When Mythologies Meet

Published:April 8, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

Kevin Levin’s Charlottesville-based blog Civil War Memory points to the above World War II poster, which is a part of the current Lee & Grant exhibit sponsored by the Virginia Historical Society. It seems a perfect example of how the “Lost Cause” mythology can be used, ironically, to unite the country (an idea suggested by Bruce Catton). But one of Kevin’s commenters, John Hennessy, takes the idea a step further, suggesting that here we have not one, but two mythologies at work:

One of my side-interests is posters of the homefront during WWII, and what surprises me is not tha tLee crpet into this one, but that images of the past so rarely appear in posters (the famous image of the Concord Minuteman being an exception). Posterists of the day were clearly intent on painting a picture of an America-in-the-present worth fighting for rather than invoking figures, events, people, or values manifested in the past. I have a theory—not investigated, but I think worth looking at—that our current perception of “the good old days” in America has its genesis in the conscious work of posterists from the WWII era, intent on portraying a nation of beautiful landscapes, vigorous industry (often juxtaposed on the landscapes in interesting ways by the poster painters), family, high moral values, and strident hopes. In fact, a few wonderful posters embody ALL of these images. Someday in my spare time I’ll look more formally at this, but for now I’ll onto it as a supposition interesting to consider.

What Hennessy is identifying here, on the one hand, is propaganda. But on the other, it’s the invention of tradition. Ian Buruma makes exactly the same argument about so-called “ancient” Japanese tradition in his book Inventing Japan.

IMAGE: I fought for Virginia. Now it’s your turn! Join the Lee Navy Volunteeers! (1942), courtesy Virginia Historical Society.