MyAmericanFuture

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Saturday, July 4, 2015

July 4-5, 2015: The 4th in Focus: The Adams Letters



[To celebrate another 4th of July, this week’s series has highlighted different cultural contexts for this very American holiday. Leading up to this special July 4th weekend post!]
On the myths, and the realities, revealed about the Revolution and its leaders in the Adams letters.
Writing to his wife Abigail on July 3rd, 1776 (she was back at home in Braintree managing the family farm and raising their children), the day after the Continental Congress had drafted the Declaration of Independence, John Adams argued that “the Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epoch, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
On one level, the letter reveals just how much myth-making is inherent in any national celebration—we celebrate independence on July 4th because the Declaration was signed, dated, and sent out to the American public for the first time on that day; but Adams’ emphasis makes clear that the date was and is an arbitrary one, and of course that Revolutionary acts, like all historical moments, develop over time. On another level, however, Adams’ letter reveals quite impressively how aware the Congress was of the significance of what was happening: not only in his quite thorough prediction of the celebrations that would come to commemorate the event; but also in his recognition of all that would follow the Declaration. “You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not,” he wrote. “I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means.”
Reading the Adams’ correspondence offers even more Revolutionary realities than those. For one thing, it deeply humanizes the second President (and by extension all the framers); I defy anyone to read John’s heartfelt July 20th, 1776 letter of concern for both his ailing family and his own separation from them and not feel differently about the man and moment. For another, the letters provide a visceral and compelling argument for the Revolutionary era’s hugely impressive community of American women—Abigail was not as publicly minded as peers such as Judith Sargent Murray and Annis Boudinot Stockton, but she makes a thoroughly convincing case for what Murray called the equality of the sexes: in her overt arguments for such equality, but just as much in her intelligence, her eloquence, and her strength in supporting both the family and its business and her husband and the nation’s. Many of my posts this week have complicated our idealizing national myths, but the Adams letters remind us that some of our realities have been just as ideal.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Any other contexts or connections for the 4th you’d highlight?

Friday, July 3, 2015

July 3, 2015: The 4th in Focus: “Sandy (4th of July, Asbury Park)”



[To celebrate another 4th of July, a series on different cultural contexts for this very American holiday. Leading up to a special July 4th post this weekend!]
On how Bruce captured the more intimate side of independence day.
You didn’t think I could write a series about iconic images of America and not include the Boss, did you?! One of my most memorable youthful July 4th experiences, the fireworks show after a Richmond Braves minor league baseball game, featured star-spangled fireworks set to “Born in the U.S.A.”—yet another failure to listen closely to Bruce’s ironic anthem, of course, if also an association encouraged by Bruce’s own red, white, and blue album cover among other things. A fair portion of the ashes from those fireworks ended up in my cup of soda, which it’s hard not to read as a metaphor for the gap between the show and the song, the inspiring American spectacle and the far darker historical and social realities that “Born in the U.S.A.” seeks to capture. Indeed, Bruce read Ron Kovic’s memoir, and was inspired by it to write a much less well-known song, “Shut Out the Light” (1983).
As it turns out, in the course of his long and prolific career Bruce has written two songs that even more overtly feature independence day, and offer far different and more personal images of the holiday. From the double album The River (1980) there’s the haunting “Independence Day,” a song that may or may not be set on the actual holiday but uses it as an extended metaphor for the speaker’s decision to leave his hometown and the limited world and legacy of his father (to whom he addresses his determined but apologetic reflections throughout the song). And from The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (1974) there’s the bittersweet “Sandy (4th of July, Asbury Park),” in which the jaded young speaker pleads with his star-crossed lover that they should leave “this carnival life” and start anew, all while “the fireworks are hailing over Little Eden tonight/Forcing a light into all those stoned-out faces left stranded on this Fourth of July.”
Besides being one of Bruce’s most beautiful and poignant songs (and featuring Danny Federici at his absolute best on the accordion), “Sandy” reflects an essential but easily overlooked truth: that the Fourth of July, like all communal holidays and occasions, is perhaps most consistently meaningful through its resonances in our individual lives, journeys, and memories. For me, the 4th will always mean both that childhood Richmond Braves game and the first time the boys and I stayed out on the Needham town common to watch the town’s fireworks show, images of community and connection in each case. For Bruce’s speakers, on the other hand, the holiday is a moment to declare independence from the communities that have produced and influenced but also limited them, to seek their own new journeys and identities as did America in that foundational moment. But across these disparate experiences, texts, and meanings, the 4th becomes an occasion to reflect on who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going—an underappreciated, frequent, and very valuable side effect of holiday celebrations.
Special post this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Contexts or connections for the 4th you’d highlight?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

July 2, 2015: The 4th in Focus: “Speaking of Courage”



[To celebrate another 4th of July, a series on different cultural contexts for this very American holiday. Leading up to a special July 4th post this weekend!]
On the July 4th setting and climax of one of my favorite American short stories.
I’m going to keep this post relatively short, as I’d love for you to read the story on which it focuses, Tim O’Brien’s “Speaking of Courage” (that version has been annotated by, it seems, a group of high school students working with the whole of O’Brien’s novel/short story cycle The Things They Carried, in which “Speaking” appears). So go read that amazing story if you would (even if you’ve read it before, it benefits from re-reading), and I’ll see you in a few!
Okay, welcome back. One of the interesting choices O’Brien makes in the course of “Speaking of Courage” is only gradually to reveal the story’s July 4th setting, leading up to the striking final image of Norman watching the town’s fireworks display in a very specific and complicated location and way. While Rov Kovic made the Fourth of July a central, titular organizing metaphor for his memoir of war and the gaps between its myths and realities, that is, O’Brien links his story’s strikingly similar narrative of war’s contradictions—its ideals of heroism and the brutal realities that lie beneath those images, literally and figuratively—to independence day, and more exactly to the ways in which we collectively commemorate that holiday and through it our national mythos, in a far subtler but just as significant way. As with so many of O’Brien’s pitch-perfect short stories, the true payoff is in the final sentence: “For a small town, he decided, it was a pretty good show.”
O’Brien’s book deals most directly and centrally with the Vietnam War, and with the project of war writing and memory captured in “How to Tell a True War Story.” Yet what “Speaking of Courage” makes plain—or rather makes subtle and circular and complex but crucial nonetheless—is that every American war story is also a story of America, of our collective memories and our communities, of the stories we celebrate and those we forget. If Norman Bowker’s is a particularly shitty story (pun entirely intended), it’s also a hugely telling and powerful one, a vital reminder of what war means and does, and of what operates just beneath the surface of our national commemorations and celebrations. It should be, it seems to me, required reading on every July 4th.
Next 4th focus tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Contexts or connections for the 4th you’d highlight?