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4 - The Secret Sharing: Myth and Memory in the Writing of Jayne Anne Phillips

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 June 2017

Michael K. Glenday
Affiliation:
The Open University
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Summary

In the opening chapter of his study of American myth, Jeffrey D. Mason accepts that America's foundation myth of itself as a space of limitless promise, of agrarian plenitude evolving into material abundance, was one which could neither survive its own internal contradictions, nor its trial by the actualities of time's passage:

There is a certain beauty in this myth, but as a guiding paradigm it no longer satisfies, and it does not express the profound failure of the American experience. Even as early as the nineteenth century, the actual Americans found that the land denied the myth's abundant promise and that the disappointment led to … an excruciating sense of frustration. The experience challenges the myth's essential optimism … [and] addresses, principally, the white, English, and mostly male experience. (21)

In more recent years, the Vietnam war has led to ‘the destruction, not of [America], but of the myth that gave it life and in which [Americans] once believed’ (Roth 349). This was the central thesis informing John Hellmann's study, American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam (1986). Yet Hellmann also considered the afterlife of that destroyed mythology, asking perhaps the most fundamental question raised by the defeat of American myth in Vietnam: ‘what possibilities may remain for the aspiring American hero separated in Vietnam from the ideal self-concept of his culture?’ (161). He concluded that the most important Vietnam works ‘that have been most widely received as important literature have been less interested in a sustained portrait of the war than in an exploration of its implications for American myth’ (167). Published in 1986, Hellmann's conclusion could only be tentatively optimistic with regard to the rebirth of American myth. Yet in the years since, a good deal of American fiction that has the war as subject suggests instead a confident determination to move beyond such impoverishment towards what Marc Chénetier has recognized to be a widespread ‘revision of myth in contemporary [American] fiction’ (164).

Type
Chapter
Information
American Mythologies
New Essays on Contemporary Literature
, pp. 63 - 78
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2005

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