As Wecter shows, Americans remain awfully exacting of their heroes. And what Wecter stresses is the one thing that Wachhorst occasionally seems to forget in his extremely insightful study of Edison. For the biggest "mediating tension" that Edison filled for everyday Americans had little to do with Marx's relatively obscure literary look at technological progress in a supposedly Edenic utopia. The biggest, and perhaps most unfair, trait that Americans ask for in a hero is what Wector touched on when he said the hero "must be greater than the average but in ways agreeable to the average" (11). As Americans try to reconcile their natural awe of the great and powerful with their democratic, egalitarian pride in the common, they demand a budding genius walking ridiculously with bread under his arms, a leader for the ages born in a log cabin, and a superman in overalls, dirt smudged across his face. More than any other American of the last century Edison merged the common and the miraculous. He sold to millions of Americans the mobility myth (probably impossible in any form of government) that even those who start the lowest can rise highest -- eventually springing off the earth and into myth.
Does America still allow for this kind of mobility? Can an individual burst out of the heartland of America, clad in blue jeans and rearing to change the world? Or is today's budding inventor destined to become, like Pynchon's modern researchers, merely "brainwashed, like all of us, into believing the Myth of the American Inventor--Morse and his telegraph, Bell and his telephone, Edison and his light bulb" only to get "stuck on some 'project' or 'task force' or 'team' and started being ground into anonymity" (88)? Can the American inventor emerge from the highly bureacratized 'task force' to change the world? My answer remains yes.
Individual inventors still catch the public eye, and America, tumbling head-first into the information age faces a technological change in many ways unrivaled since Edison's day. No figure sits higher upon technology's finely crafted throne than Microsoft's Bill Gates. But while Gates has changed the future in ways that could one day rival Edison's accomplishments, the public has held little interest in offering Gates hero status. This, I argue, is because while Gates possesses an intuitive genius akin to Edison's and many other great "go-getter" Americans, throughout his career he has failed again and again to build any sense of connection with the American people. And with his billions and billions of dollars who says he really needs to?
Yet Gates, like all of us, still tends to strive for more than material wealth. When showing off Windows98 a couple of weeks ago, Gates ran into a serious computer malfunction that halted his presentation. "See," Gates quipped, "I make mistakes just like you." But the public did not come to identify more with Gates, and the most common response probably remained a degree of delight in the Microsoft CEO's misfortune. To the American people, Gates' is anything but "one of the guys." Lacking a publicity team or Edison's intuitive genius to cater to the public, Gates drifts far out of the common man's realm. With Gates unable to bridge the problematic gap between genius and commoner (a particularly tough challenge which the New World holds in high esteem), the information age still looks for its personal profit of progress -- an individual who like Edison could bind the people's hopes and fears into one coherent image.
Drawing from a murky soup of bold and il-defined ideals, Americans ask much of their national heroes, choosing to craft only a few natives into meaningful myths. The question then becomes, do Americans ask too much of their heroes? Given how few legends currently remain, the easy answer would be yes. But I believe America fairly demands the near impossible from its finest sons and daughters. For as long as heroes remain one of the preeminent ways for Americans to examine their most cherished beliefs, the country can ask for individuals whose spirits can function as the crucible for centuries-old ideological battles. As Americans grappled with power and innocence, nature and technology, and nostalgia and progress all within one individual from a rural Ohio town, even the wonderful Wizard finished life tired and choked by public opinion. But America entered a new age more prepared and sure of itself than it possibly could have without its famous "Yankee tinkerer."
Heroes and myths, in the end, give a lot more than they take. Edison bravely endured, creating a stronger America, but a nation needs to be careful in choosing who should lead it into a new era. Even at the risk of blazing leaderless into a new technological age, America's ideals should not be dealt out on a first come-first serve basis.
The nation waits for another hero, another Thomas Edison -- arriving, perhaps, on the next incoming train.
|Introduction||Edison's life and inventions||What myths are made of||Miraculous quality of inventions||Packaging the product||American tale||Conclusion|