Why Americans love stars, sinners, and gangsters.

Reading between the lines.
March 31 2004 5:45 PM

The Star, the Born-Again Sinner, and the Gangster

Updating Constance Rourke's famous American archetypes.

Book cover

Americans may explain themselves to themselves more than any people on earth. Ever since Emerson and Whitman, our native writers have come back to the old questions: What is an American? How are we different from our ancestors in Europe or Africa or Asia? And why can't we come to a conclusive answer after centuries of asking?

One of the best answers was offered 73 years ago in Constance Rourke's American Humor: A Study of the National Character.Rourke's is one of those books that is always being rediscovered. First published in 1931, it was issued in paperback in 1971 and reissued in 1986; and now it is available to another generation of readers, in a new edition introduced by Greil Marcus. Rourke was a pioneer of what was not yet called "cultural studies" and enjoys a cult status among critics and writers, but she deserves a much wider audience—especially now, when endless books and op-eds are being written to explain why our "national character" inspires such envy and mistrust around the world. For American Humor shows, like no other book, how much of that character has remained the same for the last 200 years, and, equally important, the ways we have changed.

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Rourke, born in 1885, was part of a generation of critics—including Edmund Wilson and Van Wyck Brooks—that taught Americans to look at their culture in a new way. Instead of the genteel literary heritage of New England, which provided the official, schoolroom version of American culture, Rourke sought the essence of Americanness in folk culture and especially in popular comedy. Much like George Orwell, who in the 1930s searched boys' stories and seaside postcards for clues to the English character, Rourke studied what Marcus' introduction calls "old almanacs, newspaper files, forgotten biographies, songbooks, joke manuals, penny dreadfuls, the unreliable leavings of nineteenth-century American culture."

What she found there were three archetypal figures, emerging from popular comedy: the Yankee, the backwoodsman, and the minstrel. Each member of "the trio," as Rourke often called them, took recognizable form in the 1820s and flourished until the Civil War. More important, she wrote, they remained at the heart of "a consistent native tradition," which she traced through the classic American writers—Whitman, Hawthorne, Henry James—and up to the modernists of her own day, including T.S. Eliot. "Humor has been a fashioning instrument in America," Rourke concluded. "Its objective … has seemed to be that of creating fresh bonds, a new unity ... and the rounded completion of an American type."

Each member of the trio contributed to that type. The Yankee, Rourke wrote, was "astute and simple, gross and rambling, rural to the core," hiding his sharp intelligence under a taciturn mask. He loved whittling, swapping, and practical jokes, and he always parried a question with another question. On the stage, where he was given outlandish New England names like "Jedediah Homebred" and "Jerusalem Dutiful," the Yankee was shown thwarting his enemies—especially the snobbish Briton—thanks to his sly rustic wit.

If the Yankee turned silence into advantage, the backwoodsman triumphed through sheer volume: "He shouted as though he were intoxicated by shouting." Born in the wilds of Kentucky and Tennessee, the backwoodsman—faced with hostile Indians and unforgiving soil—met adversity with comic self-inflation. Davy Crockett, the classic backwoodsman of legend, was "shaggy as a bear, wolfish about the head, and could grin like a hyena until the bark would curl off a gum log"; he could "whip his weight in wild cats" and "put a rifle-ball through the moon." The tall tale, with its deadpan exaggeration, was the natural idiom of the backwoodsman.

Third, and most intriguing, was the minstrel: the white performer in blackface, of whom "Jim Crow" Rice was the first and most famous. Rourke acknowledges that "blackface minstrelsy has long been considered a travesty in which the Negro was only a comic medium." But she honors it nonetheless, for providing a picture, however distorted, of genuine African-American folk culture: "[T]he songs and to a large extent the dances [in minstrel performances] show Negro origins," Rourke insists, "though they were often claimed by white composers." "The Negro," in this strangely mediated form, communicated African music and dance to America; a century before the Jazz Age, Stephen Foster took the tune for "Camptown Races" from a black folk melody. The minstrel's "humor" combined energetic nonsense-verse—what Rourke calls "unreasonable headlong triumph launching into the realm of the preposterous"—with the "tragic undertone" found in work songs and spirituals.

Rourke's achievement in bringing "the trio" to life is remarkable, and the quotations and anecdotes she gathers from her 19th-century sources remain startlingly fresh. But reading American Humor in 2004, one can't help but wonder: Do these three figures still "induce an irresistible response," as they did for Rourke in 1931? Do the Yankee, the backwoodsman, and the minstrel still offer "emblems for a pioneer people" when the people aren't such pioneers anymore?

The answers, I think, are "no," "yes," and "sort of," in that order. Of the trio, the Yankee is certainly the least visible in today's popular culture. Partly this is because New England has lost its distinctive rural character, which could still be recognized as late as Robert Frost's North of Boston in 1914. But the vanishing of the Yankee is also due to our diminished taste for his virtues: self-deprecation and a poker face. Far more to our taste is the outrageous boastfulness of the backwoodsman, who finds descendants in the action hero and the rap star. In the superhuman feats of the first and the braggadocio of the second, we see the strutting of the figure Rourke called "the gamecock of the wilderness." And, of course, the baleful tradition of the minstrel can be seen in the relentless appropriation of black popular culture by white performers, from Elvis to the present. But the qualities Rourke admired in minstrel performances—the triumphant energy, the tragic undertone—are still very much a part of the American aesthetic. The difference is that now we can experience it in genuine African-American culture—from the jazz of Louis Armstrong to the prose of Ralph Ellison—as well as in hybrids and imitations.

Most interesting of all, however, is to speculate about what a contemporary version of Rourke's book might include. If a Rourke of 2031 were to use popular culture to identify our most common archetypes, what would she find? First of all, I think, would be the Star, a type unknown in 1830 but absolutely central today. The Star is our secular, consumerist version of the Greek god: The pinnacle of aspiration and the focus of fantasy, he or she gets to enjoy what the rest of us only dream about. The Star—whether he is an actor or singer or sports figure—is not simply admired for what he is done; he is worshipped for who he is, gratuitously. The intensity of our worship and need also gives rise to the subcategory of the Fallen Star, from Marilyn Monroe to Kurt Cobain. The Fallen Star allows us to mix pity with our envy, reassuring us that, while we may dream of becoming one, the Star is best seen from a distance.

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