Heartland Hero's Ghost
Essays Culture

Heartland Hero's Ghost

Austin Lamb

The American Museum of Natural History in New York has requested that its equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt be removed. In June, the Museum released a statement that: “The Statue has long been controversial because of the hierarchical composition that places one figure on horseback and others walking alongside. . . Many of us find its depictions of the Native American and African figures and their placement in the monument racist.”

Whether the statue in fact represents a racial hierarchy rather than racial unification or brotherhood is up for dispute. “The two figures at [Roosevelt’s] side are guides symbolizing the continents of Africa and America,” said James Earle Fraser, the statue’s sculptor, in 1940. “If you choose [they] may stand for Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” The historical record bears out this friendliness: Roosevelt was the first to invite a black man (Booker T. Washington) to dine at the White House, and frequently had black houseguests as New York governor; black preacher William McGill wrote that “the administration of President Roosevelt is to the Negro what the heart is to the body. It has pumped life blood into every artery of the Negro in this country”; and Pope Leo XIII praised Roosevelt’s determination “to seek equality of treatment of all the races.”

Facts like these are no longer sufficient to prove Roosevelt’s merits as a good or great man. A new vision of American greatness has arrived, and this vision requires the toppling of old heroes as it edifies its new ones. The equestrian statue is being taken down not simply because of heightened racial sensitivity but because Teddy Roosevelt is no longer New York’s image of a great man. Our heroes are changing.

While Roosevelt’s legacy is being dismantled in his home state, it is stronger than ever in mine. North Dakotans have a natural affinity for Teddy Roosevelt. An asthmatic boy born to a wealthy New York family, Teddy’s spirit was too adventurous to be constrained by his physical disadvantages. He first traveled to the Dakota Territory in order to kill a buffalo but, enamored with the land, Roosevelt quickly bought property there—the Maltese Cross and Elkhorn ranches—and found solace living in the Badlands following the death of both his wife and his mother. When Roosevelt asked himself rhetorically which single memory he would retain were fate to “have erased from my memory all other experiences,” he answered, “I would take the memory of my life on the ranch, with its experiences close to Nature and among the men who lived nearest her.” Rather than his time as governor, president, or commander of the Rough Riders, Roosevelt chose as his dearest memory his time in North Dakota.

T.R. chose to remember North Dakota, and so North Dakota chooses to remember T.R.: North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the only national park named after an individual, the highest honor given by the state is the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider award, and Governor Doug Burgum’s major legislative push has been the construction of a Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in North Dakota, which secured funding just last year. But it is more than flattery that secures Roosevelt’s place in the hearts of North Dakotans. Roosevelt embodies for us the frontier virtues of hard work, adventure, and self-determination.

As he said in his 1910 speech “Citizenship in a Republic,”

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena . . . who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

This is the spirit of the Midwest. Teddy Roosevelt is perhaps the greatest exemplar of the Jeffersonian brew of heroism that Midwesterners have grown up admiring: the yeoman farmer, the self-made man, the democrat, the explorer, the enterpriser. Our heroes are men of life, adventure, and conquest first and men of commerce second. The aim of the American experiment may very well have been the establishment of Hamilton’s mercantile system, but the men it sent westward to its Manifest Destiny were pioneers—the sons of Jefferson. As the closed frontier has for more than a century eroded the spirit of Midwestern heroism—as there is increasingly no “arena” to enter—and as the corporate workplace cannot answer the yearnings of the Midwestern soul, the Midwest’s spiritual malaise and malalignment with coastal culture comes as no surprise.

Analyses on the coast-heartland cultural divide abound. A great part of this divide is rather urban-rural; in an age of instant communication, the coincidence of geography and culture is no more, and however much we may long for roots, it is more difficult than ever to plant them. However the character of America’s cultural divide, recent events have made at least one thing clear: we Midwesterners have different heroes. The recent revision of public monuments is merely a symptom of this. The yearning for equality of representation shares the midwest’s spirit of revolution but misses the point of building statues in the first place: to celebrate the accomplishments of great men in order to encourage the public to attain similar virtues.

Indeed, the idea of a “great man” offends today’s liberalism. Greatness is—after all—an anti-democratic, inegalitarian concept: it implies that some people are better than others. The Midwest, meanwhile, has no qualms about celebrating greatness. In its older form of liberalism, equality is the precondition for a “natural aristocracy” in which the truly virtuous can reach great heights unimpeded by arbitrary divisions; political equality is here the means to individual greatness. One questions whether the new liberalism, which seeks to deconstruct every instance of greatness into injustices and prejudices, is capable of creating any new heroes without a gross abandonment of its own logic. With no images of greatness, to what can one aspire?

The frontier has long been closed, and the pioneering spirit finds little political outlet. This is the spiritual crisis of the Midwest, and there is no better diagnosis than in the great Midwestern literature.

By the time the authors of the 20th Century gave voice to the spirit of Midwestern heroism, its possibility had already disappeared. In its absence, it is certainly easier to appreciate the full force of Midwestern heroism. Perhaps this is already a dead debate, and heroes like Teddy Roosevelt cannot be resuscitated. But a misalignment between our spiritual needs and our political possibilities only heightens our need to recognize those spiritual needs. The soul is an old thing. It does not adjust so quickly to new circumstances.

The misalignment between frontier virtues and the victory of industrialism spurred the greats of Midwestern literature to investigate the inner life of the Midwestern people. Their literature is a sociology—a diagnosis of the Midwest’s spiritual crisis. Insofar as the will to heroism still lives within the souls of us Midwesterners, we have a duty to hear its call. I’ll limit myself to Willa Cather and Ernest Hemingway.

Willa Cather is the Midwestern novelist par excellence. Her early pioneer trilogy (O Pioneers!, Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia) paint a nostalgic and compelling picture of frontier life, but Cather’s serious spiritual diagnoses begin five years later with A Lost Lady (1923), her most beautiful work, and The Professor’s House (1925), her best work.

In A Lost Lady, two characters embody the extremes wrought by the closing of the frontier: Captain Forrester and Ivy Peters. Captain Forrester represents what Cather calls the “railroad aristocracy,” the class of enterprising men who led the westward expansion. He is a builder, a dreamer, and a visionary—a bull of a man who speaks in “the lonely defiant tone so often heard in the voices of old Indians.” The Captain did not inherit his lot but earned it, looking to the future and building a system of rails where before there was nothing. As he puts it, “We dreamed the railroads across the mountains, just as I dreamed my place on the Sweet Water.”

Ivy Peters, on the other hand, is introduced as he mutilates a small animal. He is two generations Forrester’s junior, part of a “generation of shrewd young men, trained to petty economies by hard times.” Peters has “never dared anything, never risked anything,” and does not have the perennial connection to the land that guided the previous generations. He does not look at the frontier with a spirit of hope and reverence but with an eye to its immediate utility, favoring what is direct, financial, and material. He cheats Native Americans out of their land, doggedly pursues risky financial ventures, and converts the beautiful but useless Forrester march into an economic enterprise (itself a microcosm of the social shifts Cather highlights).

If Captain Forrester is the greatest possibility of American democracy, Ivy Peters is Tocqueville’s image of “democracy. . . abandoned to its savage instincts.” Peters’s wayward soul belongs to the class of Americans that have “long since broken the bonds that attached them to native soil [but have] not formed others since then” (Democracy in America). Without heroes like Captain Forrester to ballast the American spirit, it will slip toward the individual, the small, the petty, the merely useful.

Cather’s thermostat for this social shift is Madame Forrester, the Captain’s wife. Mrs. Forrester’s grace and beauty are magnetic, and her attraction to nobility compels her to attach to and amplify the time’s vision of nobility. She first broadcasts her husband’s greatness, but after his death becomes “flighty and perverse,” having “lost her faculty of discrimination.” With the rise of Ivy Peters, she is confused. Mrs. Forrester realizes that power now lies in money, and her attraction reluctantly flows to Peters. He corrupts her, and her health and beauty decline; she is a lost lady. Mrs. Forrester, like the country she mirrors, suffers from shifting her love from the loftiness of the forest to the parasitism of ivy.

Whereas Mrs. Forrester participates in the decline of America as a passionate, youthful woman, Godfrey St. Peter, in The Professor’s House, witnesses it with the disillusionment of a grown man. Having completed his magnum opus, a monumental series of history volumes entitled Spanish Adventures in North America, Dr. St. Peter enters into a listless depression when he finds that America can no longer afford him such life-sustaining projects. His family, vain and obsessed with status, offers him no solace. They cannot answer to his depth of soul.

Unlike Captain Forrester, Dr. St Peter is an intellectual explorer—the old sort of academic who approaches the world with curiosity and loftiness. But this frontier, too, is closed, and Dr. St. Peter is a pariah at his university. Tom Outland, St. Peter’s talented protégé and his daughter’s fiancé, once offered him hope for the future. Outland was an explorer who discovered the remnants of an ancient civilization in the cliffs of New Mexico, as well as a physicist who made a revolutionary discovery while at St Peter’s university. Outland dies in World War One, however, and wills his discovery to his fiancée, whose new husband capitalizes on it by applying it to household products—the “Outland vacuum” is born.

Tom Outland was driven by pure, lofty curiosity, not material gain. The wealth he inadvertently created may sustain and satisfy the class ambitions of St. Peter’s family, but Outland’s vital brilliance is gone, and Dr. St. Peter himself finds no comfort in money. With all horizons closed, St. Peter finds himself accepting death as a gas leak fills his study. He is rescued, and resolves to live on; but something vital is lost, and it is by no means a happy conclusion.

Ernest Hemingway recognized this same spiritual despair. Hemingway was not born in the Midwest, but like Teddy Roosevelt, he chose it, ultimately settling in Ketchum, Idaho. The protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), Robert Jordan, is a former Spanish professor at the University of Montana who absconds to fight for the republicans against Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War.

The Midwestern fighting spirit runs in the Jordans’ bloodline. Jordan’s grandfather was a “man in the arena” if ever there was one, having fought for the Union in the American Civil War; Jordan remembers him as a “hell of a good soldier” and holds him as an exemplar of the good life: one spent in the pursuit of great projects. Jordan’s father, in my reading, possessed the same spirit but had no war to fight, no noble enterprise to undertake. He kills himself with the grandfather’s Civil War gun, suggesting that a great soul will destroy itself if it cannot or does not attempt the great deeds for which it is made.

Jordan resents his father for his cowardice but knows that he is the heir of both men, who represent the extremes of Jordan’s heroic soul. America, its frontier closed, can offer nothing to Jordan. He becomes an Iberophile, traveling and studying the ways of a greater, more fulfilling culture; and yet his sedentary life as a Spanish professor in Montana, despite offering some comfort in the form the greats of Spanish literature, is ultimately saccharine. When the Spanish Civil War breaks out, Jordan knows he must fight to save the people he loves, and chooses certain death over a lifetime in America:

“I have fought for what I believed in for a year now. If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it. And you had a lot of luck, he told himself, to have had such a good life. You’ve had just as good a life as grandfather’s though not as long. . . You do not want to complain when you have been so lucky.”

The Jordan family needs an “arena”—deprived of one in his homeland, Robert Jordan must either commit suicide or find one abroad. There is, however, a certain irony in Robert Jordan’s fight for republicanism, just as there is in Cather’s novels. Jordan admires his grandfather for his commitment to the Union, but it is the Union itself whose success has created the conditions that chafe Jordan’s spirit. Captain Forrester, for his part, built the very rails that allow for the commercial spirit of Ivy Peters to supplant his lofty vision. Tom Outland’s great discovery in physics was degraded to a commercial vacuum, and Godfrey St. Peter’s magnum opus is in the last analysis a book on the past.

All this raises the question: What is the Midwestern spirit fighting for? Is an embrace of America necessarily an embrace of bourgeois capitalism’s shrinking of the soul? Does the heartland hero necessarily kill himself, like Jordan’s father? Perhaps the Midwestern spirit was after all only the spirit of the Middle West—a pioneering but merely transitional spirit. Without a frontier, we may no longer need it.

If this is the case, perhaps the Midwest’s heroes do need to change. This would raise yet another question: which heroes are we replacing them with? The success of Silicon Valley-esque tech entrepreneur Doug Burgum was admirable enough to propel him to a gubernatorial victory, and downtown Fargo has undergone an urban revitalization in this image. While this is certainly to the public good, runaway entrepreneurial success is not an accessible model of heroism for most Midwesterners (who cannot become tech moguls), and there are very few patches of North Dakota that can become “walkable.” The modern entrepreneurial landscape has the appearance of an “arena” but not its spirit; and it is the spirit of an older sort of heroism that the Midwest craves. The fact that Prairie Public Radio has produced over 1,400 episodes of “The Thomas Jefferson Radio Hour” seems to prove this.

Denied self-sufficiency, independence, robust family life, roots, and adventure, the Midwestern spirit today is left without satisfaction. With the rise of industrial food and agribusiness, even the quiet yeoman heroism is dead. Insofar as this pioneering, heartland heroism is the fundamental manifestation of the “American spirit” we so often praise in soldiers and entrepreneurs, we ought to take note.

Luckily, we need not give up on the Midwestern hero so easily. In The Professor’s House, Outland and St. Peter enjoyed a wonderful friendship despite studying in different fields and, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan lived up to his grandfather’s name despite fighting in a foreign land. More important than the vagaries of politics are the virtues a man embodies; the cities that great men have fought for vary, but the virtues that make a great man are eternal. Perhaps America will increasingly ask of us the greatness of an Elon Musk; if this model does not satisfy our yearning for adventurous pursuits, we should not be ashamed to look for heroism in our past, be it in Roosevelt’s “arena” or in the quiet independence of Jefferson’s yeoman farmer.

The spirit of America suffocates in a world without heroes. Our politics should address its citizens as they are and direct them to their natural ends, not remake them into something they are not. We should make the effort to understand our spiritual needs, including our need for heroes, and build upon the sure ground of the human soul.

To this end, we need our heroes back. Keeping up the statues of the truly great men of our history is a minimum. A Teddy Roosevelt Presidential Library in North Dakota is not much, but it is a good start.

Featured Image: Theodore Roosevelt traveling through desert in photo (1913) courtesy of the Wetherill Collection at the Arizona State Museum Photograph Collection, University of Arizona.

Austin Lamb is a Jesuit Volunteer serving at St. Paul's Mission School in Hays, MT. He writes at The Après Garde. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.