Cultural Stories

Throughout history and across the globe, every society has had stories which serve to uphold the prevailing values of that group and which recur in different forms. Each time that these stories are retold these prevailing values are reaffirmed and passed on to the next generation. Alternatively, when these stories begin to change it is often indicative of a broader underlying cultural shift. Western society is filled with these cultural myths, from Oedipus to Shakespeare to The Bible and beyond, which often contain recurrent themes that can be said to represent the underlying values of a longstanding cultural tradition. Contemporary America too possesses its own form of oft retold cultural myths relating to both 'universal' human themes and to problems more unique to the particular cultural situation of the modern United States.

One such story which is retold over and over again in modern American culture is that of a young man (or woman) coming of age. This story has been a popular one for much of American history, with novels such as Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise falling within this tradition of a young person going out into the world to discover important truths about his self and society. In the years after WWII this story became especially popular and was retold in various forms in novels like J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and, thanks to new technologies, through movies such as The Graduate and, often in a somewhat different, more drawn out form, television series such as The Brady Bunch and Boy Meets World. Indeed, the fact that adolescents were not generally considered a separate age group until about 1900 makes the startling increase in the number and variety of retellings of this cultural story all the more indicative of the cultural importance which it holds.

Another set of stories which American culture seems to enjoy telling itself, especially in recent years, revolve around the theme of an idealized past era where things were "simpler" and when people themselves were still "innocent." Indeed, the number of movies and television shows which offer a kind of nostalgic look back at the past has increased dramatically in recent years, with movies like Forrest Gump receiving both popular and critical acclaim for their portrayels of recent American History. Through movies and television, late 20th century American culture has recreated its own past so often and so convincingly (if often quite biasedly) that the image has in many ways replaced the reality . Stephanie Coontz, in her book The Way We Never Were argues that the nostalgic way in which we remember the past has caused cultural tensions and a myth of cultural decline in recent years. At the very least it can be said that the cultural stories which we tell ourselves about our own past, especially those which offer up nostalgic memories as truth, are an important presence and function as a reaffirmation of ourselves in much the same way as other cultural myths.


Cultural Stories
The Historical
Coming of Age Genre
Dazed and
Nostalgia and
Time and Memory
American Film as
Cultural History
Rites of
History and