“We live by myth,” writes Russell Kirk, and to appreciate fully the importance of Richard Gamble’s new book one must first grasp that he uses “myth” in the older and fuller sense in which Kirk and all the masters of the moral imagination used it. We are accustomed in this rather hollow age of imagination to think of myth the way it is used on the nightly news, as something contrary to fact. Even worse, the cosmopolitans of culture tell us that myths can be created by wielders of power or intellect (“Aryan,” “socialist man,” etc.) and are therefore always either useful or dangerous, depending upon who is manipulating them.
While Richard Gamble understands myth in all its senses–one of the strongest elements of the book is his nuanced understanding of the interplay of myth and metaphor in history–he knows, with Kirk, that “‘Myth’ is not falsehood; on the contrary, the great and ancient myths are profoundly true…A myth may grow out of an actual event almost lost in the remote past, but it comes to transcend the particular circumstances of its origin, assuming a significance universal and abiding.” Another way to put this is that a real and living myth is too important and too true to be limited by mere fact.
The myth that Mr. Gamble’s book follows from Massachusetts Bay up to the present is the “City on a Hill,” often called the myth of the “Redeemer Nation.” It is one of several myths Americans have lived by for the better part of four centuries, almost as important during my lifetime as the myth of Opportunity and the myth of Equality. This book is the first to trace the origins and historical development and cultural significance of the city on a hill metaphor from when it was used to “describe something transcendent and theological,” to a more recent time when it became “something earthly and political.”