Myth, Ideology, and Public History

Gunfighter NationIn a few short days, the first year of graduate school will be all over for me. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be on my way towards graduating and a new job in the field around this time next year. I’ve been bogged down in an intense amount of work throughout the past week, so it will feel really good when all is said and done Tuesday night.

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been reading Richard Slotkin’s 1992 publication Gunfigher Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. The book is dense. It clocks in at over 800 pages and covers roughly one hundred years of American cultural history, starting with Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 claim that the American Frontier had closed, and that America’s status as a land of abundance, innovation, democracy, and freedom would begin to erode because of this closing. Some believed that the Frontier-when it was “open” for expansion–had acted as a source of “exemplary tales that provided a model of the workings of natural, social, and moral law in history,” according to Slotkin. The Frontier had been symbolic of American culture as a whole. Its closing led to the creation of new myths about the West and its history, expansion, and American identity.

For the past few years, I’ve taken an interest in studying memory and how it compares, contrasts, and intersects with history. Slotkin’s work alerts me to the importance of also taking myth and ideology into account when studying the ways in which people remember the past. All four concepts–myth, ideology, memory, and history–shape the ways in which people make sense of their contemporary worlds. Myth and ideology play crucial roles in defining a given society or group’s culture: how they classify, interpret, give meaning to, and experience symbols. Slotkin’s central argument is that American culture has been largely defined by the myths and ideologies that have emerged around one important symbol: violence. “What is distinctly ‘American’ is not necessarily the amount or kind of violence that characterizes our history but the mythic significance we have assigned to the kinds of violence we have actually experienced…and the political uses to which we put that symbolism.” (p. 13)

So, what exactly is a myth? Slotkin defines it on page 5:

Myths are stories drawn from a society’s history that have acquired through persistent usage the power of symbolizing that society’s ideology and of dramatizing its moral consciousness–with all the complexities and contradictions that consciousness nay contain. Over time, through frequent retellings and deployments as a source of interpretive metaphors, the original mythic story is increasingly conventionalized and abstracted until it is reduced to a deeply encoded and resonant set of symbols, “icons,” “keywords,” or historical cliches. In this form, myth becomes a basic constituent of linguistic meaning and of the processes of both personal and social “remembering.”

Myths are stories. They are not necessarily false, but neither are they history. We mythologize our past all of the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard politicians in Indiana rant on about Indiana’s legacy and their faith in the virtuous “common-sense Hoosiers” that populate the state today. There may be an element of truth and sincerity in those comments, but they are myths too. They represent symbols, keywords, and historical cliches that are used to score political points while also shaping how we remember the past.

Myths also create ideology. What is ideology? (Page 626)

[Ideology] refers to a core of common beliefs, maintained by a broad social consensus, embodied in general statements [based more on faith than fact] about the world and its parts, and in particular about nations and other human in-groups, that are believed to be true and then acted on whenever circumstances suggest or require a common response.

So, if I’m reading this correctly, myths are stories that shape our ideologies, which define our understanding of the world and its parts.

Towards the end of the book (p. 650-651), Slotkin reflects on the ways in which myth and ideology shaped American society’s views during several political crises from 1975-1992. I don’t know how true these claims are, but they are good food for thought, and I couldn’t help but think of several recent crises in American politics today. This is long, but worthwhile:

The most significant political referent of [Hollywood films in the mid 1970s] was not the Vietnam War but the new crisis in America’s relations with the Third World symbolized by the series of hostage crises that began after the Iranian Revolutionary Guards seized our Tehran embassy in 1979. The mythic imperative implicit in any hostage “crisis”–that we must rescue or avenge the captive at all costs–has given such events a fatal attraction for public concern, media attention, and political opportunism. Carter’s failure to rescue the Tehran hostages helped bring down his administration, and Reagan’s obsession with the Beirut hostages distorted our policy in the Levant and encouraged the CIA and the NSC to undertake a series of scandalously illegal covert actions that tainted the last years of Reagan’s Presidency.

More recently, the Bush [G.H.W. Bush] administration’s “War on Drugs” has invoked the traditional myths of savage war to rationalize a policy in which various applications of force and violence have a central role. Here the Myth of the Frontier plays its classic role: we define and confront this crisis and the profound questions it raises about our society and about the international order, by deploying the metaphor of “war” and locating the root of our problem in the power of a “savage,” captive-taking enemy. Once invoked, the war-metaphor governs the terms in which we respond to changing circumstances… What begins as a demand for symbolic violence ends in actual bloodshed [and]… vigilante-style actions by public officials and covert operatives who defy public law and constitutional principles in order to “do what a man’s gotta do.”


I don’t have much to add to Slotkin’s claims, but I’ll conclude by stating that Gunfighter Nation got me thinking about myth, ideology, and public history. Public historians are taught to recreate an “authentic” experience for our audiences. We are supposed to work through the mythic clutters of the past and give it to our audiences straight. But public history also involves storytelling. How much of that storytelling is history, and how much of it is myth? Should public historians embrace mythic history when addressing their audiences? Perhaps most importantly, do audiences visit National Parks, historic homes, museums, and other sites to hear myths or to hear history? Of course, there are many “audiences” with various desires that visit these sites, but public historians must nevertheless be cognizant of the need to address the myths of the past in their interpretations in addition to actual history. We may tire of the constant need to debunk the myths of the past, but one of the key roles all historians play is reducing the errors and misunderstandings that cloud popular culture’s understanding of history. By doing that, we play a small part in creating and fostering a well-informed society.