Virginians on Olympus: A Cultural Analysis of Four Great Men

By Marshall William Fishwick | Go to book overview

V
The Pattern of the Virginia Hero

VIRGINIANS look back often at the past, and wherever they look they see heroes. So many of them believe explicitly in the hero theory of history that it could hardly be otherwise. In the Old Dominion evaluating and classifying the great and near-great of former days is considered an important activity. Inevitably the procedure is tied in with the cult of family which Douglas Southall Freeman has aptly called "a mild form of Shintoism." Virginians treat their heroes not only as human beings, but as symbols; they are quite aware of the functional values such symbols have. They come to realize, perhaps without fully knowing how they reached the conclusion, that hero symbols satisfy their emotional and psychological needs, and reflect their social, racial, and political ideals. Some of them see that their heroes are actually important economic factors in the state today.

They see that Pocahontas and John Smith have not only re-emphasized Tidewater's glamor and antiquity, but have helped put it on a paying basis. The use of George Washington and Robert E. Lee as prototypes of the country squire has helped lure scores of outsiders into the state as gentlemen farmers. Handicraft and folk arts of the mountains, an area which has learned to make good use of the Boone legend, have brought needed dollars into many a destitute home. The heroes have helped enormously to expand the tourist business, which is now one of the chief sources of revenue for the state.

Certain of the heroes we have discussed appeal more to one region, class, or generation of the state than the others, but there is a trait in each which makes him first and foremost a Virginian. This common trait is the hero's integrity and simplicity -- a simplicity in which is harboured his strength, his code, and his glory.

The critics of these men have pointed out that they have mutual weaknesses as well as strengths, and lack the brilliance and imagination of other paragons. Henry Adams, for example, was a classmate of Robert E. Lee's son Rooney at Harvard College. "The habit of command was not enough," Adams wrote, "and the Virginian had little else. He was simple beyond

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