How best to understand America’s competing national myths?

In Washington Monthly, Nationhood Lab director Colin Woodard reviews a new book from an eminent scholar of the American mythos doesn’t quite hit the mark

By Colin Woodard

As someone engaged in crafting a rebooted national narrative for the United States I was excited to see that Richard Slotkin had a book coming out on our country’s competing national myths. Slotkin, Olin Professor of English and American Studies emeritus at Wesleyan University, is a titan in the field and has been writing about the American mythos for as long as I’ve been alive, and the new book, A Great Disorder: National Myth and the Battle for America, promised to bring together his lifetime of insights and scholarship on this vital topic.

It’s vital because no country can long survive without a compelling national story. Nations are abstractions, their power dependent on individual people believing in their existence, distinctiveness and “story” of origin, purpose, and potential futures. This has been especially true for the United States because we’re an awkward federation of rival regional cultures that have never agreed on a lot of essentials, like what “freedom” means or what the correct relationship is between church and state, government and people, individual liberty and the common good. Part of the reason the U.S. is in crisis is because we lost our civic national story – the one based on the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence – and authoritarian ethnonationalist demagogues found theirs. The core work of Nationhood Lab, the project I founded at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, is developing, testing, and helping deploy a rebooted civic national story that resonates with Americans today.

But as I write in this review essay in the new issue of Washington Monthly, when it comes to organizing, analyzing and bringing clarity to our competing national myths, A Great Disorder unfortunately winds up being pretty disorderly. “The publisher’s synopsis says Slotkin has identified five core myths, but the text enumerates at least seven: the Frontier, the Founding, Liberation, the Lost Cause, the Good War, the Movement, and Blue America,” I wrote in the piece. “And when you parse the text to try to define each one, you’ll find that some of the most important ones are divided into subvariants that are in Manichean opposition to one another, though Slotkin often doesn’t differentiate between them thereafter. And with that shortcoming, the analytical utility of the whole exercise falls apart.”

You can read the full review at the Monthly, where you’ll also find a related review of another scholar’s book on Daniel Webster and the American myth. I’ve also recently written about Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis in Smithsonian Magazine and discussed the importance of having one with Yascha Mounk.