Heroes, Villains, and Fools: The Changing American Character

Heroes, Villains, and Fools: The Changing American Character

Heroes, Villains, and Fools: The Changing American Character

Heroes, Villains, and Fools: The Changing American Character

Excerpt

The main purpose of this book is to survey the major social types of American society which serve prominently as its models. By models, I mean images that guide people positively by imitation or negatively by avoidance. Major role-models are here called heroes, villains, and fools. From such a survey, we get a look at a role-network of types, an important part of the structure of our society, that is not, I think, to be obtained in any other way.

The second undertaking is to interpret the various types for what they may tell or suggest about us as a people. While I do not think social types are a crystal ball, they are important symbols made by people; and the only way to attack a symbol is through its meaning in various contexts. Meanings have to be supplied by somebody, and I tell what I see in them in the light of what other people have seen in them.

Some leading ideas of this book may be stated here. One is that Americans have considerable freedom of role-choice and self-typing, and that this creates some role-conflicts. Another is that many of our types show considerable alienation and anomie, especially flaws in contemporary models that I have called "deterioration of the hero." Even in some which on the surface seem to indicate that everything is "all right" there may be trouble beneath. One of the ideas presented in this book is that a hero can have compensatory functions, to console people, as it were, for a recognized lack of what the hero represents (a distortion of the proper function of a hero, which is to stimulate people to do better). The "good Joe," I think, is a compensatory type which reflects a condition of anomie and alienation (disguised as pseudo-integration) precisely opposite in many ways to that lamented by foes of the "organization man."

My approach to heroes, villains, and fools is primarily through language. This is not a study of persons, but of abstract types named and embedded in language. My assumption is that if a thing is important to many people, they will find a name for it and talk about it (unless some pressure keeps it taboo -- a situation which does not apply to most social types). Popular language, then, provides a basis for sampling, classification, and study of types, though many are drawn from other sources -- literature, news, art, biography, even mythology. I think language not only shows what is consensual and common but also reveals generalized features . . .

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