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Man Of The People

How Moses Became An American Icon.

For those of us whose vision of Moses begins and ends at the movies, or more to the point, perhaps, with Charlton Heston, it may come as a great surprise to learn that Moses was just about everywhere in mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century America. You might even say he gave Jesus a run for his money. True, Cecil B. DeMille, who hired the then young and relatively unknown Heston because of his alleged resemblance to Michelangelo's fabled sculpture, had a great deal to do with firmly affixing Moses and his Ten Commandments to the modern imagination. After all, "Mr. Movies," as he was widely known, made not just one but two wildly popular motion pictures about the Decalogue: the first, a silent film in 1923; the other, the 1956 cinematic extravaganza that we now screen every year on television come Easter and Passover. But even granting DeMille his considerable due, the historical record makes clear that the latter-day film was but the latest in a long series of encounters with the biblical figure which punctuated American history from the mid-nineteenth century on. The apotheosis of all things Mosaic, DeMille's postwar epic actually owed its success in large measure to the way it drew on the nation's longstanding preoccupation with the scriptural character, a preoccupation that was every bit as quotidian as it was holy.

These days, Moses continues to cast a long shadow over the body politic, especially when it comes to the placement of the Ten Commandments in the public square. Angry words about the appropriate role religion ought to play in twenty-first century America fill the air as proponents and opponents square off, each side laying claim to Moses' mantle. But earlier generations saw things differently, more consensually: Everyone--Jews, Protestants, and Catholics, artists and politicians--sought him out. A rallying point rather than a symbol of divisiveness, common ground rather than contested turf, Moses, and the circumstances of his life, underscored those qualities that rendered the United States a distinctive nation. At a time when the Bible loomed large on the American landscape, when newly formed towns often took their names from those mentioned in the Old Testament, and Biblical tales, as well as the recitation of the Ten Commandments, were routinely integrated into the public school curriculum, Moses' currency was of a piece with the Biblical consciousness, even mandate, of the era. But then his enduring popularity, I suspect, also had to do with the tension between human frailty and redemption, a tension that ran like a fault line throughout American culture at the time. The story of Moses--of his receiving the Ten Commandments from God, then destroying them in the face of the Golden Calf, then receiving them once again--addressed, even assuaged, the concerns of generations of Americans given over to the elusive pursuit of perfectibility here on earth, a pursuit that had as much to do with America's growing consumer culture as it did with the religious goal of a good life. To put it another way, Moses and the American public seemed made for one another, their relationship a herald of promise.

Not surprisingly, then, Moses' triumphs and travails were the subject of numerous encouraging children's books such as Bible Primer for the Tiny Tots as well as inspirational biographies and novels for grown-ups. They were also the stuff of pageants, of "biblical and historical spectacles," like the one the Order of Cincinnatus mounted for its members in 1890. Replete with elaborate scenery and "terpsichorean revels, especially arranged and produced by Professor C.L.W. Geyer," this lavish production situated Moses' coming of age within the exotic world of ancient Egypt, theatricalizing them both.

Offstage, Moses' life took the form of Jewish New Year greeting cards that somewhat incongruously wished celebrants a "Happy New Year" in both Hebrew and English amid scenes of his angrily smashing the two tablets of the law. Moses' career, from innocent babe to incendiary leader, also figured prominently in sets of "little Bible lesson pictures," Christian chromolithographs whose pocket size and rectangular shape so tangibly evoked baseball cards that you could easily imagine one little scout saying to another, "I'll trade you a Moses on Mount Sinai for a Moses crossing the Red Sea." Stemware and samplers, the handiwork of choice for proper young ladies; bronze statuettes, monumental marble statuary and porcelain figurines; sharply etched stained glass windows and blurry stereopticon slides of Mount Sinai and its environs; even advertisements, cartoons and the contemporary press had what to say about the "fighter for freedom." In 1925 The New York Times, for its part, grounded Moses' chief claim to fame in his skill at wresting religion from the "swaddling clothes of superstition and plac[ing] it into the realm of the reign of law," an assessment the movies did much to further.

Well before DeMille set his sights on him, the biblical character was the subject of a pioneering 1909-1910 film produced by the Vitagraph Company. Called, simply, The Life of Moses, this five reeler had the signal distinction, in film circles at least, of being the very first feature motion picture ever. A boon to church-goers, deepening their faith (or so it was said at the time), the film brought the ancient figure to life in ways that no amount of reading or, for that matter, public recitation, could ever do. Calling on the "skills of the magician, the historian, the archaeologist, the artist, the skilled mechanic, the scientist and the editor," this early cinematic production and those that followed further endeared him to the American public. Moses' very appearance on the screen was the "signal for wild applause that often continue[d] for several minutes," reported Motography, a pre-World War I trade magazine, noting how audiences not only greeted Moses as if he were an old friend but also cheered him on when he crossed the Red Sea.

Nothing if not fluid and protean, Moses assumed many different guises as well as forms. To George Dana Boardman who, from the pulpit of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, discoursed about Moses in 1888, the man resembled a Greek hero but better: He was as "brave as Achilles, without Achilles's petulance; heroic as Hercules, without Hercules's savagery... constructive as Vulcan, without Vulcan's grotesqueness." Others associated the saga of Moses with softer, more womanly virtues. For the genteel young ladies of the antebellum Lititz Moravian Girls' School, whose thousands of silk thread stitches yielded delicate scenes, in needlepoint, of the baby Moses nestled in the bulrushes, the narrative reflected maternal solicitude and caring, domesticity and warmth, a theme later embroidered by an advertisement for Dr. D. Jayne's Tonic Vermifuge and Expectorant. Featuring an exotic looking, semi-clad woman holding aloft a cherubic babe in a straw basket, this late nineteenth-century nostrum promised quick relief (deliverance?) from all manner of ailment, from asthma to worms.

Still others, like Harriet Tubman, the self-styled "Moses of her people" who led any number of slaves into freedom via the Underground Railroad, placed a premium on Moses' decisive leadership, an association deepened by the gimlet-eyed cartoonist Joseph Keppler. In the pages of Puck, he poked fun at the way corruptible political parties searched high and low for a new Moses to lead them into the Promised Land of modern America, where so many boondoggles awaited.

In each and every instance, the Moses of mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century America transcended his Jewish origins and the covenantal relationship he had established with the Jewish people to become nothing less than a proto-American whose covenant now encompassed all of the inhabitants of the new Zion that was the United States. Decisive and pioneering, meek and humble, stern yet forgiving, at once noble hero and blinkered everyman, Moses represented those qualities that we, then, as now, liked to think of as quintessentially American. By the time cartoonists, film makers, advertisers, chromolithographers, biographers, novelists, the Order of Cincinnatus, and the charges of the Lititz Moravian Academy got through with him, Moses of the Bible and the bulrushes, Moses of Pharaoh's court, the Red Sea and Mount Sinai, had become one of us.

Jenna Weissman Joselit is currently a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress, where she is at work on a cultural history of the Ten Commandments in modern America.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit