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american mythology
A podcast about the stories America tells about itself. Currently in development.
19 entries
First: Jul 11, 2020
1 contributor
internetvin
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1

In the Middle Ages, all the best selling books had been embellished or fabricated travel accounts. If you wanted a best seller, you wrote about distant parts of the world.

None of these accounts can or have ever been proven to be true or even written by people who really existed (except maybe for the exception of Marco Polo).

Myths are symbols. They are stories with universally recognized meanings.

Achilles’ Heel is a story and a symbol.

There’s a high likelihood that in listening to or reading the final pieces it’ll come off to people as an unnuanced and unnecessary retelling of Euro-centric history. Of course it runs the risk because I won’t bother to explain what it is or isn’t aside from the title.

It’s important to me, and always has been, that each part of the story feels both confidently true and irrefutable. Which is to say that it needs to be so wholly mythological that people who aren’t aware of their own lack of distinction between history and story will think it’s an attempt at a telling of history.

For me the difference has always been obvious - there are no heroes in history. So anything with a hero is automatically a story. Once to start looking into it you learn that it’s almost impossible to tell the truth when you’re talking about history. There’s a research paper proving every point. You’re always choosing what to believe.

So how do you make things feel irrefutable? By starting with things that people already believe are true. You tell a story using myths and characters they already believe in. You use their own beliefs to construct the truth.

I worked so long on what the beginning should be. And then yesterday it poured out. And now that I’m looking at it the answer is obvious - to tell the mythology about America you start at it’s most persistent myth. Which in this case is the American Dream.

You don’t even have to say that’s what you’re doing. This is the basic premise of the opening:

**
If you wanted to be rich in the 14th century, you needed gold, silk, or spices. Generally, the closer you were to the source of those three things, the richer you were and the further away you were from them the poorer you were.

And in Europe, there was no place further from those things than the tiny Kingdom of Portugal.
**

In a way you already know what the story is going to be about. I never said that Portugal had dreams of being rich. But if you’ve heard the myth of the American Dream, your brain automatically says “so this is a story about a poor kingdom that’s going to try and become rich”.

the morals of the story:
- no one person is really that important
- who gets recognized for an accomplishment is mostly arbitrary
- who gets remembered is not based on merit
- we operate in the world as if the things that matter to us matter to other people
- to that end, people that violate our values should feel bad about violating our values, even though they never agreed to uphold them or are aware of their existence

1

Coming up on the first draft of the first episode.

I think, as a creator, I'm always trying to work towards being more and more earnest.

As a storyteller, I think that manifests itself as being more and more honest with the things that are interesting to you.

I think the reason that I write is to try create "a way to think about things". I'm terrible at remembering facts. But I do remember stories. And the works that inspire me most are the ones that give me a "way to think about things" that is close to, parallel to, or at least in the same direction as, the truth.

I used to think that the title "American Mythology" represented one thing - trying to expose the "truth" behind the "fictions" of mythology.

Now I'm realizing that the thing I enjoy the most is creating a counter mythology. One that doesn't erase the existing one but that competes with it directly.

Which doesn't mean that I'm not focused on being factual. I am. Fact checking and research has made up for like 80% of the time I've spent on this project. But it just means remembering that people believe myths because they're a good story that gives us "a way to think about things" we already believe.

1

Starting production in earnest now. Still a bit of writing to do but doing some proof of concepts for tone, pacing, sound design and all that.

fwiw I don't think this'll end up being the tone that I actually end up delivering in but testing a couple variations out.

These 14 pages (7*2) make up the last section of the outline for episode 1. I spent the last two days chasing down references and making sure I understand all the perspectives and facts about the naming of America. There’s only one primary source (a letter Amerigo Vespucci wrote from Cape Verde in 1501) that I wasn’t able to find.

When I talked to a friend the contents of that letter was the part of the story he reacted to most (I think) and so I’m finding a way to tell the story that contains both the truth and the things that people believe to be the truth. I don’t think it’s a style I could sustain for long but it might be a really interesting way to tell the story in this case.

The outline so far is about 6 double sided pages. I think it’ll be about 10 by the time I’m ready to start writing. A lot of fact checking now to avoid running in to narrative issues later.

draft after 2 days.
the intro's clunky but everything else is starting to feel nice :)

I’ve been obsessed with Westerns my whole life. There’s just something about them that’s so alluring to me. The setting, the characters, the dream of a simpler time, where good was good and evil was evil and there was no grey area between them.

But I’d never actually thought about whether cowboys were real or not.

And then I went to Utah for the first time. And I saw the landscapes that I’d seen cowboys crossing in movies. And I realized that if this place was real. Then cowboys, these characters from the movies I loved, had to be real too.

So I became obsessed with them. I read everything I could. Learned everything I could about the real American cowboy. And the more I read about the real historical characters, the more another truth started to solidify.

Cowboys are entirely made up. It’s not that they didn’t exist. Because they did. But it’s just that two versions of the cowboy exist - one that was a very real labourer in the last half of the 19th century. And another one - the one we know - that’s entirely a fabrication of mythology.

Which got me wondering. How did the cowboy become an American hero? And what does it mean that it did?

The story of the cowboy starts with the cow.

In 1492 Christopher Columbus is the first white guy to make contact with Haiti (I cannot explain the extent to which Columbus definitely did not discover America). He decides it’d make a good Spanish colony, so he comes back again the next year, in 1493, and this time he brings along colonists, disease, and some cows.

As the Spanish colonize other parts of the Caribbean and South America they bring those cows along with them. So those cows end up going from Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) to Cuba and from Cuba to Mexico.
Mexico turns out to be the perfect place for cattle ranching. And the Mexicans turn out to be incredibly good at it. And they basically develop all the tools, tricks, and lingo that we’d come to associate with the work of cowboys.

The Mexicans do the same thing the Spanish did — basically bringing these cattle with them everywhere they went. And that’s how, in 1680, you end up with 9,000 head of cattle grazing along the Rio Grande in the Northeast corner of Mexico. In a state called Coahuila y Tejas.

150 years later a chunk of that state would declare independence from Mexico and make their own country called the Republic of Texas. And that that country would become the 28th U.S. State — a slave state — 9 years later. And that not long after that it would become the Confederate State of Texas.

Now, when the Civil War breaks out in 1860 there’s only 600,000 people living in Texas. And Texas is huge. So, in the grand scheme of things, Texas is basically too rural to care about. It’s so far out of the way that slave owners actually went there to try and avoid the inevitable implications of the Emancipation Proclamation. And in a way they were partially successful — the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1st, 1863, and the enslaved people in Texas only heard about it on June 19th, 1865.

So if you were a white guy in Texas and wanted to fight for the confederacy, you actually had to leave your home behind and travel to other parts of the country to do so. And once the war was over, and the confederacy lost, the soldiers coming home to Texas found that life there had changed pretty dramatically in their absence.

For one thing they left one country and literally came back to another one. After being on the losing side of the war, Texas was one again part of the United States. Which means that they lived in a country that used U.S. currency, but all the money they’d made and saved in the last five years was confederate currency. The Texans basically got home to find their bank accounts full of Monopoly money.

The Southern economy (and, honestly, the entire U.S. economy) had relied heavily on unpaid slave labour, and so the emancipation of the enslaved people in Texas meant that the workforce driving the South had disappeared too.
Which meant that many Texans found themselves without any money. And without any way to make any more in the immediate future.

But at least they didn’t have to worry about starving. Ranches across the state had fallen into disrepair while their owners were away fighting the war. With nobody to feed or look after them, cattle broke free from the ranches in favour of plains that supplied an endless amount of food. Those cattle mixed with the feral cattle that already called Texas home and by the end of 1865 there was a veritable infestation of feral cattle in the Lone Star State.

Which was great for suddenly impoverished families who could go into the brush and capture and slaughter a cow if you had to feed your family. Which isn’t to say that it was easy - only that it was possible if you really wanted to.
But it also meant that if you were a rancher — if selling cattle was how you made money — you were suddenly selling something that there was no market for. In the unlikely event that you could find somebody who wanted to buy a cow, you’d only get between $2 and $4 a head for them.

Meanwhile, in the North, in places like New York, they’re seeing basically the exact opposite effect. They’d just won a war. The economy is booming. More people are making more money. And so peoples’ taste starts to change. Quite literally.
Pork had always been the cheap American staple. But as folks became more affluent, and thanks in part to a new meat processing plant in Chicago, they were developing a taste for beef. Which was hard to come by in the North. So hard to come by that cattle would sell for $40 a head in Northern markets.

So some entrepreneurial Southerners put together the pieces that you just did.

The feral Texas Longhorns wasn’t great meat. They were too strong and too muscly for most peoples’ tastes. Which is why they’d never been eaten much in the South. But if the North was starved for beef they likely wouldn’t be too picky about what kind of beef it was.

And if you knew what you were doing, there was good money to be made by going out into the thorny brush, catching and castrating a couple thousand mustangs, and delivering them to the Northern meat markets.

Except the size of your pretty big country made for a pretty big issue: the meat markets were in the North — thousands of miles away — and the only way to get to them was by railroad. But the nearest railheads were hundreds of miles away — in Kansas and Missouri. And the only way to get the cattle there would be to walk them. 15 miles a day. For 5 months.

And that’s how America’s most legendary occupation began.
Now seems like a good point in the story to emphasize that the job of the cowboys was literally to make sure that the cows escort cows from one place to another. And that the dangers involved in doing that, for both humans and cattle, were mostly natural — floods, droughts, thunderstorms, predators and stampedes. The sort of things you’d expect there to be when you’re camping outside for half a year.

And the people who did the work probably weren’t the people that you’re imagining either. They weren’t strong, rugged men. They were mostly young boys who were good on horseback. And boys of all races. A quarter of cowboys were black. 1 in 4 of them. And 13% were Mexican.

But of course nobody knows that. Because the veneration of cowboys as an American icon has nothing to do with who they actually were and everything to do with who America wanted them to be. Who they needed them to be.

The story of how the cowboy became a hero isn’t one of American history. It’s a story about American mythology.

erasing the history of hard working black and mexican folks and attributing them to some white guy is about the most american thing possible…

there’s any number of reasons the cowboy makes sense as the ultimate american hero. they worked a tireless blue collar job without complaining (but then again so did the miners and the railroad workers). they pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and took natural resources that didn’t belong to them and sold them at a massive markup. they’re basically the embodiment of the myth of american free market capitalism.

but those aren’t any of the reasons the cowboy actually became the american hero. because, you may have noticed, the american hero we call a cowboy wasn’t a cowboy at all.

when you start learning about cowboys some things start making a lot more sense and some things start making a lot less.

the job cowboys actually did was called cattle driving. and basically two things happened in texas that directly created the entire industry. the first was that the south went to war with the union and lost. and that losing a war meant that suddenly not only did you have no savings or money (because the currency you were using for the last five years suddenly didn’t exist anymore) but you didn’t have any way of making any more. because the south relied almost exclusively on the labour of enslaved people. and after june 19th 1865 those officially didn’t exist in texas either.

the second thing that while the ranchers were away fighting this war nobody was looking after their animals. so the cattle broke free and their population exploded.

(that’s another thing you learn - cows aren’t cows. they’re cattle. the females are called heifers until they have their first calf. then they become a cow. the males come in two varieties: the ones that are used for breeding are called bulls. and all the rest are castrated and called steers.)

so anyway now folks in texas have no money and no jobs. in fact they have nothing but a country overrun by wild cattle. there’s so many cattle in texas that you basically can’t but it sell them. and if you could you’d get $2 a head at most.

meanwhile in the north, where they didn’t lose a war…

guys here's the breakthrough: it was always a story about me. and it always should be.

somebody once taught me that copying things you like can be a really liberating way of creating. going through direct inspirations today to see if there's anything I can borrow for the structure of this essay.

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marco
marco american mythology