In order to understand the contemporary enthusiasm generated from honoring individuals we must consider America's own traditions of celebrating their heroes. The formal severance of ties with Great Britain under the Declaration of Independence inaugurated the creation of a unique American tradition. Institutionalized recognition of individual achievement embodied in a hall of fame was a far cry from the Founding Father's intentions to keep America free from the trappings of an "official aristocracy" (Rubin). Such an official aristocracy - including knighthoods or a noble class - defied the democratic principles of equality and fairness upon which the Revolution rested. Recognized institutions of state-supported hero worship like France's Pantheon and Great Britain's Westminster Abbey had no home in a country where all men lived on equal footing. This rejection of British traditions meant the denial of their culture, history, and heroes - America was certain they would make their own.
E Pluribus Unum
An American tradition had to begin with unity. Thirteen separate states, each with a different history and distinct cultures needed to find a singular way to unite themselves under the rule of one government if they were to create a viable nation. Polarized debates soon after victory over the British questioned the future of a United States. Yet out of the squabble for a united confederation arose a national symbol of accord to which all Americans freely accepted into power. The country's universal love for George Washington, even before his residing over the Constitutional Convention of 1789, was due to his political prestige throughout the former colonies. The nation needed Washington; they needed a non-partisan symbol that would unite their diverse regions, they needed an "incorruptible soul" who would shun the thoughts of monarchy, but still provide strength, yet, above all, they needed a hero (Dove, et al.).
Washington's conquests in the Revolutionary War and his unflinching devotion to his country made people faithfully revere him. During his lifetime he was often associated with Moses, leading his people to the promised land (ibid.). People everywhere showered him with praise; throngs of supporters cheered him as he toured battlefields or passed through towns. Yet some of his fellow revolutionaries expressed reservations towards this adulation. In fear of the excessive abuses of another monarchy, they privately questioned whether such "superstitious veneration" was proper (ibid.).
Many of the statesmen responsible for the birth of the United States saw the problematic juxtaposition of "adulation or worship" with the democratic ideals upon which they built the nation. They felt that a truly democratic republic could have no person glorified above another, regardless of their contribution. John Adams said, "it will never be pretended that any persons employed in (the Revolution) had interviews with the gods or were in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven" (Craven, 87). Yet, in stark contrast to this notion of equality lay the seemingly universal law that every nation needed its heroes (ibid.). Upon his death, however, Washington's spirit reached the true moment of his "apotheosis" (ibid.).
The mythic proportions to which he was elevated during his lifetime only grew after his death. True to the democratic principles Adams defended, the greater amount of monuments built in memory of the Revolutionary War in the first half of the nineteenth century honored non-descript groups of men and their patriotism, such as military companies or volunteers. Battle sites at Bunker Hill, Trenton and Brandywine each had non-descript, privately funded obelisks celebrating the collective struggle of several anonymous soldiers for independence, yet few such structures had been built in recognition of the achievement of named heroes. Nevertheless, Washington transcended the bond Americans had to their true egalitarian principles.
The first monument to an individual was Rober Mills' Baltimore Washington Monument. Originally conceived slightly before the War of 1812, a statue of Washington crowned a plain Doric column. Similar in style to the Austerlitz Column (1810) honoring Napolean in Paris' Place Vendome and Trajan's Column (113 AD) in Rome, it became an important monument to a military hero (Shepard). Built in the image of such Old World monuments, Baltimore's Washingon Monument placed Washington in the contextual sphere of the world's most powerful historic individuals. This important link with a true world history, beyond the scope of the British, would need to survive the trials of a forwards looking democratic polity, seemingly apathetic to their own past.
1826: A 'Providential' Loss
The Fourth of July, 1826 became the day that the United States began to create an actual group of heroes. Though the jubilee anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence "excited Americans with thoughts of the nation's past," the coincidental deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, a mere eight hours apart, drove the nation to reflect on their history. According to historian Lyman Butterfield, Americans had "become too busy exploiting their own heritage to appraise it" (119). This process caused America to fight over a number of issues with intense partisanship; but the news coming from Quincy, Massachusetts and Monticello made America realize they had neglected their own history.
In celebrating the heroic symbolism of George Washington, the nation had neglected the universe of other founding fathers. Whereas Washington symbolized unity, people had remembered the Revolutionary fathers for the many disputes they had with one another. The constant bickering between Adams and Jefferson over their politically polar ideologies didn't attract them their warranted praise until after their deaths. Eulogies joined these two men "hand in hand ascending" (Benjamin Rush, in Butterfield, 136). The "providential," almost simultaneous deaths of the southern, plantation (and slave) owning, state's rights prototype and the northern Federalist thematically joined the diverse nation with a unified collective memory.
Butterfield concluded that, "The deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson awakened in every thoughtful citizen a consciousness of republican ideals the two patriots had exemplified" (138). As two of the last three surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence (Charles Carroll died six years later), Jefferson and Adams had an important role to the succeeding generations of Americans looking for a tangible link to the past. As other revolutionary luminaries passed away before them, these two men became:
The embodied spirit of the Revolution itself, in all its purity and force, diffusing its wholesome influence through the generations that have succeeded, rebuking every sinister design, and invigorating every manly and virtuous resolution. (John Sargent, in Butterfield, 140).
With no formal treaty of union, the assumption that a unified spirit existed rested in the non-descript "community of principles and feelings," as stated by John Adams in support of the Declaration of Independence (Craven, 75). The "Spirit of '76" was the catchphrase for, as Adams further said, "thirteen clocks (striking) as one" (Craven, 74). The stark differences between the original settlements of Massachusetts and Virginia, exemplified in the contention between their native sons Adams and Jefferson, respectively, seemed to fade away under the unified "Spirit" of the Declaration and its heroic creators upon their deaths. In stating that "no nation can get along without its heroic figures," Wesley Craven emphasizes the need for great individuals to serve as a cornerstone of pride upon which a culture can build a collective identity (86). As evidenced in the glorification of a living Washington by his countrymen and the historic reflection on Adams and Jefferson, these men embodied the heroes that the country needed in order to band together and generate a "new history."
Following the deaths of Adams and Jefferson, the nation encountered an impass as to how to celebrate the heroes of their past. While glorifying Washington never was a problem, the attention other men of renown acquired posed the problem of honoring great and famous men against the democratic principles the nation was founded on. If all people are inherently equal, then how could men be honored above them? This question, often debated in newspaper editorials of the time, garnered attention as Andrew Jackson and his new Democracy arrived.
Asserting a Democratic Tradition
The constant theme of the democratic principles inherent in the founding of the United States acquired an even more dominant role with the rise of Jacksonian democracy in the 1830s. As the first man elected to the presidency without an expensive education, a personal fortune and upper-class connections, Andrew Jackson championed greater rights for the common man and opposed any outward signs of wealth and aristocracy in the nation (americanpresident.org). Embodying the citizenry with his humble roots, he became the first man elected by popular vote and not just the monied elites. Scoffing at the idolatry some viewed the president, when offered to be buried in the recently imported sarcophagus of a Roman emperor, he replied, "I do not think the sarcophagus of a Roman Emperor a fit receptacle for the remains of an American Democrat" (in Kammen, 19). George Bancroft, an ardent admirer of Jackson's, reflectedt his egalitarian brand of democracy in his epic history of the United States; the first comprehensive work on the subject.
As the preeminent historian of the first half of the 19th century, Bancroft's ten volume history of the country from the Pilgrims through the Revolution, became the standard text. Influenced by the prevailing attitudes of the Jacksonian democrats, he used the glorified terms of worship on the nation rather than on individuals. With the first volume published in 1834 and the last forty years later, Bancroft helped construct a national identity within a shared mutual history. However, the constant struggle between the perpetuation of democratic principles and a society's need for heroes provided a subtext to monument building as the nineteenth century progressed. The celebration of individual achievement through public architecture saw its greatest gambit in the creation of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.
Though the tree-lined Mall that stretched from the Capitol to the Potomac lay more than 60 years in the future, the idea to build a grand monument to the "Father of the Nation" began in 1833 when Chief Justice John Marshall and former president James Madison formed a society to erect such a structure. Robert Mills, reputedly the first American-born architect, won a competition to design this more elaborate monument to the first president. Capitalizing on the nineteenth century vogue of using the Egyptian obelisk, Mills planned to have a 600 foot obelisk rising from a colonnade that he intended to house a pantheon to the heroes of the Revolution. Statues of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and paintings depicting dramatic events in American history would accompany the solitary monument to Washington ("Design…"). Mills' plan conjured the imagery of the collected heroes of the Revolution gathered at the base of a singular, glorious monument to an individual man. The unprecedented reverence towards a single individual, much less an entire universe of patriotic men, punctuated the argument that countered the democratic, egalitarian stance many of the day had.
The pantheon that Mills included in his design for the Washington Monument was the first suggestion that America would honor a group of named heroes instead of either one solitary individual (such as Morris' Baltimore Washington Monument) or a collection of unnamed men (such as the battle monuments of the Revolutionary War). Influenced by both the reawakening of praise on the collected figures of the Revolution and the potency of Jacksonian Democracy, honoring several men in context with the one of the highest esteem was a viable compromise.
The kinds of monuments that began to take form in the 1830s and 40s, according to author William Hoppin, would:
Bring before us in our daily walks the idea of a country in a visible shape. It would impersonate her to us as a kind mother… We have no king - no court - no imposing forms and ceremonies, to serve as the external signs of this idea of country. It is so abstract… we almost forget it. We need something tangible, to cling to… We need the outward types (in Harris, 194).
Such physical forms promised to be a faithful reflection of the goals to which the signers of the Declaration of Independence strove for and would keep alive their personal sacrifice for generations to come.
Washington, D.C. became the logical site for these visible monuments to a collective, solely American past. The capital, established by George Washington in 1791, "was to be beautified, adorned with exquisite buildings and inspiring statuary; a national library, a national university… a network of (roads) to bring thousands daily to the shrine" of American government, eliciting pride from all those who visited (Harris, 195). Along with the Capitol building and the White House, the Washington Monument became another 'gleaming white structure' that served as Hoppin's shrine to republican patriotism.
Nevertheless, the opposing forces of democratic pluralism ground the construction of the Washington Monument almost to a halt. The lack of funds provided by the government and the intercession of the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party delayed construction until 1858. The Civil War further delayed the completion until finally, in 1885, nearly forty years after the cornerstone was laid the monument was completed; but its form was greatly different from Morris' intended plan. Gone were nearly fifty feet from the original height as well as the colonnade and the pantheon of Revolutionary heroes (nps.gov/nr/travel). However, well after the building of the Washington Monument slowed to a standstill, the concept for the first actual pantheon of heroes from the several states came to fruition in the Capitol's Statuary Hall.
Union and Fraction
The suggestion for the national Statuary Hall arose more out of unattended space then it did to feed the grumbling stomachs of patriotism. With construction nearing completion on the new House chamber in 1853, the former House chamber was destined to become nothing more than a thoroughfare between the House and the Rotunda. Rep. Justin Morill suggested, "to what end more useful or grand… can we devote (the Chamber) than to ordain that it shall be set apart for the reception of such statuary as each State shall elect to be deserving of in this lasting commemoration?" (in aoc.gov). In 1864 the states notified that they could submit "(two statues) of deceased persons who have been citizens thereof, and illustrious for their historic renown… such as each State may deem to be worth of this national commemoration… (which) shall be placed… in a national statuary hall" (ibid.). The collection was to honor each state and the individuals who figure most prominently in their history and identity; but uniting them all in the Capitol at that specific time in American history had a symbolism far beyond what a room honoring mostly dead, white men.
The Civil War raged as fiercely as ever on the date of this law's enactment, July 2nd, 1864. A year had passed since the Battle of Gettysburg and few could have predicted that the war would be over in 9 months. Yet the recognition of the uniqueness of each state history (California would eventually submit the Spanish founder of its Missions, Father Junipero Serra and Sequoya, the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet, was submitted by Oklahoma) collected in one unified national space showed the attempt at reaffirming a tradition of great men (and women) who helped to establish the many states of the union. This attempt at a symbollic reunification of a broken American macroculture through the nostalgic commemoration of the nation's history would see many successors throughout the rest of American history. Yet a strikingly significant rusult of the Civil War on a unified American polity, even though they still shared the idealized heroic figures of the American Revolution, was the celebration of heroes amongst each segmented microculture
The two distinct groups of the North and the South that emerged from the tragedy of the Civil War honored their own heroes, in their own geographic areas in their own way. Upon his death in 1885, the outpouring of emotion towards former president and Union hero Ulysses S. Grant generated the cry for a great memorial to be built in his honor. Though political inexperience contributed to The two distinct groups of the North and the South that emerged from the tragedy of the Civil War honored their own heroes, in their own geographic areas in their own way. Upon his death in 1885, the outpouring of emotion towards former president and Union hero Ulysses S. Grant generated the cry for a great memorial to be built in his honor. Though political inexperience contributed to
a presidency inundated with corruption and financial woe, many retained the memory of his heroism during the war. Supporters raised $600,000 for his tomb on Manhattan's west side that stands even today as the largest mausoleum in North America (nps.gov/gegr). The idolatry that surrounded Grant's immortalization in such an elaborate tomb came from the fragmentation of the United States to create a "North" and distinction of their culture from that of a defeated South. The South, meanwhile, honored their heroes separately.
27 April 1892
Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia arose from the South's desire to celebrate one of their most important heroes, Virginian Robert E. Lee. Due to the enormous outpouring of support for this statue, the former Confederacy, in an attempt to heal their wounded pride and to reunify a regional identity in the cause of state's rights, established four more statues to other heroes of the South. Brooke Ramsey and Sarah Dobson write that "the essence of this street is undeniably entrenched in regional pride and pre-war southern tradition" (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~UG97/monument/begin.html). In expanding the scope of Monument Avenue to more than a native son of Virginia, they made it a type of hall of fame for the Confederacy. The collective identity now encompassed more than simply Virginia; it accepted heroes from the whole of the South.
Richmond's Monument Avenue
The divisiveness of the Civil War enhanced by the turbulence of Radical Reconstruction made the 1860s and 1870s particularly contentious. The regional hero worship on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line suggested the near impossibility of a healing a national identity. The easiest way, it seemed, to overcome broken ties and escape the past was to simply ignore it and focus on the future. For the United States in 1876, they did exactly that. With few national heroes that a newly reunited nation could celebrate, the focus turned to the future with a focus on technology and the industrializing of America.
"The Future is Now!"
The Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia, according to Michael Kammen in his seminal work Mystic Chords of Memory, "contained remarkably few historical displays… their invariable message was to glorify the present rather than to explain the past" (136). The strength of a united America in an international marketplace offered a bright future for the vigorous capitalist enterprises the United States was to embark upon. Those who supported the fair and the future of the United States in becoming a significant part of a new internationalism couldn't be hindered by what many downplayed as a sectional squabble. An issue of Manufacturer and Builder emphasized this need for "forward thinking":
There is no doubt that among other things, the centennial will also inaugurate and era of good feeling between the different sections of the United States, which will go far to remove the bitterness and ill-feeling engendered by the war. If instead of political rivalry, the North and South would compete to show who can contribute most to the material welfare of the whole, our country would soon become the most prosperous one on the surface of the globe (vol. 8, iss. 1, p. 18).
The Corliss Steam Engine displayed the new technological might of the United States. This mechanical dynamo characterized the American working place in powering more than 75 miles of belts and shafts that ran the laths, looms and pumps of material production (Schlereth, 1). Previously considered little more than an international lightweight, visitors from Europe were amazed at America's industrial productivity, its creativity and its progressiveness. Many lauded the upstart country as a new land of advancement and increasing economic power. The Centennial Exposition "gave Americans pride in the present and confidence in an even greater future" (udel.edu).
Choosing a Tradition
As the country grew larger and more economically dominant, people began to make the inevitable comparisons with the centuries old powers of Europe. Those Europeans who did visit the United States usually shared the singular opinion that "the Americans have no past." They agreed that the present was available in America, but that there is so little to look back upon that they naturally glance into the future to see what lies ahead (Kammen, 56). In turn, Americans saw the history and cultures of Europe confining and restrictive, while the freedom of present without established traditions allowed their nation to form its own destiny. Kammen argues, traditions were available, they just needed to be actively "sought out, noticed and applied" (164). Moreover, some of these traditions were European by their very nature, and the United States could leverage the aspects that fit their interests. Imperialism, in the form of America's "manifest destiny" of westward expansion, became an important tradition that the United States
borrowed from Europe to further establish its global dominance. Through war, political maneuvering and oppression of the American Indians, imperialism became commonplace throughout the nineteenth century, seeing its climax in the creation of the Panama Canal in the 1910s. In justifying their conquest of their own continent and overseas, the United States used the ideology of Englishman Rudyard Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden"; which focused on the responsibility of white people to govern and impart their culture upon nonwhite people (boondocks.net):
Take up the White Man's burden - -
Send forth the best ye breed - -
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need…
Take up the White Man's burden - -
The savage wars of peace - -
Fill full the mouth of Famine,
And bid the sickness cease.
Readily characterizing the power of romantic British colonialism, Kipling's "White Man's Burden" echoed the contemporary idea of a necessary presence of European dominance in Southern Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
A third and more physically apparent aspect of United States appropriating European culture and tradition came in a revival in city planning. The City Beautiful movement, which had seen its finest exhibition in the 1901-1902 renovation of Washington, D.C. and the 1893 Columbian World Exposition in Chicago, tried to emulate a city planning schematic of the great capitals of Europe in order to raise the United States to a cultural parity with the Europe and inspire its inhabitants to greater civic and moral virtue (Rose, "City Beautiful"). Instead of having their grandest cities suffer from overcrowding and urban blight, wide boulevards, green parks and historic architecture proved the United States could in fact establish a unique tradition that did not fear links with the past. Yet the continual focus on rapid industrialization and international progress caused many people to feel alienated from the singular American macroculture of Washington and Jefferson.
The First "Hall of Fame"
The rapid growth brought on by the Gilded Age drove many Americans, trying to recapture some of their own distinct history, to take pride in those whose accomplishments contributed to the advancement of the United States and humankind. Borrowing from the cultures of Europe once more, Henry Mitchell MacCracken, the chancellor of New York University decided to create a shrine to honor such Americans. In the tradition of Paris' Pantheon and London's Westminster Abbey, MacCracken commissioned an open air, Beaux-Arts colonnade atop a bluff along the East River in the Bronx in which to place monuments to the country's honored heroes. Calling it the "Hall of Fame for Great Americans" on its dedication on Memorial Day in 1901, MacCracken's "shrine upon a hill" became America's first hall of fame, many considered one's induction the absolute honor for any American in any field of work or study (Rubin).
Hall of Fame for
The Hall of Fame quickly became a focal point of national pride for Americans. While many exulted in the recognition of a distinctly American achievement, part of its appeal came from its unification of the previously contradictory issues of honoring greatness within a democratic institution. Participation was available to everyone - anyone could nominate a candidate, admission was free and, though NYU served as stewards and in charge of running the elections, the whole thing was ultimately the property of the American people (ibid.). It also served to unite some of the microcultures that had emerged over the years. The UDC (United Daughters of the Confederacy) prided themselves as the social group with the most enshrinees (with four). Other groups such as the American Bar Association, Masons and others tried to get representative members honored in the country's greatest monument to individual contribution to their society.
Yet, most importantly, the Hall was the first institution to unite the two ideas of fame and America. According to Richard Rubin in his July 1997 article "The Mall of Fame" in The Atlantic:
The country was still in its adolescence, still struggling to emerge from the shadows of the great powers of Europe... The Hall of Fame promised, for the first time, to launch Americans into the orbit of universal immortality. In a sense it was the vehicle of our validation, and people took it very, very seriously (ibid.).
To make sure that the Hall of Fame carried with it proper perspective for the accomplishments of people enshrined, the stewards required that all candidates must have died at least 25 years before their induction. Holding true to the old maxim "fame is a food that dead men eat," the Hall accepted over the years such luminaries as Thomas Edison, Jane Addams and Booker T. Washington (ibid.). Yet, as America steamed full ahead into the twentieth century, these antiquated heroes and their shrine suffered to a modification to the American connotation of "fame."
Media and "new fame"
Fame as it was known in the 1800s focused more on the heavily value-laden notion of "renown" than the modernized idea of "celebrity" (ibid.). Those that the Hall of Fame of Great Americans wanted to honor only people who had made a lasting contribution that touched the United States and the world. Several factors led to the breakdown of "fame" to the more inclusive connotation of today. The successive waves of immigration that brought millions of people to the United States from Europe and elsewhere created several ethnic, niche microcultures that thrived in the crowded, tightly-knit communities of large cities such as New York's Lower East Side and San Francisco's Chinatown. In identifying more strongly with others at the community level, they focused less on a collective American identity; those who achieved fame did so amongst a smaller, tighter community of culturally congruent people. Despite the best attempts of many people (especially the Progressive movement) to assimilate (or "Americanize") these newcomers, many held fast to their native cultures and customs. The society these newcomers entered into was also new for many of the generations old Americans. The power of mass media significantly changed the way people viewed and interacted with society.
The Post-World War I frivolity of the "Roaring Twenties" was due in a large part to the media's emergent influence. Commercialized radio, magazines enhanced with photos (like the first issue of Time in 1923), cinema's advent of the "talkie" and widespread advertising introduced Americans to a new "mass society." Light-hearted popular culture dominated the decade and established media as a powerful tool to influence the opinions, ideas and buying habits of the public (thinkquest.org). The consumption of popular culture, in buying, listening, reading, watching, etc. homogenized Americans in a manner they hadn't experienced before the arrival of mass media. The media blurred cultural lines on many fronts, everyone began to have the same experiences, follow the same stories and admire the same people.
The modern idea of "fame" emerged from the media inundation of the 1920s. Instead of people gaining notoriety based on some lasting, important contribution of which they earned fame, now people became famous based on their appeal to the masses. Selling papers, movie tickets and radio ad space became the key to fame. The personalities who attracted the most American consumers to buy, listen and read became "famous." Magazine and newspaper publishers, Hollywood film moguls and radio directors reacted to the public's demand for these new "heroes." The democratic principles of more than a hundred years prior emerged when the masses could easily choose who was famous and what was worthy of their attention by what their money purchased. Fame became democratic and heroes were based on the selectivity of the people.
Sports provided people with the perfect world within which they could find heroes. The mechanization of life through the 1920s produced a middle-class that could delight in that which could be measured, rationalized and recorded. Athletic records provided a means of acknowledging achievement just as such statistics did in other areas of life like. Furthermore, sports provided style and an intangible "color, personality and crowd appeal" that the public may not have been able to find in a world of mechanization (Susman, 141-142). Though the popular sports of the 1920s and 1930s, like boxing and horse racing produced sporting luminaries such as Jack Dempsey and Man O' War, neither sport was more popular than baseball; and nobody was more famous than Babe Ruth.
Because of increasing consumption in publications, radio and film, writers and reporters became "exploiters of achievement," and nobody provided more copy than Ruth. His 54 baseball records, including several for his crowd-pleasing, gargantuan home runs and excessive appetites in food, women and booze, drove reporters to label him "our national exaggeration" (Susman, 146). The press used "exaggeration" because "The Babe's" consumption habits reflected the habits of American society, but to extremes. The broad coverage of all these aspects of his life in the "Golden Age of Sport" made him widely accessible and greatly popular to a variety of people. Emphasizing his meager beginnings, growing up in the abject poverty of a Baltimore orphanage, the media enhanced his stature as a man of the people, and capitalized on his deification in selling more papers and radio ad space. The power of the media in the twenties relied on the public's ability to consume not only the information, but the goods they advertised. The stock market crash in October, 1929 and the Depression that lasted almost ten years afterwards changed all of that.
Not only did the Depression assail the economy, it made people doubt some of the great social traditions that the United States celebrated. The myth of the self-made man as one who worked hard to progress in society rang hollow to people who lost their life savings in the stock market. The failure of the American promise of prosperity drove many to look elsewhere for their heroes, away from a national tradition and the "Great American" heroes who defined it. With many people losing faith in the noble, republican virtues the United States stood upon, the American culture began to suffer. It was during the depths of the Depression that the idea started to create a hall of fame for baseball.
The resort town of Cooperstown in upstate New York, had seen business steadily decline with the worsening of the economy. Tourism, they felt, could change their economic future. With a vague claim as the birthplace to baseball and the allowance from the commissioner of baseball, the town established a hall of fame. Following so soon after the sport's "Golden Age" of the 1920s, the establishment of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939, capitalized on a stimulated, pre-war economy and still potent memories people had of Ruth and his heroic baseball peers.
The Baseball Hall of Fame exemplified the democratization of the notion of "fame." Few could forget the talent and achievement of the inductees, yet it was hard to claim that they could equal the wide-ranging accomplishment of those in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. The Baseball Hall of Fame's "narrow scope and particular focus" did not aim to honor an individual's lasting contribution to the larger American society, it just wanted to enshrine the individuals who's exhibited success within the limits of the baseball microculture. By focusing within a niche area such as baseball, the founders of the Hall of Fame could diverge from the staid, sober aesthetic of the original hall of fame (Rubin). Nominees didn't have to have been dead for 25 years in order to find their names in the hall; a mere 5 years after their retirement they became eligible. Along with enshrining baseball heroes still fresh in the collective memory, the Hall of Fame used museum exhibits of memorabilia, such as uniforms, equipment, baseball cards and a variety of other baseball ephemera to establish itself as more than an institution dedicated to the sport's heroes, it became a shrine of nostalgia for the whole of baseball's culture. The importance of such a national shrine to an American tradition became very apparent soon after its opening in 1939; the shroud of war soon enveloped the country.
Consensus and Community
The patriotic fervor and unified Americanism that the bombing of Pearl Harbor stirred in the United States marked a dramatic consolidation of sentiment that lasted throughout World War II. Many of the disparate cultures that had emerged in the earlier part of the twentieth century found themselves willfully participating in patriotic food and material rationing and scrap metal drives to support the war effort. Moreover, every local community across the country found their sons called upon to serve their country in fighting for democracy and. The men who fought in famous battles like Guadalcanal, the Ardennes and Monte Cassino, hailing from every nationality, region and class not only became heroes of their neighborhoods, but of their countries as well.
Though maybe not "famous," tales of prolific fighting, victory and awards sometimes brought people significant notoriety. Consider WWII's most decorated soldier, Audie Murphy. He soon became a unique symbol of the American fighting man. After catching the eye of movie legend James Cagney, he shot to movie stardom, including playing himself in To Hell and Back. Though Murphy's story certainly departed from the usual GI, the contribution of the whole, in true democratic fashion, helped propel the United States into the abundance of the Post-WWII era as a unified culture.
The post-WWII era, known as the "Age of Consensus," stood out because, for the most part, nothing stood out. Pushed along by the Post-WWII wave of prosperity, the nation settled into an ambivalent state of conformity. The Red Scare and rampant McCarthyism fed the mass movement towards a homogenous middle. Not wanting to attract any negative attention, members of niche microcultures opted to follow a new mass culture mediated to them through national television networks and readily available consumer goods. People everywhere sloughed off individuality, subverted their separate identities and joined the great "melting pot" of American culture. One of the foremost factors in the placid conformity of the 50s, and its meltdown in the 60s, was the emergence of television.
Television's omnipresence in American homes since the 50s made it a staple for the primary medium for information and entertainment worldwide. In "making the world a little bit smaller" by forging universally identifiable images of people, from the nightly news and National Geographic documentaries to game shows and soap operas, television played a large role in 'homogeneiticizing' America and the world. Widespread access to television created images to which everyone in the 50s knew and could relate. Milton Berle, Ozzie and Harriet and Howdy Doody became as recognizable as next-door neighbors. John Bunch, professor of Information Technology at the University of Virginia, noted the importance of television in not only American society, but human history.
Nothing in human history save the great religious traditions has shaped the hopes, fears and aspirations of as many millions of people as has the phenomenon of television. The medium gives us our news, informs our opinions on world events, persuades us what to buy and how to live, shows us lifestyles we can aspire to, entertains us with comedy and human adventure, takes us along to the theater, the orchestra and the opera, puts us "on the spot" for the repeated witnessing of the major events in our world, and, in general, offers us a complete vicarious existence on a scale that is unheard of in human history (Bunch).
Television in the "Age of Consensus" prior to the 60s helped create a homogenous mass society; the great American melting pot where everyone's identity faded away in order to become part of the whole. The removal of millions of people from their own unique individual and community identities into a faceless, dehumanized world created a tension that would boil over in the 1960s.
Rising out of the staid order of 50s mass society, the upheavals of the 60s redefined the ideal of community. The rupture of American social life in the 60s, from Vietnam and Civil Rights to political assassinations and "free love" shattered the previously held concept of America as a homogenous melting pot. The cultural nationalism of the 50s, according to historian Howard Brick, urged oppressed people to adopt distinctive identities. He notes:
Community meant much more than a simple desire to "turn inward," away from a broad, inclusive public life… the common note among the "ethnic" movements of the late 1960s was an urge to find "a known place among people like oneself," and exclusive kind of group consciousness that helped promote the "fragmentation" of American life (119-120).
Different notions of community developed from a variety of sources. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for the "creation of a beloved community," and the Second Vatican Council (commonly known as Vatican II) called for Catholics to form a "new brotherly community of mutual service" (Brick, 98). Communities formed in different ways too. Black Power was a shift away from the early 60s struggle for integration and towards
a method of black separatism; and the 'counterculture' germinated from the defiantly non-conformist attitudes of free expression and the mutual enthusiasm many had for new popular music (Brick, 113-114). Other cultures flourishing around central themes like Civil Rights, the "participatory democracy" of the New Left, the upstart women's lib movement and a variety of "cult" religions fed this move away from an American identity. As a result, niche cultures began to look to the past for their current cultural types.
Tommie Smith and
Yearning for Yesterday
In his book Yearning for Yesterday, Fred Davis describes the proliferation of nostalgia in the 70s with the term "orgy" (104). As applicable to the cultural crises that afflicted the nation in the 60s, "orgy" underlies the wild abandon with which people reacted to their social environs. In listing off the "affronts" to society, Davis suggests that,
Rarely in modern history has the common man had his fundamental, taken-for-granted convictions about man, woman, habits, manners, law, society, and God - entities of tremendous existential salience everywhere - so challenged, disrupted and shaken… that all certainties had been rendered problematic and that a rash of moral madness had broken upon the world (105-106).
The fracturing of society from the pleasant wholesomeness of the 50s had thrown every concrete belief that many Americans had of their lives into such confusion that the past, at least the idyllic perception of the past that nostalgia reflects upon, as a retreat, an oasis, a haven from the anxieties that emerged. This "collective identity crisis" drove people towards nostalgia; taking refuge in the certainty of a familiar past rather than a foray into the unknown future (Davis, 107).
Ironically, as complicit as the media was in rattling collective identities, it also became a potent force for the reformation of identity amongst smaller microcultures through the power of nostalgia. From movies and television to advertisements, the media looked upon a relatively recent history with rose-colored glasses. Advertisements for George Lucas' American Graffiti (1973) asked the question "Where were you in 1962?" and even the title of the popular 1970s sitcom, set in the 50s, Happy Days, exemplified the media's role in promoting nostalgia as a remedy for American culture in trying to hold onto something stable in this era of disorder. Though mostly a cultural phenomenon in the 70s, in the 80s it took on a political form.
The election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 ushered in a new era of nostalgia in America. Political and economic turmoil such as Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis and the "stagflation" of the Carter years had the same effect on the political landscape of the 80s as the social upheaval of the 60s had on the 70s. The former movie star, often conducting interviews on horseback from his ranch in California, came to power with a promise to reinvent the America of the 1950s. Rededicating the United States to fighting the Communist menace and reinforced the commitment to traditional American values, Reagan eased the United States out of its economic and political malaise by leveraging the power of nostalgia (Skolnick, 183-184).
The end of the twentieth century saw the over use of terms such as "hero" and "fame" to the extent where neither term "required achievement on a broad scale coupled with some kind of lasting universal contribution" (Rubin). Though there were a generous portion of heroes and famous people, they didn't measure up to the standards the founding fathers laid down and the Hall of Fame for Great Americans perpetuated. As evidenced in the plethora of distinct halls of fame following in the well laid tracks of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the heroes of lasting contribution for contemporary American people could only be found within divergent communities of shared identity. With the multi-faceted fracturing of society in the 60s, the fundamental role of the media in modern American culture and a nation full of individuals looking at the present with "anxious concern," nostalgia had fertile ground upon which to grow and prosper (Davis, 102).