Both the cowboy and the hard-boiled detective tell us something important about American individualism. The cowboy, like the detective, can be valuable to society only because he is a completely autonomous individual who stands outside it. To serve society, one must be able to stand alone, not needing others, not depending on their judgment and not submitting to their wishes. Yet this individualism is not selfishness. Indeed, it is a kind of heroic selflessness. One accepts the necessity of remaining alone in order to serve the values of the group. And this obligation to aloneness is an important key to the American moral imagination. Yet it is part of the profound ambiguity of the mythology of American individualism that its moral heroism is always just a step away from despair. For an Ahab, and occasionally for a cowboy or detective, there is no return to society, no moral redemption. The hero's lonely quest for moral excellence ends in absolute nihilism.
Excerpts from Essays Written by Students
1. Our modern urban hero is like the cowboy or the detective in his isolation from his own community. He selflessly stands outside his community in order to help it; he resists any desire to join its members because his mission depends on his resistance to conformity. He must rely on his own moral vision and on his ability to transcend community values to see and implement the larger picture that only he can imagine.
2. The heroes in our modern large cities are the natural legatees of the heroes of America since it was founded. Who hasn't read about the pioneer setting out across the plains to conquer the new land, or of the lonely cowboy protecting his ranch from marauders? Our modern urban hero must also stand tough and alone, not succumbing to gang mentality or to political pressures or to any kind of community pressure; he must stay true to his values no matter what the consequences.
3. The modern urban hero is different from the men who have served as the trademarks of American individualism, like Shane and Sam Spade. Those heroes were on a lonely quest for moral excellence that ended in absolute nihilism, with no role in the community except as an outsider. The modern urban hero, on the other hand, must be tightly integrated into the community. He must be adept at garnering community approval and commitment, and if the community suspects that the hero might become too individualistic, or might impose his own distinctive morality upon the group, the members will remind the hero that he is one of them. The hero will quickly respond and will consult with his community before taking any action.
4. The modern urban hero is similar to the frontier heroes of America's past. He must be able to stand tall, to reject others, to withstand their judgment, and to not submit to other desires. According to Robert Bellah, "this individualism is not selfishness; . . . it is a kind of heroic selflessness" (178-79) that allows one to serve the values of the group. These leaders find their satisfaction in personal fulfillment and achieving their ideals; they don't need connection to the community.
5. Even though modern urban heroes are deeply involved with the members of their community, they do share some of the characteristics of the American individualist explored by Robert Bellah in "American Individualism." Bellah points out that a traditional individualist "is always just a step away from despair [because] ... there is no return to society, no moral redemption. The hero's lonely quest for moral excellence ends in absolute nihilism" (179). Bellah bases his conclusion on his belief that an individualist, such as a cowboy or a detective, "can be valuable to society only because he is a completely autonomous individual who stands outside it. To serve society, one must be able to stand alone, not needing others, not depending on their judgment, and not submitting to their wishes" (178). Like Bellah's individualists, modern urban heroes are often subject to despair, but their despair is based more on their hopelessness about their cause than on their isolation from their community. They are more likely to do the opposite of Bellah's individualist, in that they depend on their community's judgment and wishes, even as they assume positions of leadership: they are individualists within a community.