Examining the Myth and Reality of Hero Worship in American Radio

Editor's Introduction

During its celebrated run through radio's golden age, the old-time radio classic The Cavalcade of America initiated hundreds of notable Americans into its train. Those honored were deemed true American heroes and earned a place in American mythology, immortalized in radio waves. The men and women chosen for each half hour program represent the full spectrum of our country's finest, ranging from the humble beginnings of Abraham Lincoln to the not-so-American origins of the Marquis de Lafayette. Americans on the fringe of civilization like Geronimo, Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody stand on the same hallowed ground as refined intellectuals Noah Webster and Oliver Wendell Holmes. The greater American public manages to get in on the action when the omnipresent national quality of self-reliance is deemed worthy of a half-hour spot. More interesting than its contradictions and conflicts are the points at which the Cavalcade can be seen as a cohesive whole. At these points of confluence the series becomes a nation-defining effort by representing in through heroes the qualities, values, morals and characteristics most valued by our country.

On the one hand we may see The Cavalcade of America as an honest attempt by the creators to place a finger on the pulse of the nation. The characters of the Cavalcade typify the definition of a classical hero, embodying the archetypal characteristics and standing as larger-than-life examples to the American populace. When we meet General Washington he is called the American Cincinnatus, a new hero growing directly from the old traditions. At the same time, however, these American heroes are a new breed, born not of another time long past or another far-away place, but sprung from the people: democratic heroes for the great democracy. They are new heroes for a new nation. As the Cavalcade picks who will be called a hero in this nation, it defines who America is by delineating what we value and aspire to become.

On the other hand, we cannot ignore the Cavalcade's commercial agenda. Announcers constantly remind us that this is DuPont's Cavalcade of America, and that the qualities demonstrated in its heroes are all characteristic of the corporation. When Buffalo Bill risks his life to deliver a U.S. scouting report, or when Ben Franklin places his country's call before his own interests, by the transitive property DuPont has done the same. American heroes are champions of the people, and no one works harder for the common good than DuPont. This approach to the Cavalcade, cynical though it may be, is still no less valuable to us in our investigation of the American hero. The propagandists at DuPont are still involved in the project of nation-defining in many of the same ways as before The Cavalcade . They had to find exactly what it was that Americans were prepared to raise to the level of hero-worship. Only once that was found could programs be produced that highlighted DuPont as the corporate embodiment of the American hero.

Firstly, this site attempts to reconstruct the Cavalcade project as it appeared during the golden age, shedding light on the attitudes and ideas that prompted its initial incarnation. Secondly, the aim is to pick apart that reconstruction and to discover something about the American hero, how it is defined, and how it can comment upon the country that has created it.

Site Created by Anne Riley, Will Lucas and Bryan Pettit for the American Studies Program at UVA, Fall 2001