How does one define “Americana?”
Anything that represents American culture? Baseball, apple pie, and the Fourth of July? Whatever’s decorating the walls at Applebee’s?
No doubt, there are images, music, and movies that everyone would agree are considered “Americana.” Elvis Presley. Norman Rockwell. Gone with the Wind. That famous black-and-white photo of the sailor kissing a girl after returning from combat in World War II. If “Americana” is defined as whatever represents the American culture, the American Dream, then Siegel and Shuster’s most iconic creation embodies the best of all of it.
Why, you may ask, would Superman be considered “Americana,” if the character is firmly grounded in science fiction? Does he represent a certain part of the country? A particular era of the nation’s history, which would fall into the category of Americana?
Although Kal-El’s journey began on a fictional planet in outer space, and was intentionally written to be a metaphor for the most famous Old Testament prophet (see Part 3), at its heart, his is the ultimate immigrant story. Like any immigrant (one of many in the early 20th century), he was born elsewhere, yet came to America and became part of the tapestry of the country. As the children of Jewish immigrants who migrated to the US between the World Wars, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster very consciously wrote this into their character’s story.
But Krypton’s Last Son didn’t land just anywhere on planet earth. He landed in Smallville, Kansas. Although his upbringing is a detail added by subsequent writers, young Clark Kent growing up in America’s heartland made him an embodiment of the soul of the country in many ways–old-fashioned values, respect for one’s neighbor, an old trade (farming), and opportunity for one to realize his potential in the future, i.e., growing up and finding a job in the big city.
Watching “Man of Steel” again recently, I can safely say that the strongest scenes in the movie are those with Clark’s adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, played by Kevin Costner. Superman’s adoptive father has been represented well in almost any adaptation of the character, but Costner’s portrayal of Pa Kent teaching his son life lessons was perfect. Despite the other shortcomings of the director’s vision (at least in the opinion of this blogger), I was glad to see that the spirit of Clark’s formative years was not one of them. My favorite aspect of the character and Superman’s greatest power–always doing the right thing (see Part 1)–ironically is the only one of his powers that doesn’t come from his Kryptonian DNA, but from his upbringing.
As a powerful “immigrant” man who could bend steel with his bare hands and right whatever wrong he saw, Superman quickly became a reflection of the country itself. He became Americana.
And yes, on occasion, you do see him decorating the walls at Applebee’s.
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