American Mythic

19 May

When we think of mythology we tend to think of the old world – European fairytales, folklore of the Far East and tales from the dark continent of Africa. Even when the new world is mentioned, in mythic terms it is the Native American folklore of the tribes and nations that first settled the lands of North and South America that comes to mind. Whilst all of this world mythology represents a rich and varied tradition of fairytales, folklore and legends, this is also to ignore the unusual and fascinating modern mythology of the United States. There are lots of interesting directions that this ‘American Mythic’ takes. There are larger than life stories of the birth of the nation, its founding fathers and the Revolutionary War; there is an entire mythology surrounding the Civil War that almost ripped apart the nascent union, when brother fought brother and fire and blood threatened to consume all the land from sea to shining sea; and up to the present day the Cold War and many other conflicts that have shaped the postwar nation also contributed to the character and myths of the modern United States. Anyone who takes the time and trouble to investigate American Mythic might be surprised at what they find.

Starting with the American War of Independence, there is the myth that the War was between the colonists and the British. In the centuries since the Revolutionary War, French contributions have been criminally downplayed. The truth is, the 13 colonies may never have earned their freedom without French intervention. France began providing arms and ammunition as early as 1776 (the war started in 1775). In early 1777, months before Saratoga, the French sent American colonists 25,000 uniforms and pairs of boots, hundreds of cannons, and thousands of muskets – all items that the colonists would’ve had a hard time surviving without, and all items they had no access to on their own. And that was just the tip of the iceberg: from supplies to advice to military reinforcements, France spared no expense when it came to funding the American war – France provided a whopping 90 percent of the rebels’ gunpowder! So, when the Colonial army was fighting for freedom, history books tend to conveniently forget that they did so with French money, equipment, and backup forces.

One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War began, its echoes are still felt across the United States in lingering divisions between North and South, in debates over the flying of the Confederate flag, and even in arguments over the basic causes of the conflict. Myths both big and small persist about the bloodiest conflict in American history – one of the most famous being that the Gettysburg Address was an instant classic. On 19 November 1863, a crowd gathered to dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Everyone had come to see Edward Everett, one of the great public speakers of the age, give an appropriately dramatic speech. They weren’t disappointed; it was a two-hour tour de force. When President Lincoln got up to make “a few appropriate remarks” he spoke for only a few minutes, and the significance of what he said was largely lost on the crowd in front of him. However, once his words had been printed and distributed, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was destined to become recognised as one of the greatest speeches ever delivered. Everett’s speech is now forgotten, but what Lincoln did in around 250 words explained the stakes of a civil war, honoured the war dead and stiffened the resolve of the people who were living through what was arguably the bloodiest period in American history.

The second half of the 20th century was dominated by the world’s two remaining superpowers facing each other down. The rest of the world rallied behind one or the other as Soviet and American forces started in on spying and covert warring. During this Cold War there were good guys and bad guys, and more than enough myths to go around. One of the more bizarre relates to President John F Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. It was the culmination of Kennedy’s remarks in West Germany at one of the most volatile points in the Cold War. The speech was a hugely important, brilliantly scripted rallying cry for democracy, but the other reason people still remember it today is because the phrase that Kennedy thought meant “I am a Berliner” actually translated to “I am a jammy doughnut!” However, “‘Ich bin (ein) Berliner’ actually means ‘I am a Berliner’ … and absolutely nothing else. Those who still repeat this anecdote claim the use of the word “ein” is what did for Kennedy. They point out that “Ich bin Berliner” means “I am from Berlin,” and that adding the “ein” changes the meaning. Both facts are true. A rough English equivalent of what Kennedy said was “I am a New Yorker,” whereas the phrase that it is claimed he should have said translates to “I am from New York.” The jammy doughnut myth is like claiming that an audience in Manhattan heard a politician say “I am a New Yorker” and took him to mean “I am a New Yorker magazine.” Saying “I am a New Yorker” makes more sense as a symbolic statement of solidarity, and it’s the same in German. Which is why people who speak German generally compliment Kennedy’s choice as being the more nuanced, conversational phrasing.

So why have smug people been making this claim for the past 20 years? The earliest reference anyone’s been able to come up with is the 1983 spy novel Berlin Game. A fictional character claims that Kennedy said he was a doughnut. In reviewing the novel, The New York Times treated it as a reference to an amusing fact, rather than a reference to a completely made-up fact, and to this day, you can’t say “Ich bin ein Berliner” in a room full of educated people without having them shout something about a jammy doughnut at you. The same goes to some extent with a number of other American myths – more than there is space to go into in detail here. Is it really true that a young George Washington could not tell a lie? Was baseball really invented in Cooperstown? Did Columbus really discover the Americas (first)(or at all)? Were witches really burned at the stake at Salem? Did Paul Revere go on a midnight ride shouting “The British are coming!”? Were the founding fathers all Christians? And don’t even get me started about the moon landing…

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