Virginians on Olympus: A Cultural Analysis of Four Great Men

By Marshall William Fishwick | Go to book overview

Preface

"VIRGINIANS look back often at the past," Marshall Fishwick informs us, "and wherever they look they see heroes." Or, one might say, Virginians like most people keep in mind what is useful. At any event it must be admitted that Virginians are particularly lucky in their historical landscape, above whose Skyline looms their Greek-revival Olympus. The figures of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, Daniel Boone, George Washington, and Robert E. Lee are not easily matched elsewhere. If they are paralleled with certain Massachusetts equivalents, for example -- remembering how much New England also cherishes its heroes -- it is only necessary to point out that John Alden and Priscilla as well as Paul Revere, although they existed, had to be invented.

In a sense, however, all heroes are inventions, as dependent upon subsequent imagination as upon original material. The quality of Virginians shows up in what they have contrived from their inheritance. That these results are works of natural art is evident in the fact that their heroes are borrowed for display by the rest of the nation, which has even helped to frame them. For what Virginians have found, others have also wished to find for themselves. In the example of John Smith and Pocahontas is laid out the exhilaration of exploration and the decorum of gallantry. In Daniel Boone we have the potential of maintained vitality, and the virtues of patience in kinship with an ecstatic sense of the land. From Washington comes the dignity and responsibility of leadership. He was the heir apparent to a nation, who gained his kingship by refusing it. With them all, quietly and erect, stands the figure of Robert E. Lee, as a symbol of spiritual fortitude. His victory was through a paradoxical defeat. Together these are certainly Olympian. For how does Olympus function as an emblematic memory except to serve as a congress of virtues?

The path of heroes through the clouds of time is as interesting as their birth-certificates. The company they keep is the spirit of each age which receives them. Their history is the history of their narrators as well as of themselves. For everything that is written to preserve a hero reflects the urgency or fascination which seeks him out. Heroes are proffered companions to a

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