Why, according to the annual Harris Poll of Americans, was John Wayne the Number One Movie Star as recently as 1995? He embodies the American myth. The archetypal American is a displaced person—arrived from a rejected past, breaking into a glorious future, on the move, fearless himself, feared by others, a killer but cleansing the world of things that “need killing,” loving but not bound down by love, rootless but carrying the Center in himself, a gyroscopic direction-setter, a traveling norm.
Other cultures begin with a fixed and social hearth, a temple, a holy city. American life begins when that enclosure is escaped. One becomes American by going out. We are a people of departures, not arrivals. To reach one place is simply to catch sight of a new Beyond. Our basic myth is that of the frontier. Our hero is the frontiersman. To become urban is to break the spirit of man. Freedom is out on the plains, under endless sky. A pent-in American ceases to be American. In his 1844 lecture on “The Young American,” Emerson said that Americans need the boundless West in order to become themselves.
Whatever events in progress shall go to disgust men with cities, and infuse into them the passion for country life, and country pleasures, will render a service to the whole face of this continent, and will further the most poetic of all the occupations of real life, the bringing out by art [of] the native but hidden graces of the landscape…. The nervous [strong-nerved], rocky West is intruding a new and continental element into the national mind, and we shall yet have an American genius [ethos]…. We must regard the land as a commanding and increasing power on the citizen, the sanative and Americanizing influence, which promises to disclose new virtues for ages to come….
The “young American” Emerson imagined out on the horizon had the easy gait and long stride of John Wayne.
When, half a century after Emerson’s lecture, Frederick Jackson Turner gave an even more influential address announcing that the frontier was closed, that America had run out of “free land,” there was a crisis of identity in the country. Without frontiers, we were a place without freedom. If, as Emerson said, “the land is the appointed remedy for whatever is false and fantastic in our culture,” then we were left with no cure for our falsehood. We would become all City, after being all Frontier.
The city in the American imagination has played roughly the role of hell in Christian theology. America will cease to be virtuous, Thomas Jefferson said, when its citizens “get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.” His anti-city note sounds throughout our history. “A really human life is impossible in our cities,” said Henry Demarest …