The myth of America, if it persists at all, has always rested on a precarious foundation. It is precisely its fragility, not its audacity — the perpetual worry of its believers, not its arrogance — that has made it something different (dare we say better?) than just another version of nationalist pomp.
Whenever Roger Sterling wants to remind others of the fact that he was on a destroyer in the Pacific during the Second World War, he usually does so in the form of seemingly jocular remarks. A visit to an elegant restaurant with Don and their respective wives, for example, can quickly induce him to make a witty reference to past wars. In order to get another round of drinks, he asks the waiter, “Tell the lieutenant, please, that things are getting a little dry around Hill 29.” He is immensely pleased at Don’s clever repartee: “All clear in No Man’s Land” (MM 1.2). Like Don, Roger is also haunted by his experiences at the frontline, only he positively boasts about a past that he does not, under any circumstances, want to forget. At the same time, in their shared war experience, these two men are also shown to bond. During a dinner in her own home, Betty asks Roger to tell a true war story and he unhesitatingly describes how his father, with a bayonet in his hand, successfully killed a German soldier who was lying only a few feet away from him in the trenches. Her own husband, in response to Betty’s complaint that Don hardly speaks about the war, defends himself by objecting to his work buddy: “Not much to say, you boys used up all the glory.” Roger, in turn, immediately takes up the challenge, and explains: “My old man will always have one on me with that bayonet” (MM 1.7). War memories, however, not only serve to forge an affective connection between the two figural brothers in arms, Roger and Don. War, as the event that different generations of Americans share, also brings to the fore the difficulties the sons have when it comes to measuring up to their fathers. For precisely this reason, Roger proceeds at once to recount the mission for which he was decorated. In his witty rendition, shooting down a Japanese reconnaissance plane transforms into a gleeful adventure in the South China Sea.
That Roger takes these war anecdotes quite seriously, however, becomes clear...
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is Professor of English and American Studies at the University of Zurich and, since 2007, Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. A specialist in the 19th and 20th century literature she has also written books and articles in the area of gender studies, psychoanalysis, film, cultural theory and visual culture. Current research projects include a book on Shakespeare and contemporary culture and another study on women war correspondents.