Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Birthday wishes

{Photos by rocketlass.}

I suspect that the fact of my being an American is a lot like the fact of my being male: it affords me almost incalculable unearned privilege, and, while I can (and do try to) think about it and analyze the way that it plays, subconsciously and overtly, into my thoughts and feelings and assumptions--most likely into all of them--and thereby gain some distance from and knowledge of the essence of that identity, at the same time the distance will never be such that I can say, definitively, "This is what it is like to be an American," or still less, "This is what it would be like not to be an American."

Anglophilia and analysis only take you so far, the former because, really?, the latter because rational analysis cannot always chase out such deeply woven currents of being.

So for my nation's birthday, I offer some disjointed recent gleanings to accompany the delightfully ridiculous weeklong orgy of explosives in which my neighborhood annually indulges.

First, I'll draw on a letter sent by John Keats in October 1818 to his brother and sister-in-law, George and Georgiana Keats, then resident in Louisville, Kentucky:
Dilke, whom you know to be a Godwin perfectibility man, pleases himself with the idea that America will be the country to take up the human intellect where England leaves off--I differ with him greatly. A country like the United States, whose greatest Men are Franklins and Washingtons, will never do that. They are great Men, doubtless, but how are they to be compared to those our countrymen Milton and the two Sydneys? The one is a philosophical Quaker full of mean and thrifty maxims, the other sold the very Charger who had taken him through all his battles. Those Americans are great, but they are not the sublime Man--the humanity of the United States can never reach the sublime.
Oh, how much one could disagree with Keats about Franklin! Washington, fine: impressive, great, a man for whose sense of duty it's impossible not to be grateful--but at the same time always coming across as emotionally and intellectually a bit flat. Jefferson you can wrangle with, Hamilton you can joust with, Lincoln--well, it's best we not derail this with my love of Lincoln. Washington you are stuck simply admiring.

But Franklin? All the smallness and greatness of humanity in one package, endlessly inventive and endlessly humane, beguiled by the ladies, in love with France, distracted almost in almost exactly inverse proportion to the direct discipline of his maxims, embodying in his pot-bellied person the linchpin of American democracy. Oh, how not to love Franklin?

As for the sublime . . is it wrong of me to think that, at a minimum, the late Donna Summer achieved it around minute ten of a couple of her greatest disco anthems?

But in general one can't quite trust the English on the subject, can one? George III would be proud of what Jessica Mitford reports in this letter, sent on August 8, 1959 from London to civil rights activist Marge Franz:
One rather noticeable thing is the solid anti-Americanism of all sections of the population, rich & poor, right & left. I've yet to meet one person who has the least desire to go to America, or one who has been there & liked it. It is a queer mixture of ordinary English chauvinism, snobbishness, intellectual snobbishness, & disapproval of American policies. Rather well worth analyzing & cataloguing, it might make a good article. . . . Madeau Stewart, 35 year old executive at BBC, no doubt solid conservative: "Aren't Americans awfully ignorant on the whole? Don't you find it depressing not having anyone to talk to?"
Mitford's take on the attitude of the English in the Eisenhower years is corroborated by this passage from a letter sent by George Lyttelton to Rupert Hart-Davis on May 15, 1957:
It is all wrong, I know, but I cannot ever take Americans quite seriously--I mean their tastes and judgments and values, though now and then one strikes an absolutely Class I man, e. g. the late Judge Wendell Holmes. But either I always have bad luck with their novelists, or I just don't know my way about. I remember liking Steinbeck's first best-seller, but last week, seeing his name, I wasted half-a-crown on his The Wayward Bus to read in the train. Not a single character who was not either loathsome or silly.
As someone who works in publishing--and buys a ridiculous number of books--I can't help but apply Keats's epithet for Franklin's maxims, "mean," to anyone well-situated who laments the cost of a disappointing book. The time wasted, certainly, but the cost?

That said, the marketing person in me can't help but be amused by what follows:
The blurb calls it a ruthless picture, showing what people are really like, i.e. all in need of an ounce of civet. Is the whole of U.S.A. thinking of nothing but the female bosom?
An understandable question, but the answer is no: even then, there was Ray Bradbury, among the least sex-obsessed of novelists, who in his Paris Review interview said,
I like to think of myself going across America at midnight, conversing with my favorite authors.
And then there's the sublimity--unquestionable, I say--of this exchange, overheard at Mineta San Jose International Airport (ah, Mineta, a Japanese-American reminder of America's gloriously diverse essence) on Monday:
Making gestures representing an explosion
Boom! Boom!

Stop it.

Boom! Boom! BOOM!
And finally . . . well, you didn't believe me earlier when I said I would leave Lincoln out of this, did you? From the glory that is the First Inaugural:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Good god, I love that man. Enjoy the holiday, fellow patriots. Watch out for explosions, ye better angels.

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