American Culture & Mythology (introduction)

What is Culture?

‘Culture’ is one of the most difficult concepts in the human and social sciences
and there are many different ways of defining it.

In more traditional definitions of the term, culture is said to embody the ‘best that has been thought and said’ in a society. It is the sum of the great ideas, as represented in the classic works of literature, painting, music and philosophy- the ‘high culture· of an age.

Belonging to the same frame of reference, but more ‘modern’ in its associations, is the use of ‘culture’ to refer to the widely distributed forms of popular music, publishing, art, design and literature, or the activities of leisure-time and entertainment. which make up the everyday lives of the majority of ‘ordinary people’- what is called the ‘mass culture’ or the ‘popular culture’ of an age.

High culture versus popular culture was, for many years, the classic way of framing the debate about culture- the terms carrying a powerfully evaluative charge (roughly, high= good: popular= debased).

In a more ·social science’ context, the word ‘culture’ is used
to refer to whatever is distinctive about the ‘way of life’ of a people,
community, nation or social group ) – the ‘anthropological’ definition.

Alternatively. the word can be used to describe the ‘shared values’ of a group or of society (like the anthropological definition. only with a more sociological emphasis).

We can think of Culture as a set of things – novels and paintings or
TV programmes and comics. But we can also speak of culture as as a process. a set of practices. In this sense, culture is concerned with the production and the exchange of meanings – the ‘giving and taking of meaning’- between the members of a society or group.

Things ‘in themselves’ rarely have any one, single, fixed and unchanging meaning. Even something as obvious as a stone can be a stone, a boundary marker or a piece of sculpture, depending on what it means within a certain context of use.

It is participants in a culture who give meaning to people, objects and events. It is
by our use of things, and what we say, think and feel about them – how we represent them – that we give them a meaning. In part, we give objects, people and events meaning by the frameworks of interpretation which we bring to them.

Members of the same culture must share sets of concepts, images and ideas which enable them to think and feel about the world, and thus to interpret the world, in roughly similar ways. They must share, broadly speaking, the same ‘cultural codes.’

In this sense, myths and mythology are ways that communities imagine their world, making it meaningful and value-laden. They are the key forms of their culture.

Conflicting conceptions of the term ‘myth’.

Common sense (realist) perspective:

A myth is a false (often deliberately false) belief or account (Williams)

It is implicit that the person designating a story as myth does not now believe it to be true … (Flood)

Cultural (romantic) perspective: Myth gives a truer (deeper) version of reality than (secular) history or realistic description or scientific explanation.

Neutral perspectives:

  • In everyday usage, one way of understanding myth is simply a collective belief which is or was given the status of truth (Flood).
  • A myth does not simply imply something that is “false”; rather it is a collective belief that simplifies reality (Grittner).

Historical roots of the concept: mythos/logos, imagination/rationality.

For thinkers reflecting on what they saw as archaic aspects of the religious beliefs conveyed by the stories of the [ancient Greek] gods, the word mythos came to connote the use of language in the service of the use of imagination, story-telling, and fiction, as opposed to logos, connoting the use of language in the service of reasoning (Flood).

Contingent/universal definitions:

Myths are often tied to particular historical periods and places.

Williams: myths are ‘held to be fundamental expressions of certain properties of the human mind, and even of basic mental or psychological human organization [that are] are ‘timeless’ (permanent) or fundamental to particular periods or cultures (Williams).

Wolfrey’s et al. definition: The traditional story of pseudo-historical events that function as a fundamental element within the worldview of a given people or nation.

Contemporary historical and anthropological views

Myths seen as working in terms of narrative (discursive forms), subject-matter (stories of gods or superhuman beings), cultural status (sacred truth for the community to which the myth belongs) and social functions (expressing religious beliefs, confirming values and norms, or legitimating social practices and institutions).

In our course, we are interested in the conflicted meanings of ‘myth’:

  1. the sense that a myth as something that gives a truer (deeper) version of reality than (secular) history or realistic description or scientific explanation (Williams)
  2. the sense that a myth is a false or unreliable story or belief
  3. perhaps, a sense that myths might have both aspects (1+2).

Using these conflicting definitions (roughly, romantic vs. rationalist versions, and romantic+rationalist versions), we can begin to discuss aspects of American culture and its mythology:

Founding myths: the American Dream

National communities have founding mythologies (body of related myths) ; they function as a fundamental element within the worldview of a given people or nation.

The American mythology is a key focus of our course this semester, as it gives us the key aspects of American culture. In our text book Myths Americans Live By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give us Meaning, Richard Hughes introduces his idea of what a myth is, and his idea of the key aspects of American mythology.  Chapter one was part of your reading for this lesson.

We will follow Hughes’s ideas throughout this course. For now, let’s see if we can begin to use the ideas of myth and mythology in the American context.

We might say myths and mythologies work to aid ‘imagined communities‘ (the phrase Benedict Anderson coined, meaning the way a people comes to imagine itself, how they think/feel of their ‘we, how they identify as a we). Different communities do that in particular ways, drawing on their own particular mythologies.

Quick reflections 1: The Malboro Man.

Classic American cigarette advertising
  • What’s going on with this image?

  • What makes you say that?











In American mythology , the U.S. is, as their national anthem puts it, “the land of the free / And the home of the brave!”

It’s a land in which in which all citizens are thought of as being equal and free. As Thomas Jefferson wrote

We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  (Declaration of Independence, 1776).

Key aspects of American mythology are brought together in ‘the American Dream’. Central to the American dream is the idea that every individual American should have an equal right to become her or his best self. Citizens have the right too, or should be free to try to realize their hopes.

The American Dream is individualist. In a common sense (or everyday) kind of understanding, the dream involves the idea that if an individual put in the effort then s/he should be able to achieve the success s/he deserves.

  • Individual responsibility is a key idea: if someone succeeds, it is attributed to their individual efforts, they are regarded as having made the best of their talents (whatever their talents are).
  • Conversely, if someone fails, then it is their fault (that individual didn’t work hard enough to realize her/his dream).

This idea is sometimes referred to as meritocracy (society is ruled by the principle that people get what they deserve).

The American dream is closely related to America’s founding myths (or mythology). Thomas Jefferson, one of the ‘founding fathers’, thought the new American republic was different from old feudal Europe. He believed an “aristocracy of talent and virtue” was replacing the aristocracy of birth, the old world order where aristocrats inherited power and wealth.hgt

This dream was popularized in

the fictional characters of the 19th-century writer Horatio Alger Jr – like the New York shoeshine “Ragged Dick [1867/8]” [who went] from rags to riches …

in part due to entrepreneurial spirit and hard work.


Being able to rely on your talents and efforts to go “from rags to riches” is one part of the mythology of the American dream.

Quick reflections 2:

Let’s think about an example.

Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezo. These three business own more wealth than the poorer half of America’s citizens (collectively they are wealthier than the lowest 50% of Americans).

Q. How do you think that relates to the American dream?

The mythology of the American Dream for immigrants

Another part is the idea that America gives welcome to anyone from anywhere and that anyone can ‘make it’ in America (regardless of where they came from).

Give Me Your Weak Quote Give Me Your Tired Your Poor Your Hudd Emma Lazarus Like

Historically, a key element of the American myth of a land of hope and freedom is the idea that America gave welcome to the world’s migrants. For many foreigners, the idea of American freedom has been a magnet attracting them to migrate to the United States.

New York’s Statue of Liberty is a famous icon that represented welcome to the 19th century immigrants who later became American citizens.


For generations, America has served as a beacon of hope and freedom for those outside her borders, and as a land of limitless opportunity for those risking everything to seek a better life. (U.S. Congressman Spencer Bachus).

We might say that the Congressman’s story of American welcome is one ‘re-telling’, ‘reiteration’ or ‘narration’ of a founding (national) myth, just as The Statue of Liberty is an icon of that myth.

Quick reflection 3: American mythology satirized


Q1. What’s going on in the above artwork?

Q2. What makes you say that?

Q3. What else would we need to know to answer Q1. more fully?


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