A Call to Heroism: Renewing America's Vision of Greatness

A Call to Heroism: Renewing America's Vision of Greatness

Paperback(First Trade Paper Edition)

View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


In A Call to Heroism, Peter Gibbon argues that the heroes we honor are the embodiment of the ideals that America was founded on: liberty, justice, and tolerance chief among them. Because the very concept of heroism has come under threat in our cynical media age, Gibbon believes that we must forge a new understanding of what it means to be a hero to fortify our ideals as we engage our present challenges and face those that lay ahead. Gibbon examines the types of heroes that we have celebrated throughout our history, and along the way, he contemplates the meanings of seven monuments and artworks dedicated to heroes to examine what these places and things say about the America of their time—and what they mean for Americans today.

Full of insight and inspiration, A Call to Heroism is a provocative look at a timeless subject that has never been more important.

Chapter One What Is A Hero?
A look at the essence of heroism, and how we perceive it today

Interchapter: Hall of Fame for Great Americans
A contemplation of the Hall monument, built in New York City at the end of the 19th century by architecht Stanford White, and left to decay in the 1970s. Gibbon

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802140289
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 08/06/2003
Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt



Let me tell you they are out there — those of confounding selflessness and seeming immunity to fear. ... They have eluded concise definition since the beginning of recorded history.

— Admiral James Stockdale, 1991 "On Heroes and Heroism"

It's a tricky word. It should not be thrown around easily, hero or heroism.

— Lance Armstrong, 2001 Union Square, New York City

Twentieth-century philosopher Joseph Campbell believed that all heroes take journeys, confront the unknown, endure trials, and return home transformed — as did Buddha, Muhammad, and Jesus. Christians believe heroes are humble and turn the other cheek. Friedrich Nietzsche believed heroes were proud and forceful. Who is a hero? "He who conquers his evil inclinations," according to the Talmud. "He who hangs on for one minute more," says a Russian proverb.

Hero is a difficult word. Is John Wayne a hero because he portrayed brave men? Is Babe Ruth a hero because he hit home runs? Can we look up to Charles Lindbergh after he accepted a medal from the Nazis, or to suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, knowing she feared that immigrants would change American culture? Is General Dwight Eisenhower a hero even though he never risked his life? Can we admire Robert E. Lee when he fought to preserve slavery?

Nobody wants to be called a hero. After being widely acclaimed for his leadership in the Gulf War, General Norman Schwarzkopf called his book It Doesn't Take a Hero and passed along the glory to the men who served under him. When President Reagan saluted Mother Hale as "a true American hero" for taking babies with AIDS into her home, she replied, "I'm not an American hero. I'm simply a person who loves children." John F. Kennedy turned aside praise of his war exploits by saying, "My boat sank."

To many of today's intellectuals, the word hero is antique. They appreciate epic heroes like Achilles and Beowulf, mythological heroes like Hercules, tragic heroes like Antigone. But human heroes belong to a credulous prescientific age. Intellectuals don't have heroes; they have people they admire — some of the time.

Too male, too military, say feminists. Hero often means oppressor. In a patriarchal society, heroes have been warriors, cowboys, explorers. Our definition of hero reflects a "male model," poetry critic Helen Vendler told me in an interview. "I often wondered what happened to the children when the hero went away to war."

Deconstructionists find the word hero meaningless. In their view, no one is selfless or noble. Behind every altruistic act is self- interest. Social scientists tell us that human beings are not autonomous but conditioned by genes and environment, that we do what we are bred and trained to do, not what we believe is right. To some Americans today, the concept of a hero seems elitist and out of place in a democracy where all are equal.

"A hero is usually smug," Ned Rorem told me in his home on Nantucket. Rorem, a composer, won a Pulitzer Prize for his music in 1976 and had recently been named president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City. Rorem doesn't accept the word hero and has never had one. "I don't know what noble or lofty means." Mother Teresa "is a fraud," he added; "she is in the hero business. ... Abortion and birth control would help India."

It's hard to have confidence in the word hero when reputations rise and fall. At the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, visitors could stroll through a full-scale reproduction of the monastery where Christopher Columbus stayed in Spain before petitioning Queen Isabella for funding to sail to America. Life-size replicas of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria floated across a man-made lagoon. On display were seventy-one portraits of Columbus and facsimiles of his ships' logs. Leading up to the 1893 exposition had been a year of parades and ceremonies commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's first voyage. Almost one hundred years later, in 1992, demonstrators threw blood on the explorer's statue at Columbus Circle in New York City to protest the impact of colonization on Native Americans.

Besides, say skeptics, a skillful publicist can make an ordinary person great. Several patriots rode to Lexington on April 19, 1775, to warn Americans of the British attack, but Longfellow's 1861 poem "Paul Revere's Ride" made only one man a hero. Until John Filson mythologized Daniel Boone in the eighteenth century and Timothy Flint praised him in the most widely read biography before the Civil War, Boone was an average explorer, who in a moment of honesty confessed, "Many heroic actions and chivalrous adventures are related of me which exist only in the regions of fancy." Libby Custer wrote three best-sellers and gave hundreds of lectures around the country to assure posterity that in 1876 at the Battle of Little Big Horn her husband, George A. Custer, died a hero.

Names and stories linger in our memories and make a difference. Thomas Jackson became "Stonewall" Jackson during the Civil War, after he stationed his men in a strong defensive line and repulsed the Union troops at the Battle of Manassas in 1861. In the 1870s, Ned Buntline's dime novels transformed William F. Cody into Buffalo Bill.

Heroes can also be elevated by early death. Until the British hanged him as a spy at the age of twenty-one, Nathan Hale was an ordinary soldier in the Colonial army. Cartoonists mocked Abraham Lincoln until the night he was shot. "This thing of being a hero," said Will Rogers, "about the main thing to do is to know when to die."

What a Hero Is Not

The word hero comes to us from the Greek, meaning demigod. Offspring of a divine parent and a mortal parent, the heroes of Greek mythology were less than gods but greater than ordinary humans — and if their exploits in the mortal world brought honor to the gods, they could join them on Mount Olympus for eternity. Achilles, the quintessential classical warrior, who kills Hector on the fields of Troy at the end of the Iliad, was a great hero to the Greeks because he was courageous and handsome and valued glory in battle more than life itself.

Later in their history, the Greeks applied the word hero to human beings. The most renowned human hero in the ancient world was the conqueror Alexander the Great, who marched from Egypt to India and conquered the known world in nine years before he died at the age of thirty-two. In the Sackler Museum at Harvard University, there is a Greek coin that on one side depicts Alexander the Great as a human being and on the other side as a god. In Greece there were hero shrines where citizens could worship. Heroes seemed more accessible than gods. The bones of human heroes, the Greeks believed, had magical powers. From the Greeks comes the notion of the hero as extraordinary, superhuman, charismatic, godlike, as well as the beliefs that heroes are above all physically brave and that the crucible of courage is the battlefield, where decisions and actions mean life or death.

For most of human history, hero has been synonymous with warrior. Although we often link these words today, we do have an expanded, more inclusive definition of hero than the one we inherited from the Greeks. Modern dictionaries list three qualities in common after the entry hero: extraordinary achievement, courage, and the idea (variously expressed) that the hero serves as a "model" or "example" — that heroism has a moral component.

Today, extraordinary achievement is no longer confined to valor in combat. As well as military heroes, there are humanitarian heroes, cultural heroes, political heroes. Thomas Edison lit up the night. Harriet Tubman rescued slaves. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Beethoven is a hero of music, Rembrandt of art, Einstein of science.

Likewise, courage means many things besides physical bravery: taking an unpopular position, standing up for principle, persevering, forging accomplishment out of adversity. After her life was threatened, activist Ida B. Wells continued to condemn lynching. Franklin Roosevelt battled polio. Helen Keller transcended blindness and deafness.

The moral component of the meaning of heroism — and, I believe, the most important one — is elusive. In French, héros is associated with generosity and force of character. And in Middle English, heroicus means noble. In dictionaries, heroic is an adjective of praise: some of its synonyms are virtuous, steadfast, magnanimous, intrepid. The Oxford English Dictionary uses the phrase "greatness of soul." It's an imprecise concept, like the word hero itself. There are many different ways to describe it, but I believe greatness of soul to be a mysterious blend of powerful qualities summarized by Shakespeare in Macbeth (IV.iii.91–94), where he describes the "king- becoming graces" as:

... justice, verity, temp'rance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude.

When Nelson Mandela received an honorary degree from Harvard University in a special ceremony in September 1998, the seniors sat in the front rows. My son, who was among them, commented that there was an aura about Mandela, something about being in his presence that evoked a surprisingly powerful response. I believe the response he was describing is awe, which washed over many people attending the ceremony that afternoon and came from contemplating Mandela's extraordinary achievement, his profound courage, and his greatness of soul.

I find it significant that the heroes in American history with the most staying power, like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, had this same greatness of soul. And I find it encouraging that the three people Time magazine picked as the most influential of the twentieth century — Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt — each had this quality.

Heroes, of course, do not have extraordinary achievement, courage, and the qualities that comprise greatness of soul in equal abundance, but I argue that the more of them one has, the higher one is in the pantheon. And if you take an antonym for each of Shakespeare's "king-becoming graces," you come up with a pretty good definition of what a hero is not: unjust, untruthful, intemperate, unstable, stingy, wavering, vengeful, arrogant, capricious, impatient, cowardly, and volatile.

THE GREATEST BURDEN the word hero carries today is the expectation that a hero be perfect. In Greek mythology, even the gods have flaws. They are not perfect but rather hot-tempered, jealous, and fickle, taking sides in human events and feuding among themselves.

The Roman historian Plutarch wrote some of the earliest biographies of heroes: Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. For hundreds of years these biographies were enormously influential in European and American education. Thomas Jefferson carried a copy of Lives in his knapsack. Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays and notebooks are sprinkled with quotations from Plutarch. For each of the biographies she read, Jane Addams's father paid her fifty cents. Plutarch's Lives was one of Harry Truman's favorite books, and it lingered as one of the staples of an Anglo-American classical education until the turn of the nineteenth century.

Plutarch's biographies were not hagiographies; in each he reminds us that an exemplary life has never been a perfect life, and we learn from his subjects' vices as well as their virtues. For example, in his treatment of the Roman statesman Cato the Elder (one of George Washington's heroes), Plutarch praises Cato for his frugality and integrity, and for being a good father and husband, but rebukes him for boasting about his achievements and mistreating his slaves. Plutarch acknowledged the flaws of the men he wrote about, but in the main he admired their many accomplishments.

In America today we have come to define the person by the flaw: Thomas Jefferson is the president with the slave mistress, Einstein the scientist who mistreated his wife, Mozart the careless genius who liked to talk dirty. These definitions lodge in our minds — especially if they relate to sex — and become the first and sometimes the only thing we remember.

As a society, we need to explore a more subtle, complex definition of the word hero, suitable for an information age, one that acknowledges weaknesses as well as strengths, failures as well as successes — but, at the same time, one that does not set the bar too low. We need to portray our heroes as human beings but let them remain heroic. Yes, Lincoln liked bawdy stories, was politically calculating, and suffered from melancholy. But he also exhibited astonishing political and moral courage, led our nation through its greatest crisis, and always appealed to the "better angels of our nature."

A realistic definition of hero does not mean we include in the pantheon those who are evil. Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung were two of the most powerful men of the twentieth century, leading vast backward nations to global prominence while destroying millions of lives in the process. Though some in Russia or China still venerate them, few in America would call them heroes today. In his book ranking the one hundred most influential individuals in human history, Michael Hart observes, "It is not a list of the noblest characters." Influential does not mean heroic. Nor is leader — a word to which hero is frequently linked — a synonym for hero. Adolf Hitler was a leader; Nelson Mandela is a hero.

Among those who are not fond of the word hero was the philosopher Sidney Hook, because throughout history we have called so many leaders heroes who have been greedy and wicked. Reflecting a recurring criticism of heroes, one that becomes particularly pronounced after World War II, Hook noted that "on the whole, heroes in history have carved out their paths of greatness by wars, conquest, revolutions, and holy crusades." In his 1943 book The Hero in History, Hook suggested we take the word away from political leaders and soliders and give it to teachers.

A Hero by Any Other Name?

As I travel around the country talking to students, I have been asked many times, "Can't a celebrity be a hero?" A celebrity can be a hero but, by definition, a celebrity is simply someone who is famous. Are celebrities usually heroes? It is hard to combine the qualities of heroism with the values of today's entertainment industry.

In the media, the word hero is often used interchangeably with legend, icon, and idol. A 1998 cover of Esquire magazine featured Mr. Rogers and posed the question "Can you say ... hero"? When Mr. Rogers retired in 2001, a television newscaster asked, "Can you say icon?" The name of a popular news magazine program that profiles famous people is Headliners and Legends. A recent issue of a pension fund magazine introduced a new advertising campaign with the headline "Icons, Thinkers and Everyday Heroes." Questions about distinctions among these words surface all the time in my audiences.

Legendary stories have always swirled around heroes. Since the age of Homer, legends flourished in societies that had low levels of formal education and slow means of communication. Often embroidered more elaborately after death, legends enhanced the status of mere mortals. Today newscasters and talk show hosts do use the word legend to describe a fanciful story that has been woven into someone's history but more often to describe some giant of the entertainment industry, like John Wayne, or some athletic superstar, like Babe Ruth. A legend is someone about whom stories have been generated by fans and publicists, someone who has become larger than life, someone around whom an aura of mystery has gathered.

Legends have a powerful emotional pull. We crave colorful, romantic stories. At the same time, an egalitarian, highly educated, information- rich society erodes legends and makes it harder to have heroes. Legendary history flourished in nineteenth-century America; contemporary historians believe it is their duty to distinguish legend from fact. We now have hundreds of books with titles like Penetrating the Lincoln Legend and Stonewall Jackson: Soldier and Legend. In a fact-based scientific society, people prefer their heroes to stand tall and strong without the help of legends.

Used liberally in advertisements and the entertainment industry, the term icon originally meant an image of a saint. This is still true in the Eastern Orthodox Church, but in our more secular world an icon need not be a saint. In computer listings under the keyword ICON are books on Saint Basil the Great and Sir Thomas More. There are also books on Che Guevara, Frank Sinatra, Mae West, and the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Icon has become a fashionable word, applied to anyone or anything that some group will venerate, for whatever reason.


Excerpted from "A Call To Heroism"
by .
Copyright © 2002 Peter H. Gibbon.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Peter J. Gomes,
Introduction: In Search of Heroes,
One What Is a Hero?,
The Hall of Fame for Great Americans,
Two The Nineteenth-Century Ideology of Heroism,
John Bridge, Puritan,
Three Our Help in Ages Past,
The Shaw Memorial,
Four The American Warrior Hero,
Saint John the Divine's Sports Bay,
Five The Fall of the Hero Athlete,
Greenough's Statue of Washington,
Houdon's Bust of Franklin,
Seven The Lives of Heroes,
Rushmore Revisited,
Eight Ashamed of Our Past,
Forgotten Monuments,
Nine Talking to Students About Heroes,
Ten Why Heroes?,
Author Interviews,
Recommended Readings,

Customer Reviews