The American Monomyth

In my so far disappointing effort to make sense of Tumblr, I have at least found several intriguing posts, including this one from josephcampbellwasright.tumblr.com called “The American Monomyth.”

The Monomyth is a world-wide mythic pattern that Joseph Campbell described in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 1949:  “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

The Tumblr post references a lesser known book by Robert Jewett, The American Monomyth, 1977, that describes an interesting variant:

“In the American monomyth, the hero is an outsider who comes into a once-perfect community in peril (the “violated Eden”) to confront the evils that have caused trouble. The hero eschews such things as joining the community, standing apart from them in order to better keep them safe, in a manner that could best be described as vigilantism. Once the evil has been vanquished, the hero either allows himself to absorb into the community (through such means as moving in, marrying, etc.), or he moves on to the next violated Eden.”

The post lists several movies as examples, but doesn’t mention several key genres that raised the “Heroic Outsider” to the mythic status of true American Hero.  What of superheroes like Batman and Superman or crime fighters like The Untouchables?  What of the genre I grew up on, the western?

Clint Eastwood and Sidney Penny in Pale Rider, 1985, my favorite "Heroic Outsider" western

Clint Eastwood and Sidney Penny in Pale Rider, 1985, my favorite “Heroic Outsider” western

While Googling for westerns with the classic, “clean up the town” theme, I came upon an interesting syllabus for a course at Dominican University, The Western:  America’s Mythology - books it would be fun to add to my geometrically expanding list of things I would like to read!

Meanwhile, I suspect that everyone has personal favorite books and movies in this “swoops in and saves the day” genre.  What are some of yours?

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14 Responses to The American Monomyth

  1. ♡eM says:

    The Iron Giant comes to mind, but it’s a far stretch from what you’ve written about in this post. I’m heading over to Tumblr (first time ever!) to read the piece you’ve linked. Thanks!

  2. calmgrove says:

    The Iron Man was a novel by British author Ted Hughes (renamed The Iron Giant for obvious reasons when made into an animated film). Along with The Magnificent Seven (based on a Japanese original) where the hero is multiplied, it makes me wonder if identifying this type as a specically American Monomyth is mistaken.

    My favourite subversion of this plot is Bad Day at Black Rock, a ‘modern day’ Western where the stranger riding into town isn’t the saviour but the uncoverer of unwelcome news.

    Anyway, this post has certainly given me food for thought!

    • Really good point that the samurai movies often follow this pattern. Certainly isn’t exclusive to us, but I do think it was a staple of the early white hat vs. black hat “horse operas.” Even early on, though, you get interesting variations, as in “High Noon,” where “the savior” is so morally stalwart that he saves a town that doesn’t deserve it.

      • calmgrove says:

        Agree absolutely that this trope is particularly prevalent in ckassic Westerns.

        Perhaps it’s that frontier/backwoods scenario that is part and parcel of US mythology. The late UK writer Colin Wilson made his reputation onThe Outsider, a study of the alienated individual in society as reflected in literature. (I confess I struggled through this in my 20s — must reread it…) European lit focused on the individual (as in Kafka or Camus).

        In Westerns however it’s often the community that seems alienated from its surroundings, its secrets, with the Outsider (a Jesus figure perhaps?) attempting rescue and sometimes being “the most rejected of men” by the ungrateful or unappreciative community (the Jews in the Gospel narratives?).

        Anyway, just my random and unformed (even uninformed) thoughts — feel free to contradict me!

      • I’m not going to reject anything, as I think it’s a wide open subject, and there are plenty of examples and counter examples. The idea of an entire community being alienated with secrets reminds me of various scary movie themes – Children of the Corn type plots, as well as westerns.

        Along a different line: in high school, I remember a history teacher arguing that political factions (as a whole) are never seeing the immediate world around them, but the image of some kind of idealized past. That comes to mind these days when I reflect that extreme small government or no government people are stuck in the fantasized, 100+ year old world of an early and popular TV western, Bonanza, where real men could carve out a home for themselves from the wilderness, as long as no damn government got in the way! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjdRgBAY278

        “The government” in that show was usually the sheriff, who meant well but was kind of an Inspector Lestrade character, who needed the wisdom and savvy of the Cartwright boys to do his job properly.

      • calmgrove says:

        Bonanza was part of my childhood too in the UK, along with The Lone Ranger, Wagon Train, Rawhide, The Virginian, Cheyenne &c so I have an inkling of that mentality.

        In fact I’d argue that we all envision a future based on an idealised past, the Good Old Days, a Golden Age when God was in his heaven. That past often retains the select bits of childhood that represent happy memories, plus an amalgam of elements of political science we’ve serendipitously picked up during our course through life. No wonder that there’s rarely any consensus about where we collectively go from here…

  3. Selena says:

    Clint Eastwood movies epitomize the heroic outsider for me. That may be generational. Stephen Kings’ Dark Tower series comes to mind, as well.

    • I read one of the later Dark Tower series an enjoyed it very much. Went back to book #1 and got bogged down. Clint seemed to straddle the cusp of the western hero turning to anti-hero, as in High Plains Drifter – if I remember, that’s the one where he saves a town that doesn’t really deserve saving, and makes the townspeople paint it red and change the name to “Hell.” Definitely the end of the Roy Rogers mode!

  4. Rosi says:

    Ah, I think Shane is the best example of the Monomyth in Westerns, although I am not a fan of the movie. I used to teach the book and it is a perfect example. It’s a little book you can read in a day. Make sure you re-read the opening scene after you’ve finished the book so you don’t miss the full circle of the book.

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