Legends That Will Not Die

Article excerpt

His mansion has become a shrine, a mecca for legions of ardent fans. In 1982, some 300,000 people filed through Graceland, the Memphis estate of Elvis Presley. By 1984, about 520,000 devotees laid down $6.50 a pop for the tour, including a few moments at the King of Rock-'n'-Roll's grave. This year, as many as 575,000 may pay their respects.

Although he died in 1977, Presley is probably as popular now as when his career took off and soared in the 1950s and early '60s, and certainly more so than during the latter years of his life. "In fact," says Irene Maleti, a 66-year-old great-grandmother and the membership chairman of a San Jose, California, Presley fan club, "nearly all the people who love Elvis refuse to speak of him in the past tense."

Despite the stories about Presley's eccentricities, his fans either overlook or flatly reject the allegations. Any Presley failings plainly do not matter, for he is beyond criticism. To millions of people around the world, Elvis Presley is, simply, a legend.

Current times do not produce many legendary heroes. Although we have an abundance of "celebrities," few seem to possess the eminence that leads to enduring fame. Vying for space in People and US magazines by posing for photos in bathtubs and telling all too much about their personal lives on numerous talk shows, our celebrities, however talented, have devalued the currency of stardom. As Emerson suggested, "Every hero becomes a bore at last," and the process today is swift.

Curiously enough, we haven't really cherished heroes for a good 20 years. Though the assassination of President Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair are convenient and overused targets of blame for all sorts of national ailments and trends, these events did indeed reduce our want or need for heroes or, perhaps, the country's ability to embrace them.

A shift, however, may be under way, particularly among youth and adults under 30. In a recent survey taken by the Roper Organization for a national news magazine, respondents clearly accepted the concept of heroes and noted a liking for the movie stars Clint Eastwood, Eddie Murphy, Jane Fonda and Sally Field; the movie director Stephen Spielberg; the Pope; and President Reagan. Interprets the George Washington University sociologist Amitai Etzioni: "We're back to yearning for leadership."

Yet a great difference lies between a widely admired personage and a legend. Within the last half-century or so America has had its share of heroes, including Charles Lindbergh, the generals Patton and MacArthur, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But precious few still captivate our collective imaginations. Among those that do, Elvis Presley, James Dean, Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne stand out.

What makes these five disparate personalities legends? What compels people to pay $6,500 for an 18-inch, porcelain model of Monroe or to dedicate rooms in their houses to Presley memorabilia? None of the five had any impact on politics, economics or the physical betterment of the nation. Ruth played baseball, and the others were entertainers. Why revere them, and not great physicians and scientists?

Well, the nature of mythology--along with those rare characters who embody legendary qualities--hasn't really changed over thousands of years. Oral traditions created our early legendary figures, and the spoken tales were then put into writing, which served the same purpose in bringing legends to public attention. Homer, for example, spread the legend of Odysseus. Now motion pictures are the primary myth-making form.

Homer, the blind Greek poet, is himself a legend; in movies, strong acting personalities often become better known than the legendary characters they play and eventually symbolize the values inherent in the portrayal.

In hard analysis, these associations are unfounded, for actors aren't real-life "heroes. …