Holding Out for a Hero
They say you should never meet your heroes. Late last night (early this morning, TBH), I finished writing a paper about the heroification of George Washington. I examined biographies written about him over the past two centuries. Historiographical (the history of writing history) trends come and go but depictions of George Washington have remained remarkably stable since the eighteenth century. He’s always portrayed as a Great Man, Hero of the Nation, Father of His Country. Even biographers who claimed to want to humanize him ended up deifying him. Washington was turned into an imposing figure with about as much depth as the thickness of the paper on which the glowing words about him were printed.
The Trouble with Paragons
In the process of becoming heroified, George Washington became, well, dull. Flawless is boring. Let’s be real, no one likes a goody-goody. Admires from afar (but secretly resents), perhaps. But “likes,” in the sense of “is intrigued by”? Nah, not so much. We talk a lot these days about finding characters relatable. What we mean is, we find them interesting. Think about it? Do you really “relate” to the serial killer in the book you just read or the supervillain in the movie you just saw? I hope not. But you do find them fascinating. You watch them or read about them, trying to figure out what makes them tick. They’re interesting. Marble statues—Paragons of Virtue—are not.
Bigger, Better, Bolder
So, it’s kind of a shame that George Washington was elevated to paragon status. He’s partly to blame. As a man determined to make a mark on the world, he carefully curated his public image. The Instagram generation has nothing on the OG influencer. His earliest biographer, minister-turned-bookseller’s-agent, M.L. Weems, shares the fault. Weems published a biography of Washington in 1800, the year after the former President died. It sold well. It was buzzed about. It sold better than well. Weems released a new edition. And another. And another. Subsequent editions weren’t mere reprints of the first. Weems revised and expanded them. For the 1806 edition, he made stuff up. Like a story about a six-year-old taking a hatchet to his father’s cherry tree. Weems didn’t care. It could have happened. And Weems was trying to make a point. He held up George Washington as a moral exemplar and implored parents to use him as a model to raise their children to be Good Citizens. Why let the truth stand in the way of a moral lesson?
A Hero’s Burden
If Oprah’s Book Club had existed in the 1800s, Weems’s biography would have been a Book Club Pick. And it would have come out that his version of Washington’s life was “highly fictionalized.” Unlike today, there wouldn’t have been a huge scandal. In the pre-internet age, plausible deniability was still a thing and heroes had a more defined function in the world. They were responsible for the uplift of the Nation. They had to instruct and inspire and safeguard the very soul of the people. That’s a lot of work. Nowadays, when the very concept of truth is questioned, when everything is relative and ideas like “virtue” are seen as old-fashioned, heroes are kinda out of a job.
We Don’t Need Another Hero
Which is okay. Times change, needs change. But it’s not fair to set someone up as a hero, then deconstruct them, and then get angry when they’re revealed to be made of flesh instead of marble. So, what if we stopped searching for heroes and started looking for ordinary people to rise to challenges and do heroic things? A character doesn’t have to be a Sears catalog of dysfunction to make them interesting. Ordinary people have flaws but are not defined by them. And having flaws doesn’t make their accomplishments less noteworthy. Or book-worthy. Or movie-worthy. George Washington, the flawed human, achieved some pretty impressive things. Like being unanimously elected President of a country that didn’t exist for most of his life. George Washington, the flawed human, was interesting.
Who are some of your favorite ordinary characters in fiction? How did they rise to the challenges presented to them? Who are some of your favorite, or least favorite, heroes? Or anti-heroes? Share here, on Facebook, or on Twitter.