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Conference: "Heroism and the Heroic in American History"

Annual conference of historians of the German Association for American Studies

February 9–11, 2018
Akademie für Politische Bildung, Tutzing

Conference organizers:
Dr. Michael Mayer (Akademie für Politische Bildung, Tutzing)
Michael Butter (University of Tübingen)
Simon Wendt (Goethe University of Frankfurt)

This conference aims to critically reconsider the history of heroism in the United States from the American Revolution to the present, taking seriously the constructed nature of heroism and the myriad functions its serves in U.S. society. Heroes do not simply exist; they are created through practices of representation, and especially narration. Without a story, there is no hero. Nevertheless, the effects of heroism are real and palpable. As a social and cultural construct, it serves important functions in human societies. Heroes and heroines embody the norms, values, and beliefs of social groups. They also serve as role models whose behavior people seek to emulate. As symbols of dominant norms and identities, they become sources of authority and are frequently used to legitimize social, cultural, and racial hierarchies. Heroism thus tends to be a stabilizing force in society, but it is constantly debated, reevaluated, and revised. Consequently, it is also historically contingent.

While historians have devoted thousands of pages to heroism, only few studies do justice to the topic’s complexities. Too often, scholars still imply that heroism is “real,” ignoring the fact that heroes are the product of intricate heroization processes that elevate real or imagined people to heroic status through reoccurring iterations about what is believed to be heroic at a certain point in time. Since this communication process is primarily a media discourse, studying heroism requires a thorough analysis of heroic narratives and representations of heroism in various forms of media. However, historians also need to take into account the multitude of actors that are involved in this process, as well as their motivations to construct some people as heroic while ignoring others.

The conference will shed fresh light on the various ways in which heroism has been constructed, while also probing its social, cultural, and political functions in U.S. history. Speakers will critically examine the existing scholarship on American heroism, before presenting case studies that might offer new trajectories for future research. In their papers, they will answer questions as to how, in which contexts, and for which groups processes of heroization legitimized or delegitimized social, cultural, and political norms and values; how they created, affirmed, or challenged social hierarchies and collective identities; and how they differed from or were similar to other forms of perceived extraordinariness.