and the history of representation.


From the Shades

At the turn of the eighteenth century, the silhouette portraits of King William III and Mary II mark an interesting shift in the techniques of representation. Shadows on glass or plaster were filled with lampblack to present an abstracted contour of a person. The English called these portraits “shades.” Miniature portraits were the rage of the eighteenth century, and these new shadow portraits were cheap enough to be within reach of the rising middle class. By 1720, the practice had spread to France and the colonies in America creating a fad of staggering proportions.

The French name of “silhouette” stuck, for tongue-in-cheek reasons. Etienne de Silhouette was Louis XV’s finance minister, a man known for his thrift. His economic policies sent many examples of the gold and silversmith’s art to the smelter, to be reduced to the metal they contained. Early examples of silhouettes in France and England were often painted, not with facial features but with colorful uniforms making them a inexpensive addition to carefully wrought paintings of popular miniaturists, who did silhouettes when times were slow. The early American adopters of the form took a different approach— cut paper. Anyone with a pair of scissors and piece of paper could create a silhouette. Because black paper was scarce, the early outlines were often mounted in frames backed with black cloth to create contrast. However, in order to accurately reproduce the contours of the human shadow in small size, mechanical drawing aids were often employed.

The pantograph used to reduce silhouettes to miniatures may have its roots in Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing machines. Christoph Scheiner— a German Jesuit astronomer and mathematician involved in controversy with Galileo over the discovery of sunspots— invented the pantograph in 1630 to mathematically scale drawings. Blending art and science to reproduce images accelerated in the early nineteenth century. But it cannot be forgotten that most of these shadowy pursuits were inextricably linked to commerce, and the creation of an image to sell.

Silhouettes were a popular personal artifact, a keepsake image. Like more expensive miniature paintings, silhouettes could be carried about as a reminder. Robert Burns wrote his girlfriend, Agnes Craig M’Lehose (“Clarinda”) to thank her for posing for a silhouette saying “I want it for a breast-pin, to wear next my heart.” Portable reproductions of images found great favor among increasingly mobile populations, and the creation and sale of them was big business. John Miers, the silhouettist who preserved the image of M’Lehose and Burns was born in Leeds, but toured through Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and Edinburgh before setting up a profitable image-making shop in London in 1788.

Examined in this regard, the early photographic experiments of Thomas Wedgwood and Humpry Davy make more sense. “An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings Upon Glass, and of Making Profiles, by the Agency of Light Upon Nitrate of Silver.” (emphasis mine) was published in 1802 as a process with possible commercial ends— a way to cash in on the boom in silhouette images. Wedgwood and Davy failed because all their images eventually turned completely black.

The relative ease with which silhouettes could be created brought portraiture to a public hungry for images. Charles Willson Peale, an American painter, miniaturist, and sihouettist, carried his miniature case to the battlefield while a member of the Pennsylvania militia to paint likenesses of his fellow officers, and painted the first official portrait of George Washington to commemorate the victories at Princeton and Trenton. Peale later trained his brother Joseph, a nephew, and his sons in painting and turned over his business making miniatures to his brother in order to concentrate on his newly founded Museum of Natural History in Philadelphia.

Silhouettes, because of the accuracy of their reproduction, fascinated early natural scientists. A key factor in the proliferation of silhouettes and of natural history may have been the desire to match outsides with insides— a pursuit perhaps best exemplified by Johann Caspar Lavater. Essays on Physiognomy was first published in the 1770s and reproduced in numerous cheap knock-offs throughout the early nineteenth century. From its silhouette illustrations sprang other pseudo-sciences like phrenology seeking to find correlation between appearance and identity. Illustrated books catalogued both men and nature, perhaps reaching their peak in the monumental 18 volume Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1797.

The silhouettist’s legacy was short lived, though Lavater’s attempts toward a taxonomy of identity using silhouette images anticipates the nineteenth century drive to classify people and create categories based on appearance— the birth of a new conception of race. In silhouette, everyone is black— but these shadows were filled-in soon after the invention of photography.


The Mythic One

The currency of images, and the images of currency represent important clues to a nation’s identity. The images of two American presidents recurs on both paper and metal currency: George Washington’s likeness occurs on the most common piece of paper money, the dollar bill and the quarter. Abraham Lincoln is present on the most common coin, the penny, and again on the five-dollar bill. One motif constant across American currency is the presence of a face on the front, and a building on the back. The history of image-making in the United States is marked by this duality, by changing captions placed near these images, and by shifting attitudes towards the image-makers.

The didactic function of images was embraced by the founders of America. As John Adams noted in his diary after visiting an art exhibition in London in 1786, “The pleasure which arises from imitation we have in looking at a picture of a landscape, a port, a street, a temple, or a portrait. But there must be action, passion, sentiment, and moral, to engage my attention very much.” Control of the moral attached to the image was of great importance to the founders, and Thomas Jefferson, whose visage now appears on the five-cent coin, engaged in debate with James Madison over the caption which was to appear under a statue of George Washington suggesting that it say “Behold, Reader, the form of George Washington. For his worth, ask History; that will tell it, when this stone shall have yielded to the decays of time. His country erects this monument: Houdon makes it.” The inscription proposed by the legislature included Washington’s achievements, and it seems clear from Jefferson’s suggested alteration that the explicit revelation of a moral sentiment was deemed unnecessary, if the image was crafted accurately enough. The artist who crafts the image is given credit, and his praise is bound to the result. (Williams).

However, the makers of the images on American currency are uncredited. The identity of artists who forge the heritage of the nineteenth century America, like medieval scribes, is also difficult to discern. They are subsumed into the murky depths of cultural heritage. Only iconic heroes survive the ravage of simplification through history, known only by their employer’s stamp. In archives across the country, landscape photos remain unidentified and tintype portraits of people long dead lack captions, with no surviving family to identify the sitter or the photographer who captured them.

Currently, coins of the United States bear the inscription “E Pluribus Unum”— out of many, one. But there is a strange lapse of this motto in the history of coinage. From 1795, the legend began to appear on gold coins. It appeared on most gold and silver coins until 1834, when it was dropped from the gold coins. E Pluribus Unum disappeared from silver coins in 1837. These were the years of Andrew Jackson, the man whose face appears on the twenty-dollar bill. It did not become law that all coins must bear this motto again until 1873. The faces that are on our current paper currency were not fixed until 1928, just over a year before the Great Depression, and a great shift in the nation’s perception of heroes.

Andrew Jackson was a tremendous popular hero of his day. Twenty-dollar bills are dispensed as the most popular denomination by electronic cash machines across the United States, and yet he is not celebrated by all members of our nation. A Choctaw writer I knew snarled with disgust each time this man’s portrait crossed his hands. Andrew Jackson was the man behind the removal of Native Americans from their lands. The years from 1838-1873 were marked by turmoil and a struggle for human rights that carried over long into the twentieth century. In 1839, a new image making technology was introduced that helped galvanize the struggle. From the beginning, photography has both aided and fought against the domination of economic forces. The Jacksonian era was marked by rising forces of technology, and the oppressive physical and economic manipulation of the indigenous populations and imported African slaves. It seems strangely poetic that the cruel frontiersman’s image should be spit out in great frequency by cash machines.

The dream of creating one from many enlisted the support of technology, and new rhetorics were forged along the way. The romantic notion of the heroic frontiersman and the pragmatic practicality which marks American rhetoric is perhaps best embodied in Ralph Waldo Emerson— a staunch critic of Jackson’s Native American policies. Both Emerson and Jackson sat for portraits in the early years of photography in America. The history of photography in nineteenth century America is fractured along economic lines, traveling a parallel path with the struggle for the rights of women, the abolition of slavery, and the growth of science and technology to fuel the ascendancy of a nation, a nation built upon a mythic one.