What Are Our Stories?

I’ve been reading The Devil’s Pleasure Palace.  The author remarks that, in the 19th century, the reading material in many American homes included Milton’s Paradise Lost.  We already knew that Shakespeare and the Bible were common reading in those days.

The author notes (and this is unarguable, I think) that a society is largely characterized by the stories and myths that it shares.

So my question for discussion is this…and I’m almost afraid to ask it…in American in 2016, what are our primary shared stories and myths?

12 thoughts on “What Are Our Stories?”

  1. One of the keys, maybe the key, to the survival of United States and Western Civilization itself is wresting control of the school system away from the government. Besides parents, schools are the primary writers of basic knowledge on young impressionable minds. We shouldn’t be providing government manufactured educations to our children. To make a car analogy, our schools are providing the Yugo or Trabant of education, whereas we should be providing at least Ford level or preferably Acura or Mercedes level. We could accomplish that by privatizing the schools and making them compete for students. It’s why Yugos were so bad and Acuras are so good.

    Stories that we all currently share would include major movies. The older generation will share movies from film noir, westerns, MGM musicals, through more widely viewed modern fare like Star Wars, Titanic and LOTR. For younger people, their knowledge of movies mostly begins with Star Wars and goes forward from there.

    I can’t think of a single book we all would share. I don’t think Shakespeare or Nathaniel Hawthorne are still widely taught. Social(ist) Justice manifestos are the books of choice in many school systems now. Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are popular with younger readers for personal reading. Video games are popular but I don’t game so I have no idea what they are.

    Television is probably a shared source of knowledge and entertainment, so that may qualify as common touchstones. That’s a scary thought in some ways, though some TV isn’t too bad and some is downright good.

    I think the cynical tone and apocalyptic plots of many modern movies and books is yet another sign that everyone feels the fraying of the fabric of civilization. They look to the future and see dark things ahead.

  2. “They look to the future and see dark things ahead.”

    I agree. “Hunger Games” seems to be popular with the 25 year old crowd. A whole series of movies have spun off. Boomers were more into “Lord of the Rings” which was fantasy.

    I’m disappointed in the amount of reading that kids do but it’s hard unless you pull the plug on the TV. I know parents who have done it and produced great kids.

  3. “Star Wars” seems to be very important to quite a few people, including some serious professionals and successful businessmen.

    “The Princess Bride” seems to resonate with many.

  4. When your cultural references, your shared stories, are movies and TV you are at the mercy of what was designed to be a profitable venture. This is not bad, but does limit your stories to largely trivial crap. Have you seen the new Star Wars movie?

    Anyhow your culture has been for long time, a reflection of fiction about yourselves. Your exceptionalism, your wonderful reaction to and the overcoming of anything that threatens freedom. I could go on.

    This is almost entirely bullshit and has set you guys up for a massive fall. Lack of self examination and belief in your exceptional place in history has made you very blind to many facts, that are now exerting pressure on your fantasy, and that will cause it to fail. You understand this is true, and that’s why the despondency in America has made Trump so strong.

  5. It’s because we have so much more to choose from. I have read the letters and diary entries of 19th C ancestors and they could not have understood much about Milton of Shakespeare. The Bible, as the lessons were continually reinforced from earliest years to latest, they perhaps understood reasonably. Stories were regional, oral, and mostly untrue. Therefore, those Americans did not have common stories either.

    Movies are more the cultural center now. In addition to Star Wars, the general collection of Christmas movies approach universality.

  6. I haven’t read it – in any translation – but the stories of the popularity in the 19th century of Longfellow’s Dante put a bust of Dante on many a middle class piano. I hadn’t read Pilgrim’s Progress until lately, but apparently that was in the hands of most Protestants in the early years. No, we don’t share much – and we don’t have much to share.

    I’d like to point out, though, that Shakespeare wrote for the public – those were no closet dramas nor was he unconcerned about the productions themselves. One of the worst things that can happen to culture is valuation by how little it is valued by the bourgeois. Art that affronts the aesthetic taste is not, I suspect, going to “last,” but it is also not likely to say something profound.

    But the great shared book of Western culture is the Bible, and, especially, the King James version. That remains in Bible belt areas a source of many narratives and much understanding of character. The loss of that understanding by some segments of our society is likely to render any reading of some of our best authors, say Melville and Faulkner, flat and confused. The narrative of Moses leading his people through the desert permeates American autobiographies, poems, fiction – well, vision. It is not a bad narrative for it encourages perseverance and the sense that trials are challenges (perhaps even ones set out purposefully to test) rather than roadblocks and punishments.

    Of course, the great thread in American thought is of introspection – witness the emphasis from the beginning on autobiographies. These are the tales of self-consciousness, intensity of observation. Traditional writers examined their sins or their errata or their mistakes – wanting to learn from them about human nature.

    What seems most iconic to me is the way that Natty Bumppo’s code and heroism have continued to be central – to Twain then to James in quite different ways, to Sam Spade and the hero of Grand Torino; American individualism can be lonely but it does have a certain grandeur, self-consciousness.

  7. Everybody owned a Sears and Roebucks catalogue. Plus a Montgomery wards.

    Usually new issues were in the parlor and older issues in the outhouse. It contained the stuff of dreams. Dreams that built a nation.

    Not everyone had indoor plumbing. Running water meant you ran down to the river to get it. I know people who live in kit-houses today that 100 years ago were ordered from the Sears catalogue.

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