[To celebrate another 4th of July, a series on different cultural contexts for this very American holiday. Leading up to a special weekend post on critical patriotism!]
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,
PS. What do you think? Contexts or connections for the 4th you’d highlight?
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