We’ve always loved adventures and adventurers. Through them we craft an image of valour, of heroism. The figure of the adventurer is an icon – a synechdoche for a whole nation, for a whole way of life. And in the remaking of adventures and heroes, we find a new way of imagining ourselves. We change what we believe in.
The 20th century begins with the great Arctic explorers. With Scott and Shackleton and Armundsen. The designated mourners for several centuries of world-seeking flag-planters. Not for them the China of Marco Polo or the Caribbean of Columbus. Just the emptiness of the pole – tracing patterns of footprints in the snow and ice. A herald of things to come.
Like those before them, these adventurers were leaders of men. Armies of almost-anonymous sailors and explorers. Teams. A hierarchy fashioned out of third officers and second officers and first officers all the way up to the King and God above him. This was what was needed to stand any chance of surviving through the ice-strewn Arctic seas. Duty, sacrifice, respect, leadership. Shackleton’s men returned from their three year ordeal in the Arctic to almost immediately take up active service in World War I, where most were awarded medals for gallantry.
But technology was changing. America was making a new kind of hero for its own century.
With Lindbergh’s achievement is the dawning of the era of the solo flight. The already-cinematic idea of a lone icon, the outsider, the isolationist, the individual. When Alan Shepherd became the first American in Space, launched into the atmosphere to float thousands of miles from any other person, he named his ship Freedom.
This became a new dream. One perfectly realised in the advent of the car. Your own personal Spirit of St Louis, your Freedom. Anyone with enough money could drive off into the sunset.
Between 1905 and 1908, more than 120 songs were written in which the automobile was the subject. The automotive themes of these songs reflected the general culture of the automotive industry: sexual adventure, liberation from social control, and masculine power. Books centered on motor boys who liberated themselves from the average, normal, middle class life, to travel and seek adventure in the exotic. Car ownership came to be associated with independence, freedom, and increased status.