20+ Archetypal Americans

A passing reference in a book I'm reading got me thinking about American archetypes - not brands or companies, but characters.  If you had to pick people (real or fictional) who symbolize what America represents, who would they be? Who symbolize what we think we represent? Who symbolize what others in the world think we represent? 

I started asking friends for their inputs and got some fascinating answers.  Here's the list we've come up with so far.  Apparently - if you judge by this list - we're clever but folksy, greedy but generous, dutiful but not averse to breaking rules, glamorous/powerful but down-to-earth, reckless but reliable, powerful but humble, and definitely larger than life!
  1. George Washington.  Nobly gave up the opportunity to be king because he believed in democratic ideals.  Plus he was a farmer, which is as down to earth as you can get. (No pun intended)
  2. Ben Franklin.  Intelligent, funny, folksy, an autodidact, and just a little bit naughty.
  3. Davy Crocket.  An explorer who - according to the myth - combined courage, fortitude, and woodsmanship with a lust for adventure
  4. Paul Bunyan.  Bigger than life ... literally!
  5. Abraham Lincoln/Martin Luther King Jr.  God knows our country has made a lot of spiritual missteps, but we like to believe that - when push comes to shove - we'll spawn leaders able to guide us towards the right and honorable path 
  6. General Robert E. Lee.  Yes, he ended up on the losing side of the Civil War, but hard not to respect that he placed duty and honor over his own desires.
  7. Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn.  Practically our national icons, combining self-confidence with folksy charm and an endearing (or alarming, depending on your system of government) penchant for rule-breaking.
  8. Mark Twain.  Of all the folks on the list, probably best personifies what foreigners think of us - we're clever and possess a certain folksy charm, but we're also annoyingly prolific, pervasive, commercial, and self-satisfied 
  9. Thomas Edison/Steve Jobs. Ingenious, clever, and determined; plus, we like to think of ourselves as the technology leaders of the free world
  10. Franklin D. Roosevelt.  A man who made Americans proud of their ability to work hard and sacrifice for the common good.
  11. Eleanor Roosevelt.  She symbolizes intelligence, diplomacy, modesty and wit.
  12. The Hardy Boys.  They symbolize the boy-children we like to think we raise here in the U.S.: clever, multi-talented, self-sufficient and always up for adventure
  13. Jay Gatsby.  We'll throw everything away in search of our dreams.
  14. John Wayne (the characters he played in movies)/Boy Scouts.  They epitomize honor, chivalry, duty, determination, self-sacrifice, plus you can't imagine them passing an old lady without helping her cross the street
  15. Marilyn Monroe.  Could have chosen from a list of celebrities (Elizabeth Taylor and Elvis come to mind), but Marilyn represents the type: glamorous, sexy, largely invented by the media but we liked them even better when we embrace their flaws
  16. Amelia Earhart/Charles Lindbergh/Neil Armstrong.  Together, they symbolize our sense of reckless courage and our willingness to throw ourselves into danger in search of everlasting glory 
  17. General George Patton.  Highly educated, eccentric, irrascable, brilliant, courageous, and victorious in war.
  18. Aunt Bea.  She's nurturing, capable, loyal and yet quietly strong - a classic female American archetype if there ever was one.
  19. Oprah.  The epitome of the self-made man ... except, of course, that she's a woman.  She dominates entertainment the way we like to think we dominate the world: defining tastes, creating/manipulating markets, and amassing a huge personal fortune 
Who do you think needs to be added to the list?  Let me know!


Book Look - People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

The plot is easily told: a book restorer, Hanna Heath, is asked to restore a copy of a precious ancient text, a gorgeously illuminated but mysterious Jewish Haggadah salvaged from the ashes of civil war in Sarajevo. But Hanna isn’t just a book restorer: she’s really more of a book whisperer, a literary paleontology who specializes in reconstructing the lives of ancient text by interpreting the clues left embedded in paper and ink, thread and binding, stains and marks.

Each clue that Hanna extracts from the Haggadah - a fragment of butterfly wing, missing silver clasps, a wine stain containing traces of blood, grains of sea salt, the inexplicable presence of dark-skinned woman in one of the book’s dazzling illuminations – provides Brooks an opportunity to transport us back through time to explore, through a series of "stories within the story", the timeless conflict between hatred and tolerance, between humanity and inhumanity, between despair and hope.

Each of Brooks’ deftly rendered historical vignettes reminds us of just how timeless and implacable are the forces of hate. Making a Jewish holy book the epicenter of the text is an obvious starting point for any tale of the ravages of intolerance. But as Brooks transports us back through the book’s timeline (stopping along the way in Sarajevo 1940, Vienna 1894, Venice 1609, Tarragona 1492, and Seville 1480), we see the toll that intolerance has always exacted on our humanity, a price paid not just by Jews but by Muslims and Christians as well. After every vignette, Brooks circles back to Hanna’s story which, though modern, echoes the same theme: that only through understanding and tolerance can we achieve peace – both literally and figuratively.

It’s been a while since I read a novel so wholly satisfying. Brook’s plotting is brisk and intense, her prose intelligent, her historical research impeccable. If I had to venture any criticism, it might be that Brook’s female characters tend to be cut from the same simplistic mold: strong, smart, and with a broad streak of rebellion. About all that changes is their names (Hanna, Lola, Reyna, Ruti, Isabella/Nura, al-Mura) and the nature of the peril they are facing. But I think most readers will be as willing as I was to overlook this anachronism given the novel’s sweeping historical scope, engrossing mystery, deft prose, and overarching message of compassion.


Shakespeare Trivia - Did you know these 50 facts about the bard?

I've recently been on a tear, reading up on the little bit we do know - and the vast sum of information we don't know - about Shakespeare.  Thought I'd summarize some of the more interesting info here.

(By the way, if you enjoy this post, you may enjoy another one of my posts, Shakespeare's Contributions to the English Language.)

The Man
  1. Nobody knows Shakespeare’s true birthday. There is a record of his baptism on April 26, 1564. By tradition and guesswork, William is assumed to have been born three days earlier, on April 23.  He died in 1616 at the age of 52 - possibly on the same day he was born.
  2. Shakespeare never attended college.  He left grammar school at age 14-15 to become an apprentice to his father.
  3. Though primarily known as a glove maker, John Shakespeare (William’s father) also dabbled in the following jobs: wool-dealer, moneylender, constable, chamberlain, alderman, bailiff, and justice of the peace.
    1. There are several references to Shakespeare's father's trade in his works. In Merry Wives of Windsor, Mistress Quickly refers to a character having a beard "like a glover's paring knife" and in Romeo & Juliet, Mercutio speaks of a "wit of chevril", chevril being a soft skin that fine gloves were made of.
  4. There were two Shakespeare families living in Stratford when William was born; the other family did not become famous.
  5. Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway, was twice his age when they married. (He was 18, she was 26.) 
    1. They had eight children, 4 of whom survived infancy: daughter Susanna, twins Hamnet & Judith, and Edmund.
    2. Susanna received most of the Bard's fortune when he died. 
    3. Hamnet died at age 11, Judith at 77. Susanna died in 1649, age 66.
    4. Today there are no living heirs of Shakespeare
  6. After the birth of the twins in 1583, Shakespeare left few historical traces until he is mentioned as part of the London theatre scene in 1592. Scholars refer to the years between 1585 and 1592 as Shakespeare's "lost years".
    1. During these "lost years," Shakespeare may have been employed by an influential family, the Hoghtons, and may have got his firstintroduction to the theatre through the Hoghtons' rich and powerful friends, the Earls of Derby. (There exists a tantalizing record of one "William Shakeshafte" who worked as a tutor for the Hoghton family.)
  7. Will dabbled in property development. At age 18, he bought the second most prestigious house in all of Stratford, The New Place and later he doubled his investment on some land he bought near Stratford.
  8. We have (relatively) plentiful evidence that Shakespeare was a popular actor.  Many cast lists include his name and people write of having seen him perform.
  9. From 1594, Shakespeare's plays were performed by only the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a company owned by a group of players, including Shakespeare, that soon became the leading playing company in London. After the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, the company was awarded a royal patent by the new king, James I, and changed its name to the King's Men.
  10. William lived through the Black Death. The epidemic killed over 33,000 in London alone in 1603 when Will was 39, and later returned in 1608.
  11. Unlike most famous artists of his time, Shakespeare did not die in poverty. His will disposes of several large holdings of land.
  12. The epitaph to Shakespeare’s grave in the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, places a curse on anyone who moves his bones, a customary practice in graveyards of the time.
  13. There are only two authentic portraits of William today; the widely used engraving of William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout first published on the title page of the 1623 First Folio, and the monument of the great playwright in Stratford's Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. However, there is an unauthenticated painting, c.1610, that some claim to be an authentic image of William Shakespeare made during his lifetime.  (This is the portrait I've posted at the top of this blog entry.)
The Plays & Poems
  1. Before he began his career as a playwright, Shakespeare wrote two narrative poems that were widely published and regarded: The Rape of Lucrece, and Venus and Adonis.  These were dedicated the Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton.  Some scholars believe Southampton is the "fair youth" in Shakespeare's subsequent sonnets
  2. Shakespeare's sonnets chronicle a complex entanglement, almost a menage a trois, among two men and a woman.
  3. None of Shakespeare's original manuscripts have survived, due partly perhaps to the fact that they were written, many of them hastily, strictly for stage performance. 
  4. Fortunately, two of his fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, gathered 36 of Shakespeare's plays and published them in 1623 in a collection that has come to be known as The First Folio. This collection is the source from which all published Shakespearean plays are derived.
    1. A folio is a book made by folding larger pieces of paper in half.  Cheaper "quartos" were books made by folding these large sheets of paper into quarters.
    2. Many of Shakespeare's plays circulated as quartos, but these were often taken from stage scripts and contain many inconsistencies/inaccuracies
  5. Most academics agree that William wrote his first play, Henry VI, Part One around 1589 to 1590 when he would have been roughly 25 years old.
  6. Henry VIII, Henry VI, part 1 and Timon of Athens that are believed to be collaborative, according to modern stylistic analysis
  7. Shakespeare wrote more comedies than any other type of play
  8. The following plays were not initially attributed to Shakespeare, but have since been accepted by most scholars as having been at least partly authored by Shakespeare:
    1. Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Its uneven writing suggests that the first two acts are by another playwright.  However, critics have accepted that the last three-fifths are mostly Shakespeare's.
    2. The Two Noble Kinsmen.  Originally published in quarto in 1634 as a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, the playwright who took over Shakespeare's job as chief playwright of the King's Men. Mainstream scholarship agrees with this attribution, and the play is widely accepted as a worthy member of the Shakespeare canon, despite its collaborative origins.
  9. The following plays have been, at one time or another, erroneously (or so we currenetly believe) attributed to Shakespeare.  Most of them were plays included in folios with other Shakespeare works.
    1. Sir Thomas More.  Now attributed to Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle, with later revisions and additions by Thomas Dekker, Shakespeare and Thomas Heywood. A few pages are written by an author ("Hand D") whom many believe to be Shakespeare, as the handwriting and spellings, as well as the style, seem a good match. The attribution is not accepted by everyone, however, especially since there are so few authenticated samples of Shakespeare's handwriting.
    2. Birth of Merlin.  Demonstrably written 6 years after Shakespeare's death
    3. The Life of Sir John Oldcastle.  The diary of Philip Henslowe records that it was written by Anthony Munday, Michael Drayton, Richard Hathwaye, and Robert Wilson.
    4. A Yorkshire Tragedy. The weight of stylistic evidence supports Thomas Middleton as the actual author of the play
    5. The Life and Death of The Lord Cromwell.  Except for a few scholars, "hardly anyone has thought that Shakespeare was even in the slightest way involved in the production of these plays."
    6. King Edward the Third.  A consensus is emerging that the play was written by a team of dramatists including Shakespeare early in his career – but exactly who wrote what is still open to debate.
    7. The Puritaine.  This play is now generally believed to have been authored by Middleton or Smith
    8. The London Prodigal.  As it is a King's Men play, Shakespeare may have had a minor role in its creation, but according to Tucker Brooke, "Shakespeare's catholicity and psychological insight are conspicuously absent". Fleay hypothesized that Shakespeare wrote a rough outline or plot and left another playwright to the actual writing.
    9. The Merry Devill of Edmonton.  As it is a King's Men play, Shakespeare may have had a minor role in its creation, but the play's style bears no resemblance to Shakespeare.
    10. Faire Em, The Miller's Daughter of Manchester.  In Charles II's library, this play appears in a quarto labelled "Shakespeare."  However, another candidate for its authorship is Robert Wilson.
    11. A Most Pleasant Comedy of Mucedorus.  As it was a King's Men play, Shakespeare may have had a minor role in its creation or revision, but its true author remains a mystery: Robert Green is sometimes suggested.
    12. The Second Maiden's Tragedy.  Three crossed-out attributions in 17th century attribute the play to Thomas Goffe, Shakespeare, and George Chapman. However, stylistic analysis indicates that the true author was probably Middleton.
    13. Arden of Faversham.  Stylistic analysis has revealed that Shakespeare likely had a hand in at least scene VIII (the play is not divided into acts). Thomas Kyd is often considered to be the author of much of Faversham, but still other writers have been proposed.
  10. The following plays attributed to Shakespeare have been "lost":
    1. Love's Labour's Won. A late sixteenth-century writer, Francis Meres, and a scrap of paper (apparently from a bookseller), both list this title among Shakespeare's then-recent works, but no play of this title has survived. It may have become lost, or it may represent an alternative title of an existing play, such as Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well That Ends Well, or The Taming of the Shrew.
    2. Cardenio. This late play by Shakespeare and Fletcher, referred to in several documents, has not survived. It was probably an adaptation of a tale in Cervantes' Don Quixote.
      1. In 1727, Lewis Theobald produced a play he called Double Falshood, which he claimed to have adapted from three manuscripts of a lost play by Shakespeare that he did not name.
      2. Counter to that, a professional handwriting expert, Charles Hamilton, has claimed in a recent book that The Second Maiden's Tragedy play is actually Shakespeare's manuscript of the lost play CardenioOn the rare occasions when The Second Maiden's Tragedy has been revived on the stage, it is sometimes performed under the title Cardenio,
    3. The lost play called the Ur-Hamlet is believed by a few scholars to be an early work by Shakespeare himself. The theory was first postulated by the academic Peter Alexander and is supported by Harold Bloom and Peter Ackroyd, although mainstream Shakespearean scholarship believes it to have been authored by Thomas Kyd.
  11. Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play, clocking in at 4,042 lines. His shortest is The Comedy of Errors, with 1,787 lines.  The shortest of his tragedies (with 1993 lines) is Macbeth.
  12. After 1606–1607, Shakespeare wrote fewer plays, and none are attributed to him after 1613. His last three plays were collaborations, probably with John Fletcher, who succeeded him as the house playwright for the King’s Men.
  13. Many critics believe that The Tempest, one of Shakespeare's last plays, is also the Bard's most autobiographical work.  At the end of the play, the character Prospero, a bookish sorcerer, "retires" - setting aside his books and rejoining the real world. 

Shakespeare's World
  1. A ticket to the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare's time would have cost a penny, or $1.66 in today's money. At a posh indoor theater like Blackfriars, tickets started at sixpence (about $10). Sitting on the stage cost two shillings ($40); a box could be reserved for half-a-crown ($50).
  2. The average number of actors required for a Shakespearean comedy is 18. For the tragedies, it's 27. Histories require 35.
  3. In Shakespeare’s peak writing time (1500s and early 1600s), about 900 plays were in the theatre repertory, with 850 of those written by about 44 authors.
  4. Early modern theatre entrepreneurs were either owners or managers like James Burbage and Phillip Hensloweor, or shareholders in repertory companies like John Heminge and Henry Condell. The most successful, WilliamShakespeare and Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, were both.
  5. "Bardolatry" is the excessive worship of Shakespeare. It can be dated back to the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee heldat Stratford-upon-Avon, which is often seen as the point when Shakespeare stopped being thought of as a popular dramatist and became a literary icon and commodity.

The Scholarship/The Controversy
  1. None of Shakespeare’s plays printed during his lifetime still survive in even a fragment of his own handwriting; the only literary manuscript plausibly ascribed to him is a section of Sir Thomas More, a play not printed until the nineteenth century. 
  2. "Shakespeare" is spelled 80 different ways in documents dating from the Bard's time, including "Shaxpere" and "Shaxberd."
  3. Shakespeare's early plays were mainly comedies and histories. He then wrote mainly tragedies until about 1608, including Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth. In his last phase, he wrote tragicomedies, also known as romances, and collaborated with other playwrights
  4. He wrote on average 1.5 plays a year since he first started in 1589. His last play The Two Noble Kinsmen is reckoned to have been written in 1613 when he was 49 years old.
  5. In 1896, Frederick S. Boas coined the term "problem plays" to describe four plays: All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and Hamlet. "Dramas as singular in theme and temper cannot be strictly called comedies or tragedies", he wrote. "We may therefore borrow a convenient phrase from the theatre of today and class them together as Shakespeare's problem plays." The term, much debated and sometimes applied to other plays, remains in use, though Hamlet is now definitively classed as a tragedy.
  6. It is unclear where or when Shakespeare picked up the French he so adeptly used in Henry V or how he came to read the Italian source that provided inspiration for Othello.  It is not known whether Shakespeare ever traveled outside England. 
  7. Eleven of Shakespeare’s play titles directly involve the word King - and if you include Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, Pericles, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale, 20 out of 37 deal with monarchy. 
  8. Suicide occurs an unlucky thirteen times in Shakespeare’s plays. It occurs in Romeo and Juliet where both Romeo and Juliet commit suicide; in Julius Caesar where both Cassius and Brutus die by consensual stabbing, as well as Brutus’ wife Portia; in Othello where Othello stabs himself; in Hamlet where Ophelia is said to have "drowned" in suspicious circumstances; in Macbeth when Lady Macbeth dies; and finally in Antony and Cleopatra, where suicide occurs an astounding five times (Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Charmian, Iras and Eros).
  9. Was Shakespeare famous in his own day? He was included in some contemporary lists of leading poets, but he was rarely singled out as "above" or more gifted than other contemporaries (such as Edmund Spencer)
  10. Only a small minority of academics believe there is reason to question whether another author wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare
    1. Some prominent public figures, including Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, have found the arguments against Shakespeare’s authorship persuasive
    2. The most frequently mentioned "alternative" authors include Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher "Kit" Marlowe, William Stanley, the 6th Earl of Derby, and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
    3. "Baconians" believe that Francis Bacon not only wrote the plays, but left coded messages in his writings that will either (1) prove his authorship of the Shakespeare plays, (2) lead people to the spot where he has buried documents that will prove his authorship, or (3) both of the above.  (See The Baconian Cipher)


A Thousand Words - Watson and the Shark, by John Singleton Copley

Watson and the Shark, John Singleton Copley, 1778.

This is one of my favorite works of early American art.  It depicts the rescue of Brook Watson, a 14yr old cabin boy, from a shark attack in Havana, Cuba.  Copley had heard of the attack and was always up for whipping out a melodramatic canvas - see his Seige and Relief of Gibralter and Death of Major Peirson.  Watson was eventually rescued, by the way, though he lost part of a leg to the shark.  The original of the painting hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. where I visit it often.  If you take a closer look, I think you'll appreciate why.  

First of all, it's clear that Copley had never actually seen a shark, because this one looks like no shark found in nature.  Look at that oddly flattened jaw (was he maybe going for lips?), those stubby teeth, that rounded side fin, and - my favorite part - those big nostrils! (Why would a fish need nostrils?) 

Next I draw your attention to the unfortunate Watson, who is not only about to get eaten but whose clothes have mysteriously disappeared.  Did the shark eat his clothes first? Or were they dissolved by the water? What exactly was going on in that boat before Watson fell overboard? 

Finally, there's the whole anachronism of what appears to be a 20' shark swimming about the Port of Havana, and that handy harpoon, because apparently they also get a lot of whales there too.

At his death, Watson bequeathed the painting to Christ's Hospital, with the hope that it would prove "a most usefull Lesson to Youth".  So children: listen up!  Do not go skinny dipping in the Port of Cuba!  I bet that's saved a lot of lives over the years.

Full disclosure: I feel bad ragging on my man Copley.  His portraits are absolutely brilliant - if you don't believe me, just google his name and see what you get.  But, really, this painting isn't worthy of him.  See what happens when you send an otherwise sensible born American portrait painter off to Italy and fill his head with fancy notions like classicalism and romantacism?