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Black Dan’l–The First Superhero?

(Soundtrack: The Minutemen —What Makes a Man Start Fires?)





All else is gone; from those great eyes
The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!


Then, pay the reverence of old days
To his dead fame;
Walk backward, with averted gaze,
And hide the shame!
–John Greenleaf Whittier, “Ichabod!”


A long time ago, I pitched my idea that Stephen Vincent Benet’s (and William Dieterle’s) The Devil and Daniel Webster is not merely “an American Faust“, but the American answer to the Faustian dilemma of infinite longing. By all accounts, Webster did have a superpower–he was the greatest orator of the 19th century (how great was he? he actually impressed Emerson–and Emerson’s whole philosophy turned upon a refusal to be impressed by anyone). Give Black Dan’l some chains and a shaggier mane and he’s Webstar the Speaker.


The real Webster is kind of an anti-hero actually, because the signature moment of his career is the Seventh of March (1850) Speech, in which, mind distempered by Presidential ambitions, he profaned his instrument by joining in on the corrupt pro-Fugitive Slave Act jam-session then in progress. On that fateful day, in the Senate, Webster spoke on his own behalf, not the nation’s. Of course, in his private life (secret identity) he had always been as self-serving as any other politician you could name, but (at least in the public’s perception–and perhaps in Webster’s own) when it came to speechifying, he had, up until then, merely sung the lead part in the hymn to abstract right, as embodied in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.


That’s history–but the Webster-figure in literature is something else again, thanks to Stephen Vincent Benet. Benet’s Webster (who first appeared in 1937–one year before Superman), like the early superheroes, was a product of Depression/Popular Front culture. This Webster still has the ambitious side of his nature in check. We see him comfortably ensconced in his private life at Marshfield, farming, reading, and generally living high on the hog. But he has a great power and, of course, that entails certain responsibilities. For example, he cannot ignore Jabez Stone’s plight, since he knows full well that he is actually capable (although not certain!) of defeating the devil himself in a war of words. He wades into the Faust legend in order to prove that human reason (embodied in our contracts with each other) can sometimes overrule the pacts we make with our own worst selves (symbolized by old Mr. Scratch)–it’s a socialized version of the Buddhist concept of escaping the wheel of desire. When Webster enters the court of the damned, risking his life in order to further the interests of another (and society), not himself, he is every bit the superhero, even though he does not wear a mask.


I would argue that “secret identities” are not essential to the superhero genre, but dual identities are (and it sounds like Eightball #23 is the latest illustration of this fact). In life, there are certain situations in which moral action is required, and there are others in which a more nuanced, aestheticizing approach is called for. The former is, obviously, the realm of superhero action–a strange place where “the right thing” is fairly obvious (and has nothing to do with what you want for yourself), and what counts is steadfastness of purpose. Incidentally, this is why superheroes cannot kill–it’s not because “killing upsets the kiddies”, it’s because vengeance is always at odds with justice, and superheroics are “adventures in morality”, not dramatized power fantasies.



The world of the secret/private i.d. is much more common, of course, and to fail to recognize this is to fail the “Rorschach Test”–but to rule out the possibility of moral action is just as dangerous. In a society characterized by “good enough justice” (as Rawls and Stanley Cavell put it), every one of us is obligated to live in both worlds.



Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

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3 comments

  1. Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods, from the 1837 novel of the same name, is America’s first superhero. He’s a a) costumed b) vigilante c) with a secret/dual identity and d) has nearly supernatural powers at killing “savages.”

    Discuss.

    jess

  2. that’s interesting Jess–I’ve never heard of Nick. He sounds like he’s more of a proto-Batman than a proto-Spider/Animal-Man (certainly, both types are superheroes; however, my work focuses solely upon those characters who fall into the latter category) Have you done any writing on Bird’s creation?
    Dave

  3. I wrote a little bit about him on my Victoriana site, but I’m expanding my comments in the encyclopedia. Essentially, he’s the Batman to Hawkeye’s (from <>Last of the Mohicans<>) Superman. Bird wrote <>Nick<> as a direct rebuttal to <>Mohicans<>; Bird thought that the Noble Savage aspect of Cooper’s books, and the moral ambiguity with which Cooper treated the Anglo conquest of native cultures in <>Mohicans<>, was horribly wrongheaded. For Bird, America’s Manifest Destiny was wonderful, since the “savages” were evil and deserved eradication. Bird thought that Cooper’s treatment of class was wrong, so Bird went with a more traditional, Sir Walter Scott approach. Hawkeye is superior because of his ability; Bird’s characters are superior because of their class and birth. Cooper’s more nuanced (I can’t believe I’m writing this) treatment of America’s wilderness is replaced in Bird by a more Puritan approach. And Bird, through the character of Nick (a.k.a. Jibbenainosay, “the Spirit-that-Walks”), established the “Indian Killer” character that dominated dime novel Westerns from the 1840s through the early 1860s.
    Nick is much closer to Batman than Spider-Man, certainly. Bird intended Nick to be a hero, but the modern reader is likely to view him with revulsion and feel the need to take a bath after finishing <>Nick of the Woods<>.
    jess

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