The Case for Great American Hagiography

John Hinderaker posted this obituary the other day, and it got me thinking about a subject much neglected in these times of celebrated fault and folly: the tribute.

For 150 years after the founding of the republic, it was common to pay tribute to our best citizens by printed testaments from their contemporaries and families. These memorial pamphlets could be found in homes and libraries in the towns where their lives were lived, and detailed the key accomplishments, associations, and historical connections that would make all who knew them proud. 

The portraits drawn might have been kinder than the individual deserved, but it was a means of reaffirming the best that a man or woman could be. More importantly, such tributes helped reinforce the qualities we expected in ourselves and others. Hagiography of this sort might then be bolstered by conversations between those who knew the deceased and then picked up on the factory floor, across the water bucket in the field, or at the lunch counter, and sometimes even result in a public tribute of some kind—a plaza, a street, or a building. 

Times change, but not always for the better. As the pace of society quickened, the population of small towns evolved, and the great majority of people moved toward the anonymity of the city—and the best among us often moved as well. The memorial pamphlet was replaced only by the newspaper obituary with content gauged by the column inch. Still, extraordinary individuals might rate a larger space in the New York Times or the city newspaper where the deceased would best be known. Qualities of character were usually bypassed for mere physical facts—dates, places, names. Moral judgments were few. 

Some years ago, I came upon a trove of these pamphlets from the 19th century and read part of quite a few. What they described was a different America, not necessarily a better one. 

Most of the individuals who rated attention were male, upper middle class or wealthy, and college-educated (at a time when more than 90 percent of Americans were not), often at an Ivy League school such as Harvard or Yale. This is the rub. The people most responsible for the extraordinary work and accomplishments of the nation were then, as today, unacknowledged in their time. If a strange disease were to suddenly eliminate all the Ivy League graduates today, those who govern us in the uniparty administration would be devastated, but it would have little impact on the working of society. 

Mike Rowe has made a fine career out of this fact—out of the accomplishments of those who do the work that makes things work. His practical appraisal of the values inherent in hard work and the passions of those who do it in marked contrast to the attitudes of those who cultivate power and control over other human beings. It is a study of basic human values that has no regard for race, or religion, or national origin—only for the freedom to do the work you want to do. To fail, and learn to get better at it, or find something better suited to your talents—that’s the American way. 

Hinderaker’s father was clearly an example of a great and extraordinary American. Certainly, there are many others like him, but too few, and they are seldom honored so plainly today. His faults, of which he likely had the normal human allotment, are unimportant and not worth knowing about in any case. We have the self-flagellation of Hollywood stars (and their uglier cousins, Washington politicians) for all that.  

That is not to say that we should ignore the evil that men do, or excuse it, or fail to study it sufficiently to understand how all these Hamlets and Poloniuses, Gertrudes and Claudiuses, came to be such rats, or then relate that knowledge, even to a public more interested in titillation than moral example, so the evil that men do does not, after all, live after them. But it is to say, as the Bard does in another play, that the good should not be “interred in their bones.”  

We wonder if some writers ignore the moral example today out of a fear of self-comparison, or shame, or really out of sheer loathing for our fellow human beings. Too many of them are happy to dance in the muck of human negligence. But sadly, because the truly good is so seldom celebrated in the media, there is often no goal set for youth other than “to do your best.” Nice, but no cigar.

Yet, even still, a report comes back from the battlefield of some soldier laying his life on the line for others, and we are amazed at the courage. Why? The wonder of such generosity can be incomprehensible from the safety of my desk chair. And while individual acts of kindness and courage are easily missed on the city street, many small towns are still home to heroes who stand out from the rest of us who are just trying to get by. 

I am old enough to recall the tributes that poured forth upon the death of Winston Churchill. He was half-American, you know. And I remember, too, that despite a lifetime of accomplishment worthy of 10 men, before the burial service, the naysayers were afoot. I read a bunch of that: about his failure with Michael Collins in Ireland, about his responsibilities in Gallipoli, about his mistaken pact with the Socialists, and more. None of the critics—and there were many and not a few with Ivy League credentials—had ever attempted anything more in their lives than to trade on their family names and old school ties; they had never written a book to be remembered—much less half a dozen before the age of 30. They had never fought in the heat of battle. They had never put themselves in harm’s way. But they always have a lot to say. 

Paul Johnson, a full-Brit but one of the best historians of our time and author of the terrific A History of the American People, died last week. Just accounting for the millions of words he wrote would fill several pamphlets. Tributes of a kind have come from all the major press, some even bothering to mention his peccadillos. All I have seen are much too interested in his politics. But none have made me want to know the man more than what I have seen during his public life. His interest in the goings on of human affairs appears to have been indefatigable—from art and music to biography and history. He was a public intellectual I admired, even if I often disagreed with him about one thing or another. He was worth disagreeing with. I have learned from him. 

We often hear people speak of their mothers as unsung heroes. It’s worth a listen. What are the things they mention? Writing ability? Beauty and fashion sense? Incredible dexterity? Blazing speed on the playing field? No. Generosity, kindness, and caring. I heard one woman say her mother was the biggest klutz she had ever known, and by far, the gentlest spirit. The young sports star who buys his mother a house is a cliché because it is true. Somebody took care of that future athlete when they were still just a stinky kid who needed to get to practice. The point here is that greatness is more often in the small matters of life that make us whole. Books don’t get written about mothers because there are too many good ones out there to choose from. 

The “superhero” of our cartoons is no hero at all. He is a freak, and not even a natural one. He is also an authoritarian who takes matters into his own uninformed hands and lords over those who can’t leap buildings with a single bound. The fascination with superheroes is more understandable in the very young because they have no basis for comprehending why such magic is ridiculous and it helps them to feel less impotent in the adult world to imagine it. But for adults to wallow in the anti-physics of an Iron Man or Wolverine as anything more than a pale myth is sad. Most especially when there are so many fantastic human beings who go unremarked. 

There are a dozen real heroes whose accomplishments could be well-filmed on the budget of a single X-Men extravaganza. What lessons are being taught to the young mind? And make no mistake, lessons are being taught—that the tributes go instead to power. 

And at the other end of that scale, the family is the last remnant of the small town where everyone knows your name. It must serve as our last best example for a viable future. Perhaps the future is to be found there and made there once again. Great American lives will not be made by our school systems or by political enforcements, and certainly not by neglect. Someone else will not do it for us. We have to do it ourselves. We have to again pay tribute to our best—and let Hollywood fester with the rest.

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About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: John Valenzuela/MediaNews Group/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via Getty Images