What Makes Superman So Darned American?
When I was young I spent a lot of time arguing with myself about who would win in a
fight between John Wayne and Superman. On days when I wore my cowboy hat and cap
guns, I knew the Duke would win because of his pronounced superiority in the all-important
matter of swagger. There were days, though, when a frayed army blanket tied cape-fashion
around my neck signalled a young man's need to believe there could be no end to the potency
of his being.
Then the Man of Steel was the odds-on favorite to knock the Duke for a cosmic loop. My
greatest childhood problem was that the question could never be resolved because no such
battle could ever take place. I mean, how would a fight start between the only two Americans
who never started anything, who always fought only to defend their rights and the American
Now that I'm older and able to look with reason on the mysteries of childhood, I've finally
resolved the dilemma. John Wayne was the best older brother any kid could ever hope to
have, but he was no Superman.
Superman is the great American hero. We are a nation rich with legendary figures. But
among the Davy Crocketts and Paul Bunyans and Mike Finks and Pecos Bills and all the rest
who speak for various regional identities in the pantheon of American folklore, only
Superman achieves truly mythic stature, interweaving a pattern of beliefs, literary conventions,
and cultural traditions of the American people more powerfully and more accessibly than any
other cultural symbol of the twentieth century, perhaps of any period in our history.
core of the American myth in Superman consists of a few basic facts that remain unchanged
throughout the infinitely varied ways in which the myth is told--facts with which everyone is
familiar, however marginal their knowledge of the story. Superman is an orphan rocketed to
Earth when his native planet Krypton explodes; he lands near Smallville and is adopted by
Jonathan and Martha Kent, who inculcate in him their American middle-class ethic; as an
adult he migrates to Metropolis where he defends America--no, the world! no, the
Universe!--from all evil and harm while playing a romantic game in which, as Clark Kent, he
hopelessly pursues Lois Lane, who hopelessly pursues Superman, who remains aloof until
such time as Lois proves worthy of him by falling in love with his feigned identity as a
weakling. That's it. Every narrative thread in the mythology, each one of the thousands of
plots in the fifty year stream of comics and films and TV shows, all the tales involving the
demigods of the Superman pantheon--Superboy, Supergirl, even Krypto the superdog--every
single one reinforces by never contradicting this basic set of facts. That's the myth, and that's
where one looks to understand America.
It is impossible to imagine Superman being as popular as he is and speaking as deeply to the American character were he not an immigrant and an orphan. Immigration, of course, is
the overwhelming fact in American history. Except for the Indians, all Americans have an
immediate sense of their origins elsewhere. No nation on Earth has so deeply embedded in its social consciousness the imagery of passage from one social identity to another: the
Mayflower of the New England separatists, the slave ships from Africa and the subsequent
underground railroads toward freedom in the North, the sailing ships and steamers running
shuttles across two oceans in the nineteenth century, the freedom airlifts in the twentieth.
Somehow the picture just isn't complete without Superman's rocket ship.
Like the peoples of the nation whose values he defends, Superman is an alien, but not just
any alien. He's the consummate and totally uncompromised alien, an immigrant whose visible
difference from the norm is underscored by his decision to wear a costume of bold primary
colors so tight as to be his very skin. Moreover, Superman the alien is real. He stands out
among the hosts of comic book characters (Batman is a good example) for whom the
superhero role is like a mask assumed when needed, a costume worn over their real identities
as normal Americans. Superman's powers--strength, mobility, x-ray vision and the like --are
the comic-book equivalents of ethnic characteristics, and they protect and preserve the vitality
of the foster community in which he lives in the same way that immigrant ethnicity has
sustained American culture linguistically, artistically, economically, politically, and spiritually.
The myth of Superman asserts with total confidence and a childlike innocence the value of
the immigrant in American culture.
From this nation's beginnings Americans have looked for ways of coming to terms with the
immigrant experience. This is why, for example, so much of American literature and popular
culture deals with the theme of dislocation, generally focused in characters devoted or
doomed to constant physical movement. Daniel Boone became an American legend in part as
a result of apocryphal stories that he moved every time his neighbors got close enough for
him to see the smoke of their cabin fires. James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo spent the
five long novels of the Leatherstocking saga drifting ever westward, like the pioneers who
were his spiritual offspring, from the Mohawk valley of upstate New York to the Great Plains
where he died. Huck Finn sailed through the moral heart of America on a raft. Melville's
Ishmael, Wister's Virginian, Shane, Gatsby, the entire Lost Generation, Steinbeck's Okies,
Little Orphan Annie, a thousand fiddle-footed cowboy heroes of dime novels and films and
television--all in motion, searching for the American dream or stubbornly refusing to give up
their innocence by growing old, all symptomatic of a national sense of rootlessness stemming
from an identity founded on the experience of immigration.
Individual mobility is an integral part of America's dreamwork. Is it any wonder, then, that
our greatest hero can take to the air at will? Superman's ability to fly does more than place
him in a tradition of mythic figures going back to the Greek messenger god Hermes or Zetes
the flying Argonaut. It makes him an exemplar in the American dream. Take away a young
man's wheels and you take away his manhood. Jack Kerouac and Charles Kurault go on the
road; William Least Heat Moon looks for himself in a van exploring the veins of America in
its system of blue highways; legions of gray-haired retirees turn Air Stream trailers and
Winnebagos into proof positive that you can, in the end, take it with you. On a human scale,
the American need to keep moving suggests a neurotic aimlessness under the surface of
adventure. But take the human restraints off, let Superman fly unencumbered when and
wherever he will, and the meaning of mobility in the American consciousness begins to reveal
itself Superman's incredible speed allows him to be as close to everywhere at once as it is
physically possible to be. Displacement is, therefore, impossible. His sense of self is not
dispersed by his life's migration but rather enhanced by all the universe that he is able to
occupy. What American, whether an immigrant in spirit or in fact, could resist the appeal of
one with such an ironclad immunity to the anxiety of dislocation?
In America, physical dislocation serves as a symbol of social and psychological movement.
When our immigrant ancestors arrived on America's shores they hit the ground running, some
to homestead on the Great Plains, others to claw their way up the socioeconomic ladder in
coastal ghettos. Upward mobility, westward migration, Sunbelt relocation--the wisdom in
America is that people don't, can't, mustn't end up where they begin. This belief has the moral
force of religious doctrine. Thus the American identity is ordered around the psychological
experience of forsaking or losing the past for the opportunity of reinventing oneself in the
future. This makes the orphan a potent symbol of the American character. Orphans aren't
merely free to reinvent themselves. They are obliged to do so.
When Superman reinvents himself, he becomes the bumbling Clark Kent, a figure as
immobile as Superman is mobile, as weak as his alter ego is strong. Over the years
commentators have been fond of stressing how Clark Kent provides an illusory image of
wimpiness onto which children can project their insecurities about their own potential (and,
hopefully, equally illusory) weaknesses. But I think the role of Clark Kent is far more
complex than that.
During my childhood, Kent contributed nothing to my love for the Man of Steel. If left to
contemplate him for too long, I found myself changing from cape back into cowboy hat and
guns. John Wayne, at least, was no sissy that I could ever see. Of course, in all the Westerns
that the Duke came to stand for in my mind, there were elements that left me as confused as
the paradox between Kent and Superman. For example, I could never seem to figure out why
cowboys so often fell in love when there were obviously better options: horses to ride, guns
to shoot, outlaws to chase, and savages to kill. Even on the days when I became John Wayne,
I could fall victim to a never-articulated anxiety about the potential for poor judgment in my
cowboy heroes. Then, I generally drifted back into a worship of Superman. With him, at least,
the mysterious communion of opposites was honest and on the surface of things.
What disturbed me as a child is what I now think makes the myth of Superman so
appealing to an immigrant sensibility. The shape-shifting between Clark Kent and Superman
is the means by which this mid-twentieth-century, urban story--like the pastoral,
nineteenth-century Western before it--addresses in dramatic terms the theme of cultural
At its most basic level, the Western was an imaginative record of the American experience
of westward migration and settlement. By bringing the forces of civilization and savagery
together on a mythical frontier, the Western addressed the problem of conflict between
apparently mutually exclusive identities and explored options for negotiating between them. In
terms that a boy could comprehend, the myth explored the dilemma of assimilation--marry the
school marm and start wearing Eastern clothes or saddle up and drift further westward with
The Western was never a myth of stark moral simplicity. Pioneers fled civilization by
migrating west, but their purpose in the wilderness was to rebuild civilization. So civilization
was both good and bad, what Americans fled from and journeyed toward. A similar moral
ambiguity rested at the heart of the wilderness. It was an Eden in which innocence could be
achieved through spiritual rebirth, but it was also the anarchic force that most directly
threatened the civilized values America wanted to impose on the frontier. So the dilemma
In negotiating between civilization and the wilderness, between the old order and the new,
between the identity the pioneers carried with them from wherever they came and the identity
they sought to invent, Americans faced an impossible choice. Either they pushed into the New
World wilderness and forsook the ideals that motivated them or they clung to their origins
and polluted Eden.
The myth of the Western responded to this dilemma by inventing the idea of the frontier
in which civilized ideals embodied in the institutions of family, church, law, and education
are revitalized by the virtues of savagery: independence, self-reliance, personal honor,
sympathy with nature, and ethical uses of violence. In effect, the mythical frontier represented
an attempt to embody the perfect degree of assimilation in which both the old and new
identities came together, if not in a single self-image, then at least in idealized relationships,
like the symbolic marriage of reformed cowboy and displaced school marm that ended Owen
Wister's prototypical Virginian, or the mystical masculine bonding between representatives
of an ascendant and a vanishing America--Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook, the Lone
Ranger and Tonto. On the Western frontier, both the old and new identities equally mattered.
As powerful a myth as the Western was, however, there were certain limits to its ability to
speak directly to an increasingly common twentieth century immigrant sensibility. First, it was
pastoral. Its imagery of dusty frontier towns and breathtaking mountainous desolation spoke
most affectingly to those who conceived of the American dream in terms of the
nineteenth-century immigrant experience of rural settlement. As the twentieth century wore
on, more immigrants were, like Superman, moving from rural or small-town backgrounds to
metropolitan environments. Moreover, the Western was historical, often elegiacally so.
Underlying the air of celebration in even the most epic and romantic of Westerns--the films of
John Ford, say, in which John Wayne stood tall for all that any good American boy could
ever want to be--was an awareness that the frontier was less a place than a state of mind
represented in historic terms by a fleeting moment glimpsed imperfectly in the rapid wave of
westward migration and settlement. Implicitly, then, whatever balance of past and future
identities the frontier could offer was itself tenuous or illusory.
Twentieth-century immigrants, particularly the Eastern European Jews who came to
America after 1880 and who settled in the industrial and mercantile centers of the
Northeast--cities like Cleveland where Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster grew up and created
Superman--could be entertained by the Western, but they developed a separate literary
tradition that addressed the theme of assimilation in terms closer to their personal experience.
In this tradition issues were clear-cut: Clinging to an Old World identity meant isolation in
ghettos, confrontation with a prejudiced mainstream culture, second-class social status, and
impoverishment. On the other hand, forsaking the past in favor of total absorption into the
mainstream, while it could result in socioeconomic progress, meant a loss of the religious,
linguistic, even culinary traditions that provided a foundation for psychological well-being.
Such loss was particularly tragic for the Jews because of the fundamental role played by
history in Jewish culture.
Writers who worked in this tradition--Abraham Cahan, Daniel Fuchs, Henry Roth, and
Delmore Schwarz, among others--generally found little reason to view the experience of
assimilation with joy or optimism. Typical of the tradition was Cahan's early novel Yekl, on
which Joan Micklin Silver's film Hester Street was based. A young married couple, Jake and
Gitl, clash over his need to be absorbed as quickly as possible into the American mainstream
and her obsessive preservation of their Russian-Jewish heritage. In symbolic terms, their
confrontation is as simple as their choice of headgear--a derby for him, a babushka for her.
That the story ends with their divorce, even in the context of their gradual movement toward
mutual understanding of one another's point of view, suggests the divisive nature of the
pressures at work in the immigrant communities.
Where the pressures were perhaps most keenly felt was in the schools. Educational theory
of the period stressed the benefits of rapid assimilation. In the first decades of this century,
for example, New York schools flatly rejected bilingual education--a common response to the
plight of non-English-speaking immigrants even today--and there were conscientious efforts to
indoctrinate the children of immigrants with American values, often at the expense of
traditions within the ethnic community. What resulted was a generational rift in which
children were openly embarrassed by and even contemptuous of their parents' values, setting a
pattern in American life in which second-generation immigrants migrate psychologically if not
physically from their parents, leaving it up to the third generation and beyond to rediscover
their ethnic roots.
Under such circumstances, finding a believable and inspiring balance between the old
identity and the new, like that implicit in the myth of the frontier, was next to impossible.
The images and characters that did emerge from the immigrant communities were often
comic. Seen over and over in the fiction and popular theater of the day was the figure of the
yiddische Yankee, a jingoistic optimist who spoke heavily accented American slang, talked
baseball like an addict without understanding the game, and dressed like a Broadway dandy
on a budget--in short, one who didn't understand America well enough to distinguish between
image and substance and who paid for the mistake by becoming the butt of a style of comedy
bordering on pathos. So ingrained was this stereotype in popular culture that it echoes today
in TV situation comedy.
Throughout American popular culture between 1880 and the Second World War the story
was the same. Oxlike Swedish farmers, German brewers, Jewish merchants, corrupt Irish ward
healers, Italian gangsters --there was a parade of images that reflected in terms often comic,
sometimes tragic, the humiliation, pain, and cultural insecurity of people in a state of
transition. Even in the comics, a medium intimately connected with immigrant culture, there
simply was no image that presented a blending of identities in the assimilation process in a
way that stressed pride, self-confidence, integrity, and psychological well-being. None, that is,
The brilliant stroke in the conception of Superman--the sine qua non that makes the whole
myth work--is the fact that he has two identities. The myth simply wouldn't work without
Clark Kent, mild mannered newspaper reporter and later, as the myth evolved, bland TV
newsman. Adopting the white-bread image of a wimp is first and foremost a moral act for the
Man of Steel. He does it to protect his parents from nefarious sorts who might use them to
gain an edge over the powerful alien. Moreover, Kent adds to Superman's powers the moral
guidance of a Smallville upbringing. It is Jonathan Kent, fans remember, who instructs the
alien that his powers must always be used for good. Thus does the myth add a mainstream
white Anglo-Saxon Protestant ingredient to the American stew. Clark Kent is the clearest
stereotype of a self-effacing, hesitant, doubting, middle-class weakling ever invented. He is
the epitome of visible invisibility, someone whose extraordinary ordinariness makes him
disappear in a crowd. In a phrase, he is the consummate figure of total cultural assimilation,
and significantly, he is not real. Implicit in this is the notion that mainstream cultural norms,
however useful, are illusions.
Though a disguise, Kent is necessary for the myth to work. This uniquely American hero
has two identities, one based on where he comes from in life's journey, one on where he is
going. One is real, one an illusion, and both are necessary for the myth of balance in the
assimilation process to be complete. Superman's powers make the hero capable of saving
humanity; Kent's total immersion in the American heartland makes him want to do it. The
result is an improvement on the Western: an optimistic myth of assimilation but with an
urban, technocratic setting.
One must never underestimate the importance to a myth of the most minute elements which
do not change over time and by which we recognize the story. Take Superman's cape, for
example. When Joe Shuster inked the first Superman stories, in the early thirties when he was
still a student at Cleveland's Glenville High School, Superman was strictly beefcake in tights,
looking more like a circus acrobat than the ultimate Man of Steel. By June of 1938 when
Action Comics no. 1 was issued, the image had been altered to include a cape, ostensibly to
make flight easier to render in the pictures. But it wasn't the cape of Victorian melodrama and
adventure fiction, the kind worn with a clasp around the neck. In fact, one is hard-pressed to
find any precedent in popular culture for the kind of cape Superman wears. His emerges in a
seamless line from either side of the front yoke of his tunic. It is a veritable growth from
behind his pectorals and hangs, when he stands at ease, in a line that doesn't so much drape
his shoulders as stand apart from them and echo their curve, like an angel's wings.
In light of this graphic detail, it seems hardly coincidental that Superman's real,
Kryptonic name is Kal-El, an apparent neologism by George Lowther, the author who
novelized the comic strip in 1942. In Hebrew, el can be both root and affix. As a root, it is
the masculine singular word for God. Angels in Hebrew mythology are called benei Elohim
(literally, sons of the Gods), or Elyonim (higher beings) . As an affix, el is most often
translated as "of God," as in the plenitude of Old Testament given names: Ishma-el, Dani-el,
Ezeki-el, Samu-el, etc. It is also a common form for named angels in most Semitic
mythologies: Israf-el, Aza-el, Uri-el, Yo-el, Rapha-el, Gabri-el and--the one perhaps most like
Superman-- Micha-el, the warrior angel and Satan's principal adversary.
The morpheme Kal bears a linguistic relation to two Hebrew roots. The first, kal, means
"with lightness" or "swiftness" (faster than a speeding bullet in Hebrew?). It also bears a
connection to the root hal, where h is the guttural ch of chutzpah. Hal translates roughly as
"everything" or "all." Kal-el, then, can be read as "all that is God," or perhaps more in the
spirit of the myth of Superman, "all that God is." And while we're at it, Kent is a form of the
Hebrew kala. In its k-n-t form, the word appears in the Bible, meaning "I have found a son."
I'm suggesting that Superman raises the American immigrant experience to the level of
religious myth. And why not? He's not just some immigrant from across the waters like all
our ancestors, but a real alien, an extraterrestrial, a visitor from heaven if you will, which fact
lends an element of the supernatural to the myth. America has no national religious icons nor
any pilgrimage shrines. The idea of a patron saint is ludicrous in a nation whose Founding
Fathers wrote into the founding documents the fundamental if not eternal separation of church
and state. America, though, is pretty much as religious as other industrialized countries. It's
just that our tradition of religious diversity precludes the nation's religious character from
being embodied in objects or persons recognizably religious, for such are immediately
identified by their attachment to specific sectarian traditions and thus contradict the
eclecticism of the American religious spirit.
In America, cultural icons that manage to tap the national religious spirit are of necessity
secular on the surface and sufficiently generalized to incorporate the diversity of American
religious traditions. Superman doesn't have to be seen as an angel to be appreciated, but in the
absence of a tradition of national religious iconography, he can serve as a safe, nonsectarian
focus for essentially religious sentiments, particularly among the young.
In the last analysis, Superman is like nothing so much as an American boy's fantasy of a
messiah. He is the male, heroic match for the Statue of Liberty, come like an immigrant from
heaven to deliver humankind by sacrificing himself in the service of others. He protects the
weak and defends truth and justice and all the other moral virtues inherent in the
Judeo-Christian tradition, remaining ever vigilant and ever chaste. What purer or stronger
vision could there possibly be for a child? Now that I put my mind to it, I see that John
Wayne never had a chance.