Several years ago, the Catholic intellectual Joseph Bottom observed that American literature has entailed a substitution of geography for heroes in our moral vocabulary.”
In other words, we don’t have many heroic types in American literature. What we have instead is heroic geography. The Virginian, the Down Easterner, the Texas Ranger, the cowboy, the Hoosier, the hillbilly, the Okie. These are tropes that serve the moral function filled in other cultures and other literatures primarily by heroes. And these geographical tropes survive well into our own era of indistinguishable shopping malls from Maine to California.
Why did the collective literary imagination take this turn? I suspect it may have something to do with our country’s democratization of civic virtues.
Prior to the modern age most literary heroes exemplified the martial virtues of the warrior (courage, honor, duty) or the theological virtues of the saints (kindness, generosity, faithfulness). They were the virtues of the elite, whether militarily, politically, or spiritually. But in the post-Civil War era, America needed to reconnect with the virtues of the citizen. Not surprisingly, American literature appears to have revived (albeit unconsciously) the citizen virtues of ancient Rome.
The ideal virtues of the Via Romana—which included such characteristics as comitas (humor), frugalitas (frugalness), industria (industriousness), severitas (sternness)—were qualities needed to conquer and civilize regional peoples under one Roman Republic. The ideal virtues of the Via Americana—qualities needed to conquer and civilize regional peoples under one American republic—are remarkably similar.
But whereas in Rome these virtues were embodied in mytho-theological constructs (e.g., Veritas, the goddess of truth), in America we associate them with the geographic regions (e.g., the frugality of the New Englanders). The individual Roman citizen could associate himself with the virtues of the gods—even gods they did not give their full allegiance—simply because they were Romans. Similarly, Americans can associate themselves with virtues of regions in which they do not live because they share a common connection of Americanness.
The Romans didn’t believe that all the virtues could be instantiated in one god, but had to be spread among numerous deities. Since even a god can’t express all the civic virtues, we shouldn’t be surprised that in American literature they cannot be exemplified by one region, but have to be spread across many geographic localities.
What does this mean for the growing appreciation for localism? If we can’t even imagine the totality of civic virtues being associated within any specific geographic region, how can we expect them to be embodied in any specific locality? In other words, do we need strong associative ties and allegiances to larger communal groupings (either regional or federal) in order to live virtuously in our own local communities? Can Americans be good localists without first identifying with the disseminated virtues of Americana?