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Interview by Michael Cromartie
Journalist, historian, classics scholar, Garry Wills is the quintessential Renaissance man. In his book on the 1988 presidential race, Under God, for instance, Wills's digressions took him on explorations of the roots of black spirituals, a revisionist reading of the Scopes trial, and a history of the Nazarenes in America--to name but a few of the subjects he touches on in that book. His long, fact-filled articles on any number of topics appear shockingly often in the New York Review of Books. And yet, while his books and articles cover an amazing diversity of subject matter, there is a unifying theme. Wills is profoundly curious about the American experiment and wants to understand it as thoroughly as possible. In his latest offering, John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity, Wills examines Wayne the icon, a potent figure in our national mythology.
Why is John Wayne, nearly two decades after his death, still the most popular movie star in Hollywood history?
John Wayne taps into our deepest myths, the myth of the frontier, of American exceptionalism, of manifest destiny.
The frontier is our defining myth: you go out into open spaces and you're free, you're an individual, you forge your own fate, make your own soul and community; but you're also part of a western surge of the whole nation. Many of the early advocates of the West called it a uniting experience. It was what would bring the North and the South together. (Of course, it actually divided them--the fight was over what territories would be slave and what would be free.)
What does this say about our national character?
It says that underneath it all we still believe that America has a special destiny, that the frontier opens up special kinds of purity, and that we access God through nature. I quote Herman Melville saying that the idea was to have an American Adam, straight out of God's hand and the native earth, with no forebears, no ancestry. Jefferson wanted to get us severed from Europe as soon as possible ...