‘The Men Who Built America’ Were [Expletive Deleted]

“‘The Men Who Built America’ Were [Expletive Deleted]” — that is not how a gentleman speaks, I know.

But every time I see the advertisement for this stupid show, on the subway, stuck to a former phone booth, smeared with filth, I fill in the rest of the sentence myself. (It’s not like I am making stuff up.)

Leaving aside the fact that the “History” channel would never make a series with “state of the art computer generated imagery” that told the stories of powerful women; and leaving aside, too, that the “History” channel is perhaps the most egregious misnomic misnomer in the “history” of television, I was struck by the childish, cartoonish style employed in the poster. The viewer is provided a first-person point of reference for a scene of truly mythic, if thoroughly unimaginative, proportion.


(Photo credit: KairosOfTyre)

But mythic, from the Greek, and later the German, mythos, to be sure. What a great time to be immersed in a MOOC on Mythology.

Myths are fascinating things, of course. And not just because of all the cross-species sex and violence. (There are “Real Housewives” for that, after all.) The University of Pennsylvania’s Peter Struck, who is teaching the online course, holds forth on the subject in breezy, smiling, open-collared and occasionally spittle-strung, style. He roots the idea of myth in a packed-with-meaning explanation: it is, Mr. Struck says, a traditional tale told with partial reference to something important, adding the caveat that it is told for some reason.

The quality all myths share, of course, is that they are impossible to separate from the telling. A myth is nothing if no one passes it on. And there are layers of interpretation applied by those succeeding voices, by made-up accretions. In fact, myths are stories that are better when retold. But this means that myths are stories that defy the attempt to find the original.

More important, myths have a powerful ability to shape culture. Every modern nation has roots that wrap securely, comfortingly around at least one epic. Not to pick on the Germans, but their rise to virulent nationalism before World War I sprouted, at least in part, from “The Song of the Nibelungs.” (Is it even possible to pick on Germans?)

In the same way, though, that myth can’t be separated from the retelling, the tellers can’t be separated from myth. The stories cannot be understood without seeing that culture has a reciprocal power to shape myth. In America, our own virulence today is founded in the mythic idea of “The Greatest Generation,” which in turn was shaped by notions of patriotism that formed over generations. (Did George Washington sleep everywhere?)

Most striking was Mr. Struck’s shorthand, that myths were stories about monsters that teach us what it means to be human. Here then are your monsters, “etched into buildings and… a part of the fabric of history,” in no intelligible order: John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan. (Did they rank these guys by inseam?)

Men who, according to the “History” channel, “created the American Dream and were the engine of capitalism.” They took, the ad’s copy writers continue, “a failed experiment in democracy and created the greatest superpower the world has ever seen.”

My favorite (this program has not yet aired) is the “failed experiment” part. Failed! Never mind that it is a matter of record that such men as built America took a giant crap on the thoroughly democratic Populist movement in the late 1800s, mostly by contriving a war-craving Imperialist ethos. (Though I am not sure the mooning, moralistic William Jennings Bryan helped himself much.)

With William McKinley’s election in 1896, the mythology of patriotism, to mollify the disgruntled masses, is confirmed as airy political patter. In McKinley’s words: “…that the people of this country mean to maintain the financial honor of the country as sacredly as they maintain the honor of the flag.”