28 Days: Making Heroism American
This evening, Eakins expert Elizabeth Johns will lead off a public discussion about The Gross Clinic at WHYY’s Civic Space. In her book Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life, Johns makes the case for the painting as a unique American interpretation of a powerful international trend:
Most citizens on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1830s and 1840s, benefiting from the sweeping growth of educational, professional, and social opportunities, had every confidence that the eighteenth-century terms of heroism could be grafted to modern life. Their optimism became an article of faith that dominated popular and professional literature. Leaders in the new professional fields, men in commerce and industry, educators, and publishers of the vastly expanding number of periodicals and newspapers urged that men could cultivate heroism in every role—that of the physician, the writer, the pianist, the banker, the factory owner, even the athlete. Their creed had several tenets. These modern heroes would be ‘scientific,’ undertaking their work on the basis of principles developed through direct observation and experimentation; they would be ‘egalitarian,’ investigating without prejudice all phenomena, activities and people; they would be ‘progressive,’ acutely sensitive to change, and demonstrating their awareness of it by knowing the history of their pursuit. And finally, they would be ‘doers.’ They would transform the old hierarchies, in which a man’s worth was determined by his class, with the egalitarian standard of performance.
That said, Eakins’ choice to take Dr. Gross’s clinic and make this modern masterpiece was an absolutely brilliant choice—an “Aha!” moment in American identity. What else could have been a better choice for the dust jacket of John’s book?