G-Men, Hoover's FBI in American Popular Culture

By Richard Gid Powers; Daniel M. Finnegan | Go to book overview

1
The Public Enemy and the American Public:
Prelude to the New Deal

Depression America invented the G-Man because it had to. The G-Man was the country's solution to a crisis in American popular culture produced by the depression, aided and abetted by prohibition. The public enemy, one of the most powerful, dangerous, and ambiguously fascinating figures in American cultural history, was the symbol of this crisis.

The myth of the public enemy, like all myths, was compounded from the culture's hopes, fears, and desires (and, of course, from a few facts as well). The public enemy captured America's imagination during the twenties and thirties because, with the efficiency and persuasive force that are the reason for myth's power, the myth of the public enemy helped Americans understand their times and what was happening to their society. Oppressed by a sense that prohibition and the depression were draining American society of discipline and order, popular culture sought to explain the national plight as the work of a new breed of criminal. Once the image of the public enemy had been pieced together from the careers of the most famous criminals of the day, the myth took on a life of its own, persuading Americans that the authorities had neither the brains nor the courage to cope with what seemed to be a calculated rebellion against society. Once the myth of the public enemy had gained currency it persuaded Americans to interpret every outbreak of crime as further evidence of social demoralization and moral decline. This meant that for Americans to emerge from their state of psychological depression they would have to find another and more hopeful myth to take the place of the myth of the public enemy.

The public enemy was a collective representation of the criminals prohibition had turned into celebrities: Johnny Torrio, Dion O'Banion,

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