There is a now-out-of-print children’s book series entitled “Childhood of Famous Americans,” published as a subdivision of the Landmark Books series between 1950 and 1970. When I was between the ages of six and ten, I was fortunate to be able to read almost all of the books, which were, unsurprisingly, the biographies of prominent Americans written for children. Even when I was little, the books were fairly ancient: the most recent subjects they covered were Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Albert Einstein. Despite, or even because of, their relative antiquity, these books had a major impact on my own trajectory.
This is not to say that they weren’t flawed since they were. Often they were riddled with historical inaccuracies, the quality of writing varied wildly from author to author, and the content could be outright offensive in regards to religion and races. The overall series, however, did a very good job of including biographies of Americans from minority groups, but, depending on the subject, author, and time period, the portrayals of other races could be quite insensitive.
The books all followed the Joseph Campbell theory of story to a T, with the result that they were very good stories. A critic might argue that these biographies lionized or apotheosized individuals in an unrealistic way. While such an accusation would be true, the series was titled “Famous Americans,” not “average Joe Americans.” The important trait of these books though was that they all shared a common theme: stature was a choice and one that was made in childhood or adolescence.
Using Campbell-ian terms, the moment of awakening was almost invariably an episode where the subject realized that the people surrounding him or her were stupid, fearful, and conventional – Mark Twain being expelled from multiple schools, Abraham Lincoln denied an education by his illiterate father (as I said, not all of the stories were tremendously accurate), Henry Clay fighting for his inheritance rights against his extended family, Jim Thorpe struggling against racial and social prejudice throughout his sporting career.
On a side note, there was a remarkable absence of American fine arts figures in the series. Mark Twain was one of a handful of writers that included Edgar Allan Poe and Louisa May Alcott; I don’t recall that some of the more sophisticated writers, such as Washington Irving, Henry James, or Edith Wharton, received the honor. One could say that the absence of fine artists was countered by an equal absence of career military men. Dwight D. Eisenhower had a biography, as did George Armstrong Custer (his was most uncomplimentary). Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant both received a book. I’m sure that there’s room for analysis of a vision of civil society expressed in who the series’ editors decided to cover.
The “Childhood of Famous Americans” series only rarely had a specific antagonist. Some combination of self-satisfied parents, authority figures attached to a status quo, and parochial small-mindedness served as the villains. The subject’s daily obstacles were educational and cultural mediocrity, societal complacency, intellectually inferior peers, and timorous and incapable mentors, who by extension weren’t very good at their job.
Fundamentally, the goal of the series was to create role models for young readers. The model proposed was complete rejection of (and a little healthy contempt for) existing systems. The unifying theme among all the people selected was the tradition of “rugged individualism” and the idea that progress was due to the action of individuals, not that of their communities (recall, the village inhabitants were invariably shown as small-minded, poor spirited morons).
Carl J. Schramm argued in his 2006 book The Entrepreneurial Imperative that the “rugged individual” ethos was an American casualty of post-World War II society. Americans turned more toward the concept of the “workforce,” with its communal overtones, and away from individual achievement and success. The peak of statist, stagnant communitarianism came in the 1970s, the decade in which the “Childhood of Famous Americans” also ceased publication.
Both biography and entrepreneurial spirit speak of a path to personal greatness, a way for individuals to emancipate themselves from their origins if they have sufficient will. The loss of biography and an entrepreneurial ethos indicate an impoverishment in role models. Without role models of individualistic thought or practice, most people lack the originality to conceive of ways of life beyond their current existence. Discontent and feelings of betrayal by “the system,” society, or the status quo are the ultimate result.
Today, we are confronted by the implosion of the post-WWII status quo. To further complicate matters, the majority of the adult population lacks a blueprint for either challenging what remains of the status quo, or for forging a new path. Without the proper role models of individuality, shown in biography, such people are in thrall to the false promise of communitarianism.