American individualism is supposed to be a redundancy, one of those hallowed assumptions that animate our view of the past and sometimes provide excuses for excess. Individualism is invoked to explain triumphs over adversity, and also over good sense and decency; Abraham Lincoln was an individualist, but then so was Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Paradoxically, the cult of the individual demands uniformity of view among its adherents and often celebrates accomplishments that are merely symbolic and collective. Noted individualists often seek to perpetuate the status quo while offering cover for various activities, political and entrepreneurial. (Ronald Reagan and Bill Gates come readily to mind.) Individualism within their domains -- i.e., dissent -- is unacceptable.
I was reminded of this fact while reading Dominick Cavallo's A Fiction of the Past: The Sixties in American History (St. Martin's, $26.95). The most celebrated decade in the 20th century, known for anarchy and political transformation, was also a time of absolute conformity within opposing camps, as anyone who lived through it -- and watched it on television -- knows. The casualties of the '60s were not just innocence and comity but also the freedom of the American imagination to wander unmolested by polemics and recurrent images of death and product.
The author sees in the behavior of young people of that time the silhouettes of great individualists of the past. Rather than a new phenomenon, Students for a Democratic Society was, in his view, an atavistic uprising of the shades of the Thomases -- Jefferson and Paine -- against the prosperity and hypocrisy of the '50s. These children of the middle class, exhorted by their parents to think for themselves and to take advantage of the post-World War II boom, sought instead to subvert it. Even the hallucinogenic trips of the era "were extreme incarnations of American individualism."
The book assigns all young Americans to monolithic economic and ideological groups when in fact most of them were capable of feeling both the allure of the political -- and literary -- arguments of the '60s and laughing at the pretensions of those who made them. Indeed, humor is absent here, just as it was from the expostulations of student radicals in the dying days of the decade.
American individualists in the more distant past evinced strong beliefs and a willingness to act upon them, even when those beliefs were unpopular. That these individualists were often wary of the American political experience -- democracy -- is less celebrated by us. Alexander Hamilton, for instance, appears nowhere as an avatar of the '60s, being the advocate of a national bank and a home-grown aristocracy, but Hamilton was highly individualistic and opposed the ascendancy of the common man even as he exemplified it.
Richard Brookhiser's brief, cogent, new biography, Alexander Hamilton, American (Free Press, $25), shows that Hamilton was not only the poor son of an abandoned mother in the West Indies but also an immigrant to the United States who rose by force of intellect and will. Principled, capable of originality and an accomplished writer, he challenged the prevailing republicanism of Jefferson and James Madison, and conducted a passionate, pathetic, highly public affair with another man's wife. He bravely died at the wrong end of a dueling pistol wielded by a political charlatan, crack shot, and incidentally another noted individualist, Aaron Burr, whom Hamilton had criticized in print.
Determination, strength of character, a willingness to risk: These emerge as job qualifications for American individualists and are embodied in the obscure Denmark Vesey, a freedman who led an aborted slave revolt in the Charleston of the 1820s. Possessed of great charisma, Vesey organized a wide network of revolutionaries who were to murder their oppressors, torch Charleston, and flee to Haiti. But they were betrayed by one of their own, an informer from among the "waiting men who receive presents of old coats from their masters," and Vesey and his lieutenants were hanged.
David Robertson's book, Denmark Vesey (Knopf, $23), depends upon an account of the trial written by a white observer and so lacks the crucial element of character revelation. We still don't know the secret of Vesey's extraordinary resolve, on a par with Frederick Douglass's. The best part of this book deals not with Vesey but with the society of grasping, no doubt highly individualistic, white Barbadian planters who were rewarded by the British crown for importing slaves to the Carolinas. They created in the environs of that now-so-civilized city the most sybaritic society in colonial America, a nightmare of privilege surrounded by a majority that despised it but was apparently willing to act.
Jeffrey Wert's A Brotherhood of Valor: The Common Soldiers of the Stonewall Brigade, C.S.A. and the Iron Brigade, U.S.A. (Simon & Schuster, $25) is supposed to be a celebration of the common recruit during the Civil War. It follows the extreme fortunes of the Stonewall Brigade of Virginia and the Iron Brigade, made up mostly of Wisconsinites, which took part in so many bloody engagements, from Bull Run to Spotsylvania. The Southerners were infinitely worse off, as we know, inspired to fight the invader and march in boots with the soles burned off after close encounters with campfires. They endured "bucking" -- a straggler's wrists were tied together, placed over his knees and a stick inserted to render him immobile -- but finally threatened to kill the officers responsible. Perhaps this was a forerunner of "fragging," the killing of unpopular commanders by enlisted men during the war in Vietnam.
However extreme the deprivations of the 19th-century dog soldier, his story does not emerge as vividly as it might, in part because of the book's big-canvas syndrome -- the need to explain every battle. The best portrait to emerge is that of an officer, Thomas J. (aka "Stonewall") Jackson, who was revered by his men despite the hardships he inflicted upon them. If ever there was an American individualist, it was this pious, disheveled, lemon-sucking killer who made monkeys out of the Union commanders and ironically succumbed to friendly fire.
How would Disney, had it been allowed to massage the Civil War at its projected "historic" theme park in Manassas, have dealt with Stonewall, a man impossible to sanitize without obliterating the eccentricities that made him interesting? Disney would have found a way, if Henry A. Giroux, author of The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (Rowman & Littlefield, $22.95), is to be believed. "As a metaphor for a corporate notion of utopia, Disney's theme parks collapse public and historical discourse into the language of entertainment and commercialism. In the name of `edutainment,' Disney engineers clean up the abuses of history . . . in order to create corporate identities and to define citizens primarily as consumers and spectators."
It's difficult to imagine Stonewall as a good consumer or Hamilton spectating on the adoption of the Constitution. That is the danger of the Disney perspective, the vitiating of the impulse to participate in and to question the fundaments of human society and aspirations, suggesting as it does that American civilization has so arrived that its de-individualized participants need only kick back and enjoy the fantasy of the moment.
Meanwhile, the dream-works champions the notion of innocence, writes Giroux, while working diligently to exploit it. "Disney's view of children as consumers has little to do with innocence and a great deal to do with corporate greed . . . the opportunity for teaching children that critical thinking and civic action in society are far less important" than passive buying and on-looking. Edutainment takes up valuable space in a child's subconscious from which real hopes and dreams spring, treating the imagination as a substrate of commerce rather than as a valuable national resource in itself.
Walt Disney, another heralded American individualist, early understood the relationship between innocence, profit and influence. According to Giroux, he cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the '50s and with J. Edgar Hoover's efforts against "subversives." Meanwhile Disney built a company that today represents an astonishing concentration of media power. This may have something to do with the fact that Giroux's condemnatory book is published by a small, independent press.
Disney, of course, is not the only corporation using any advantage it can find. American individualists of the past often railed against abuses of power, usually those of government, but that bugaboo is being replaced by unbridled capitalism. Reading this book, I wondered what the founding fathers would think of the corporate state and its shameless, lucrative -- and welcomed -- embrace of Congress and other institutions. I think that even Alexander Hamilton, closet Tory, advocate of protective tariffs, would be appalled by the presence of advertising slogans in our schools and national parks, and by the zoning out of our children on anodyne history and animated stories spun not to enlighten but to lull.
Jim Conaway is the author of "Memphis Afternoons."